Friday, February 27, 2009

Writers Get Books in the Mail. And More.

As a writer, I get a lot of books in the oversize mailbox on the front of my house – books I've ordered, new books written by friends, books for review. I'm always happy to get any and all of them. But when I saw the return address on one of those padded envelopes a few days ago, I pushed it to the edge of my desk and piled other things on top of it. That's where it remained for several days until I finally decided -- now or never.

The book is oversize and hardback, hefty, and doesn't have a dust jacket. In fact, perhaps I should not even be calling it a book, because it's not technically "published," has no ISBN, and can't be sold, purchased, or reviewed. Plus, there are only three copies in existence. Which doesn't make it rare and valuable, only difficult to find, and frankly hardly anyone will ever go looking for it. Nevertheless, it's a book whose arrival I had been anticipating with equal parts dread and desire, though many times in the last eight months, I'd forgotten I ordered it.

It's the bound copy of my final creative manuscript, the final requirement for the MFA degree I completed last year. It looks, feels and (hopefully) reads like a book, but isn't. Still.

I opened and read the acknowledgements page and was overcome (again) with gratitude for those who influenced and supported me. I made a mental note to copy that page and mail it (in an envelope, not scanned and attached to an email) to everyone mentioned. (Except for my late father "…who wrote and read and who taught me, from so early an age I can't even remember when, that words can take you anywhere.")

I turned to the Preface, a meditation on my 20+ year development as a writer, from journalism student to public relations specialist and itinerant freelancer to creative nonfiction writer.

I scanned the table of contents. I skimmed the opening and closing chapters.

A year ago, I was reading and rereading (and revising and rewriting and editing) each of the individual pieces of the manuscript so closely that many times I vowed never to look at them again post-graduation. Mostly, I haven't. Which is why it was such a profound experience to see them again on my desk, this time bound and between deep blue covers.

I am NOT overly impressed with myself. Around the country, hundreds of MFA final-semester students produce similarly hard-wrought creative manuscripts every few months – chunks of novels in progress, short story compilations, poetry collections, memoirs in the making. Some of these go on to be published and some win contests in much their original shape. More often however, these "books" get deconstructed, reassembled, revised, rewritten, reconsidered, expanded. Once reworked, some find their way into the world, in whole or in parts. Some, sadly, are forgotten.

I'm not sure of the final fate of the material inside mine, a compilation of long interconnected essays, memoir-like and narrative, yet segmented too. Some have already been published in literary journals, magazines and essay collections. Two are still awaiting homes. One, the most personal piece, is once again under construction.

When submitting the manuscript thesis to my MFA program office, I learned that one copy would go to the permanent collection of the university library archives (likely some forgotten room). Another would be placed in the
Stonecoast MFA student library (where, over the course of five residencies, I fondly remember spending time between workshops reading others' graduate theses). None would come to me unless I paid $25 for a third, personal copy. After thousands expended on tuition, travel, books and meals, this seemed such a slight amount.

What did impress me most about receiving my "book" in the mail was not that I now had something with only my name on it to put, literally, on the shelf next to the anthologies and journals I've been published in. No, what got to me was this: In the eight months since I finished the MFA, there have been submissions, acceptances, writing assignments, publications, surprising new clients, and satisfying new teaching gigs. But also, in equal measure, there have been rejections which stung, teaching jobs applied for and not gotten, uninterested agents, magazines which have gone out of business after accepting my work, departed clients, and the anxiety of starting a new business venture in the middle of economic chaos.

Amid all of that, I had nearly lost sight of something: I can write. That probably sounds absurd. I write every day. I get paid to write and to help others write better. Still, there is something powerful indeed to be reminded that one IS a writer, in her bones, that artistic and creative expression exist despite day-to-day stops and starts, financial concerns and the administrative hiccups of working independently. Sometimes that reminder comes in the form of a glowing critique from an admired colleague. Other times in comes in physical form, like a book, or something a lot like it.

There are those who think one is not a real writer without a published book on the shelf. I don't believe that. And yet, my handsome sort-of-a-book, now on the shelf nearest to my desk, does seem to say something to me that a boxful of manuscript pages and clips cannot. What that volume is saying is not, look here see you did it, but here, look – see what's possible (now, again, still).


Allison Hartman Adams said...

Hello Lisa,
I'm so glad to read this! It is such a great entry, and so encouraging and reaffirming. Congratulations :)

Susan Grier (previously Bennett) said...

Hi Lisa,
I really enjoy your blog, and especially this piece. My creative thesis is high up on a shelf in a hard-to-reach spot, and I have never once read it all the way through since getting the hardbound copy. (Hmm, what does all that say?) I think I'm afraid of being embarrassed at how bad parts of it are. Your piece helps me to refocus on the positives - that it got written (during one of the most turbulent times of my life), and that even if it's not a masterpiece, it proves I have a story to tell and the ability to write it. Thanks for sharing your thoughts!

Terry Heath said...

Thank you for the thoughts. I'll be doing my own creative project later this year and I'm sure some part of me will remember this post, and it will help me keep things in perspective.

I was a music major in my undergrad life (yeah, I'm a renaissance soul) and in one voice lesson I did something unexpected and fairly amazing. My teacher said if I could do it once, I could do it again. I've always remembered that.

So once you've finished a project like that, you have another one waiting inside you.

Susan Cushman said...

Great to discover your blog (through Twitter)... I'm also working on a memoir and a book of combined essays, after having seven essays published. I love that your blog says, "write first, blog later." What a temptation blogging and tweeting is! But without it, I would have never "met" you, so thanks for following me on Twitter. I'm going to follow you, now. I hope you also check out my blog.

Leightongirl said...

Bravo, and congratulations. No matter how it arrives, it always feels great to hold one's own book in one's hands.

Jenny said...

That is so cool. Congrats!