Okay, the big news: My memoir which I’ve been working on for over 14 years (Fourteen years, people. Fourteen. Frigging. Years.), found itself a publisher.
(Sounds of party noisemakers here, balloons flying through the air, shouts of intoxicating glee–the whole works).
Hunger, and Lies releases this November from Raised Voice Press.
It’s been a long, wild, painful and agonizing ride. I’ve submitted this manuscript to countless contests and literary publishers. It’s been rejected, won some finalist status and was almost picked up, years ago, by a big-name New York publisher.
But let me start from the beginning. Fifteen years ago, my sister died due to complications from an eating disorder. She was driving a taxi down in Florida at the time, and she was wearing a pink shirt, and the taxi passengers told us that she swerved over to the side of the road when the heart attack pains began. They said that she saved their lives.
At that point, she weighed about 100 pounds. Often she was thinner than that. Often her bones stuck out from her skin, her neck so thin it seemed impossible that it could support her head. She was also crazy, whether from lack of nutrients or maybe the craziness came first and the eating disorder was a result.
What do you do when your sister basically starves herself to death? How do you process it?
I felt as if I had no choice but to write about it. I was a single mother at the time, working full-time as a journalist and finishing up my MFA at the University of Alaska Anchorage, where I had the luck to study under Sherry Simpson, Jo-Ann Mapson and Ron Spatz.
Every night after my son went to bed, I sat at my desk in the corner of the living room and I wrote. I bled words across the paper, I bled it all out, every single ugly and beautiful moment, and then weaved it all together until I had a story. And then I had a book.
I used that manuscript as my graduate thesis. It was raw and powerful, and it helped me snag an agent, Elizabeth Wales over at Wales Literary Agency.
That book, which I then called Hunger, was shopped around and almost picked up by HarperCollins. A rewrite was requested, with a stronger and more defined resolution. I took two weeks off work, settled down and tried like hell to rework that book.
But I couldn’t, that was the thing. I couldn’t write a resolution because I hadn’t resolved my sister’s death, or all the things in my life that led up to it. I was too filled with anger and grief. I was too close to what I was writing.
I ended up ruined that book. I changed the voice until it sounded false and forced. Because what I didn’t know at the time, what I was years away from knowing, was that the only path toward resolution was to let go of the anger, and I wasn’t ready to do that. I didn’t know how to do that.
So I put the book away.
Years passed. My son grew and went off to college. I moved down to Seward, Alaska, a small fishing community at the end of the road system, and wrote my novel Dolls Behaving Badly, which was published by Hachette Book Group and is pretty much the opposite of my memoir, funny instead of dark, endearing instead of questioning, bittersweet instead of sad.
More years passed. The man who abused both my sister and me died, and slowly I repaired my relationship with my mother. I came to terms with everything that had happened and really, life was good. My son was doing well, I had published a book, and in my free time I ran long and glorious distances through wild mountain trails.
I was finally happy.
A few years ago, I sat down and rewrote that book. I added Interludes, small slices of Alaska life: My son and I waiting for beluga whales, hiking around bear prints, picking blueberries up in the mountains. Then I wrote the missing resolution, not a perfect resolution, because I haven’t lived a perfect life, but the only one that fit, the only one that best summed up my sister’s life, and my own.
I began sending it out to small literary presses. Because the subject matter is so personal, I didn’t want a big publisher. I wanted something small and homey, a publisher that would understand the book and the process, that would work with me on a personal basis.
Of course I started receiving rejections. But I also picked up a few wins: A finalist status at the Words of Wisdom Faulkner Creative Writing Contest; a choice spot in a Florida writing conference led by Ann Hood; creative nonfiction winner at the Tucson Festival of Books, along with the chance to workshop with Stephanie Land.
I tracked my rejections and continued sending the book out. About six weeks ago, I received an email from Raised Voice Press stating that (yippee!!), they wanted to publish the book.
Here’s the thing: I put that book away so many times and yet I always took it back out again. I believed that it was a story that needed to be told. So here’s what I’d like to say to everyone: Do not give up on your writing, your story, your book/essay/poem. Rework it, bleed everything you have into it. Be ruthless. Believe in yourself, even when no one else believes in you.
I know, I know: I sound like a Hallmark card. But listen. Years ago when I was in grad school, Mark Doty came and spoke to our class (Yes, yes, Mark Doty, I mean wow, right?). He looked around at the thirty or so writers gazing expectantly up at him and said something like: “Only one of you will make it, and it won’t be the most talented writer of the group. It will be the most determined, the one who doesn’t give up.”
I’ve always, always remembered that. So thank you, Mark Doty (as if Mark Doty would ever read this blog, hee, hee). But still, thank you, Mark Doty. I sort of, kind of, love you for saying that.