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Saturday, February 8, 2020
Why stop writing my blog?
I was depressed a year ago. I may be depressed now. But I was also depressed a years ago. I’m not one who believes all sad feelings are evidence of a chemical imbalance. In fact I’d argue soaking in dark feelings, living with them, facing them, acknowledging them, and validating the legitimate reasons for sadness can be a healthier response than ignoring them, setting them aside, and using well-worn elaborate defense mechanisms and medical remedies (or self-prescribed antidotes) to brush such feelings aside in order to continue being an industrious worker. Don’t misunderstand. I’m not advocating people not seek help when they need it. I’m simply saying not all depression is equal, my baseline involves mild melancholy and there are times when the sobering acceptance of reality yields a deservedly bleak perspective.
Grief over the death of a loved one is an understandable reason for sadness that is universally acceptable (for a brief time; over-do it and people resent you for bringing them down). So I will remind you that this happened: On Loss and Weightlessness.
It’s clear sometimes life gives us good reasons for circumstantial depression. If we catch a glance of our planet’s environmental trajectory out of the corner of our eye, that’s a fair reason to feel depressed. A peripheral awareness of the creeping breakdown of governmental institutions, the rise of bombastic neo-fascist authoritarian leaders, the on-going disparity between the haves and the have-nots, the plight of bees, micro plastics, and general incivility are all good rationales for feeling a little blue. Perhaps the slippery slope of grievance politics as an excuse for open racism, sexism, and institutionalized injustice has got you feeling down? If so, it should. These are all fine reasons for misery.
Theoretically there must be an evolutionary advantage in such sadness. After all, the job of the brain is to help the body survive (though our ego likes to tell us it’s the other way around). So perhaps hopelessness and despair is meant to motivate us, as social animals, to reach out, seek comfort in others, and to mutually plan solutions for shared problems? I’m really not sure.
For me, misery eventually stokes a fire to change things. The scale and scope of the change needed is daunting. But tilting at windmills is better than letting the giants stomp across the countryside unperturbed. In reaction to a complex set of valid reasons for sadness I set out to publish another book. There is an alchemical trick I’ve stumbled across: I take my crippling concerns, stuff them into an intuitive process, and grind away over long spans of time until a more hopeful creation manifests. Through that creation I’m able to engage with an audience, explore the current moment, the human condition, my place in the world, and the swirl of love and cruelty and constant frenetic work-a-day stress that occupies much of our collective time. In sharing it, the isolation lifts and a path that leads a few feet forward becomes evident. So I stumble ahead and feel I have some agency to, at the very least, be a little more loving to the people around me.
Logistically, to put a new novel in the world (for many boring reasons) I needed to find a new literary agency. Finding an agent is absolutely the worst part of the publishing process. But to turn my emotional slump around I would have to put myself through an agent search. Having made that decision, I realized I’d also have to take a break from social media to gain the mental bandwidth to face the challenge. Generally digital life had become an unhealthy distraction from actual life. Included in that was the need to set my blog aside.
Why blog again?
1) I left my old agency. Being with an agent is a relationship. As such, I felt I had to be brave enough to end that relationship prior to attempting to begin a new one. I went through the necessary steps to legally end our contract and was immediately struck by how alone I was in the literary world. I was drifting, back at square one. I had nothing but ideas strung together on paper. It was disturbing.
2) I began working on my manuscript in an attempt to entice new representation to my cause.
3) I wrote a new query letter.
4) I researched agents; which is largely a futile effort. Why? I’m glad you asked. It’s easy enough to make a list of top literary agents. You can start at the top of such a list and visit the related website where you will read an inspiring declaration of purpose and intention, a promised commitment to fiction, and an expression of an honest desire to build lasting relationships with writers, a long list of awards, credentials, and a scrolling string of dust jacket covers of best selling novels by famous clients. You will find personal preferences of genre or subject for each agent. You can diligently take notes and study the micro-expressions of each headshot to decipher the primitive, unintentional biological semaphore of the arc of each eyebrow provided within the digital biography. Then, you go the next website for the next agency on your list and discover the same content rearranged, printed in a different typeface with a different color palette, and with a slightly different interface. It’s very much like a literary dating app in which everyone writes the things they want to believe about themselves, their intentions, skills, interests and aspirations. Some are charming. Some are funny. Some are philosophical. Around 15% read as if they are written specifically to you. You feel for a moment this digital avatar really understands you and wants what is best for you. But mostly it’s a homogenous marketing job full of field-specific jargon that barely differentiates one agent from the next.
5) Despite my whining (in)articulation of the challenges of finding an agent, I managed to find an agent. It took longer than I would have liked (a few months) and was seasoned with a steady sprinkling of rejections. Part of the fresh problem of the second agent search was the need to devote part of my query letter to my publishing history and a brief explanation of why I needed a new agent. This made for a more convoluted document than I would have liked. Still, not only did I persuade an agent from my list to take me on as a client; in researching her I saw she had worked with the publisher who purchased my first two novels for the US market. I had a frank exchange with a person whose opinion I have reason to trust and was rewarded with a very strong personal recommendation for my new agent - which is the most security I could expect. Because no matter how diligent you are, it’s always a crapshoot. You never know how it will be to work with an agent until you work with the agent.
6) I signed a new contract and addressed the notes my new agent provided (code for completing an eighth draft of my manuscript) and now, finally, the ball is in her court.
7) A senior editor for a major publisher unexpectedly contacted me. She was familiar with my publishing history, the positive reviews from critics’ for my two published novels, and she wondered where I was in my writing process. Correspondence led to a trip to NYC and a meeting with the editor. It felt like an ascendant accomplishment as we walked together to her offices half a block from Rockefeller center. We had an authentic, human-scale conversation over coffee. I really like coffee. It was a high point in a hard couple of years and one I couldn’t have predicted or planned. More than that, the basic social interaction of speaking and being listened to, listening closely out of genuine interest as she shared her story, spending time, finding connections, and developing the beginnings of a rapport was a hopeful counterpoint interjected into a process I was growing increasingly disillusioned with.
Now that I climbed that much of that mountain, I wanted to revive this avenue for discussion. I started this blog to honestly share the ups and downs of my publishing process long before I had a publishing process to share. I’ve used it as a way to document some of my other creative output, and perhaps as a reprieve from the stress of the long, slow, plodding nature of trying to write long form narratives. I intend to keep in touch more frequently.
Tomorrow I hop a plane to Chicago. I’m making a mad dash to Evanston to support Artists Book House, a great arts organization founded by some of my favorite people. Check it out. Follow the action. Make a donation.
On a more personal note, I’m torn between at least two places that feel like home. One is Chicago where a network of bawdy, passionate, subversive, generous, disruptive, funny, irreverent, and unstoppable friends gave me a place to belong. The other is Kansas City where my roots run deep and where people know the me I was at sixteen, know the person I am now, and somehow help me to knit those two people together into a comfortable, layered existence. For all my adult life [chronologically speaking (not developmentally speaking)] my best friend has been with me. In a few short days we celebrate our 25th wedding anniversary. I honestly don’t know how we’ve managed it; don’t feel I deserve the luck I’ve had.
Finally, amid my wallowing in publishing angst and general existential over-thinking I’ve also accomplished a few things other than life, family, and novel drama. Here is Versus, a Little Jab Book created in colaboration with Brad Freeman for JAB (The Journal of Artists' Books) 46.
Thanks for your time. Let's talk again soon.
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