So, after two years of querying 68 agents and five small presses I finally have a contract with Lucky Press, LLC to publish my memoir, Leaving the Hall Light On.
I can honestly say that I began writing pieces of this book as early as 1995 in a creative writing class at UCLA and in a Writing About Your Lives workshop at Esalen in Big Sur, CA. At the outset, I planned to write about Paul and his illness and how he survived it – so hopeful I was that he would survive. But, I always worried that he would not approve of his story in print and out for the world to see. Well, I needn’t have worried. He didn’t survive. And it was I who had to survive his many attacks of mania and depression and finally his suicide death. The story then became about how I and my husband and surviving son came through this painful episode in our lives. I won’t go into any more of the details here about what’s in the book. You can read it once it’s out – Mother’s Day next year. How fitting. A book about a mother’s love out on Mother’s Day!
After Paul died in 1999 I enrolled in Jack Grapes (Los Angeles Poets and Writers Collective) method writing class; attended many writing and poetry workshops at Esalen with Ellen Bass, Richard Jones, Sharon Olds, Dorianne Laux, and Joseph Millar, and memoir writing workshops at UCLA with Maureen Murdock and Barbara Abercrombie – all with the intent of writing myself out of my grief. I also journaled regularly. I still do. And slowly but surely I had material for a book. In 2002 I met a young woman – a former literary agent – who read my poetry and some of my prose and suggested I organize my book based on the sequence of my poems, and for a while she gave me advice and writing prompts – all useful to the content of my book. When I finally had a book together with each chapter starting with a poem, I hired an editor referred by Murdock, a writing teacher at Antioch and UCLA, Lollie Rogana, who first read and gave me comments chapter by chapter. Then once I integrated her comments she read the book again back to back.
By this time it was 2008, and I began the search for an agent. I was told the only way I could get the book published was through an agent. And, as luck would have it the very first agent I queried asked to see my entire manuscript. Alas, after three months she sent me a rejection note – the first of many for the next two years. Most agents sent me a form letter with the usual “not for my list” comment. The majority didn’t have the courtesy to answer at all. A few wrote encouraging notes, and others said, ”I don’t want to deal with such pain,” or “our past experience has been that very few books of this nature can make it through a publishing committee unless there is someone famous involved.”
The few small presses I contacted were just as discouraging – one said, “the subject matter is too hard to sell.” Another wrote, “Not a huge chance I’ll want to publish it. I’ve received lots of submissions written by mothers or spouses of deceased people, mostly written to honor the deceased it seems, and they are almost never strong enough to warrant publication.”
But I persevered. I also decided to write a novel – something I have never even thought about doing before. Last winter I enrolled in a How to Write Your First Novel workshop at UCLA led by Jessica Barksdale Inclan and got totally engrossed. So much so that I already have about 70 pages. That is on hold now. I’ve much too much to do to get my memoir ready for publication. As Jessica said, the novel will wait. However, I truly feel that concentrating on something else helped gather interest in my memoir. It’s like turning to something else in the face of writer’s block. It works every time.
And, while I’m working on the book I’ll keep posting about my progress and process, about my friend Marlene McPherson, a wonderful author herself, who graciously read my book in the last few weeks and has given me brilliant notes on how to best revise it, and about my publisher, Janice Phelps Williams, who founded Lucky Press, LLC in 2000. I am so fortunate to have found her. Her vision for my book exactly matches my own.
Also, please note the names of the folks I’ve mentioned above. They are all wonderful teachers and mentors. They have all had a hand in this journey and its successful outcome.