I knew the call was coming. We had planned it that way, my agent, Rubin Pfeffer, and I. I’d decided it was time to get an informed answer about the marketability of the memoir I’ve been working on for the last couple of years. So I’d asked him to read what I had and give me his best judgment. Was it something he thought he could ever place?
It had been at least a year-and-a-half since he had seen any of it. The first time he saw it, those eighteen months ago, it had been entirely in verse, and he’d been impressed. No guarantees, of course, about being able to sell such an oddity, but when I’d said I thought our only hope would be small presses, he disagreed. He would start with the big boys, the places where I publish my children’s books, though the market I’m aiming at with the memoir is definitely not children.
When a long-time children’s writer turns to writing for an adult audience, she doesn’t start at ground zero. She starts at about ten points below ground zero. There is that much prejudice in the world of adult publishing against those whose careers have focused on writing for children. But Rubin was with me, nonetheless. And I went home from that early conversation heartened.
I also went home and after a few more months of work shifted my direction. (Without consultation, I might add.) I retained some of the verse, but I began writing more of the memoir in prose, which allowed me to reach more deeply, to fill in gaps. I wrote and rethought and wrote and rethought, loving the challenge of the work every step of the way. I paused from time to time to write something else, something small that could be marketed, but mostly my days have been filled with the memoir. It has been hard, good work.
I began this project for myself. That’s what I told myself and others. “This is what I need to write just now,” I said. “If it can be published one day, that’s great. If it can’t I will have it for myself and for my family.” And I learned an enormous amount through this writing.
After many months of work, I approached a halfway point of this mostly for-myself project. About a third more remains to be written and about a third of what I had in front of me still needs deep revisions. But I decided it was time to ask the question of the one person I was confident could answer it, the one person I knew would answer it both honestly and gently. Can this be marketed, or I am truly writing only for myself and my family?
As I said at the beginning, Rubin called. And you already know what his answer was, because it was in the title to this piece. “No.” He said all the right things, of course, all the nice things about how well written it was, about how rich the life was it represented. But the manuscript didn’t have, he said, enough of a hook. And besides that, it was out of its time. Some of the content of my life that would have been attention-grabbing twenty years ago, even ten years ago (clergy wife who discovers herself to be a lesbian, for instance) would be old news by 2019 when this might reach an audience.
I listened and knew what I didn’t want to know . . . he was right.
Every writer needs someone in her life who is so objective, so knowledgeable, so kindly right.
So what do I do? I’d said all along I was writing the memoir for myself. Right? But for all the times I’d said that, losing the thought of any potential market felt like letting the air out of a balloon. All the air. With a rude sound.
I went to bed that night, still feeling as though I had stepped off a cliff. I was the one who had asked, after all. I could have just kept on going, kept on doing what I was doing. I woke up in the morning, still with no ground beneath my feet.
But all the while I’d been feeling discouraged, I’d been feeling something else, too. Possibilities. Lots and lots of possibilities. And gradually the possibilities began to sort themselves out.
While I lay in bed in the morning sorting, sorting, two ideas rose with the sun. The first one: I can return to the memoir. I’ll select the childhood material that would work for a young audience. I’ll write that part for the audience I already know, the one that knows me. And I have reason to hope what I produce will be marketable.
Second, I will take the later material, return to the primarily verse form that once distinguished the manuscript, find a single clear hook—living into loss, I think—and a closely defined audience—other seniors like myself, other old ladies like myself—and try again to produce a marketable manuscript.
Not just well written. Not just richly conceived. But a manuscript that has enough to offer those who are strangers to me and my work that a publisher might even want to take a chance on it.
What do you do when the answer is “No”? You listen.
And then you try another way.