The Baby and the Bathwater

“Sue, I’m gonna be blunt.”

My EDGE cohort and I were seated in a circle at the end of our second and final Saturday with writer Frances McCue, hanging on her every word. “You cannot give your manuscript to a writers group,” she advised. “They’ll murder it with good intentions, and it’s too precious. Now, here’s what you do…”

As we leaned in from our student chairs, the kind with wooden desktops at the arms, I wondered what she would have said had she been in the room fifteen minutes earlier.

The assault began innocently during a break-out group while we were refining our book pitches. I had revised mine significantly over lunch; it wasn’t quite there, but I was happy to share it aloud when she asked.

“Gabriela, that’s much better than your first draft. You’ve added some nice specificity.” As Frances left to check on the other group, I asked for feedback from the rest of the circle. I hadn’t noticed the hatchets of good intentions that awaited.

At first, their comments were helpful. Beverly honed on the link of the nine cities that I visited in nine months, a nod to gestation, which is relevant given my memoir’s focus on my mother. Judith suggested a gentle rearranging of thoughts into a clear by-line: “nine cities, nine months, a woman journeys in search of…” which I liked.

“What’s the title?” Patty asked.

“The working title is Hidden City Diaries,” I said, scribbling down their comments. I was distracted by the anticipation of bettering my pitch at home that evening.

“I’m not sure I really get what you mean when you say, Hidden City Diaries,” she said.

“When I first heard it, I wondered if it was some sort of tell-all,” Maritess commented.

“Yeah, me, too,” said March.

“I saw it as looking beneath a city, like maybe some sort of secret view underneath if you were going underground,” Jannat added.

Judith noted, “I thought it might be a nod to the Hidden City as in China.”

Without a moderator, the blood began to trickle. I was helpless to stop it.

“I’m wondering if you should change your title,” Patty mused. “After hearing you describe it, the title doesn’t really relate to the story you’re telling. It’s too vague.”

“Yeah,” Beverly agreed, “I’ve seen your website and I wasn’t totally sure what your book was about, either.”

“The title is really confusing; it makes me think that it’s about an affair or something.”

“And when you mention your mother’s victimization, do you mean that she was victimized by someone, like physically or sexually? Or what kind of victimization?”

“Also, you mention that your book ‘spans continents’, but can you give a specific list of places that you go? I think it would make your story seem more relevant to readers.”

“Maybe it’ll help if we hear more about how the book is set up. What’s the construct?”

“Well, it’s organized chronologically by my travels, which build on each other.” I explained cautiously. “Each city is its own chapter, and each chapter is comprised of a prose poem and four to six essays that I wrote during my stay in that city.”

“Oh, so it’s a book of essays… you should mention that in your pitch.”

“Actually, essays are really hard to sell,” Judith interjected. “If you’re going to mention it, you should say that it’s a collection of linked essays where the sum is greater than the parts.”

My memoir had suddenly become a castaway tearing through the underbrush with a throng of salivating headhunters behind it. The trouble was, some of their comments were legitimate. I felt a little better when Frances closed our session that afternoon, saying that, “As writers, we often confuse feedback with data.” At least I wasn’t the only one.

My heart sank as I drove home. Change the title? It was a working title, but I really identified with it. It’s the name of my website. Yet, if there was something so wrong with the title what else hadn’t I seen?

This past Thursday, I closed the final chapter of my memoir. It should have been a happy moment. I had been putting it off since January, telling myself that I needed to revisit King County Courthouse before I wrote anything, since the last chapter contains pivotal moments that take place at the courthouse. The courthouse is also where my ex and I finalized our divorce in 2006, a year before I petitioned the court to change my name. I wanted to refresh my memory of the place.

Writers are clever procrastinators that way. With work being so hectic, there has been little time to eat lunch, let alone wade through a security line and sit in the courthouse for an hour. Yet, I seemingly couldn’t write my last chapter without immersing myself in a visit–and I didn’t have time to do that.

Honestly, it’s not the act of finishing or even the editing process that I fear per se. What scares me is that I’ll be faced with flaws so deep that the book won’t be worth revising. As an editor, I already know that substantial rewriting is necessary to pull the first half in line with the second, which is far stronger. Though some of their comments were off-mark and annoying, the issues brought up by my EDGE cohort are linked to this fear and my own struggle to overcome it.

This is why, as Frances said, it’s hard for writers to discern between feedback (aka opinion) and data. As artists, writers sense deficiencies in our craft and struggle to shore them up while still in the process of creation. We also become so close to our work that we can no longer give it a critical eye, which is why we invite feedback in ways that other artists may not–and, we often do it too early or too late.

Imagine working for a year on a painting only to wonder if the green line in the center, which holds the composition together, is painted in the wrong place. You might have a sneaking suspicion that it’s too thick or the wrong color–or maybe the composition shouldn’t be built around a green line at all.

If you ask, everyone will have feedback. Those who innately dislike green will tell you that the fault lies with the color. Those who don’t care for conceptual art will struggle with the meaning of your gestural form. Others will ponder what the green line has to do with the title of the piece, or why you used gouache instead of oils.

Ultimately, you can’t un-paint the line. You can decide that it should be there or you can try covering over it, but you’re the only one who knows. If it’s really the wrong color, size or shape, the only thing you can do is start over or try to make art from your mistake–if it is indeed one. Only you as the creator can know.

The moment that this rubicon appears is a trying one, and inevitable for all artists at some point.

The first time I heard (or, at least, remembered) the word rubicon, I was listening to “High on Sunday 51” by Aimee Mann. The line goes, “We have crossed the rubicon / The rats have fled, but I’m hanging on” followed by the couplet, “Our ship awash / Our rudder gone.”

When left adrift at the point of no return, what do you do? A rubicon doesn’t only signify a dividing line or set course of action; it is an acceptance of risk and an uneasy path. One does not cross a point of no return headed toward safety.

There’s another line from Aimee Mann that I quote often: “The quickest way to end a war is just to lose.” For me, that idea represents both pacifism and cowardice —diffuse a fight by refusing to fight— though I admit to falling prey to the latter more than exercising the former.

Whereas I take joy in initiating projects, other people love to see efforts through, even (or especially) during the long, difficult middle. Over the years, I’ve worked to improve my long-term project management skills, if only to find a way to keep going when assignments inevitably become complicated or dissatisfying. Though I’ve been successful in learning this skill, I dread every minute.

In those situations, it takes time to determine whether my discomfort is simply a reflection of an ongoing internal struggle or if conditions are truly so poor as to be abusive or untenable. This is why I stay in relationships or jobs long past the moment of reason. Even when forfeiting the battle is justified, I still find myself feeling the guilt-ridden glee of a quitter.

Last night, I re-read the initial chapter of my memoir for the first time in six months. Notwithstanding the fact that the opening no longer relates strongly to the tone of rest of the book, it also wanders through many vicissitudes—so I cut it.

I also reviewed my table of contents, which contains 32 essays. Based on my first book, each will take a minimum of ten hours to edit. That’s 320 hours, baseline, to polish the manuscript, but it’ll be closer to 400. If I worked all day for two weeks straight, I’d have a good start, but editing a book is less ideal when you work 50 hours a week. If I spend two hours a day on weekdays and four hours each on weekends, I might finish in five months.

This led me to research writing residencies at Hedgebrook, Centrum and Yaddo. Each of them has an open period for applications, which means that I would have to work on my pitch so that I could describe my book successfully enough to earn a residency. They all come with a price, which also means that I’ll need to put together a grant application to fund it, such as Artist Trust’s GAP program. Plus, I’ll have to take time off of work, which can be tricky with so many deadlines. One week away is tough, let alone two.

It seems that I have waded into the tough middle—the rubicon where the logistical sandbags pile as high as the suggestions proffered by my EDGE cohort. Is my memoir worth the work required to save it, or were the lessons I learned during the process enough to justify the effort? Could I end this war without regret if it becomes too messy?

My mentor, Peter Mountford, talks about books he has written that have ended up in drawers. He thought they were awesome when he wrote them and when he pitched them to agents, but the resounding feedback was that they were simply not salable. After a consensus of many rejection letters, he killed his darlings and “shoved them in dark places… where bad books belong,” he quips. It took him over a decade to write something that was finally picked up, this after earning an MFA and reading (and writing) voraciously for years.

As I ran through the list of grant and residency deadlines alongside my editing projections, I couldn’t help but wonder if I should file my memoir in a similar drawer. What if, after six to nine months of work, I realize that there’s nothing I can do to save my book? Is my trembling intuition wisely directing me to step away now, or is it the fear of not being good enough or writing something too personal to be commercially successful?

Am I simply shying away from the hard work necessary to make something good into something great?

Writing the memoir was the first major rubicon, but it’s hardly the last. If I press on, others will lead me deep into dangerous territory where stakes are higher and higher.

For better or worse, Peter had his act together when he pitched his books. He invited mentors to give him feedback, he produced a polished chapter to use as a sample, he researched a list of agents and submitted query letters down the line until he found people who were interested (or not.) Right now, I’m questioning whether I have the fortitude —and the belief in this work— to press on to the other side of the river.

Only time will tell whether I’ll surrender my little darling or conclude that it’s worth fighting through the front-line of savages waiting for me on the shore.

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