Some thoughts on the eve of submitting a book proposal

When I was in grad school, I got a small stipend to put together the alumni newsletter. There was a guy who (twice) sent in an update about his life as a real estate agent, noting that, though his career had veered away from writing, he still used his MFA-acquired-skills to edit the community wine newsletter.

As a judgmental and ambitious twenty-four-year old, this distressed me. I was spending thousands of dollars on my degree. I had made what felt like significant sacrifices to join this program and I shuddered to imagine that a day might come where I would be content to use that expensive and coveted degree to edit a wine newsletter. For years the fear of becoming wine-newsletter-guy motivated me to put aside time to start a book, even when there were more immediately-pleasurable ways to spend my days.

As a much more pragmatic thirty-four-year old, I now understand that this guy was on to something. He surely has a nicer home than me–and earns more money. And if he’s still interested in writing, he might have the resources to take a significant chunk of time off work, or even to retire early. And there’s the obvious truth that deciding not to be a writer isn’t such a bad thing. It’s probably good! My non-writer friends report watching high-quality television shows in the evening, with no overwhelming sense of guilt about how much unpaid work they did or did not complete that day. That kind of evening sounds nice.

An eerie post-apocalyptic haze has settled over Vancouver these past few days. Forest fires north of us have turned the sky an unnatural yellow, and when the evening breeze finally stirs the air, I taste campfire on my tongue. Roscoe and I hunker down in the living room, swatting at flies and trying to determine the least unpleasant hour for a walk. At night, I wake up before dawn scratching at large red welts, tuning my ears to the mosquito’s distinct whine, wondering if it’s worth turning on all the lights and hunting the bastard down. In case you are wondering about the life of a writer hoping to sell her first book, this is what it’s like.

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I guess it’s fitting that these days of waiting have the mythical qualities of purgatory. I started this book proposal in April. I thought I’d be done by the end of May. But in fact—after many revisions, false starts, one total do-over, and sixty-seven pages—I finished in the morning on Friday, July 3. And then I sat around wondering what to do. Continue reading

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the messay: a question of genre

Reading Brevity’s blog this afternoon has gotten me thinking about genre. Often when I tell people I’m writing a book on love stories they look at me with interest and say, “You’re writing a novel that’s a love story?”

I usually respond by explaining that, no, I’m writing a nonfiction book about love stories. But this description does not make a particularly snappy elevator pitch. Sometimes I say, “I’m writing a book-length essay on love stories,” or “My book is part memoir, part research, part family mythology.” Sometimes I wish I was writing a novel just so I would have the language to describe what I’m doing. But what I’m doing doesn’t seem to have a sufficient genre descriptor. Calling it a book-length essay allows for the wandering approach that Scott Russel Sanders famously called “chasing mental rabbits.” But it’s ultimately unproductive because, frankly, most people don’t know enough about the essay as literary form for a book-length essay to sound remotely interesting. On day one of teaching the personal essay to my undergraduates, I spend a lot of time distinguishing it from the academic essay–a genre they seem to either tolerate or loathe.

But memoir isn’t quite the right word either. My experiences happen to be a convenient starting point for talking about love stories. But in the book I also want to re-imagine the stories I’ve spent my life hearing: my parents’ and grandparents’ love stories, things I could not possibly remember. Annie Dillard says, “A memoir is any account, usually in the first person, of incidents that happened a while ago.” But what if those incidents happened before I was born?

And where does research fit into all of this? Some of the tools I’ve been using to explore the topic include the things scholars, philosophers, and friends have to say about love and love stories. And when I actually publish this thing, in what part of the bookstore or library might it reside? I find myself in a weird, nameless gray area.

But luckily, if that’s the right word, lots of other books fall into a similarly ambiguous space. A few that come to mind right away are: Lauren Slater’s Lying, Nick Flynn’s Another Bullshit Night in Suck City, Dave Eggers’ What is the What, Richard McCann’s Mother of Sorrows, Francisco Goldman’s Say Her Name, even Joan Didion’s The Year of Magical Thinking. We don’t have adequate generic words for books like these much less a designated bookstore shelf. All are narrative. All are intensely personal. All are imaginative. But all are distinctly unwieldy creatures when it comes to genre.

So should we coin the messay? The novoir? When we discuss this in class, many of my students are comfortable with blending truth and fiction or research and narrative. To them, a good story is often just that. But I worry about orphan books that so easily find themselves in genre limbo, mostly because I’m aware that that’s exactly what I’m writing.