Monday, July 27, 2015

Rejection vs. Failure

"You do your best work after your biggest disasters."

       Tim Robbins,
       as quoted in The Creative Habit by Twyla Tharp

I'm not sure that not finding a publisher nor an agent for my memoir manuscript constitutes my biggest disaster, but in terms of my writing it does. There's no creative project into which I have poured more time and energy.

I spent a good part of my time as writer-in-residence at the Hemingway House on querying agents and publishers. I stuck to the old adage that persistence is everything, that you just have to plow on. Overall, I sent 70 query letters and/or proposals. Each time I pressed the Send button, hope rose again. In each email sent there was the possibility of success. If I don't try, I won't succeed, I kept telling myself.

There were lots of nibbles, requests for manuscripts, but none went anywhere. With each rejection my heart sank a little lower, and my composure got more frazzled. When I reached the end of my list of agents, I plowed through databases of similar books to find publishers who take unagented work (of which, thankfully, there are plenty). One day, as I was finding similar books that got published while mine wasn't finding a home, I got so mad that I texted my husband. A good deal of my fury and frustration must have been evident in that text because he wrote back, "Maybe you need a break?"

So I took a break. I left my little studio up in the Hemingway House, walked over to the French bistro down the street and had a glass of Chardonnay with an omelette lunch. Then I chucked the process. I worked other writing.

Soon thereafter an email from an editor came in, suggesting a rewrite and offering to look at it again after that. That made me even madder. I didn't want to rewrite it based on someone's advice who had no skin in the game. A rewrite would be a lot of work and I wasn't even sure I could do it.

Then I had dinner with a good writing friend who yelled at me that this was a terrific second chance and that I'd better get to it. I didn't want to. I was scared.

"Change--changing the work and how we work--is the unpleasant task of dealing with that which we have been denying. It is probably the biggest test in the creative process, demanding not only an admission that you've made a mistake but that you know how to fix it."
Twyla Tharp, The Creative Habit, p. 218

"The unpleasant task"--yes, that's what I was dealing with! That's why I had been dragging my feet. I hadn't wanted to admit that this version of the manuscript had failed.

Thanks to my friend, by the time I was reading The Creative Habit, I was deep into attempting the rewrite. Up until then, however, I had seen my problem in terms of rejection. I had hunted around for advice on how to deal with rejection, how to keep up the fight in the face of continued, repeated rejection when really rejection had turned into failure.

When does rejection turn into failure? I wish I knew! I wish I could say, "it's after sending out 70 unsuccessful queries," or "when a second chance comes around." Part of the challenge of the creative process is that you're always operating in this foggy no-man's-land. Other writers and artists can only give you advice, share where they have been at, but it's you yourself who has to decide what to do about the work.

I am happy to report that I am glad I attempted the rewrite. It was easier than I thought. I shouldn't have doubted myself so much. I am done now, and I feel it is a better book.

What if the second chance doesn't pan out? Of course I am dreading that, but at least I gave the second chance a chance.

Thursday, July 23, 2015

The Creative Bubble

I have been in a creative bubble for the past few weeks, focusing my mental energies on a creative project, namely a restructuring of my memoir manuscript. I didn't know to call it that until I came across the term in Twyla Tharp's The Creative Habit, which I picked up at my new writing home, the Writers Workspace (WWS) on Chicago's northside. Luckily for me, the WWS features a little library that I poke around in when I am taking a break from the writing desk. Incidentally, that is one thing I missed as writer-in-residence at the Hemingway Birthplace Home: A library that peaked my interest. While there were lots of wonderful old books about the house and I leafed through many of them, they just didn't strike my fancy. (There weren't any old volumes of Hemingway's writing.)

I love reading what successful artists have to say about the creative process, and this book by one of America's most prominent choreographers intrigued me, especially because it is written from the perspective of someone who is not a writer, nor a photographer, but someone who works in an entirely different discipline than I do. While she begins the chapter on "The Bubble" by citing a New Yorker interview with Philip Roth who truly works in a bubble as he secludes himself from the rest of the world by living alone and working in a studio in the woods every day, I appreciate that she says,

"Being in the bubble does not have to mean exiling yourself from people and the world. It is more a state of mind, a willingness to subtract anything that disconnects you from your work. It doesn't have to be antisocial...

"Bubbles can exist amid chaos. They can be mobile: There's nothing more hectic than a rock band on tour, but the confining schedule of planes, limos, hotels, backstage, and onstage becomes a bubble of sorts over the course of several months--and a touring songwriter, cut off from home, will often come back with a pile of new songs for the next disk.

"Even within our distracted existence we have to cultivate a version of the bubble if we want to work freely and with maximum fluency in making connections and harnessing our memory--and to maintain all this is a habit. It is the ideal state where nothing is wasted, where every detail feeds your art because it has nowhere else to go." (p. 238-239)

Here's my bubble: For six weeks this summer, Monday through Friday, I drive my son to summer school on the northside of the city. While he is at school, from 8:00 to 12:30, I am at the Writers Workspace, a short drive from the school. This gives me 3-4 hours of writing time. My other jobs are on summer hiatus, and I made sure to clear all other writing assignments off my plate, so I have been able to truly focus on this rewrite, something I had been dreading for a while. And guess what? It's been easier than I thought it would be, mainly because I've been in the bubble. I've been able to live with this project, something I used to call "being in the zone." But whatever it is called, it means that my brain is preoccupied with this project, and therefore ideas and solutions will come to my mind while I am, for example, chopping onions in the evening as I am cooking for my family.

I have never had 3-4 hours of focused writing time every weekday, except for the times I was granted a writer's residency at the Virginia Center for the Creative Arts. And even then, my residency was only two weeks, so often I toiled all day long. I have found, however, that if I am working intently on a writing project, I tire after about four hours. My creative juices are depleted by then. Fortunately, this jives with my current routine. After four hours it's time to pack up, pick up my son and embark on the rest of the day. I love that this bubble life is not an all or nothing proposition, that I have time for other stuff. Afternoons and evenings are devoted to being a mom and tending to everyday issues like going to the post office, dropping off donations at the charity shop, or making arrangements for my upcoming travels.

Here's what I especially love about my bubble: That I know, as I pack up, that it will be there again the next day.

Monday, July 20, 2015

Farewell, Hemingway House!

My year as writer-in-residence at the Hemingway Birthplace Home in Oak Park has come to an end and as I say farewell to my studio in the attic, I treat you one last time to favorite glimpses of the house as I experienced it.

Farewell to the congregation of furniture in the attic

Bye bye to the funky disco wall paper that greeted me every time I climbed the attic stairs...

...and to the croquet that sat by the back door, rain or shine.

Bye bye to dainty china, marble table tops, embroidered children's coats, lacy light patterns on damask bedspreads, and lavish floral carpets

Farewell to Mrs. Maud Humphrey's (mother of Humphrey Bogart) Mother Goose illustrations and the Peter Rabbit wallpaper in the nursery Ernest shared with his sister, the tricycle in the foyer and Hemingway's potty chair (probably not, but still) in Grace Hemingway's bedroom

Good-bye beloved kitchen sink swivel stool - you were my favorite gadget in the whole house!

Farewell, Hemingway House! It was a privilege to dwell in your walls for this special time, and to have all the time in the world, it seemed, to explore your treasures and share them with many friends.

Thursday, July 16, 2015

Two Turrets: My Grandfather's and Hemingway's

Turret of the Hemingway Birthplace Home in Oak Park, Illinois

Turret of my grandfather's former apartment in Liberec, Czech Republic

The Hemingway Birthplace Home in Oak Park, Illinois has a turret, and so did the building where my grandfather used to live in what is now called Liberec in the Czech Republic. Hemingway was a writer and my grandfather was a writer, too. They both had turrets, at least at some point in their lives. All the while I was writer-in-residence up in the Hemingway attic I wondered, "Perhaps a writer should have a turret?"

Hemingway Birthplace Home in Oak Park, Illinois

My grandfather's old building in Liberec, Czech Republic

"My gable" next to the turret

I loved my little writer's studio in the attic of the Hemingway Birthplace Home, but I did sometimes wish it had been installed in the turret room (off to the left in this picture) and not the gable. However, once the winter winds were blowing, the lack of insulation in the turret room and the hole in its wooden wall convinced me that my gable was the better choice. A writer needs warmth more than romance!

Little Ernest Hemingway purportedly played in the turret's circular room with his older sister Marcelline, but mainly his doctor father used it to store medical specimens high up on shelves in the tower so the kids wouldn't be able to reach them. 

My grandfather, on the other hand, grew cacti in the white light of his turret's alcove. According to my dad's cousin, he once made the entire extended family come by late at night to watch the Queen of the Night bloom.

“The Queen of the Night opens its blossom only once, at midnight," she recounted. "We all bent over this cactus on the window sill, wondering what was so special about it. It had long, flat leaves that flopped out of a ceramic pot but one of those leaves had a little cup of white fur hanging off its side. By midnight it had opened like a daisy, and the apartment was filled with its wonderful scent. And you know what? By morning it was gone. Shriveled, limp and brown.”