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Take It Personally

by Natalie Serber

from WRITER, INC.

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Sometimes an acceptance letter can make you shudder, in a bad way. When my story “Shout Her Lovely Name” was awarded runner-up in Hunger Mountain’s annual fiction contest, I was gratified and terrified. It wasn’t the first time this story came in second. Three contests gave “Shout Her Lovely Name” a second and two wanted to publish the piece in traditional journals, but I was afraid to let it go. The risk felt huge because the story is intense and closer to the bone than anything I’ve written. Literally, I wrote the story to save my life, to try to understand the terrible, torturous experience as our family struggled within the iron grip of our daughter’s eating disorder. I really don’t want to say more about that time here, as I feel the story tells the emotional truth if not the factual truth. Nearly the only times my hands weren’t shaking during those years of struggle were when I was at my computer, writing. It was never my intention to publish the story. In fact, it languished in a drawer for two years before I showed a soul. I wrote the story because I had to get it out of my body.

Me and my amazing daughter.

When Hunger Mountain wanted to take “Shout Her Lovely Name” (and yes, I do recognize the irony of the titles, both that of the magazine and that of the story which I never intended to speak at all) I had to make a decision. Writing and publishing are very different acts. One intensely private and the other, well you know… letting go of the story felt a bit like throwing my family under the bus to advance my own literary aspirations. Would I have been as reluctant if the story won first place with a bit of cash and the word winner attached to it? I like to think so but maybe not. The fact that I continued to send the story to contests reveals that I may not be as selfless as I like to think. I was stuck because I felt pride about the piece and fear in the calling out, the naming of this time in our lives. It would have been different if I were telling only my story, but in the case of “Shout Her Lovely Name” my experience was tangled inextricably with my daughter’s very private story. Before I said yes to publication, I talked to my husband, I talked to my therapist, and, hardest of all, I talked to my daughter. While she has her own version of what our family went through, my generous and intelligent girl was able to let my truth stand and she gave me, not her blessing exactly, but her permission to publish.

Even now, writing these words, I am afraid. This essay is another level of exposure. The story of course has a life of its own, with readers bringing their unique experience to the page, but, with the story, I can still hide behind the word fiction. And yes, it is fiction. Not everything happened the way it appears on the page, but the emotions behind it all, the fear, rage, confusion, frustration, despair, and hope, those terrible, necessary shreds of hope, are true. And I believe that a truth, not the truth, though painful and risky, can strive to offer up light. If it sounds like I am still trying to convince myself, maybe I am. Any writer who includes autobiographical experiences in her work has to choose to be brave or choose to be silenced. I hate to suggest that I was the courageous one in letting the story go. The Purple Heart goes to my daughter.

The second and largest irony of this tale is that once I did release “Shout Her Lovely Name” the rare and random event I’d been fantasizing about since I started writing seriously, happened—an agent, the right agent, contacted me. Attention and forward momentum with my writing came from my most terrifying story—the one I wrote without a thought to publish.

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A few rejections from over the years....

I’ve been a serious, though not daily, writer for twenty-plus years. When my daughter, my youngest child, started preschool, I took a writing class, and then I took another and another. I began rising at 5:00 to write before I got my children ready for the day. Gradually, the shift in the house, my small coffee-making noises, the dog scratching at the door to be let out, caused everyone to wake earlier and earlier until soon we were all getting up at 5:00. I gave up my morning writing and began to squeeze it in during naps, in the car outside of the preschool, whenever and wherever. I tried to train myself to not need silence or big chunks of time because if my writing required that, I would never get a thing done. I once heard Grace Paley describing her writing life with children. She said she set up a playpen in the center of her apartment and climbed in to write, giving her children the run of the living room. I taped a picture of Grace onto my computer.

In the habit of sending my work to small literary contests, I received lots of Notifications of Winners that did not include me. When occasionally I won, knowing that someone somewhere liked a story well enough to want to publish it, was sustaining. Writing alone at my desk or in a coffeehouse, I felt the need to justify to everyone—me, my family, friends and acquaintances, even my dog (who thought my time would be far better spent walking him, scratching his belly, feeding him treats)—why I spent so much time doing this thing, writing. The occasional contest win or acceptance felt validating, the being chosen gave me permission to keep at it—to write the next one.

Prioritizing the dog for just a moment....

Once, after I published a story in a small literary journal, I received a letter in the mail on beautiful thick, presidential-blue stationary. It was from, as a friend of mine said in a breathless voice, a New-York-Talent-Agent! Mr. NYTA liked my story and wanted to know if I had a novel. I emailed him. Yes I do have a novel, I wrote, but it is just a tender shoot, I won’t show it to you for fear you won’t like it and I’ll be derailed. I am not ready. It is not ready. We went back and forth through email; he refused to speak on the phone until he had read the partial. When I saw an article about this very same Mr. NYTA in a magazine, I thought, I must send it to him. When does this ever happen? Well, apparently pretty frequently. Though I was reluctant to tell writer friends about the letter for fear of showboating, when I did let it slip into a conversation—for example if someone asked me to pass the salt I might answer: Mr. NYTA wrote me and wants to see my work!—A good many of them rolled their eyes, for they too had received letters from Mr. NYTA. Huh?! Apparently I was the last one asked to the dance.

I sent Mr. NYTA a partial of the novel and he passed it on to an editorial assistant who wrote me a kind dismissal that said, in part, some of the narrative voices, particularly those of the teenagers, set her mind to wandering and, Your work reminded me a bit of Anthony Nelson’s, who also manages to avoid cliché while writing about the well-worn subject of American families. Imagine my pique! I love writing and reading about American families. Well-worn subject indeed! Phillip Roth, Jo Ann Beard, Paul Harding, Louise Erdrich, Jean Thompson, Jonathan Franzen, Elizabeth Strout, Amy Bloom, Marilynne Robinson and Antonya Nelson, thank you very much, all write about the well-worn subject of family. Don’t misunderstand, I am not comparing my work to these amazing writers, but we do have in common the interest in the primacy of family, an emotional frisson with something real at stake. Well, at least my novel managed to avoid cliché; I had that going for me. I decided not to be discouraged.

The next agent who contacted me said the work was original and that the sections of the novel told in teenage voices were the strongest and perhaps I should consider writing a YA novel, though their agency had no interest in this imagined revision. This time around I did feel discouraged. And I briefly thought about changing the novel, switching the point of view character from mother to daughter, though I’d never considered it before. The experience was not unlike a workshop where you don’t yet know which voice to trust and you don’t yet feel confident enough to trust your own, and wow, maybe the story should be moved to present tense, the POV character changed, and, while you’re at it, switch to first person.

The agent who contacted me after reading “Shout Her Lovely Name” was different. Agent H was interested in stories. Did I have enough for a collection? Not did I have a novel, but stories. And that question filled me with hope and expectation. Everyone says story collections are impossible to sell, not to mention the novel is dying and books will soon vanish, become an endearing collectible relic, like Madame Alexander dolls. Agent H wanted stories. Hooray!

The collection in manuscript.

I whipped together all my work. Some of the stories I hadn’t looked at since graduate school. I refined and revised, messed around with order, crossed my fingers and sent the collection. And she actually gushed! Even though it’s part of her job to gush, I fell for it. Hard! Agent H saw that the stories beginning with “Shout Her Lovely Name” had a central theme of mother/daughter relationships. She wanted to polish them up and send them off.

Agent H and I had our first contact in June of 2010. Together we worked on the collection until October. We went back and forth, considering order, language, questions about character, and whether or not one particular story belonged. She was attentive and involved. Her questions were broad and precise, for example of one story she said both, “the ending seems too precious to me, too easy” and, “I wonder why she isn’t more angry about the nylons?” Can I say, I loved having someone paying close attention, really caring about my work? I mean, of course my supervisors in graduate school paid exquisite attention to my work and I thank them again and again, but they had to pay that kind of attention. Graduate school felt kind of like, you’re my mother, and you have to love me. My supervisors certainly didn’t have to love me but they had to read me. Agent H didn’t have to love or read me. She was taking a risk by spending so much careful time and consideration with my work and I kept thinking if nothing more comes of this experience, well, look at how lucky I am right now. To have a pair of such smart eyes deeply interested in the stories—man-O-man.

So in October, Agent H sent the collection out to five houses, her top-tier choices. I had forty-seven composition students and twenty creative writing students that fall and I spent hours reading student pages, planning lectures, and trying not to think about the collection. Now, I am not fresh out of grad school. I have one child well ensconced in his college trajectory and another just beginning. I turn fifty this year and I find myself on the threshold of another phase of life, the empty nest, or, as I like to call it, the empty next. I am uncertain what the changes will mean for me. Having my manuscript circulating at this juncture in my life felt surreal. Of course it was what I’ve always fantasized about, having an agent and editor interested in my work with the same devotion I feel for the stories and the novel. Yet, on the verge of having that exact experience, I was terrified. What would it mean about my empty next if no one wanted my work?

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On a Monday in October my daughter had a portfolio review with a representative from her top-choice college and I had this email from Agent H:

It’s common for editors interested in making an offer to want to talk to the author. First, it’s just nice to make a personal connection. I think she will probably want to talk to you specifically about the order of the stories. I told her you were working on a novel about a family. She may ask you a little bit about that. You can feel free to talk about it in general terms. You and I can also talk before you talk to her. I’m sure you have questions. Let me know!

After teaching my literature class in the tiny Oregon town of Newburg, I was to take the call from Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. I drove twenty-nine minutes away from the college and sat in my car in a Walgreens parking lot as if I was stopping to pick up toilet paper and Advil. As if it was all perfect ordinariness. That I used to steal time in the preschool parking lot to write and was now, this many years later, stealing time in another parking lot to talk to my potential editor, is the third irony of my tale. My cell rang. Editor A and I spoke for forty minutes. Rain hammered the roof, so loud I couldn’t imagine what she heard. She asked about the stories, about the novel I was working on, about the characters; it was all so easy, and so lucky. She put me at ease and ended our conversation by saying she knew exactly where my collection would fit on her list. We hung up and I went to the portfolio review with my daughter.

And now it's a book!

When we arrived home I had a rejection letter in the mail. Alaska Quarterly Review wishing me luck and saying a story I sent, another from the collection, was not a good fit for their magazine. Editor A had just described this very same story as having an explosive ending and being perfectly pitched. Had I received the rejection letter on a different day, I may have been terribly discouraged. Rejection letters often say things about the work not being a good fit or the magazine not being the right home. The statements are well intended and perhaps true—but what I and many of my writer friends hear in our minds is, your work sucks. Rejections make us wobbly, they leave us questioning our assessment of our own work. We let ourselves be bruised by the whimsy of taste and then we buck each other up, we have a glass of wine or tea or bourbon and go back to our desks. What we must strive to do is morph our disappointment into another chance to break through. Until we do, we’ll just be stuck on the wrong side of our best work. My story was rejected and praised by smart people on the same day. For the same exact work I was told the subject of family is too well worn, the teenage voices are lacking, the teenage voices are the strongest part of the work, the work doesn’t meet our needs, the work is pitch perfect. I guess the lesson is, don’t take any of the publishing part too personally. If writing is what you must do, what you have no choice about, then stay true to your most honest voice. In my case, with “Shout Her Lovely Name,” that meant going toward my darkest moments. It meant enduring the slog and desire and the occasional shudder. It meant showing up at my desk and taking the writing part deeply, deeply personally.


P.S. My daughter’s portfolio review went well. She was accepted to her top school and she is thriving. My collection, Shout Her Lovely Name is coming out in June. Every day we return to our work. We are lucky!
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Read Natalie’s Spring 2010 Author Visit

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{ 8 comments… read them below or add one }

Robin Belkin February 27, 2012 at 9:16 pm

This is wonderful; can’t wait to read the book!

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Kris Underwood February 27, 2012 at 10:44 pm

There is so much in this post that I said “Yes!” to….”I wrote the story because I had to get it out of my body.” Yes. “Any writer who includes autobiographical experiences in her work has to choose to be brave or choose to be silenced.” Yes.
Congrats on the book!

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Sarah Phipps February 29, 2012 at 1:24 am

Thank you for writing this. It is lovely and just what I needed to read today. I will be looking for your book.

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Kim C. February 29, 2012 at 4:24 pm

What an inspiring story, Natalie. I’m deeply moved by your writing and your experiences as a mom and an author. You go!

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Joy Drewfs February 29, 2012 at 10:33 pm

Natalie,
I am thrilled for you, and so proud and humbled to have been taught by you. You give hope to all of us at MU who are struggling writers, and who have the same publishing hopes you talk about.
Will you sign my copy when it comes out?
All the best and much success.
JOY

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Amalia Melis March 1, 2012 at 2:44 am

your post is so inspiring…i totally connected with the process of letting go of stories created from the darkest place, family stories, rejections slips, the hint of hope in a rejection letter, agent loves, agent dislikes, agents’ request to kill a character they think does not fit, sitting at the desk to think about it all and then taking that first step. AGAIN.

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Lauren Yaffe March 2, 2012 at 7:08 pm

Your wonderful article reminds me of how brave and complicated it is to not only share private material but even to allow oneself to write it. I applaud you.

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Amanda March 19, 2012 at 7:02 am

A truly inspiring essay. Your struggle with agents and editors resonates. Looking forward to reading the book.

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