By Diana Friedman
A petulant writer confession: I almost didn’t make it to Dublin this trip. Many years ago, a good friend asked me: when is the last time you really let yourself feel desire for something you want? We weren’t talking designer shoes or beachfront holiday property but deep soul-wrenching desire, the kind that makes your heart swell and expand into your cavity when you finally give yourself permission to chase that long-elusive dream.
I answered that question by diving into my novel. With two young children and a demanding job, it was no small feat researching and writing a story partially set in another country. Never mind facing down all the fears that had kept me from attempting it up until then.
During the time spent writing the book, I’ve learned that the heart is a sensitive little creature. One of the consequences of reaching inside so you can hold this lovely little pulsating, squirming core of self in your hands is that when you hit a road block, as I did a few weeks ago, it truly can disintegrate, leaving you vulnerable to falling to pieces.
Back in October 2012 I submitted the first four chapters of my novel to the Novel Fair at the Irish Writers’ Centre. I knew it was a long shot—the first year of the competition, the Centre had over 500 entries. In general, odds are never good in contests like these.
I wasn’t planning to submit, but a number of friends encouraged me to apply, as I’d already invested so much time researching the book and doing due diligence to make sure I captured Dublin as is, not just as a city rich in its past and pubs or, as portrayed through the typical Americanist-leprechauny-four-leaf-cloverly-Guiness-tinted glasses.
And, I was no longer a neophyte. I’d been at the book for six years, was working with a professional editor, and had just placed an excerpt for publication. Three pieces of my work had recently been shortlisted in competitions in the States.
So, what was to lose? For 40 euros—a lot of money for one contest, yes, but as a donation to a Writer’s Centre, particularly to the Irish Writers’ Centre and all it offers, not very much at all—authors were to submit the first 10,000 words of a novel, and two judges would pick the top ten entries. Those ten authors would then receive the privilege of one full day of pitching directly to agents and editors from Ireland and the UK. For the non-writers among us, this is the equivalent of being handed an all-you-can-eat card at ten five-star restaurants in France.
As the date approached, I grew more excited about the prospect of being selected. A year earlier, I had attended the Algonkian Pitch Conference in New York City. If I could survive pitching to New York editors, Dublin, I imagined, would be a breeze.
The format for the New York pitch conference was completely different than Dublin. After submitting a synopsis to the conference organizers, applicants were either accepted or denied. If accepted, for the price of trip to Europe, plus some, attendees registered to spend a day and a half learning how to hone their 30 second pitch, and were then given two and a half days to pitch directly to four editors from the New York City publishing world.
It was hard to delineate where the adrenaline bled into the anxiety at the New York conference, except to say that by day four, the hallways smelled like a slaughterhouse just before the cows went under the blade. I have relatives in New York, so I got off easy, financially speaking, but most attendees had spent thousands of dollars to get to and stay in the city. Furthering the tension, we were meeting at the Horace Greely studios in Midtown Manhattan, home to dance and theatre audition spaces. The two groups were easy to distinguish—the dancers cavorted in hot colored spandex with beautiful erect posture, while the writers slouched around in baggy pants, hunched over their manuscripts and laptops. The entire atmosphere was choose me, choose me, choose me, a cramped and antiquated New York City building jammed with dozens of people sharing the same fantasy—that all their years of hard work would finally be met with reward.
We were divided into four sections of 15 writers each, and lucky for me, I wound up with a remarkable group of supportive and encouraging women. We didn’t start menstruating together, but it was the kind of group that had we been there longer, I’m sure we would have. Under the guidance of our very able workshop leader, we were primed, edited, and then instructed in the basics—be polite, articulate, look the editor in the eye, keep the responses brief and focused. And dress nicely. It was a bit like finishing school for writers. By the end of the first day, excitement was running high.
And then the editors arrived.
The first one was from Penguin. She listened to our pitches, asked questions, told us what she liked and what she didn’t, and gave us suggestions for improvement. Over lunch she talked with our workshop leader and gave her the list of books she wanted to see. She selected three.
But as the editors made their selections, and people realized they might not get chosen, the mood shifted. The conference organisers had clearly stated that if your book was not getting selected, it probably meant your pitch was too unfocused, which in turn, was a reflection on the state of your book. This was, not surprisingly, very hard for people to hear. In the hallways, people insisted they’d been put in the wrong group and hence were pitching to the wrong editor, or, blamed the editors for being too narrow-minded. The environment truly was a bit like Survivor for Writers—there were only so many people who were going to be selected—but our group supported and cheered one another on so that by the end most of us felt that the impromptu community we formed was probably the most valuable part of the conference.
Before the New York Pitch conference, my novel had received interest from a prominent agent, who later rejected it after I completed significant rewrites, suggesting I work with a different kind of agent to bring it to publication. I suspected that this meant that the book was good, but not quite good enough for the big leagues. And I knew that selling a book at this conference—despite what the web site promised—was going to be next to impossible, so I entered with somewhat low expectations, which made the landing somewhat easier for me. I wanted to test the market potential of my idea, learn how to pitch the book, and then, if I was lucky, get the manuscript into the hands of an editor who could tell me what precisely the book needed. I was very lucky; I managed all three. The editor who read my novel gave me very concrete feedback on what the novel needed to come to full strength. She offered to look at it following rewrites and point me to some agents. It was a rejection, but as far as rejections go, it was as good as they get.
The Dublin Novel Fair was completely different. The price was right, but only ten lucky writers were going to be selected. It was pretty clear that anyone who made that cut would have a very good chance of getting their book into the hands of agents and editors, since the vetting had already been done.
I waited, waited, waited, my mind spiraling with anticipation and anxiety. And layered below my excitement percolated a question that I really wanted answered: had any of the passion I experienced in writing the book come through in the story telling in a way that would resonate on the other side of the pond (this side, that is)? In November, a very kind relative bought me a plane ticket as a birthday present, under the assumption that I would go to Dublin either way, as I was once again tackling significant rewrites. I made a hotel reservation and I was all set.
When I learned I was not selected, though, all I could manage was to reach for the phone, from very deep underneath the covers, to turn in my ticket. For days, I could not bear the thought of being in Dublin knowing that there would be ten lucky bastards eating fillet while I would be sucking up crumbs across town.
And, so, such is the nature of desire; when we heed its call, it takes us to amazing new heights, but how much harder the fall when we don’t reach the destination.
And yet, forcing myself to take my book to completion has taught me a few things about surviving this business. In particular, I’ve had to learn that staying the course sometimes means surrendering to the immaturity of my artist self. It is a child-like and vulnerable being. It has to be. How else to open myself up and get under and inside the skin of the characters and scenarios I’m creating?
But when it comes time to face the world—the rejections and cruelties and dismissals, that artist self needs quite a bit of help. Because it is also petulant. And irritable. It becomes a delicate balancing act, allowing the artist-self some tantrum time, and then knowing when it’s time for the adult self to step in—first with compassion, and then a gentle shove back into the world, the same way a parent helps a child along with a skinned knee or a failed exam. And, most importantly, making sure that no matter how bad things feel, that the adult self is the one who faces the world in those hard times—with professionalism and decorum.
Somehow, this time I missed that part about the adult self. It wasn’t until after watching me drown my head in my seventh batch of chocolate chip cookies, that my very same good friend poked me in the ribs and asked: what exactly would be the downside to going?
And this is why she is such a good friend. Because once I put away the chocolate I knew she was right. In fact, I realized, all the contest had done was paralyse me. I had two directions to take the rewrites of the book, one focused for an Irish audience, and one for the American women’s fiction market. In the three months while waiting for the response, unable to decide which one I was going forward with, I worked on precisely neither of them.
So I stuffed my suitcase with rain gear and then, for reinforcement, made a quick pit stop at my neighborhood hippie haven. Hillary, local Goddess extraordinaire, smudged me with sage and cedar for creative inspiration and good luck. Holly, a massage therapist of zero balancing expertise, passed along visions of me grounded inside a huge pyramid while on the plane. It was an image, I have to confess, I had never considered, but rather liked. It made take-off and landing a bit less traumatic.
By the time I arrived to Dublin, I had mostly forgotten about the Novel Fair. June Caldwell welcomed me warmly and has been an enormous help with my project, as have so many others around the Centre, including random writers popping in and out to talk with me, and the Ink Splinters, a writer’s group that so kindly opened their circle to me one night.
As the Novel Fair date approached and I watched the staff move chairs and tables around the Centre in preparation, I admit to some curiosity, but it was more fly-on-the-wall type.
Happily clicking away on my laptop on this blog and my book, what I mostly felt was relief that I wasn’t going through it again. Eventually I will be pushing the novel at US conferences when it’s ready, but for now, how much more fun it was to be in Dublin, and, rather than suffer the anguish of selling, bask in the pleasure of writing.
The publishing industry may be fickle and arbitrary, but such is the nature of art; no voice will ever speak to everyone. Expecting any work of art to resonate across the board is simply setting yourself up for disappointment. As artists, when we become dependent on others to validate our voices, it’s easy to freeze and lose ourselves.
I’ll close out with another confession: Halfway through writing this blog I still have no idea what it means to be an American writer in Dublin, as June dubbed me, but it’s a label I’ve happily worn and enjoyed. Because while the blog format will most likely never attain the same status as the short story or essay, it’s a powerful tool for a writer—pure voice, unadulterated and luminous and radiant as voice comes.
Indeed, gazing out from the Centre’s top floor classroom window over the rooftops and chimneys and historic buildings of Dublin, my heart once again thumping safely and softly, the words and stories erupting non-stop in an almost mystical energetic flow, I re-discovered one critically important thing: losing one’s voice may be misery-inducing, indeed, but in the whole entire world, for this writer anyway, there is absolutely and truly nothing better than getting it back.
Diana Friedman’s work has received several awards, including being selected as a finalist for the Howard Frank Mosher Fiction Prize, a top 25 pick for Glimmer Train’s Family Matters Contest, third place in Bethesda Magazine’s Annual Short Story Competition, and as a finalist in Sport Literate’s essay contest. Her fiction and non-fiction have appeared in various publications, including Sport Literate, Flyway: Journal of Writing and Environment, Whole Earth Review, the Baltimore Sun, Newsweek, Bethesda Magazine, Stone Highway Review and the Legendary, among others. An excerpt of her novel will be published in a forthcoming anthology of Washington, D.C. writers, Defying Gravity, available from Paycock Press in 2013. www.dianafriedmanwriter.com and to keep up with her newest writings or hang out with her in cyberspace, you can “like” her on Facebookhttps://www.facebook.com/DianaFriedmanwriter or follow her on Twitter @Dfriedmanwriter