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Wednesday, March 15, 2017

Stuck in the Middle

Hello,  Readers, 

The MIL alerted me to an article in Sunday’s failing NY Times by Henry Alford, who writes amusing pieces on social manners and such. It’s called, “I’m Not Okay. And Neither Are You,”*  and it’s about a budding genre of anti-self-help books. These books tell you that your existential despair is real and you might as well stop trying so hard to feel better, be better, look better, and that aiming for success or happiness is dumb. The title, by the way, in case you haven't kept an eye on the self-help genre for decades as I have, refers to a famous one from the groovy year of 1967 called, I'm Ok - You're Okby one Thomas Anthony Harris.

I found this article reassuring because one of the interesting aspects of trying to sell my book proposal has been the various potential ways editors would like to see my material packaged. And I have tried to comply. I have tried prescriptive steps to success (failed at that.) I have tried straight memoir ( failed at that.) The closest my book has come to getting picked up was the most recent editor, who worked with me while I tried sample chapters swinging from traditional how-to-be successful to a more personal approach. She declined the project, ultimately, as I have mentioned. It feels important to mention it again today because I’m in a shame spiral over a faux pas I committed, which led to a result that made me mad; this led to an email written in anger - always, always, always let those sit for at least 24 hours, Readers; 2 hours is not enough, no matter how many high-handed sentences you craft and delete - which led to further shame, which led to me publicly reminding you of my frustrating and so far unsuccessful attempts to find a publisher for my book, as a way to publicly further shame myself.

That was a long sentence, but pretty well constructed, I think. 

Anyway, my point, and I do have one, is that one of the criticisms this most recent, tantalizing editor had was that from my writing it seems as if I am “still in the middle of it”, meaning still struggling with the definition of success. 

Of course I am! I am in the middle of it, because my feelings about me and success are cyclic.That’s one of the lessons I have learned. I have a system - a scaffolding, if you will - that keeps me going or gets me up and running again, and it works pretty well for awhile. Then it breaks down. That’s the nature of things. Why does it break down? Besides the inevitable entropy factor? Because carving a definition of success that goes against the seemingly immutable one I developed over a childhood and young adulthood in my East Coast Liberal bubble is friggin’ hard. And because to do so, I had to put aside some values that I thought were most important to me, that society told me were the most important, to find the ones that mean the most to me. 

Of course I’m still in the middle of it. How could it be otherwise when to feel successful as a mom, without a separate income and as a writer without a continual stepladder of specific achievements related to a career that are observable to the outside world means going against the predominant values of my culture? I will always be in the middle of it. That’s the truth. It remains a struggle because those values are still there within me, as well as around me. When things go well in my current situation, I feel successful. When I hit a glitch, I don’t. Sometimes this means I cycle through these feelings in a day, sometimes I’m coasting and then dragging for weeks. But my system, my scaffolding, works regardless. 

That’s my big takeaway. Just keep going. Be present, do the mindset priming, keep up with your community of like-minded others, evaluate your values, and set goals. As the stepmother used to say, with a sigh, when asked how she was doing, “Well, I’m still putting one foot in front of another.” It’s kind of an anti-self-help message, isn’t it? Admitting you’re always going to be in the midst. Life is not a linear projection always heading upward and onward. As Danish professor Svend Brinkmann is quoted in Alford’s failing NY Times article, “the idea of ‘progress’ is only a few hundred years old — and is, in fact, destructive.” 

Of late I have been taking my advice. I am writing a draft of the whole book right now. Rather than shop the proposal and shape the sample chapters to various editor's wishes, I'm writing the book I would want to read. (I hope.) It’s going slowly and I’m forcing myself to move forward in it without rereading or revising any of it, so I have no idea whether it’s going well. But I’m hoping that if I just get it done, I’ll find a publisher for it. I’m grateful to Henry Alford for pointing out that there may be a genre for my book after all. 


  1. I totally sympathize with your book travails because I’ve been struggling with one myself. I’ve published two books, but this third book is proving to be far harder to sell than the first two. Like you, I’ve had inconstant success with editors. The proposal sold to Yale, but the book turned out to be very different than either of us had expected, and they pulled out of it. I didn’t blame them, because they were expecting reported nonfiction and they were getting something that looked more like a science-fiction novel – but it was a blow nonetheless. So now I am trying to assemble a fresh proposal to sell it again, and it’s really difficult because I’m bending all kinds of genre expectations. The book’s objective is to show how evolution could build sapient creatures along very different lines than our bipedal hominin architecture, and what kind of languages they would consequently have. For example, one civilization is built of social insect colonies. Of course, science fiction has posited hive-mind civilizations for decades, but to my mind no one has sat down and really worked out how cognition could emerge from a giant pile of bugs, let alone language and technology. Well, I have. The problem is, how do I make such a book appeal to more than a very small niche of readers? I’m trying to write it as a memoir, as if I had actually gone to these planets and tried to communicate with these creatures. I’m also overlaying it with some earthly politics, by asking if humans of different political persuasions can actually be “alien” to each other. I would bet that most Democrats feel that Trump voters are pod people roaming the halls of power with lizard eyes. Some Trumpists have have sneaked on board the expedition to these planets and are predictably creating all kinds of trouble. I’m finding it fun to do, but my beta readers are complaining that it feels like a weakly plotted and overly didactic science-fiction novel. The problem is genre expectations: they assume that any writing about nonexistent civilizations on other planets must be a science-fiction novel, so they’re thrown by the fact that there isn’t a conventional plot nor conventional characters. I am pondering creating a stronger plot, but the tricky problem is that these aliens are so alien that it’s difficult to have meaningful relationships with them -- which is part of my point: there could be minds in the cosmos so different from ours that we wouldn’t have much to say to each other. So I’m either a crank trying to write a book that no one will read, or a genius writing the first example of an entirely new genre. It’s very hard to tell which I am. In any case it has been an extremely trying process. My wife has been enormously supportive, but like you I feel rather lost in the wilderness with no recent conventional markers of success. Good luck to you, Hope, and may we both find success at the ends of our respective roads.

    1. Ah, Michael, I don't know how I missed your comment! I apologize. While I'm not a science fiction fan, I certainly appreciate your description of your book. I love the idea of writing it as if it were a memoir. I hope your book is funny, because your writing is!

      I'm struggling with genre myself. Is my book self-help? Or memoir? Or self-help memoir? Or humor? I think we both ought to stop worrying about the genre and write the book we want to read. That's the best option. You know if the voice is compelling, the genre will appeal to people outside it. After all, I don't read fantasy, but I read Harry Potter. I don't read sci-fi, but I read Ray Bradbury.

      Keep going and going!

  2. Hope -- I think you are right to move forward with the book itself, rather than continue to craft proposals for a changing readership of one. I think the idea of being "in the middle of it" is actually one that would resonate with many people. Success will always be a relative ideal; that realization should encourage people to accept that it should not only be a personal ideal, but one that changes with time and circumstances. I look forward to reading more about your book as the manuscript grows and reading the whole thing when it is done! Go, Hope, Go!

    1. Thanks for your comment, Victoria. Like Michael's above, I missed it somehow. I apologize.
      I'm so appreciative of my audience! I find when I expose my worries, people relate. It's kind of scary, but it seems to resonate when I do. So I will share the book travails along the way.