The room was large enough to seat hundreds but there was only one more person I was seeking. I headed to the left until I spotted her name on the table. She was checking her phone. I breathed deeply and composed myself. My mind was stilled and all I could see was her blonde head. As soon as I approached, she gave me a welcoming smile, then spoke my name. As I would at any important interview, I held out my hand and returned the favor.
But it wasn’t an ordinary interview, not the sort that might land me a nice job. It was a pitch, which essentially is a sales pitch of a writer’s book. I was attending Willamette Writers Conference for the third time; she was literary agent number five.
It had once more taken me weeks of rumination and a couple of days of intensive, systematic work to prepare a two paragraph summary of an entire plot. It had to interest her enough that her eyes would not glaze over and her mind wander. Enough that she would ask for pages to read.
I had finally boiled it down to a few choice sentences that introduce the two protagonists, Sophia and Cal, what they need and what they had to rise above to get it. That wasn’t impossible, just challenging. I know my characters so well after years of writing and revising that they live their lives vividly in my waking and dreaming. Sophia is a dancer and choreographer who stops speaking when her husband, a respected biologist, drowns one night in a lake near the village of Snake Creek. But no one knows what really happened except one witness, her dog. Cal is a successful photojournalist who returns to Snake Creek after his friend and mentor disappears in the Amazon jungle. He has lost the desire to take photographs, and lost himself in his risk-taking, globe-trotting lifestyle. Then he runs into Sophia crossing the street.
So, I tell this to the open-faced, encouraging woman sitting across from me, but with the quiet passion I feel for this story. For it isn’t just about two people who meet and become catalysts for change. It is about dreams lost and found, about the power of speaking the truth. It is about domestic violence and addiction and the myriad ways people can and do recover and heal from great loss. It was written in part because I believe that trauma and the resultant grief and pain one feels does not need to defeat people, or stop them from living happier, fulfilled lives. Instead, a process of reinvention can occur through creative activities, spiritual nourishment, and the balm of nature’s wisdom. Connection to a caring community can become a lifeline, a safety net. And forgiveness happens even though the world tends to believe justice is often tied to revenge. The justice that Sophia and Cal discover rises up from courage and compassion.
But I don’t have time to say all this. She asks me some questions and I fill in a few details, climactic scenes. And then she asks: “Why this? What qualifies you to write about these subjects?” So I tell her. It is my life work; my specialty is working with women and men who have been beaten down, even brutalized, and seek relief in alcohol, drugs and other addictions. And I have seen them get better, stronger and even laugh again.
I want to say: I, too, have been there. I know how the dark can make you blind or grant you night vision if you choose to learn and adapt, and how the faintest glimmers of light finally bring you to your feet and out of the maze of misery. But I am too circumspect and this is not the place for this, perhaps.
So I say: we all suffer. No one is immune to sorrow and rage over life and what it can bring. And yet we usually go on. It is worth writing about.
I only have ten minutes and time is running out. Still, we are suddenly talking about books we like, authors we admire, and when the timekeeper comes by, the agent with the soft smile and clear blue eyes gives me her card which I look over as she asks for twenty-five pages.
“I am intrigued,” she says, “so I want to read more. If I like those pages, I will request the whole manuscript.”
So, I left with excitement and joy in my heart, right? Not so. I left with a sense of one tiny step forward. I have gotten this far before and nothing came of it. I have submitted many stories, poems, and creative non-fiction over the years; a handful have been published. Every writer knows that it is a crap shoot, that what an editor or agent likes is likely to be something other than what you have to offer.
But this novel is another thing. I have worked on it for twelve years, in between and around other projects. After getting home from ten long hours of paid work, at night, with dinner plate by the computer. On my days off. When sick and tired. It has undergone at least ten revisions. It is still too long. I always see something that can be improved. But I do not tire of Sophia and Cal and their lives in the woods surrounding Ring Lake. Or of the village of Snake Creek, the residents’ adventures, failures and triumphs.
So why, a week after the conference, do I sit here and write a blog post instead of further cleaning up the manuscript and sending it off happily? Because it is still mine as I examine and savor it again. It speaks to me as an old companion. It came from a place deep within, where what really matters to me lives free. I have cut and tossed out parts many times, a word here, a paragraph there, using the sharp knife of a rational mind, trying to make it shine even more. I have worked with other writers for months who have given excellent feedback. But it may not be excellent enough yet. It may fail to inspire the agent enough that she has to know what really happens to Sophia and Cal and the village that shields secrets while designing hope for the future.
So there is it: in my hands this novel’s life is still safe. Once sent out into the world of the publishing business, it may falter, even sink. As I write this post, there are wraiths of doubt slinking around the edges of this novel. There is still my lack of ironclad belief that someone will read it and be glad of it, then help it arrive in print.
It seems part of the creative life, this terrible self-doubt that arrives despite hard work and denial of it. But no risk, no gain is one of the elementary rules of life learned and I know it to be true. We just keep creating. Besides, if the story was enough to keep me writing all these years, it surely will be enough for someone, some day, to take a chance on it.
I will get down to business this week-end and scrutinize the first twenty-five pages to make certain they are the very best I have to offer. Finally, I will send them off while I start work on a short story. Or a poem. A new novel. In fact, I look forward to being taken on a new journey with yet-unknown characters who are searching for something that remains hidden from me only until I place words on a clean sheet of paper. There is just no greater task–and joy–if writing is in your blood.