Unconventional Revision: MFA vs. Therapy

1.
For emerging writers, often the advice is “find your voice,” but it’s hard to know what that actually means. In the mid 2000s, I began seeking therapy for anxiety and depression, and my doctor gave me writing assignments: He’d ask me to fictionalize events in my real life that had been painful as a way to reframe the narratives. He’d also ask me to write happy endings or to write myself as the person I wanted to become, rather than the person I currently was.

Most writers are familiar with journaling, and many writers are familiar with writing in order to process. By the time I was in treatment, I already had an MFA—and with that came significant revision experience. But my therapy assignments dug deeper than anything I would have ever been willing to share in grad school workshops, and one of them became my first published work, another the opening story to my debut collection, and another the genesis for a novel. But before that, I was just another person on a psychiatrist’s couch.

2.

“I read this article,” I tell my psych, Dr. D., “About people who eat their own hair, and while it sounds pretty, uh, terrifying, I also wonder if it’s better to have a specific problem?”

“Sure,” he says, “Could be trichotillomania, or could be pica. Maybe something else. It’s not so scary if it’s what you need, by the way. Everyone has their own ways of coping.”

My doc actually wasn’t all that into diagnosis, or at least if he was, he wasn’t doing it with me. He prescribed me antidepressants, and when I said I wasn’t comfortable with the idea of taking a pill every day, he dismissed me, telling me that at some point, I’d want to flush the scrip, but for now, fill it. He reminded me that I had told him I was taking a regular antihistamine.

So, I filled it. That was at a time in my life when I also bought way too much makeup, because I was frequently wandering the aisles of Bartell’s while the pharmacy filled my Zoloft or Wellbutrin or Claritin or birth control. I would wait for my name to be called through the loudspeaker, and then go up to the counter with a jumble of lash extending mascara, pots of eye cream and face powder, and maybe something practical, toothpaste or bandages, a packet of dish sponges or a box of trash can liners.

I was trying. The pharmacy tech would ring up my purchases along with my script. I was lucky enough to have health insurance, so the ancillary products were usually more than my copay.

When I pushed Dr. D. again, a few weeks later, he pulled out his Diagnosis and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders and thumbed to some page about unattached anxiety ­­­­and slid it across the floor from his upright seat to my reclined couch.

“Does that make you feel better?” he asked.

“No,” I said, because it didn’t.

I flipped the manual closed and looked at his huge collection of Legos. He sometimes saw children, I knew, but it wasn’t just the children who played with the Legos. When I asked him once why he had so very many baskets of Legos, he said that he wanted to see what people would build if they were not restricted by their materials. “What do they make?” I asked. “A lot of things,” he said. “But, mostly houses with no windows and no doors.”

3.

“I read this thing,” I say to Dr. D. “About how people who are diagnosed with terminal illness experience manic productivity, how it reorganizes their life.”

At this point, outside of Dr. D.’s writing prompts, I’d really not written anything in years. His exercises were the only connection I had to the page, and my reading was confined to magazines. Though I had always loved novels, story collections, and sprawling autobiographies, I didn’t have, at the time, the concentration for anything over a couple thousand words.

“Sure,” he says. “That happens.”

In the same session, I read one of the assignments: to write about my body. I share a story about a girl who is knit together with bird feathers and beeswax, with a hybrid heart cobbled from bits of offal bound by fired clay and wrapped in rags. How the parents of this girl are present at her making, along with the potter and the forge worker and the weaver and the glassblower, and the local seamstress who stitches it all together at no charge.

Reading those old paragraphs now, it’s not hard to identify the ache I had and the feeling of deep disconnection from everyday life paired with blood connection to my folks. I probably spent a dozen hours on those two pages, trying to translate the idea from brain to paper.

On a creaky old sofa, my creaky old doctor offers me an affirmation.

“Good,” he says. “That’s good.”

4.
The thing is, the experience I had with mental health services was actually ultimately positive.

“Dr. D?,” I ask. “You must have had patients who have suicided, right?”

He pauses. “It’s part of the work I do.”

To be clear, while many times I wanted to disappear, I never wanted to die. I tell Dr. D. this. I ask him if I’m not suicidal, do I really need to be in weekly therapy. I’m being disingenuous. Even I know that there is a large difference between sad and jumping, and I’m somewhere deep in the middle.

“You tell me,” he says. “You came here on your own.”

5.

The final sentences I take to Dr. D. are much more fully formed than anything else I have brought to his office. Structured in three parts, I think it’s the best thing I have written in my life to date. I feel the same way I felt when I handed in my master’s thesis, scared and tentatively proud.

We only have enough time for me to read through the first part before we need to move onto the insurance-covered portions of our session, which turns out to be our last. Dr. D. says he thinks that I should stay in talk therapy, but we’ve done all we can do together. And I haven’t yet flushed the meds, but I’m feeling close.

I actually don’t think he’s wrong, but I’m terrified to seek out a new therapist and highly concerned about finding someone who respects my writing life in the same way. This feels critical in a way I hadn’t known before.

A month later, I print out the same pages on clean paper and mail it to a handful of lit mags. A week later Howard Junker leaves a message on my answering machine. He says ZYZZYVA will publish me if I rewrite a bit. “Put it in the first person,” Junker says. “Bring the narrative in closer.” He is right, as editors often are.

I do the rewrite and the piece runs. I get my contributor copies. I read my own bound work, silently, to myself, when it arrives in the mail.

I don’t have a new therapist yet, just a prescription with two refills and too much eyeshadow I will never wear.

I don’t know yet that it will take me another decade to publish my slim debut, don’t know that two novels will follow relatively immediately.

Of those patients who built Lego structures of houses with no windows and no doors, of course, I was one, though I put a porch on my house, a little space to walk up, a place to knock. I can’t say now if that was hope or hubris or the memory of the back deck on my childhood home where in the dead heat of summer my brother and I used to drag our mattresses out to so we could sleep in the cool high-country air.

What I finally understand is that I could have never shown up to a traditional writing workshop with the same bag of guts, no way I could have shaped that rawness into narrative if I were revising while receiving group feedback from under the “cone of silence,” a tenant of some writing workshops where the person being workshopped may not speak while their work is being discussed. While I value my MFA immensely, it was a lesson in craft and the academic practice of art; therapy was a lesson in starting to understand why I wanted to write in the first place and how to use art to excavate ideas and feelings that had been buried.

Now, my novel, If the Ice Had Held, has just come out, and for someone who has always been a pretty good sleeper, I am waking up in the middle of the night, worrying about what reviewers will say and have said, which really has mostly been kind. I’m worrying about how the sales will be; I’m worrying about people in my life who might recognize parts of themselves in my work—it’s fiction, the book is not thinly or otherwise disguised memoir, but it’s still informed by my own experience—because my writing both before and after therapy has always been a way to surface and process internal life. This book feels personal in a different way than my others. It feels more public. It feels more colored by the time I spent on Dr. D.’s sofa, trying to parse through murky recollections and the way that memory shifts over time. How he would say some version of, “It doesn’t matter what actually happened. It matters how you feel about it now,” and I would think, But I want facts!, even though I knew that’s not how life works.

Fiction is like that as well: it’s about emotional truth rather than the reporting of a timeline or the transcribed recording of an event. Perhaps learning to negotiate plot and structure and the scaffolding of a novel while tackling loss, secrets, and the things that prevent us from caring for one another—in other words, part of what sent me to therapy in the first place—is what finding my voice has been all about.

Image credit: Aaron Burden.

Literary Citizenship: How to Handle Rejection and Nurture Emerging Voices

Around Christmas, LitHub put up their round-up of The Most-Rejected Books of All Time (Of Those That Were Eventually Published), and the literary Internet chimed in—I chimed in, too, sharing that my forthcoming novel had been rejected 98 times.

The reality of rejection is not a new topic for lit mags or bookish media, and what often follows these articles is the chorus of authors who have had some kind of publishing success, or, in my case (and in the cases of countless others like me), at least enough success to feel comfortable sharing about rejection and to be able to conceptualize it as a pathway to print.

However, without a book or two, or at least a string of magazine appearances, those rejection numbers, whether it’s nine or 19 or 98, feel less like a badge of honor. I certainly wouldn’t have shared my number if my manuscript were not under contract. In fact, I had a higher number for my first novel, and I never talked about it frankly until the book was out. I also didn’t talk about how one agent wrote to me and said they could maybe sell it if I made the main character male instead of female. And I didn’t discuss the angry rejections I got—because my protagonist was so “unlikable”—I just kept trying to place it. As Roxane Gay has written, on Twitter and elsewhere, it’s important to not let rejection be validation.

While it’s true that writers absolutely must believe in their own work, must try to cultivate a thick skin, must be polite to editors (please, please be polite to editors), rejection and everything that comes with it—doubt, disappointment, demoralization—is real, and if we care about cultivating new voices, we must ask how we, as a community, can do better than patting ourselves on the back for our own moxie.

For all of the happy endings born of multiple rejections, I know there are writers out there with very good, even breakthrough stories and manuscripts who have given up at 20, or 50, or 97, just as there are writers who scraped together $30 dollars for a contest, and were not selected and who do not have the funds to apply again.

Recently, a writer emailed me and said she had been rejected a handful of times for her YA novel. I told her, nicely, I thought, that until she got to 100, she should get over it. She didn’t write me back.

I’ve said this so many times, to so many aspiring writers, this “100 rejections” thing. I’ve said it on panels. I’ve said it in workshops. I’ve said it in topical conversations and casual ones. I said it at a pizza place during a birthday party for a cousin when I was talking about having a day job.

I keep thinking about this. Emerging writers already know how hard it is. Shouldn’t we, instead of continuing the “tough it out” conversation, be more transparent about our own experiences and challenges?

(I’m not naïve about my particular contribution to this conversation—but four years ago, which is not so long, before my first book, I was just another writer in the slush. I never considered that I’d stop writing, but I did start to believe I would never have my own name on my own spine.)

Perhaps it’s better to make a different point, like about how unpredictable writing can be. For example, my most-read work to date is not the stories I worked on for over a decade, it’s not the novel I spent eight years on, it’s a guest post I dashed off about how many books don’t sell.

Or, how once, I had a story accepted in a print publication because I guess they liked it well enough but mostly they needed a very specific word count for their layout. I know this because the editor told me. I’m not really sure why he told me. I’m not sure what I was supposed to do with this information. It’s a decent magazine, and I submitted because I had read it, so now it’s there on my publication list with everything else.

A few weeks ago on the Brevity blog, Allison K. Williams wrote about literary citizenship and the value we get from helping others alongside imploring writers to do their homework. Learn the business she says, because it is a business.

There’s certainly no obligation to share trusted contacts or make introductions to friendlies, and we don’t have to offer guidance towards specific publication outlets: it’s old, old advice, but writers should get a sense of who their targets are via their reading habits.

Still, in terms of the woman who wrote to me, I could have encouraged instead of being blasé. I could have asked her how she was targeting her submissions, as careful targeting will cut down on heartbreak. I could have asked her any number of questions that were supportive rather than dismissive. I could have sent her a link to a success story, instead of trotting out the 100 rejections narrative again.

If nothing else, I certainly could have been much more transparent about how it has felt, collecting so many rejections. I will always believe that it’s foolish to give up at only three or four, but it takes some real time to get to 100 or beyond. It can take literal years. I could have shared how much it is a drain trying to stay positive for myself even if I am not always positive externally. I could have shared how I keep all the rejections in an alphabetized card file so I can look at them and remind myself that I am actually doing tangible work, not just moving pixels around on a screen.

I could have shared about how I talk sometimes to writer friends about re-imaging rejection as “reminder”—how when a publication or press or an agent declines, it’s just a nudge to submit again, elsewhere.

It’s a nice idea, in theory. In practice, it’s a lot of trips to the post office or a lot of time on Submittable. It’s also, as far as I can tell, the only way to get there.

If I had read the LitHub article before I had a book, I would have thought, Well, that’s nice for them to be finally published, what about the rest of us. We all know it’s hard to make a living as a writer, yet when I received the largest sum I’d ever been paid for a single essay or story, I didn’t share about this, because it was a kill fee. That’s something other writers should know. Again, it’s an unpredictable business. Any of us who have been doing it for a while have pages of anecdotes like this, though as authors in the contemporary landscape, we’re told to develop our platform, to promote ourselves, to broadcast our wins, not announce our letdowns.

Perhaps the most transparent thing to say to emerging writers is to be open. Listen to the overworked editors who have taken time to offer a sentence or two of feedback—yours is one of hundreds if not thousands of submissions; it’s a big deal to get even nominal comments. And listen if you keep getting the same kind of observations; I definitely did not rewrite my first novel so that the protagonist was male instead of female, but I did rework it, several times, and while the main character isn’t more “likeable,” it’s absolutely a better book for this effort.

You don’t have to get numb to rejection, and you don’t have to accept that it’s always going to be the default response. You should certainly never feel ashamed by it.

If you believe in your work and you push yourself to make it better, if you’ve researched your markets, if you are an active reader, if you are paying attention to what editors ask for, your work will find a home. Maybe you’ll have to endure the 100 rejections scenario, but I really hope not.

When you do get there, shout your wins, but don’t forget to be transparent—for instance, this essay has been through 11 drafts, and I’m still not sure it’s quite right—and loud enough in sharing your failures so that emerging voices can hear you.

Image Credit: Flickr/Judith E. Bell.