Friday, October 29, 2010
Wednesday, October 27, 2010
Shakespeare fans, listen up-- Get Thee to a Cemetery! And don't wait. You have only this weekend and next weekend to see Justin Scalise deliver a stunning performance as the mad (or is he?) Prince of Denmark. I've had the pleasure of seeing Scalise in numerous Shakespeare productions over the years-- in fact, knowing he plays the lead was what convinced me to see the show. You see, while I try to catch as much Shakespeare as possible, sometimes my schedule is crazier than the bereaved prince, and I regrettably can't see every play that is staged. Last weekend was quite possibly my busiest of the year (three weddings, some writing deadlines, another show to review). But I didn't care. I knew, going in, I was in for something wonderful and so I made the time. What an excellent choice on my part: Scalise exceeded my expectations and then some.
Where to start? Okay, how about this-- Hamlet, presented by Black Star Events, is being staged by torchlight in Boggy Creek Cemetery, under a huge old tree. (The night I went the moon was just about full, an added touch.) "Staged" isn't precisely the right word, as the stage is comprised of several rugs on ground level. We were encouraged to sit as close as we like and my group sat so close we could have touched the performers (I restrained myself). Let me fast forward for a second and say that afterwards, I emailed Scalise to thank him for his stunning work and to offer an apology. Since my "seat" was a blanket, I reclined and then I reclined some more until I was lying down, propped up on my elbow, like a kid watching TV. In my note, I worried that maybe this seemed to suggest a lack of reverence or a hint of boredom (neither true). Scalise wrote back and made a great point that set my mind at ease: "I think it creates a better, more open energy between actors and audience when everyone can feel free to just relax and enjoy themselves."
How true. You should've seen the crowd sprawled in the cemetery, watching with rapt attention. I had one of those moments I have pretty regularly in this town: We are SO lucky to live in Austin where innovative theater happens all the time.
Getting back to the show. One thing I love about Shakespeare is that in writing about a show I can break my anti-spoiler rule. The material has been playing long enough-- 400+ years-- that most everyone knows the story by now. Hamlet's wicked uncle Claudius knocks off Hamlet's dad (also Hamlet) and seizes both the throne and widow of the dead dude. Hamlet's son goes bonkers, or at least everyone thinks he goes bonkers, and plots revenge. This play has got it all-- a ghost, a sword fight, a doomed love between Hamlet and Ophelia, endless family dysfunction. In fact there's so much drama it makes The Jersey Shore seem like Mary Poppins by comparison.
Another thing I love about Shakespeare is that I have this sort of Bard Amnesia. Doesn't matter how many times I see a show, upon leaving a lot of the details slip away. Like the goldfish swimming past the plastic castle every time I see it again, I'm surprised anew. (Though I have to say that this performance is so great it seems to be burned in my memory now.) And also, this other thing happens for me at Shakespeare. Let's call it the Ye Olde Elvis Costello Effect. Even though I have listened to countless EC records hundreds of times, once in awhile a line will jump out at me that I never heard before, like some secret treasure I overlooked for, say 30 years. Same with Shakespeare, in particular Hamlet, which has so many famous lines in it that even if you never saw it performed you'd recognize much of the writing. (Infinite Jest? Check. Cruel to be Kind? Check. To Be or Not to Be? Check.) This time around, a line surfaced for me that I didn't recall from past performances, and I love it: "Cudgel thy brains no more about it, for your dull ass will not mend his pace with beating."
Getting back to Scalise. Look, I knew going in the man has a passion for Shakespeare that's palpable. He isn't playing the role of Hamlet here-- Scalise IS Hamlet. I mean, he fully embodies the Prince. It's like he's channeling or something. I wish I could describe it better but honestly you have got to see this performance to believe it.
Let me not neglect the rest of the cast here. Many, many wonderful performances are turned in. And if I didn't have to leave for my day job in about five minutes, I'd give you a detailed list. I do want to give a specific shout out to Chuck Ney, who is magnificent in the role of Polonius, father of Ophelia. And the players-- the group that shows up to perform a play within the play-- are so deft and hilarious, particularly in the scene where they are marketing their skills to Hamlet, that I was beside myself.
Y'all? I know this coming weekend is Halloween and doubtless you have bazillions of plans and invites. I suggest you take your party with you to the cemetery. I mean this show is super freaking fantastic. Get there early, as we did, and Dale Flatt, who is in charge of the cemetery, will take you on a really cool tour. Kudos to him for understanding the vision of Scalise-- whose idea it was to stage Hamlet in the cemetery. And kudos all around-- to Director Andrew Matthews, all the folks behind the scenes, and, again, to the wonderful players who have lovingly brought this Hamlet to life.
Oct. 21 – Nov. 6
Thursdays - Saturdays at 7:30 PM
Boggy Creek Cemetery
Circle S Rd. & Dittmar Rd.
Austin, TX 78745
$15 - $35 sliding scale admission
$12 for seniors, students, teachers, APD, AFD and military.
$10 each for groups of 15 or more.
*Ticket purchased at the event are cash only.
Tuesday, October 19, 2010
Saturday, October 16, 2010
When the ZACH Scott folks invited me to see Dave Steakley’s take on RENT, which is currently playing on the Kleberg Stage, I had mixed feelings. I love Dave’s vision and am always thrilled with his directorial choices. But RENT? I’d seen the traveling production of the show earlier this year at Bass and while I didn’t flat out hate it, it hardly grabbed me. There were times – more than a few—that the Bass show felt really dated, too over-the-top (I know, I know, it’s a Broadway musical, Spike—by definition over-the-top.) I let my love of Dave’s work overrule any trepidation I had about seeing the show again, and so soon, and accepted the invite. I’m sure glad I made the choice.
Before I drill down here and drone on with my thoughts about RENT’s writing, lyrics, and the test of time it presents, let me talk specifically about what works in the ZACH production. Yet again, we have further proof that this city is crawling with magnificent talent. RENT is cast marvelously, with strong performances delivered across the board. I think ensemble pieces are such tricky business and performers have to walk that fine line between what surely must be a desire to standout and something more crucial to the show’s success: keeping balance among the group.
They did it, they really did it— John Pointer as Roger, Andrew Cannata as Mark, Roderick Sanford as Tom Collins, Steve Williams as Benjamin, Kristen Bennett as Joanne, Joshua Denning as Angel, Verity Branco as Mimi, Ginger Leigh as Maureen, and Lara Wright (in several roles.) (Note: The night I saw the show Verity Branco stood in for Karma Stewart as Mimi and gave no clue that she was an understudy—she totally delivered.) They sang and danced their hearts out, and the casting choices are excellent.
While the show’s success at ZACH owes so much to these excellent performers, something else really made it work. Steakely tapped Michael Raiford for set design and Raiford is to be commended for transforming the entire theatre into the performance space. RENT takes place mostly in a loft in NYC, but sometimes the action moves outdoors. Because the theatre is small, and because Raiford utilizes areas beyond the actual stage, we the audience feel like we are in the loft ourselves and also on the streets of NYC. This, I think, is the major differentiator between the Bass version and the ZACH version. The former, by virtue of being presented in a massive space, did not convey intimacy. ZACH’s production offers attendees a chance to feel like they’re roommates of the characters.
Particularly of note is a pyramid of old TVs that dominate the loft and are used during certain scenes to beautifully underscore and enhance points in time, convey deep emotions, and even create a sense of season. Steakely’s timing is so impeccable that he does not overuse this device, though the temptation must have been there. Thus when images do flash across the screen, it’s powerful—we don’t get desensitized as we might if he over-employed the screens.
Which brings me to content. Part of what makes RENT feel dated – which has nothing to do with the ZACH show and everything to do with how fast things have changed since it was written— is that it occurs back in the early days of HIV/AIDS. Though it’s not like AIDS is some conquered, yesteryear plague that we can safely ignore— hardly— it is true that the disease has been around long enough, and been in the news often enough, that knowledge of it is common. Does the specter of AIDS still invoke rampant homophobia in some quarters? Absolutely. But, for example, I consider myself at 19, when AIDS was first emerging and was new and terrifying and entirely blamed on the gay community. And I vividly remember all the attendant turmoil of that—the finger pointing, the protests against the finger pointing. Then I think of my son— now 19— and his peers and I realize that AIDS has been around longer than he has been alive, and that these kids have grown up knowing about it and that many of them have had information delivered by parents and educators that my generation never could have dreamed of hearing about from conventional sources.
This got me thinking hard during and after the show, which follows the lives of several friends and lovers, young people struggling with art and AIDS and the landscape of youth trying to “make it” in the Big City. Two of the three couples happen to be gay. Oh, and there’s the payphone. Now, a payphone might seem like a minor thing, given the major themes of RENT. But bear with me as I try to explain how very important this phone is to the show, not only as a device of catalyst that sets the story in motion, but as a brilliant sign o’ the times.
Because the show was written and debuted before a lot of our current technology was widely available (cell phones, home computers, Internet, wifi)— but with society on the cusp of these things, the buzz of them in the air— the phone also serves as a symbol of how the old school is soon going to give way to something new. Further underscoring this—Tom Collins is a “computer genius,” which, in ’94, was saying something.
Okay, here’s where I attempt to tie together gay relationships and pay phones. Listening to some of the dialogue and the lyrics (which at times are pretty fucking sappy), it’s really easy to slip into that feeling I had when I saw RENT at Bass—this thing is dated, it’s not really working for me. But seeing it at ZACH, feeling a much deeper intimacy conveyed by being so close to the actors, and by having the actors do such a great job, it dawned on me. RENT, done right as it is here, is more like a time capsule than a dated work. It’s a glimpse into the none-too-distant past (a time that happens to coincide with my own bohemian youth, which means that scenes such as Maureen’s performance art piece, plus all the sleeping around, not to mention the endless parade of groovy tights the characters wear really take me back to the good-old-punk days in which I came of age).
What struck me most is this: I’m sitting in a well-appointed, well-endowed theatre that attracts an audience that likely includes a lot of folks who shower on a regular basis, have day jobs, mortgages, and sundry other trappings of conventionality plus the ability to pay for not cheap play tickets. These people are old and young, black and white, gay and straight. And that’s when it clicked for me.
Here we all are, enjoying this story, some rabid fans having seen it enough times that they are lip-synching the lyrics. But no one is batting an eye at the fact that two out of three romances are man/man and woman/woman. They aren’t affronted in the least by Angel, a drag queen. If anything, they might be wondering—where the hell did ZACH get their hands on a payphone?
Which is to say that if RENT was cutting edge when it first played Broadway—if people went to see it because it portrayed characters, themes, and a disease that were at the time utterly foreign and marginal— it’s anything but that today. And that is not a bad thing. It’s an incredibly good thing. It’s an amazing thing.
Look, I’ve been a fag hag for more than half my life. My son was raised, in great part, by a group I like to call the Wild Pack of Gay Men. I used to joke that if the kid had to come to me when he was sixteen and break it to me that he’s straight, I’d still love him, no matter what. But I was ahead of the curve on that one—not alone, not by a long shot, and I had plenty of good company in this liberal city of ours. But overwhelmingly, a mere twenty years ago, the fear and ignorance around being gay was horrifying to most people.
Sadly, the gay thing remains politically charged in too many places around the country and around the globe. Look at the headlines—the gay kid that just jumped off a bridge a few weeks ago after being taunted by his roommate. All the gay kids who still feel ostracized, who stay in the closet, who live in fear, who hate themselves. Gays who are imprisoned for trying to live out of the closet in countries where being gay is illegal—as if.
Oh we have such a long way to go and it makes me so sad that we are this ass-backward, even now, in 2010. And yet, though progress is painfully slow, still there is some progress. Forget about cell phones and emails for a minute and think about this: lots of people who maybe couldn’t wrap their heads around the whole gay thing in 1994 are now paying money to see a musical with AIDS at its center. (There were a couple of really old women in the front row and I spent a good part of the evening watching their faces for signs of distress or disapproval thinking surely they must have been raised to think all this stuff was “wrong.” I found no sign of distress, just joyful immersion in the show.)
There are all sorts of reasons to see RENT at ZACH. As I suspected he would, DS once again takes a well-loved show and makes it his own, makes it fresh, reinvigorates it. There are more than a few moments that are utterly poignant, in particular those exploring the dynamics between the lesbian couple and the gay couple, though these dynamics aren’t hinged at all on their sexuality—the straightest audience in the world could relate easily to the struggles of these couples because such struggles are universal to all of us
For me, one of the most gripping moments of all came in the instant that that old SILENCE = DEATH logo flashed across all those TV screens. I was transported back to when that slogan first arrived on the scene (Wikipedia suggests 1987). How radical that was back then. How true it remains today. And that is the political importance of RENT—it continues to speak, doesn’t fade away, won’t be silent. In the end, any parts of the original dialogue and lyrics that tempted me toward an eye roll were supplanted by this overriding message, summed up so succinctly and starkly—at once silent and screaming— in that message on all those screens, all a part of Steakley’s grand vision.
So thanks, Dave. You made me see the beauty in RENT. Another stunning feat.
Tuesday, October 12, 2010
Saturday, October 9, 2010
Tuesday, October 5, 2010
I just wanted to share these images and stories in a short video to help spread the word about this small nonprofit run entirely by volunteers. CTDR.org is having financial troubles due to the increasing number of dogs they’ve rescued in recent weeks. I’m trying to raise a few dollars so CTDR can continue helping dachshunds in need.
Watch. Share. Give if you can ... Even a $5 donation would help tremendously. Because CTDR has no labor costs, your contribution will go directly to provide food, shelter, and medical care for rescued animals.
Here’s the link to the video:
And here’s a direct link to my fundraising page where you can make a donation to CTDR:
Sunday, October 3, 2010
Okay, last night's boo-hoo session (scroll down to see that post) is officially over. It was nice to get all that off my chest. Equally-- nay, more nice-- was today's adventure in Radical Homemaking. I strived to not make a To Do list for the weekend, since To Do lists, while very helpful, also typically enslave me. I did wind up writing down just a few things, but these I scrawled on the back of a business card, sort of like "this is a small list on a small piece of paper so it is of small consequence if you ignore it."
Saturday, October 2, 2010
Many moons ago, I used to be part of Austin’s slam poetry community. While there were and still are many incredible slam poets, one thing I got really sick of was slam poetry about slam poetry. I mention this simply to call out my own hypocrisy, as sometimes I simply can’t resist writing about writing. There’s nothing original about this. I think some of us who visit the territory at least try to rationalize the self-indulgence by suggesting we are hoping to offer great insight to those wondering about the writing life and/or to commiserate with so many other writers who have also experienced the less pleasant side of trying to “make it” as a writer.
I think I’ll skip the rationalization here and just say that what follows is a cathartic rant, but not one without some bright points. This week was especially “writerly” for me, beginning with a rejection letter on Monday from an agent who said no thanks to my new novel using some pretty classic rejection letter techniques. In short, at least to my eyes, her message read, “I love your writing, I hate your book.” (Do agents have a secret handbook to which they refer called Don’t Call Us, We’ll Call You: Discouraging Writers With Rejection Letters that Include the Occasional Confusing Compliment Couched in an Otherwise Heartbreaking Send Off?)
The week ended – work-wise anyway— a couple of hours ago with me pronouncing a young couple married. I count this as part of my writing life since it does involve words on the page, some written by me, some cribbed from outside sources. I also count it because this side wedding business of mine largely supports my other writing— i.e. the stuff I’m passionate about but more often than not doesn’t pay shit.
Before I tell you about the middle of the week, a quick aside about money and writing: some— perhaps many— of us writers will lie and say we don’t do it for the money. That’s not necessarily a total lie. If I never made another cent off of my words, I’m positive I’d still keep hammering away at the keyboard. Writing is a compulsion for me, like breathing, to use a tired but apt simile. I’ve been doing it since I first learned how to put words together and, though my plan is to be cremated, I can’t help but sometimes imagine a tombstone bearing my name, one that is inscribed with a few last thoughts I’ve composed, my final written offering to the world. (Currently I’m leaning toward: Skinny At Last.) Still, at some point pretty early on (19 to be precise) I began receiving payment for my writing, prompting a sort of ongoing Pavlovian scenario in which I have come to hope/expect that my sentences will result in a check somewhere down the line.
The Pavlovian comparison loses steam however, when I stop to actually consider how much of my work has netted income and how much has not. When I do this, I’m left switching to what I learned in therapy about Random Rewards. Something about how certain lab rats learn to press a button, which sometimes leads to a pellet being released. Other times? Nada. Unfortunately, the rat never seems to figure it out and just keeps punching that button over and over and over until it dies or goes insane waiting for a reward that may never come. (In therapy I actually examined Random Rewards to scrutinize many of my dismal relationships with men but it works just as well to examine my relationships with editors and publishers.)
So yeah, I want money for my writing. Try as I might, I have yet to figure out how to use rocks and shells for currency and to operate inside of our society— that is, to keep roof, food, utilities, and travel in my life— I need cold hard cash. Sure, I write for the passion of it. But don’t think for a minute that the notion of a potential paycheck isn’t lurking around the nearest corner. Toward that end, I’ve done okay for myself – not phenomenally well but enough to stay afloat— in large part because early on I readily adopted a whoring attitude. In the name of professional writing I’ve taken work describing thousands of calendars, creating white papers about document management for Google, ghost writing, and cranking out more mindless women’s magazine articles—including one of those classic I Lost Fifty Pounds pieces replete with before and after pictures—than I can count.
I’ve also been a columnist, an essayist, a professional blogger, and—ring the bell, people— author of six published books, eight if you count two textbooks I wrote (which I don’t). Considering the original goal was to get one book published before dying, that’s not too shoddy. The cumulative income of these books, written over the course of eleven years, doesn’t add up to much, even if you do count the textbooks. I can therefore state with authority what so many others have stated before me. Writing is, for the vast majority of us, not a quick (or even slow) way to the high life. Still, I’ve gotten by, raised a kid, met a lot of interesting profile subjects, and gone on some pretty amazing all-expenses-paid assignments (including snowboarding camp for a week). So if you asked me if– knowing what I know now— I would go back and pick a more stable and financially rewarding career, I can also state with authority: No. I would not.
Okay: middle of the week. I taught two adult writing workshops and four kids’ writing classes. I used to have some trepidation about this teaching stuff, feeling at times fraudulent presenting myself as a writing teacher. I’m not actually sure you can teach writing, at least not in a rote fashion. Once I said to an acquaintance that I thought my ability to write was a gift. He took great offense, thinking I was suggesting I have some special powers that others cannot access through hard work, that either you have it or you don’t, and therefore I must believe myself somehow “better” than these “lesser” beings. In fact, my statement was an attempt at humility. As in, “I can’t take total credit for the success I’ve had and actually, though I can see how some of it might be connected to hard work, honestly I have no idea where this ability to write came from.”
These days when I am in front of a class I feel a little less fraudulent. I’m still not sure I can teach others to write. But what I’m sure I can do is give people permission to write, to help them get the inner critic to shut up for a little while, and to offer a little cheerleading. Some might dismiss the latter as blowing smoke up ass in exchange for cash. I beg to differ. Overwhelmingly our society sets us up to think we need permission— little children are told “no” repeatedly from an early age. And they are also told what they may do and when they may do it. This continues into the school years and then, for many, into the workplace. The ubiquity of “no” coupled with an insistence that there are rules that must be followed stymies and stifles. We wind up wallowing in thinking we can’t do this or that, or that we aren’t allowed, or that we aren’t good enough, and that trying is going to lead to failure and failure will yield ridicule.
So I cheerlead. I don’t do this to mislead students into thinking I believe they are fated to pen some novel on par with the Russian greats. I do it in hopes of getting them to relax into it, to stop worrying what others think, and to stop thinking they can’t. I tell them that maybe they will decide, in the end, they really can’t write, or shouldn’t write, or don’t want to write. All of which are fine. I applaud them for at least trying. And I know that some of them will keep trying, will be unable to stop trying, will also suffer/enjoy the compulsion to write. My courses are like appetizers: taste this prompt, try this approach, nibble on the memoir style, see what—if anything—leaves you wanting more.
Now let’s take a look at Friday, shall we? Friday, after teaching all day, I stopped by the house for a moment to let the dogs out for a pee before dashing off to a wedding rehearsal. There on the doorstep was a FedEx box. I knew it was coming but had forgotten. I carried it in, ripped it open. An advance copy of my new book, number six. The cover is very, very pretty. The book weighs about fifty pounds. It’s a massive history of quilts that begins thousands of years ago and continues on through the past year or so. I looked inside to make sure the dedication was there. Then I closed it and put it on the table. I can see it sitting over there. I can’t bring myself to read or even skim it.
Rewind. Summer 1999. An advance copy of my very first book, a memoir, had just arrived. I wept when I saw it. A book. I wrote a book. My dream had come true.
But this latest book— remember what I said about the agent’s rejection letter on Monday? How she seemed to suggest both love and hate in the same space? I should love this new book. I busted my ass writing it. I used over 100 sources, included chapters solicited from experts, and personally amassed something like 400 photos from museums, artists and collectors around the world, a task for which I was not prepared, a task made more daunting by a pathetic budget and an inability to speak more than one language. Along the way, at least three experts— academically trained quilt historians—spewed insults at me when I approached them for help. I think they hated me because they thought I was utterly sans credentials, stepping into territory they had clearly marked as their own. How dare I?
Do you know what it’s like to be called a hack writer by an historian in a microscopic field? To be insulted after laboring over ancient, often barely comprehensible primary sources until your eyes practically bleed? To be mocked for seeking help despite uber-cautiously written query letters, acknowledging one’s own blank slate status and the recipient’s expertise?
Actually, in retrospect it’s pretty fucking hilarious. But in the throes of writing that damn book, it wasn’t funny at all. Nor, for that matter, was my contract. I have to say that I probably would have taken that contract even if I hadn’t been in dire straits because I didn’t know, going in, just how bad the deal was. Sure, I knew the contract was small, but using the creative math system I have invented, and knowing just how fast I can sometimes write, I rationalized that it wasn’t the worst offer in the world. Too, I had just been “let go” of another job I had, let go without notice, and told that $5,000 worth of back pay would not be forthcoming, this while I was in bed recovering from major surgery and in no position to go looking for work for at least a month. Thus, in fact, I was in dire straits.
So I signed on for the project, practically begged for it. Most book contracts come with a royalty clause, which, even if royalties never materialize, at least you can hope, for a while, that they will. Not this time. A work-for-hire project with the distant promise of a small bonus if an ungodly number of units moves, and a second small bonus if a super ungodly number moves. The end. After that, all profit is realized by the publisher and none by the author.
I look at that book, sitting on the table, uncracked, and it says to me: This is what it’s come to. And it also stands as a reminder of other less than savory thoughts. Two weeks ago, I got an email from a source that had, above and beyond all others, provided me with more photos and research materials than any of my other sources. All of this assistance was provided for free, due in great part to a nearly decade-long relationship I had fostered and nurtured with the source. My source required just one thing in return: a chance to preview the book before it went to press, to check for any errors.
It was such a small thing to ask for. A small thing and a smart thing. Because despite my anal tendency to fact check every last detail fourteen times, the sheer quantity of information provided by this source invited at least a few errors. Months ago I sent word to my publisher of the requirement and was assured it would be met.
And then the book went to press. The source never got a copy. And worse, the source found out about the book going to press by my inept book publicist who wrote to the source requesting a publicity favor which, though I will spare you the details, would sort of be like asking the pope to man your bake sale table for a few hours. This reflected very poorly on me, as if I had condoned the publicist’s actions. All this led to a flurry of emails in which I let the publisher know how my relationship with the source was now totally fucked. Not a small thing, as this means I won’t have access to the source for future works. Then I got another note from another source pointing out that the publicist had made a major gaffe in her press release.
What is wrong with these people?
Two of my favorite jokes are favorites not because they are wildly funny, but because they perfectly capture the less savory aspects of my career, and come in mighty handy during times like these. The first involves a plane crashing in the desert, the only survivors a writer and an editor. They crawl through the blazing desert for days and, just as they are about to perish, come upon an oasis. The writer drags himself over and starts slurping down water. The editor staggers to his feet, pulls down his zipper, and pees in the water. “What the FUCK are you doing?” asks the writer. “I’m making it better!” answers the editor.
The other joke is about the guy that cleans up elephant shit at the circus. Night after night he comes home and bitches to his wife about his job. Finally, tired of hearing it, she says, “Then quit your job!” To which he responds, “What? And get out of show business?”
I said there would be bright spots in this rant. For all the bellyaching I do, I take my own whining with a huge grain of salt. I can grumble with the best of them about how the publishing business has gone to hell. I can lament that I never got some “big break I deserve.” I can and I do, but only half-seriously. Because if I trade out the half-empty glass for the half-full one, the bottom line is that I might not be “making it” in the fantasy, bestseller sense of making it, but I am still managing to have an awful lot of fun quite a bit of the time. If it means sometimes having to haul around the shit shovel, then quick, somebody hand me my shovel.
Which brings me back to the recently rejected novel. It’s actually my fourth rejected novel. Curiously, the sting of rejection never lasts too long with my fiction. Some days I think I just have to keep trying. And other days I think the fiction thing is just not my calling. I don’t mean that in a self-pitying way. I mean it in the same way I never got my black belt in Taekwondo. I dropped out two or three tests before achieving that goal but I didn’t care. I learned what I set out to learn: how to kill people with my bare hands and feet. I also learned some other cool stuff like how to walk (or run) away from a threat. I was never going to master the spinning, jumping, double-back kick needed to get that black belt, and in the big picture, that didn’t bother me. I improved myself and I had fun doing it. That was enough.
So maybe I’ll never master the art of fiction, and I’m absolutely certain that will be fine. I had a shit-ton of fun writing all four novels and I improved my writing, too. The only problem I have for now with the rejection is that I have, just a little, allowed it to plant that seed of doubt, the one I work to help my students eradicate. The agent who read my book thought it was too snarky. Funny thing is, my big goal was to make it snarky. The book is a parody. The protagonist I created is an exploration of super cynicism. In a way, the agent’s distaste for my snarkiness is a perverse compliment—apparently I captured the very thing I set out to capture. Too bad I did a good enough job of it to make the finished product a total turn-off.
Too, I worry—Does she think I’m that snarky?
I wanted to defend myself. I am defensive by nature. Warren loves watching me debate whether or not to respond to the trolls who sometimes visit my Austinist column and lay down bait to piss me off. I fight the urge, I fight the urge, I fight the urge… then I give in, gift the boneheads with freshly ripped new sphincters, and then, in an instant, feel bad and stupid I ever engaged in the first place. Warren sums up the whole cycle as me wanting to proclaim to these idiots, “I am too nice, you asshole!”
The agent that rejected me is hardly an asshole. She’s been very kind over the years, hearing out sundry proposals I’ve made. She’s been patient and encouraging. Her reputation is excellent. But her words this time, even with a few compliments sprinkled in, still stung. “I am too nice!” I wanted to fire back, even though she never said I wasn’t.
Then there was the fear—maybe she’s right. Maybe it is too snarky. Maybe it’s horrific. Maybe she’s done me a huge favor. Maybe I need to burn the fucking thing now before anyone else reads it.
And so, life’s ubiquitous no rears its head once again. Do I defy the no just for the sake of defying it? Do I sent the manuscript out to a hundred others and thus potentially invite a hundred more rejections? Do I self-publish and tell myself I’ll show them all! and then find myself sitting with a roomful of hardcopies nobody wants?
I’m not sure yet. Stay tuned.