As many of you likely know, I spent much of the last year and a half or so writing a biography of my great-grandfather, tentatively entitled The Paris Bureau. I am now running the gauntlet of rejection letters that is recognized to be the standard hazing ritual of publishing. Writers from F. Scott Fitzgerald to J.K. Rowling are famed for the number of these letters they bagged before selling the book-that-almost-nobody-wanted. Although I’ve only gotten a handful thus far, it’s nice to know that I am in illustrious company for something.
Like everything else, I take it that publishing has a glutted job market now. Whereas publishers once responded to pitches from writers, they now receive most of their new books from literary agents. Whereas literary agents once relied mostly on pitches from writers, they now receive most of their recommendations from established authors in their stable. This is probably why so many new writers come out of MFA programs, which are taught by established writers. At some point, it might become like college basketball, with promising young writers being signed for their work in crayon by well-connected preschool teachers and groomed to someday write the next 50 Shades of Grey.
I also suspect that most writers don’t take rejection well because the letters are almost laughably apologetic. Please understand that we get hundreds of submissions and simply don’t have the time to take on new projects unless we’re madly in love with them. Rest assured that your work will be sold one day, dear (fill-in-the-blank). Perhaps because I’ve worked construction, where vitriolic and profane criticism is par for the curse, I’ve basically got the skin of an elderly alligator. My dissertation director was the terror of the department, in fact, for her torrents of abuse. She liked me though because it never fazed me. I far prefer spleen to fuzzy vagueness, which is more the norm now. Give me the poison pen over the smiley face.
So far, the best rejection letter I’ve gotten was the most useful. The agent won’t take on my book because, in his words, it “doesn’t have quite enough narrative tension” to sell to a big publishing house. Remembering that my background is writing an academic historical text on a totally different topic, this sent me to the library to find books on narrative tension in non-fiction. The agent generously recommended Storycraft by Jack Hart, which I’ve found to be very useful. I also picked up Death Wish by Brian Garfield, since it’s a potboiler (and not for tips on vigilante justice, rest assured).
For an historian, narrative tension feels very artificial. It’s strange to shape someone else’s life into a coherent story line, even though we tend to do that with our own lives. Perhaps that’s the reason it’s awkward: in the finality of giving a departed person a story with a “happy” or “sad” conclusion, it’s hard to avoid judging our own lives in similar terms. I suppose I remain hopeful that my story doesn’t end at this point: writing away all night while cleaning toilets part time, single for the most part. While I can recognize the narrative tensions in my life- the problems and internal conflicts that I am trying to solve- there’s something very Freudian about thinking it through in those terms. It feels like a final judgment.
At this point, I’m supposed to quote Kierkegaard to the effect that life can only be understood backwards but must be lived forwards. This work of assigning a narrative to the past in order to preserve it reminds me more, however, of Proust (to whom the quote is sometimes mistakenly attributed) and his inspiration from Henri Bergson. The movement of time, duration, can only be experienced in retrospect because it’s not happening in the present: the only moment we’re experiencing now is this one. The hopeful thing about this, and the most terrifying, is the future doesn’t exist. We can only say a future event is “possible” in the sense that there are no barriers to its existence, but not that it’s more possible than any other event. The past, meanwhile, no longer exists. We can either take this state, in which only the present moment exists, as ultimate potentiality or total meaninglessness. If I remember right, Bergson compares moments of time to isolated photographs in a film strip that only appear to take place in a continuous duration of cause and effect. In reality, we only imagine a contingent process of cause and effect.
I’m no doubt mutilating Bergson here, so take these as my thoughts. As I shape The Paris Bureau into a third draft, the trick has been to take an episodic text, in which one damn thing happens after another, and create a coherent narrative in which each event is leading to the resolution of the main “character’s” internal conflicts. This is not how life actually happens, but it seems to be how our species understands it. We think in terms of a beginning, middle, and an end. There even seems to be a part of the brain associated with storytelling, which is deeply ingrained in every one of our cultures thus far.
So, I find myself at this point hoping that Guy’s story can be made riveting and satisfying in its conclusion, and wishing that the same can be said about my own.