to an Agent
from The Gettysburg Review, Autumn 2013
One week and three days. That is how long my manuscript has been with the agent.
I came to the agent through a friend, who said that I should expect to hear back in six to seven weeks, at the earliest. That, she explained, was about normal for agents.
"The best, sanest response to sending out a manuscript," continued my friend, "is to start writing something else right away."
She has had two novels on the New York Times Best Seller list and is now at work on her third. And so, with her as my guide, here I am: back on the couch. Not the psychotherapeutic couch. Not the casting couch. The writing couch.
The couch is massive, velvety, and dark green, with two throw cushions and a light dusting of cat fur. It reminds me of the Gump, the magical flying machine in The Marvelous Land of Oz, a book I used to read and reread. The Gump was constructed from two identical purple sofas roped together, as I recall, with a deer's head attached at one end and a palm frond at the other. My couch does not fly, but it has taken me many places.
Like most of my major expenditures of the last decade, I paid for the couch out of an inheritance I received from my mother's two older sisters. Their bequest also covered the down payment on my starter studio apartment, where I have lived far longer than I ever expected to; two extended stays in Paris to learn French so I could get a job at the United Nations; and hospital bills for emergency surgery when I was uninsured.
The reason that the couch became the writing couch is because my writing process now involves a great deal of sleeping. That emergency surgery culminated in a diagnosis of a chronic degenerative disease so fatiguing that I cannot write for more than an hour and a half, at most, without pausing for a nap. (In fact, half an hour of shut-eye intervened between the end of the previous paragraph and the beginning of this one.) And while I certainly could write at my desk and climb the ladder to the loft bed each time I need to rest, writing and resting in the same place is highly efficient. If I take breaks without getting up, I am more likely to resume work immediately upon waking.
The book I just sent out took four years to write, four years spread out across six years. Spread out across six years, because there were two years in the middle when I abandoned the manuscript, convinced that I would never return to it. Plus half a year (which I now include in the four productive years) when I was working on something I thought would not fit into the book but that eventually found its way in.
During those years on the writing couch, I learned that I must have certain items within arm's reach while writing, otherwise things will not go well. So, before settling down to work, I make my way around the room, gathering what I need and depositing it all in a pile on the couch: ChapStick, Kleenex, my flash drive, any notes or books I may need to refer to, and my land-line and cell phones. (I do not answer the phone when writing, but I like to see who's calling.) I put a glass of water on a small table next to the couch. In all seasons, I wear a pair of wool socks and cover myself in the gray afghan with red trim crocheted by my grandmother, dead these forty years. I don the socks, unfold the afghan over my legs to a thickness approximating a lap desk, and open the computer. And then off I go: write, sleep, write, sleep, write. This is the ideal sequence: three stints of writing intercut with two of sleep. It adds up to some four or five hours of writing, spread out across about six or seven hours total. This is how I spend my weekends.
As I grow engrossed in the writing, I feel the benevolent spirits of my aunts hovering close by. They were avid readers, as is my mother, their younger sister. My grandmother (the same one who crocheted the afghan) was mystified by this love of literature; when one of her daughters brought home some new title, she would say, ''Another book? Don't you already have one?"
Many of my aunts' books found their way into my personal collection while they were alive. Even more came to me after their deaths. If I am uncertain about the provenance of a particular volume on my shelf, it is a safe bet that it belonged to one of the aunts. Some of my books simply could not have come from anywhere else.
They gave me Grace Paley's two story collections for my birthday when I was fourteen, telling me proudly that they had been friends with her way back when she was a very young wife and mother, living the events that would later be transmogrified in her stories. The original City Lights edition of Allen Ginsberg's Howl, thin and small enough to slip into a pocket, came from my Aunt Bea. It embodied her excitement about whatever was new, hip, and rebellious in any given era, even long after most people her age had put away childish things. She gave me the memoirs of Pablo Neruda (he was a communist like her), and I raced through it during my first weeks of college, throwing off the oppression of assigned reading.
Aunt Esther was the custodian of hard-to-find translations of Yiddish writers and of books on race; it was from her that I inherited a novel in two volumes called The Yeshiva, set in the Polish village where my grandfather grew up, and it was from her that I borrowed Manchild in the Promised Land when I was a teenager. When she died well over a decade later, I had not yet returned it.
Aunt Bea wrote for newspapers. Near the end of her life, she brought out her boxes of clippings to show me, and when she died, I became their keeper. She did an interview with Julia Child for the Arts and Leisure section of the New York Times, which began, "For anyone who loves fine food, an invitation from Julia Child to drop by for lunch sometime is like Vladimir Horowitz inviting a classical music lover to drop by some afternoon while he runs through a few Beethoven sonatas."
She profiled poet Anne Sexton, who confessed that the sole reason that she did not leave her husband, a successful businessman, was that in a good year, her poetry and plays brought in no more than $2,000. That did not go into the article. Sexton let it slip (along with other secrets that my aunt refused to tell me) because Aunt Bea asked around, found out the poet's favorite brand of vodka (apparently everyone had one in those days), and brought a bottle to the interview. Aunt Bea did a piece on Janis Joplin too. As far as I know, there was no heroin involved.
Waiting for an agent to respond; advice from a friend wise in the ways of the literary marketplace; the couch where I write and sleep and write; the aunts who posthumously bestowed the couch on me; those aunts' personal libraries and writings—what unites the disparate items on this list?
I have finished a book, and for the first time in six years (minus two years of abandonment), I must begin again. Beginnings are cobbled from disparate things. Beginnings develop beyond themselves and grow into something more when links are forged between those disparate things. Writing a long work teaches you everything about writing, except how to begin over and over. The hard part of finishing is beginning again.
I check my e-mail. No word from the agent. Five weeks and four days to go. The screen swims before my eyes; I yawn ferociously. Time for another nap.
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The Gettysburg Review
Editor: Peter Stitt
Assistant Editor: Mark Drew
Managing Editor: Ellen Hathaway