Five Years Later and What Do I Have to Show? Good Question

by Lisa Romeo

This is how it would be, surely: Five years after graduating on a hot July night, I’d return to the Stonecoast summer residency for a visit. I’d chat up alumni, swapping stories about our fabulous or lousy agents, latest book deal (surely we’d all be on book number two, at least). We’d compare who’s on a tenure track, who’s stuck in adjunct purgatory. We’d brag (modestly) about our multiple impending publications in top tier journals or major media outlets. We’d regale faculty with success stories. Awards. Grants. Offers. Options. Or maybe not. Not because we weren’t all successful in whatever corner of the literary world we’d chosen to occupy (we would be! we are!)—but we might just get smashing drunk and moan about how we miss graduate school with its immovable deadlines and objective productivity expectations and the smell of authorship just strong enough to pull us along and just weak enough that we needn’t fret about it—yet.

This is how it is: Five years after finishing my MFA program in creative nonfiction, I don’t make the drive to Maine, ostensibly because it conflicts with our family vacation. But I haven’t made the drive any other year either, partly because I fear standing around the Stone House—in my memory a magical place where my dreams still live, undisturbed, and where my confidence partially remains, stubbornly lodged—and sullying it with halting strained conversation about what I think of as, I don’t know, a failure to thrive. Because I can’t talk about an agent, a book deal, a secure teaching appointment, top literary journals, major awards, and I worry that if these are the status updates I’d have to spew at a Stonecoast gathering, I’d come up blank.

Oh, I’ve done things. Published stuff, taught, won, judged, jumped genres, edited, ghostwrote. Yet when I think about five years gone since my time at Stonecoast ended, I’m filled with—not regret exactly, but a yawning awareness of what’s not there.

The book.

The one with just my name on the spine, not merely in the list of contributors.

Surely by now there should be one, no? That’s what the voice in my head shouts, anyway, and it’s what I (perhaps ungraciously) believe I would be judged by in a room of further-down-the-road Stonecoast alumni.

I do know this: five years have clocked by faster than I anticipated or realized, though that is true about most of life. And while the commitment to craft and the hunger for a fuller literary life has grown more, not less important to me as the post-MFA years unspooled, so too has the score-keeping and CV-building and literary posturing—and the absence of that word “author”—inserted itself, sometimes mockingly.

And some days, I mind.

Some of the mile markers I had originally set for myself upon graduation—maybe overly hopeful, surely overly confident—simply fell away. Others got moved further into the future. Most are in a constant state of revision. Getting from one point to the next was, is, taking longer than I liked. But as one year has sloughed into the next, and X hadn’t happened on schedule, I watched myself begin to respond with less judgment that is my initial self-critical reflex. Instead: “Oh, not now? Okay, next year will be fine too. Or the next.”

So, some days, I don’t mind at all.

I’m not lazy or apathetic, but understanding that what seemed so clear to me in 2008 was an illusion, has been freeing, until suddenly, it isn’t. Like one day last month, when a particularly acute case of Stonecoast classmate envy hit. There had been, it seemed, a slew of good news: announcements of book deals, agents, impressive awards and fellowships and grants, teaching appointments that came with benefits and a title and without the need to drive to three campuses in as many days; film options, media coverage, a book translated into two dozen languages.

I have not been idle. I know this. There is, indeed, a completed memoir manuscript, or at least there has been for a few months now. Before that, there wasn’t.

I know exactly why there is no book of my own on the shelf in the room of my own where every day I write and revise and edit and submit essays and narrative nonfiction and journalism and poetry and pitches—but to journals and magazines and website, and not to agents and publishers and book contests.

The reason the book hasn’t happened in the five years since leaving Stonecoast will, I guess, please my Stonecoast mentors: it wasn’t ready. Not really. Not ready enough until recently, when in its seventh draft, I decided it was. So as for the not-an-author-yet thing, I can’t complain really. It’s not as if I’ve been querying and submitting and entering it like mad for five years and piled up rejections and no responses and agita.

Agents approached: Precisely one, who I was referred to by a writer friend frequently on the Times bestseller list. (Agent’s response: “Absolutely lovely, and not commercial enough.” Wrong agent, I know, but who wouldn’t have tried?)

Publishers approached: Precisely one, who I was referred to by a writer friend with four midlist books. (Editor’s initial response: “Love the sample – send me more.” I did. We’ll see.)

Book publishing contests entered: Three. Once, a finalist.

Reasons to complain: None

But to paraphrase a fellow Stonecoast alumna, the missing book in the CV is slowly, irritatingly becoming a career opportunity cost. Let’s face it – that book with only your name on the spine opens doors, turns walls into windows.

Maybe that’s not a valid reason for avoiding a residency reunion. Of course it’s not. Maybe I’m assuming former classmates, faculty and visitors would be far more judgmental than they are likely to be. Of course I am. Maybe I’ll even get over myself and show up next year.

~

Lisa Romeo graduated from Stonecoast in the creative nonfiction track in July 2008. She writes, teaches, edits, and mostly doesn’t complain, from her home in Cedar Grove, NJ, where she lives with her husband and two sons. She does not have an agent, book deal, tenure, a Pushcart or a quirky writer bio. Excerpts from her memoir, Father Figure: Meeting My Absent Father, and Myself, have appeared in Lunch Ticket, Barnstorm, and Quay, and are forthcoming in Pithead Chapel and Under the Sun. Visit Lisa’s website.

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22 Comments

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22 responses to “Five Years Later and What Do I Have to Show? Good Question

  1. Dear Lisa,

    Boy oh boy, do I know this feeling. I got my MFA in ’77. Half the House was published in ’95, my first book. I felt as if I was standing still, watching my classmates whiz past one at a time. I know how disheartening that is, BUT I kept working at it for the same reason you did/do: it wasn’t ready yet. If you don’t yet meet your own standards, what does it matter what an agent or publisher says? The world is full of sloppy and inconsequential books written to help get teaching jobs or tenure; no point adding another to the pile. Keep aiming at the real target. You’re a powerful writer. No need to hurry.

    • Richard, thanks for your encouraging and sensible words. As always, from the first day of the MFA, when I was sitting in your workshop, nervous and hopeful, to today, you inspire me.

  2. For my part, it took my longer than I liked to figure out that my definition of success was different than anyone else’s definition. I was trying to live by what other’s thought success should look like and the pressure was crushing. Once I figured out what was important to me, I was able to let that other stuff go…mostly. Sometimes, it comes creeping back in, but overall, I am happy with where I am and where I am going in my post-MFA lift.

    Great essay.

    • Right of course, Erin. I’m not even sure the idea of success figures into any of it, other than that the lack of being *successful* at a particular thing or other means it is still in progress.

  3. David Healey

    Lisa, having been at Stonecoast with you, I know that you are a wonderful writer, so don’t fret about that. I enjoyed this essay because it’s usually how I feel on a daily basis, lol. We all have small triumphs and setbacks as writers. It’s very hard to measure oneself against the accomplishments of others. We each succeed at our own pace and in our own way. Looking back at my own Stonecoast experience, something I enjoyed was that it never felt like a competitive atmosphere, and I hope that never changes!

  4. Thank you for this, Lisa. I’m going to share this. Success is different for everyone. I’m sure there’s someone reading about you, wishing they had your bio. Congrats on excerpts of your memoir getting published and forthcoming in various publications. I’m keeping my fingers crossed for your memoir.

  5. Lisa, terrific essay. I think it’s important to remember that every writer – even the ones who have books – has some insecurity, some thing s/he hasn’t produced or accomplished, that feels like a failing of some sort. I have to tell you that I’m extremely impressed by your success teaching and coaching writers, and although it’s success of a different sort, it’s success, and important. Thanks for the essay and the reminder.

    • Not to mention that horrible (but true) old saying, “You’re only as good as your last book.” We feel this pressure whether we write short stories, essays, books, or other projects. That’s why it’s so nice to have a strong supportive structure. i.e. Writing Friends! :-)

      • Absolutely! Or we’ve written in a genre that some people don’t seem to take seriously. So as you said, we have to define our own success and keep reaffirming that definition.

    • So true Sheila – I don’t think I know a single writer (with one or 10 books) who doesn’t frequently count up what’s on the still-not-accomplished list.

  6. You are so honest it kills me. So here is my confession: After graduating in S’09, I HAVE been submitting my novel manuscript ALL over the place, and after a year, found an agent who loves it. Then she submitted it all over the place for me. It was praised left and right and up and down, and soundly rejected by editors from large houses to small presses. Yet, two different excerpts have been published and three have placed in prose contests. I can’t figure it out. It’s been incredibly hard on the heart and soul of this seasoned writer who used to take rejection well. I took a year off from writing due to family circumstances, but I’m gearing up to take another look at the manuscript, maybe send it to some other small presses myself. What else can I do? Oh yes, maybe start another novel. Maybe. It’s really tough to commit after all this, however.

    Thanks for your blog and all the hard work you do.

    • Linda, thanks for the perspective. I know what you mean about the “heart and soul of this seasoned writer who used to take rejection well.” I am the queen of taking rejection well, have the thickest skin possible…and yet, re-committing every week to the whole process of research, query, submission — well, it sucks sometimes! Meanwhile, we do it. And it’s good to have such thoughtful company along the way.

  7. Beautifully written – thank you for sharing your story so honestly.

  8. Lisa — What a wonderful essay. “that book with only your name on the spine… turns walls into windows” — beautiful! Many of your Stonecoast alumni are with you, believe me. And if this essay is a glimpse of what your work is like, I have a feeling your book will be here sooner than you know.

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