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 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.