Sunday, July 10, 2011

So I called myself Pip, and came to be called Pip.

A couple of years ago, I was lost. I had written one book that my long-suffering former agent had shopped around to everyone who might be interested. Alas, it did not sell. But in the tradition of green writers and first books, all those publishers were right. That book did not deserve to be sold. It sucked. It had some really nice chapters, and some really wonderful passages, but overall, it was, well, a first book. But bless her heart, my agent had faith in my voice and no writer could hope for more than that.

Once I abandoned hope of publication for that book and pimped out its component parts to every magazine willing to fork over a few bucks, I did not know what to write about next. What would I say now that the schtick I had developed over two years was no longer relevant to me? I liked the narrator of Education of a Flatlander. She was funny. She was me, only more so. She is the voice I am supposed to be writing, but every time I tried to write something I felt might be marketable, I wrote in this weird, forced voice that just wasn't me.

The first piece I wrote in a voice that worked was an article for the Valley News on my life as a middle school teacher. It flowed and it worked, and I loved that piece. I wished I could write like that every day.

But when Tim suggested the obvious, that I write about teaching, I was skeptical. Who the hell wants to read about my teaching life? My life as a chainsaw-toting, mistake-making, homesteading wannabe seemed like something people might want to read about - something I certainly like to read about. But teaching? Huh.

Then I looked at my bookshelves. They are filled with memoirs about real experiences. Memoirs that are true, memoirs that tell a story, memoirs that have a real voice, and it turns out I don't care that much about the context. Farming, hiking, adoption, travel, goat herding, teaching, cheesemaking. I love all of it, as long as the person writing loves their story and can write in a true voice. E.B. White said it well, in a letter to his brother: "I discovered a long time ago that writing of the small things of the day, the trivial matters of the heart, the inconsequential but near things of this living, was the only kind of creative work which I could accomplish with any sincerity or grace." Whether it's the death of a pig or the birth of a new career, it's best to stick with a voice that works. Tim tends to be right about a lot (don't tell him I said so), so I reserved final judgment until I'd had time to think about it.

One of my favorite chapters from Flatlander was called "Tarry, Good Beatrice," about the day I drove up to Robie Farms for milk and cream, and found myself attending the birth of a heifer. Lee Robie let me name the calf, and because I had been re-reading and listening to lectures about about Much Ado About Nothing, I named her Beatrice. I had been torn between farming and teaching, but that day, I realized that I did not actually want to be a farmer, and really craved a return to the classroom. The Robies had taught me a lot about farming, and that day, watching Beatrice come into the world, they taught me that despite my love of the barn and dirt and farm implements, my true love is for language and my students.

And so I returned to the classroom, the place I am meant to be. I started writing about that life, and you know what? Tim was right. As long as my voice is honest, it does not matter if I am writing about my attempt to live the life of a homesteader or about teaching Shakespeare. I keep writing, mining my experiences and playing with ideas in an attempt to see what's there. Just as Tim predicted, those words are starting to come together into something that looks a hell of a lot like a book.

Fast forward three years, to a second phone call with my new agent. I posted a while back about my first phone call with her - all that excitement and anxiety culminated in a discussion that was encouraging, confusing, exciting, and, well, anticlimactic. Over the past couple of months and a new book proposal, she and I have had a chance to get to know each other. I think we might just be a good match. Actually, thanks to Friday's phone call, I know we will. The polite questions and restrained enthusiasm of our first phone call gave way to jokes, encouragement, brainstorming, and light swearing. I knew from talking to her former authors that she is hot shit, that she really knows her stuff, both as an editor and agent, but now I really get it. The reality writers read about over and over again in every blog and book on publishing (but would like to think doesn't apply to their book, to their writing) is that a book has to sell. It has to fit into a category, fulfill a need, be definable according to the other books on the market. I can write my ass off and churn out some of the best writing of my life, but if she can't sell it, it's not going to be a book in the tangible book-and-covers sense. It's a hobby. Which is fine; writing will always be a joy to me, but I want to be a writer. A professional writer. The sort of writer who makes some money from the act of arranging words on paper. A writer that eventually gets to hold her very own words in her hands in the form of pages and a cover.

I have not sold this book yet, but I do have the confidence of this agent who knows what it takes to publish a book. She has faith in my voice, but now she needs proof that my book is something she can sell. And so I have a deadline: three chapters in three weeks.

So it seems appropriate that I celebrated the birth of a new book and a new chapter in my life with another visit to Robie Farms. 

Beatrice the heifer birthed her very own calf this season, and I was eager to see it. New calves have incredibly soft coats, velvety and clean, like infants' peach-fuzz hair. They smell sweet, of milk and shavings. At least until they start laying down in their own poop, and then they just smell like the rest of the barn. Their long, prehensile tongues licked our hands and left trails of slime on our forearms as we moved from stanchion to stanchion. Every couple of feet, when we stopped to visit with a particularly friendly or pretty calf, a friendly, buff-colored cat rolled at our feet, begging for a scratch or two before we walked on. When we moved, he moved, trotting along behind us, mewing and batting lashes at us. When we left the barn, he followed us up the driveway to the car. As we were leaving, I mentioned to Lee Robie that he had quite the barn cat. Most barn cats are aloof. They understand that their job is to keep the mice in check and in return, someone might squirt some warm milk in their direction. This cat, though...he craved attention. Lee laughed. He said they call him the "Cow Kitty" because he follows behind the cows and herds them when they move from the pasture to the barn for milking. Cow Kitty needs a family, Lee said, and he instructed me to take him home. 

I don't need another cat. Tim's allergic to the cat we already have. He'd kill me. It's preposterous. I really couldn't. 

But I did. 

Cow Kitty, like Beatrice, needed a new name, and after hundreds of submissions (Bob, Percy, Ice Fang, Sugarball, Draco, Hairy...) Benjamin landed on the right one: Pip. 

The first chapter of my new book is about teaching Great Expectations, and its characters occupy my thoughts as I attempt to make this August third deadline. Now Pip - our Pip - occupies my home as well. And that seems just about perfect. 


  1. What an exciting time for you, Jess. Good luck with the August deadline.

  2. I hope you realize what a tight little story (really, 3 stories) you told in this post. That's some good old heartfelt flow, and you're in it. Which means I don't need to wish you luck with the August deadline.

    You, Beatrice, and Pip all finding your way from your fumbled beginnings to your natural and, dare I say, destined purposes.

    Like Tom said above, welcome home Pip. You made it.

  3. Giggle. (She said I wrote a tight little story.) Blush.

    I am sitting here at my laptop on the kitchen table, fan in the window beside me to ward off the heat and humidity, wondering how on earth this new book is going to happen.

    Thanks, Teri. I needed that.

  4. Gooooo, Jess!!! You know we're all doing a little happy dance for you. (Where are my pompoms?)

  5. I love all the good news here...but my sympathies are with Tim! Hope Pip is a low-dander dude.