FAILING FORWARD, Memoir of a Writer: Chapter 3

Deep down, I am also beginning to wonder if the life of a public school teacher is for me. It isn’t the teaching or the students or parents, it is the politics. I just want to close my door and teach, and it is really too difficult to do that as time progresses.

Please read chapter 2  first!

As the summer of 2001 passes in a blur of disappointment, my resolve to get my book published intensifies.

Then, 9/11 happens.

Watching the replay, over and over, of the falling towers in the weeks after the attacks is surreal and terrifying and sad. It also forces me to face the reality that both my husband and I need to make some major life changes. Both of us have grown disenchanted with our respective jobs. For my husband, he just needs to switch positions at the same company and problem solved. For me, it’s more complicated.

Though I adore my seventh graders, I’m in year three of teaching at a middle school that has a really negative environment with no sign of change. Whether it is complaints about our inconsistent administration or the poor conditions of the building or the overcrowding of the classrooms or that we are one of lowest paying districts in the state, everything is crumbling, and many of us are looking for a way out. Deep down, I am also beginning to wonder if the life of a public school teacher is for me. It isn’t the teaching or the students or parents, it is the politics. I just want to close my door and teach, and it is really too difficult to do that as time progresses.

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At the time, I thought it was the district, that there must be better places to teach. Not to mention, I missed the salty, ocean air of my hometown in the East Bay and The Money Pit was driving us to (almost) divorce). So, I throw my hands up to the universe and cry, “HELP!”

Not more than a few weeks later, a position at my old high school down in Middletown (located on Aquidneck Island, as in ON the OCEAN!) opens up—MID-YEAR! It’s a sign from the heavens, I tell myself and apply immediately.

I get the job and we move to Bristol into a home that doesn’t involve any fixing up. I throw myself even more passionately into the process of getting my book published. I hire a book doctor and do some deep, deep revisions. I pass the manuscript around again, this time to my high school students who give me some more feedback. I rewrite again, and soon it is 2003, and oh—that was quick!

I’m pregnant.

The pregnancy is the second miracle for me, in just a matter of a year, and I feel unstoppable. I feel possible. Dream job. Baby. Why not a book?

The internet becomes my place of research. During my long stretches of searching, I listen to A.M. radio (my favorite, until satellite comes along in 2005) and happen upon a radio show dedicated to talking about books and authors! Remember, doubt isn’t in my vocabulary yet nor is the idea of failure. So, I send out an email to the radio show host. The email is a simple, will you consider reading my manuscript—something every novice novelist does at least once or twice…something I did years and years before as a teen. (I once sent a short story to Paul Zindel because I had gone to summer camp with his son. I never heard back.) So, when the radio show host actually replies with a yes, I take that as yet another sign of miracles. In 2003, I’m not sure how often manuscripts were sent by attachment. So, by postal, I ship out the whole 140 pages and include a SASE, which turns out to be unnecessary because not more than a week or so passes and the talk show host emails me that she loves the book and do I want to be a guest on her show!

I go on a few times, once with two of my students who have read my book. This gave me a little bit of a small-town famous feeling. It was FANTASTIC!

Over the next few months, as I start to move from the nausea phase of the pregnancy into the extreme exhaustion, I attend some local author events with my talk show host friend and meet several what is called “self-published authors”. What is that? I had no idea that something outside the concept of “vanity press” even existed. These women were so fascinating and inspiring…and about twice my age. They mentored me along and encouraged me to research options for self-publishing. Two of the women used a self-pub company called iUniverse.

Remember, I’m pregnant while continuing to still chase pavement for my book. It’s been about four years at this point, so watching these women have book signings and get featured in local newspapers and TV, becomes very appealing.  Coupled with a small fan club of students, I am beginning to catch the bug of Life of an Author.

Things like agents or rejection, things like giving up or failure, they are foreign concepts, and when I see glimpses of it in some of the seasoned authors I will eventually meet at events, I think, “That will never be me.”

How eerily ironic those words will eventually become.Chelsea 3 Days Old

Before self-publishing, I’m still childlike in my dreams to become the next Judy Blume—a phrase used by my radio show friend to describe me.

Me Book 2004

So, just as my eighth month comes to a close, I finish another and final round of revisions so that I can give birth, not once in 2004, but twice. My first baby, a human girl with a full head of black hair and espresso bean brown eyes and my second, a book baby with 110 pages of story.

I’m five years into my teaching career and just a month into my life as a mother when I make another major life-changing decision…

Chapter 4

FAILING FORWARD, memoir of a writer: CHAPTER 1

Three months passed, and after enough “thanks but no thanks”, I begin to reconsider the whole agent thing, and then I got one yes.

Once upon a time, in 1998, a young woman of 23 decided to take 80 handwritten pages of a novel she began when she was 15 and type it into her computer. She was inspired by an intense feeling of I’m-running-out-of-time, because at the ripe old age of 23, she was about to become a bride to her college sweetheart and knew her life would soon be taken over by wifely duties, those of which she really had no idea about. She couldn’t iron (her grandmother told her that the reason why her parents divorced was because her mother didn’t iron her father’s shirts). She hated to cook (luckily her husband-to-be was Italian, and cooking was practically a religion). She did love to clean. She loved to organize. She was vaguely interested in decorating. These things would take up a lot of time, she figured.

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The notebook that contains the handwritten version of the first 80 pages of My Sister’s Wedding, circa 1990.

That young girl was me, 17 years ago, when I set out, just three months before my wedding and just a week before my 24th birthday, to type all the handwritten pages as well as finish writing the novel I entitled, My Sister’s Wedding, a story loosely based on the most significant relationship I had with a boy when I was a teen. I knew very little at this time of publishing except that I wanted to be the next Judy Blume and that somehow it was going to happen with this book. I was absolutely, 100% convinced of this.

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First page, handwritten, of My Sister’s Wedding, my first (of many) failed novel

Fast forward to my wedding—an epic evening people are still talking about because it inspired others to get married, break up, and even get pregnant (actually not certain about that last part but some of those dance moves that night really convinced me that some conception was about to go on).

Party like it's 1999...actually, it was.
Party like it’s 1999…actually, it was.
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Such a pretty bride and handsome groom. They have idea what’s to come.

As I predicted my life changed once we were married. No ironing or cooking but we purchased a home in the vein of The Money Pit and promptly almost got divorced during renovations. Then, there was my job as a 7th grade English teacher and my husband’s job at a financial institution. I schlepped home piles of papers to grade, and he was nursing a bit of the disenchantment-post-college-quarter-life-crisis blues. In fact, these first two years of marriage are a bit of blur. At some point, I edited the manuscript, and at some point, I told people I had written a book.

Sadly, our bedroom in our first home, a.k.a. The Money Pit
Sadly, our bedroom in our first home, a.k.a. The Money Pit

I was so green, I hadn’t even heard of “young adult” as a genre separate from adult fiction. It wasn’t until I started showing the manuscript to some curious colleagues that I realized I had written a novel for teens. Their feedback inspired me to finally think about how I would break into publishing. I did know about The Writer’s Market and that getting an agent would most likely be the way to a publisher; as a teen, I had gone to various writing camps and programs and was schooled in those basics.

I bought a copy of The Writer’s Market and began to scour the pages for an agent who specialized in teen fiction. Then, I methodically created a chart to organize my submissions. This is when submissions were rarely done through email, and so I made copies and stuffed manila envelopes and collated and stamped and took many trips to the post office.

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Three months passed, and after enough thanks but no thanks, I begin to reconsider the whole agent thing, then I got one yes.

The one caveat was that this agent wanted money; it wasn’t a lot, and it was for what she called “incidentals” on the behalf of the “client”—postage and copies, etc. I really didn’t care because I was razor-sharp in my focus, tunnel-vision sharp. I cut a check for $150 and signed a 6-month contract. Who cares how it happens, I thought, I just want it to happen and I was still 100% convinced it would.

When the 6 months ended, the agent and I spoke on the phone for the first time, and she seemed very nice, in a grandmotherly way, and she produced a long list of rejections we had accumulated. So, the good news was she did, in fact, earn that $150, but the bad news was no bites. Yet, her reassurance that 6 months in the publishing world was akin to 1 day in the real world made me sign for another 6 months with her.

And this was the very beginning of what would become almost two decades of failure.

Chapter 2…where the name “Jennifer” becomes significant…(I write these chapters as I go so my clues are going to be intentionally vague and mysterious…)