Let’s Take a Moment to Overthink This

If the palm reader was right I’d better get busy – let me think…

When I was around 15, a palm reader at a renaissance fair told me that I’d live to be 63.

In other words, she told me I would die when I am 63.

Which is something no reputable palm reader or fortune teller (HA! oh, ha ha ha ha ha ha HA! Reputable palm reader!) is ever supposed to tell anyone, I suppose on the grounds that if they’re wrong, their pronouncement could become a self-fulfilling prophecy, or, if they’re right, who’d want to know? Just keep it vague and positive, right?

I don’t know why I remembered that recently. Maybe I felt like I was wasting time, dragging my feet, failing in my quest to really live every moment of whatever time I may have left as fully as possible – and with love and laughter.

But if we assume for the sake of argument the palm reader was right – that gives me only a few years, with an awful lot left to do.

Like getting a move on the query letter for my book, and deciding who to send it to.

(“Mr. Churchill, don’t you know you are never to end a sentence with a preposition?” Churchill to presumptuous twit: “Sir, that is a presumption up with which I will not put.” But I digress.)

I’ve been composing the letter in my head, reading the blogs and websites about form and what kind of letters are effective, and which agents represent what kind of books, and looking for agents who will look at memoirs, and somewhere in all that, I read that  memoir agents are sick of books involving cancer, particularly survival stories.

Well, mine isn’t a cancer survival story, because Mike didn’t survive.

It’s a love survival story.

But it has “cancer”  in the title.

So I changed the name of my book from “Detour in Cancerland, in which a Ridiculous Woman Attempts to Defer Widowhood through Remodeling (and Lust) to “Love, Death and Carpentry, in which a Ridiculous Woman etc….”

And then I started to think, well, if they don’t like the word “cancer” in the title, they’re not going to like the word “death,” exactly, either, are they?

But the point isn’t the title: it’s to write a query letter that catches an agent’s attention enough for them to want to see the entire book. If it ever gets published the publisher will probably change the title anyway.

I’ve heard back from both my friends to whom I gave the book because I knew they’d be honest with me if they thought it was awful, and they both loved it and said I should move ahead with it.

Which led me to think that maybe I should have a few more “beta” readers to be sure I’ve gotten broad enough response to it. Every woman within 20 years of my age, when I’ve told them what it’s about, or just told them the original title, has said, “oh, man, I’d read that!” OK, so maybe I shouldn’t change the title.

The only other people I’ve given the book to are my brothers, one of whom read it and returned the thumb drive it was on to me, with no comment.

He’s the hypersensitive one, though, and there were things in there that I knew would upset him, and I told him in advance I wasn’t really looking for his comments, I only wanted him to read it so he wouldn’t be surprised, in case a miracle happens and the book actually gets published. I just hope he isn’t too upset. We’re having Thanksgiving together.

My other brother, the older one who is very free with his opinions (solicited or not) on pretty much everything, has started to read it.

Started 7 weeks ago.

He says he’s on page 90, but he too has offered no comment, which is very unusual.  My friends read it in less than two weeks. When I heard back from them I just told my brothers that I was going ahead with it anyway.  If he got to page 90 he’s pretty much read anything that would have mentioned him, anyway. So nuts to him.

Being irritated with my brother caused me to remember that I may have living brothers and sisters-in-law, with whom my late husband refused to associate, and who are not mentioned at all in the book (except for one fleeting mention of the smoking  habit of one of them), which sent me into another round of paralyzed anxiety.

Both of my parents are gone, as are my late husband’s. So do I really need to worry about what other unmentioned “family” members might think about the story, which is true anyway, when they aren’t even mentioned in it?

Isn’t that supposed to be something the publisher, if there is ever to be one, will worry about?

Which brings me back to the query letter.

And dying at 63.

And thinking about all the things I haven’t accomplished yet and how little time I have left if that damn, bored, mean-spirited palm reader (really, who would do that to a 15 year old kid?) was right.

Things like finding a new relationship, getting one more really good job, getting my daughter situated happily and safely out on her own with support provided by someone who isn’t me (because she’ll have to get used to that so we have to get started) and learning to sail and seeing Alaska before it melts completely and making the crossing of the Atlantic even though climate change is causing more and more huge rogue waves and the crews of cruise ships seem increasingly inept in their seamanship and skiing again and being able to buy a summer house in Maine and tracing some of the routes and visiting some of the (milder Mediterranean) ports of call described in the Patrick O’Brian books  and taking a screenwriting class and learning Latin and taking some kind of luxury rail travel and a steamboat trip on the Mississippi if climate change hasn’t caused prolonged drought and it is deep enough for that and getting paid singing and speaking gigs and publishing a series of Ridiculous woman books based on my continuing misadventures.

Which brings me back to that query letter…

Trying to conquer my fears and quell my OCD induced anxiety, but fully intending to be writing still on my 64th, nay, even my 84th birthday  (take that, bored, mean palm reader lady), I remain,

Your quaking, querulous, query-less, but still questing,

Ridiculouswoman

Stage Fright – for Writers?

I never suffered from stage fright – but is there such a thing as “writer’s fright?”

I never suffered from stage fright – not the debilitating, get-me-the-hell-out-of-here-you’ll-have-to-shove-me-out-there kind. Sure, I was excited and nervous before I went onstage, but once I was out there in front of an audience, I was fine.

I was home.

It was fun.

It was real.

I’ve been writing for as long as I had been dancing (from pink tutus to pink toe shoes, days long over) and have been singing (may my singing days end only with my last breath), but yesterday, for the first time, I experienced a kind of “writer’s fright.”

Because yesterday, I gave thumb drives containing the draft of my book to my brothers. I’m not seeking comments from them. I just thought family mentioned peripherally in the book should be among the first to read it.

I’m not sure they will, but at least I can say I gave them the chance. No surprises.

I offered the same opportunity to the Bulgarian. He demurred. But I tried. Then I promised him I would never contact him again.

Sunday, I’ll be giving the book-on-a-memory-stick my two best-friend-former-work-colleagues, and I am seeking their comments.

Which I know will be brutally honest.

Ranging, I imagine, from “are you out of your mind? Destroy all copies of this, now!” to “well, a really great editor might be able to make it tolerable.”

(Of course, I’m secretly hoping for, “this is a work of genius! It’s poignant, funny, gripping, heartrending – I couldn’t put it down! It made me laugh and cry – simultaneously!” or, “this must be published – I’m contacting every literary agent I know and telling them they have to read this immediately!” I can dream, can’t I?)

These friends have never hesitated to be straight with me, and even when we disagreed vehemently, we’d get over it.

So why the “writer’s fright?”

I’m not worried about criticism of the writing itself. I’m happy for constructive criticism that helps me fix that.

I am worried that the book will change the way my brothers and my friends see me. They will read things they didn’t know about before, that might shock them or make them cringe, or see me as weak (even though they already know that I’m ridiculous).

As I watched my book churn its way out of my aging printer (to have a hard copy, in case every other form of backup fails), and clipped into into a (quaint, retro?) three-ring binder,  I felt a kind of resignation.

My truest self is in that book. I don’t know why it is easier for me to reveal myself in a blog, and now a book, intended for large audiences of strangers, than it is for me to share my deepest self with the very limited audience of family and friends.

Is it a tabula rasa thing? Strangers haven’t known me before, so they’ll judge me only on what I put before them? Whereas family and friends know more?

I don’t think so. I think that writers have essentially the same deal with their audiences as actors and improvisers do.
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In the theater, we “suspend disbelief.” We “look through the fourth wall.” We make a deal: “for the duration of this show, we agree that the emotions, thoughts and reactions  elicited in us are not real, and as soon as the lights come back up, we may pretend they never existed.”

Whereas every actor and improviser worthy of being in front of a live audience knows damn well that what happens on stage is much more true and real than what we, outside the theater, agree is reality.

Because real reality is just too much for most of us, most of the time.

So we bury it in stories. Including true ones.

Humanities 101 teaches that artists (actors, dancers, musicians, composers, writers, poets, visual artists etc.) unearth reality for us – often embedded in metaphor, or draped in mystery, or flowing in a melodic line that will get you every time – but that one way or another unmasks something that we ordinarily need to keep veiled. They give us a “safe” way to experience the fullness of our humanity for the duration of the show, or the length of the book. Then we are allowed to go on about our everyday stuff, feeling somehow edified, unburdened or relieved.

(If unmasking reality that most humans would prefer to keep hidden most of the time is your job, is it any wonder so many artists are kind of nuts?)

But hey, all I’ve done is write a memoir (like everyone else in every coffee shop on the planet has done, or is doing right now.) I’m not claiming any great artistic mantle for myself. I just have a true story to tell that I hope has some universality to it, that will help anyone who reads it feel a bit of “real” reality, the reality we don’t talk about, but that we allow ourselves to safely visit in the pages of the books we love.

Wishing you the comfort and catharsis of a good story, a great show, or some beautiful music, I remain,

Your humble, devoted, nervous, wary, and waiting for reactions,

Ridiculouswoman