The Things We Carry (and Must Learn to Leave Behind)

canstockphoto20086498In 1993, I dropped out of grad school after one miserable year. I was a failure, barely surviving academically, juggling three jobs, in over my head in so many ways. I make jokes about it, but when I pitched a nonfiction proposal to an agent last week, she asked about my education. I was truthful and while she was interested in my proposal, I could tell that I did not have a good “platform”.

For nonfiction proposals, agents and publishers want someone with a platform. A platform is the writer’s expertise, background, and being a known entity and expert in their field. I was a little proud that I could pitch an idea on the fly, except that it really wasn’t that spontaneous. And it was never my first intention.

While in grad school, I came across the published journal of a Russian woman who had disguised herself as a man and fought in the Napoleonic Wars in the early 1800s. She was the first known female officer in the Russian military. She had a difficult upbringing. Her mother hated her and at one point, had tossed her out of a moving carriage. She survived, but from that point on, her mother had no part in her care.

The story appealed to me not only as a veteran, but also as someone who was engaged in an ongoing battle with her own mother. It found me at the right time and stayed with me. For nearly 25 years, I’ve kept notebooks, collected research materials, and always planned to write a historical novel someday. The agent pitch I did at the conference brought clarity to me. I didn’t have the chops or the credentials for writing nonfiction history.

I went to the library last night to work on a writing plan to follow up with various agents. While I’m still working on a novel, I thought I’d take a look online to see if there were any other research materials available for a fictional work on Nadezhda Durova. I sat back, stunned. An American writer had written and published a historical novel about her just six months ago.

Dreams, delusions, disenchantment. I’m quite adept at spinning my own story. A story I’ve carried with me all these years – of failure and struggle and the possibility of writing my way to redemption – a story of rationalizations and justifications. Of never fully feeling the pain of the moment in which I am told or learn, once again, that I’m not good enough. All these years, I’ve been disappointed in myself, maybe even a little ashamed. But I had a good idea and maybe that would redeem me.

canstockphoto9159128bI am always reminded of that line by The Talking Heads “How did I get here?” The tale of my academic life is one of happenstance. When I joined the Army at 17, being clueless and uninformed, I wanted to be a French linguist. I had four years of high school French and being a linguist sounded more enjoyable than company clerk or truck driver. The demand for French linguists in military intelligence was, of course, not particularly high. They needed Russian linguists. Okay then.

After spending a year in intensive Russian language training at the Defense Language Institute, I moved onto more training, a permanent duty station in Germany and when my four years was up, I gladly left. The shortest way to a degree meant taking Russian, because I was able to transfer a lot of Army credits. So there I was, on track for a degree in Russian studies. As far from parlez-ing as I could be. Even further from writing.

I finished a four year degree in a subject that had never been part of my “when I grow up…” narrative. With no clue as to next steps, I applied to grad school. In the English department. The admissions rate was about 7% at the time. Applying to a program tied to the Iowa Writers’ Workshop was like spitting in the wind. I didn’t get in, but I did get accepted into the Russian Department.

It took me a year to realize that I hated my life, hated school, hated getting up at 3:30am to do a janitor job, go to classes, put in my hours as a research and translation intern, and then head to my job at Target.

The final straw was after I had to do a presentation on Russian morphology. In Russian. canstockphoto8727525The professor pulled me aside at the end of class and said that he was going to do me a favor by giving me a B-, instead of the C that is considered failure in grad school. I was going through complete misery just to scrape by on someone’s favor. And paying thousands of dollars for the honor. Time to quit academia and start working fulltime.

The years that followed were progressive administrative jobs, still carrying my notebooks and research materials from Iowa to Minnesota, into a home I share now with my daughter and husband. Since focusing on writing the last few years, the possibility of writing that historical novel seemed closer than ever. Until last night and seeing that Linda Lafferty had written The Girl Who Fought Napoleon.

I didn’t feel crushed or disappointed. In some ways, it was liberating. Carrying that novel idea was more than just a writing project. It was justification for all that education in Russian language and history. It was redemption for having failed. It was a reason for having wasted so much time and money doing something for which I had little passion. Even the kernel of complicated mother-daughter relationships has dissolved in the face of relative peace I’ve made with my own mother over the years.

canstockphoto10806366Last night, I dreamed of getting divorced from someone other than my husband. I woke up feeling sad and disappointed and bemused. The person didn’t have a face that I recognized, but this morning I surmised his name was Failure. 25 years is a long time to carry shame and I think I’m ready to put it down. There are other stories to tell.

27 Comments

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27 responses to “The Things We Carry (and Must Learn to Leave Behind)

  1. fransiweinstein

    Onward! Good for you. BTW, what about writing your own story?

    Liked by 1 person

  2. This is why I never Google my brilliant puns.
    I always feel that nothing is lost. Scraps of ideas, unfinished projects: it’s all manure for what’s growing.

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    • The bottom line is that every story, every character, every idea has been done before. I actually thought I might have something original. And for many years, I did. But somebody was bound to get around to it sometime. I have to keep telling myself it’s our voices that make a story unique or else I’d give up before I started. Although in this case, giving up and moving on seems the healthier thing to do.

      Liked by 4 people

  3. Platform does seem to be the first thing agents and editors look for with non-fiction, which may be why there are so many celebrity health, wealth, and happiness books. Like so many arbitrary measures, they look for easy ways to quantify platform (e.g., number of Twitter, Facebook, or blog followers). Before the advent of social media I think quality of ideas and writing was paramount; now, not so much. Still, I think that many of us write for the love of writing. Publication ices the already rich cake. Still, icing is sweet. Thanks for sharing your inner and outer journey, Michelle.

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    • The agent said something that made me laugh. She said, “Well, you know with fiction you don’t have to be an expert in anything.” That’s my schtick – let’s go with that!

      Social media does confound things a bit – especially since quite a few people who are adept at using it, add little in the way of new information and often, wrong information, but that is perhaps a topic for another day.

      I think it has always been a bit of a stick in my craw that I never finished a higher degree, but this deal with the writing project was a sign that I need to let go of that. It wasn’t in the cards and now other, happier things are.

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  4. With all you’ve done, you’re hardly a “failure.” I would say just the opposite. But I know how you feel, since I’ve been there. As far as publishing your book (and anyone who completes a book is a success, not a failure, whether or not you publish it), I’d recommend staying away from an agent, especially if it’s nonfiction history. If it’s well-written – and judging by your blog I’m sure it is – a university press should be interested. I’d whip up a good query letter and send it to various university presses. Maybe contact a couple historians to see if they’ll peer review it beforehand. At least, that’s what I did. I’m not rich (in fact, I lost money!), but at least I published. Screw the “chops” and “credentials.”

    Liked by 1 person

    • I did learn that the small to medium independent presses (including university presses) are really where the good stuff is happening these days. I think that a lot of that old writing project is baggage, so my heart really is no longer in it. Back to the family dysfunction novel. I’ve got credentials there!
      Thanks for sharing your experience and congrats on getting published! I look forward to that someday as well.

      Liked by 1 person

  5. Amen Michelle. Sometimes we have to lighten the load to keep moving forward. Best wishes on your journey!

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  6. I don’t know about nonfiction, but when agents and editors talk about platform with fiction writers, it’s all about their reach–what audience can they tap into? On the other hand, a good story does still have an impact. And my sense is that, whatever you write, your background is a great story. Not many women have the expertise that you have.Use it. It makes you stand out.

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    • I’ve been ignoring the social media chatter, because without the work being up to snuff, all that other stuff doesn’t matter. There were a lot of writers at this conference worried about social media. I wasn’t one of them. Yet.

      The problem with being a jack of many trades and master of none is that a claim to expertise is hard to make. On the other hand, I have a lot of mental resources for storytelling and character writing. I feel grateful for that, but occasionally I get caught in the fact that there’s no parade of initials after my name. I need to let that go and, as you point out, focus on my strengths.

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  7. There are always other stories to tell. You might appreciate Elizabeth Gilbert’s theory about ideas, part of a sparkling “On Being” interview with Krista Tippett, which is wholly worth the listen:
    https://onbeing.org/programs/elizabeth-gilbert-choosing-curiosity-over-fear/

    Liked by 1 person

    • I enjoyed that interview last year. I always like the idea of choosing curiosity over fear and how important it is to not close down in the face of anxiety, which is my tendency. I often remind myself that openness means being able to receive new ideas.
      There was a quote I saw today as well that I liked. “Be like a tree and let the dead leaves drop.” ~ Rumi
      I was trimming and prepping my garden for the new shoots and often the best way to do that is to trim off all the old growth. Translates well to letting go.

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  8. Oh wow. I would have been crushed — and angry! You are more mature person than I am, and I’m so glad you are feeling liberated. Are you going to read that book??

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    • I don’t know if it was maturity so much as having an “a-ha” moment. I did request the book from the library and plan on reading it. Still, I think about how I am now making room for new ideas and what kind of freedom that actually is.

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  9. Hollywood is rife with examples of movies with similar plots or stories coming out on the heels of one another. Ants / Bugs; Volcano / Dante’s Peak; Armageddon / Deep Impact; Mirror Mirror / Snow White and the Huntsmen. Don’t let this book called The Girl Who Fought Napoleon get you down. I sell books for a living. There’s room for yours, too. Have you read that other one? There’s a chance it could suck (ever seem a bad movie?). And there’s no copyright on ideas or execution, or titles, for that matter. It’s not uncommon to see several books by different authors, all with the same title. How may books are there about lovers in Paris, or D-Day? More than I can count. It’s okay to have more than one. Just make it good. Make it the one you want to read. You can do it.

    Liked by 1 person

    • I think I might have been looking for an excuse to let it go, since I wasn’t too crushed to see that it wouldn’t be groundbreaking. I’m going to keep on with the novel I keep revising and editing and then I’ll see what comes next.

      It is interesting, though, to think how some stories get retold over and over. There was a lot of talk about comparable titles at break out sessions and no one had any trouble figuring out what their comp titles were. I joked that my novel was The Corrections but with characters you didn’t wish were all dead at the end.

      Liked by 2 people

  10. I applaud your ability to leave obsolete baggage on the roadside, but it saddens me to hear you call all that effort and study a failure. I was reading Pema Chodron’s “When Things Fall Apart” yesterday and was reminded *again* that the Path is the Goal. We are the sum of our lives. Our experiences, whether pleasant or painful, are our opportunities to practice self-compassion and acceptance. You learned a hell of a lot more in grad school than Russian. It was a vital part of your Path.

    I suffered my first serious depressive episode the beginning of my sophomore year at college *while I was studying Russian and failing and trying to get into The Writers’ Workshop at the University of Iowa.*. I had this notion of who I was, but I had to let all that go. It took me decades and much suffering, but I’m actually happier now more than I’m mentally ill. Who woulda thunk it?

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    • You are not the only friend who made this kind of comment after reading my post. Failures to me are not in and of themselves a bad thing, but shame is and I think this was something I’ve been carrying a long time. It may be irrational, but I hadn’t called it out yet after all these years and now I have.

      I do believe in the journey and to not to be filled with regret. But logic doesn’t always make the roll call.

      Liked by 1 person

  11. This piece did not end up going where I expected — and I am very glad for that. Good for you! May the release of shame bring new light, and new lightness, to your days…

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  12. Maybe shame is the worst part of being human. I don’t know what else to say. Just mark me present but speechless. No, not speechless. Life has rendered me incoherent.

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