A couple of weeks ago I was in New York City for my son Vince’s graduation from his masters’ program, held at Radio City Music Hall. His sister Jane and I were waiting on the plaza across the street; I was reminiscing geezeresquely about how I used to eat falafels for lunch in this very spot when I worked at Stanley Kaplan in the 1980s. As I scanned the purple-robed throng for my own graduate-to-be, we were approached by what seemed to be three rock stars: a tall man in a low ball cap, a beautiful blond, and an even taller guy with a mane of brilliant, copper-colored hair and a slim black suit. All were wearing dark glasses. It turned out to be my son Vince, his girlfriend Shannon, and his friend Adam.
While we were waiting at the red light, Adam, who has enjoyed previous appearances in my work and is responsible for the lifting of Vince’s longtime ban on my writing about him, said, “Want me to dive into traffic? How bad a thing has to happen for you to get an essay out of this?”
Nothing bad happened that day, thank God, though the check at Nobu set me back some. Nonetheless, Adam’s remark stuck in my mind and now has goaded me into writing about a series of blows to my ego I had hoped to conceal from the reading public. It was humiliating, but fortunately, nobody knew about it. Why throw myself under the bus?
Then again, as readers of this column know, climbing out from under buses that I myself am driving is my specialty.
Ten years ago, I got a job teaching writing in the MFA program at the University of Baltimore. In one of the classes in our program, students produce a literary magazine called Welter. From the beginning, I made it a habit to send in something each year. Since submissions had to be previously unpublished, I thought it gracious of me to contribute a piece I might otherwise have hawked to the paying media. It was fun to go to the annual publication party and read with all the other contributors, many of whom were also my students.
In the sixth year of this happy relationship, after getting a note from the current editor saying they were low on fiction and memoir, I submitted a longish essay called “The Story of Laurie,” about my friendship with a woman who died at 43. I thought it was one of the best things I’d written in a while, so I was completely shocked when they rejected it.
Wait. Did I just say my own students rejected my essay? Yes, I did. What an outrage! Flummoxed and furious, I decided never again to submit to Welter.
Five years went by. During this time, Welter had a baby, a magazine called Skelter, run by the undergraduates. Aside from a little celebratory paragraph that the editors asked me to write for the inaugural edition, I extended my Welter ban to Skelter. But this year, I got word that submissions were scanty and I thought oh, why not. I couldn’t imagine there would be any problem. Two of the undergrads who were working on the publication were in my class.
I decided to give them something I had suffered greatly over, a part of the manuscript of my novel The Acknowledgments. The Acknowledgments had been accepted by an agent, rewritten several times under her direction, dumped by that agent, picked up by a second agent, rewritten a couple more times, then rejected at over 30 publishing houses before it died a miserable and quiet death. Long story short, it’s a satire about a memoir professor at a university in Baltimore who can’t sell a book of her own, but helps one of her former students, an African-American born and raised in East Baltimore, write a memoir that ends up being a huge hit. She also has a Chicana grad school classmate with an abuse memoir on the bestseller list. The Acknowledgments was meant to be a send-up of racial politics in Baltimore and in publishing, about the advantage that memoirists with “interesting lives” — where interesting often means dysfunctional or disadvantaged — have in the marketplace. My main character, a middle-class white person, is a walking anti-climax, and she knows it. The only thing she has going, memoir-wise, is a gay ex-husband.
Most of the rejections boiled down to nothing more helpful than “I like Marion Winik’s writing but this book is not for us.” Some of them said many nice things. So what the hell was wrong with it? If anyone had explained, I would have been happy to rewrite it yet again.
And so it went in the drawer with my previous attempt at a novel, a YA book about golfers and football players. I begged myself: can you just stop wasting your short time on earth trying to write fiction? Why not stick to your personal brand of self-referential nonfiction, the one has actually resulted in seven published books and 122 articles in the Baltimore Fishbowl?
However, when I heard Skelter needed submissions, I saw a chance to show a sliver of my poor dead novel the light of day. I lifted a chapter from the beginning where the professor is having lunch with her former student at a sports bar on Charles St. called Terps, based on the sports bar on Charles St. called Terps. (All the locations in the book are real and undisguised; I was relieved to get a break from making things up, which does not come easily to me.) The professor and the ex-student discuss the recent shooting of his grandmother in the family’s fried chicken restaurant, and she encourages him to write a memoir — David Copperfield meets The Wire, as she puts it. He says, Come on, I’m not a writer. I didn’t even get an A in your class. And she says, Don’t worry, I’ll help you.
As you have already guessed, the undergraduate editors of Skelter gave this submission a thumbs down. I got not one but two rejection emails, one of which said: “Do not let this discourage you. Keep writing. Keep creating. Keep submitting your work,” and provided a list of helpful websites.
Oy, the nerve! Had I really done this to myself again, and now with undergraduates? I opened the piece to reread it and soothe my vanity.
This time, I read with mounting horror, realizing that sentence after sentence, it was filled with a kind of clueless, unintentional racism.
“Professor Greengrass,” he said, offering me a weak facsimile of his usual million-dollar smile. Between that smile, the dimples that framed it, and his soulful eyes with their thick lashes and curving brows, Omar Franklin bore an uncanny resemblance to Tupac Shakur. If you believed the rumors, it wasn’t coincidence. Shakur had spent part of his high school career in Baltimore and according to another student, people said Omar was Tupac’s unacknowledged son. …Today, his glow was shut off entirely. He looked beaten to a degree I’d never seen, even on the most ragged mornings back when he was in my class, on one of which I’d caught him sipping Hennessey for breakfast.
A little later the professor concludes that helping Omar rewrite his old stories from her class into a memoir manuscript “would be a good deed, a mitzvah, a blow against systemic racism and poverty—well, maybe that was going too far.”
Checking the files on my hard drive, I see that I began this book in 2014 (and Omar started out Pakistani, which I had completely forgotten). Since then, something has changed in our culture, or at least in my head. I have gone from dreaming of being a warrior against political correctness who dares to write about race to realizing it’s a total minefield and I don’t know what the hell I am talking about. Nobody wants to read what a sixty-year-old white lady from Whitesville has to say about this stuff. At this point, I feel uncomfortable even about the words I used to describe Omar’s face. Soulful eyes – aaaagh. Hennessey – aaaagh. Things I thought were so clever — the fried chicken place, Omar’s drug dealer uncle, the Chicana writer’s account of her affair with her seventh-grade teacher — now just seem like reworked cliches.
Maybe a genius like Gary Shteyngart can pull it off — in his forthcoming novel, Lake Success, the hedge fund manager protagonist tries to mentor a young Baltimore crack dealer named Javon — but I cannot. What do you expect, I can’t even make up my own sports bar.
I went back through the many rejections I had saved in my mailbox. No doubt the manuscript has other shortcomings, but it’s interesting that only one message mentioned race — probably not because they didn’t notice it, but because it’s hard to talk about. The one letter that broached the topic said, “Some of our readers worried about Omar and the race angle, given that the white professor helping the down-on-his-luck student of color feels like a familiar trope. Some worried that Omar feels uncomfortably close to a stereotype.”
I wish I’d given up right then, but it’s not in my character. A horse has to be very, very dead before I stop giving CPR.
I thank my unlucky stars that this book was not accepted for publication. I surely would have been hung out to dry. Instead of being the white Key and Peele of Baltimore memoir writing, I could have been the Roseanne Barr.
By now you can see why I was trying to keep this whole mess quiet. But though I may be the only professor who has been rejected by two different student literary magazines at her own school, I am probably not the only person who has been a little slow on the uptake with the change in our cultural climate. Maybe there’s a male writer out there who was trying to sell a really hilarious comic novel about sex in the workplace, thinking he was the male Amy Schumer, and then he heard about this #metoo thing. Hello, brother.
I recall the advice of my late brother-in-law, a man who spent ten years in prison. He told me, the only thing you can do about failure is not let it get to you. Nothing and no one can stop you from putting one foot in front of the other, from keeping on keeping on, and as long as you do, you still have hope. Wait a minute — that’s just what those undergraduates were trying to tell me!
From here on out, I’m sticking to Jewish jokes.