AFTER SUMMER COMES THE FALL

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Attentive readers may recall that on July 10 I took a leave of absence from “Getting Old” to clean up the manuscript of a book I had abandoned unfinished ten years ago. I was returning to the book because a literary agent had asked to see it, and I needed to not embarrass myself by sending it off without fussing over it and thereby blowing what looked like a once-in-a-writer’s-lifetime event: an actual solicitation from an agent.

When I returned, I promised to let you know when I heard from the agent.  Friends, that time has come. You can guess the result from the title of this post.

Here’s his letter:

Dear Nina Mishkin,

I am old enough to remember dropping in on the only White Castle burger place in Greenwich Village for a bag of mini burgers after a late night on the town. They were greasy and unescapable.

I am sorry to have kept you waiting for this response, but I was away on holiday when your manuscript arrived.

I wish I had better news for you, but I do not see a viable market with publishers for “Eating Behind Closed Doors.” You write well and manage to create the times, 50 years ago when eating disorders were mostly unknown except to shrinks or dietitians. This may make an interesting article in one of the national magazines, but it’s more nostalgic than hopeful.

Since this is a subjective reading, another agency may have a different opinion. I’ve been wrong before.

Regretfully,

/s/

P.S. I am returning your manuscript in the hopes that you can reuse it with other agents.

One should never burn one’s bridges.  [And I chose to believe the “regretfully.”]  So I e-mailed him back this morning:

Dear ____________,

You write a gracious rejection letter.

To be candid, I’m not surprised you don’t see a market for this kind of thing. You’re right that the part you read is not “hopeful,” in the sense that it appears to be a “misery” memoir without a clearly happy ending.  And hope or happiness, I suppose, is what the market demands.

On the other hand, I am not now — and have not been for quite some time — fat or even overweight. So I suppose there was, eventually, light at the end of the tunnel. But as you must realize if you’re old enough to remember White Castle burgers, getting to know, like and live with oneself is, for some of us, a long slow process, and another story entirely — one which isn’t really marketable either, even if I were inclined to write it.

I don’t know yet what I’m going to do about finishing “Eating” and pursuing publication with other agents. But I do very much appreciate your interest, the time you took to read however much you read of it, and your kind regrets.

All my best wishes,

/s/

*******************

Truthfully, and despite all your good wishes for a contrary result, I wasn’t surprised at this rejection.  As I reported when I finished my edit, I thought what I had done was uneven, not in its writing but in its interest level, and had mixed feelings about going on with it. So I really don’t need consoling.  What I need now is to sort out my thoughts about what to do next.  And you can all help with that.

If I don’t put it away again — always an option — and do pursue the agent’s implied suggestion that I try with other agents, I will need to finish the manuscript first.  (Only already published authors go to market with unfinished work.)  Although you can send an agent a synopsis and the first fifty pages, if there’s a nibble you’ve got to be able to send the whole thing.  I have the synopsis and 173 relatively polished pages, but not the rest of it. I’m not even entirely sure what “the rest of it” would contain.  [I rarely know what I think till I see what I write.]  However, finishing would mean quite a lot more work, on subject matter no longer dear to my heart, in quest of an uncertain future.

I could also finish it and try to publish it myself, as at least one of you has suggested.  Believe it or not, while I was drafting this post, the agent answered my thank-you email.  [It seems we’re now on a first-name basis.] His timing was impeccable:

Dear Nina,

In this new ebook world, many writers are finding an audience for their work by self-publishing through Amazon. Why don’t you explore this possibility, before abandoning the book. Yours is better written than most.

Good luck,

Nat

So now, dear readers, you can help me decide whether to grit my teeth, finish writing the manuscript and then try to find it an audience, either through an agent or by self-publishing. Is there in fact a paying audience for a book like this?  Here’s the two-page synopsis I sent along with the manuscript.  Would you be interested in buying such a book or ebook to read it in full?

********************

Unfinished First Draft of “Eating Behind Closed Doors: A Memoir”

This book recounts the development of the author’s nearly life-long binge eating disorder, beginning during her four years as an almost full scholarship student at prestigious, expensive Sarah Lawrence College between 1948 and 1952.The tone is wry, dispassionate and occasionally tender.  Because much of it takes place so long ago, the book necessarily also describes by implication a world thankfully now gone where societal expectations for even educated girls were limited and confining, which should make it interesting to feminists and other young women as well as to readers more narrowly focused on its confessional aspects.

SYNOPSIS

 Author’s Preface: A three-page explanation of what the book is, and is not about, and why the author has written it. (Perhaps dispensable.)

Section I: Six pages graphically plunging the reader into the author’s secret life of night binge eating in 1986, when she was 55 and beginning a mid-life career as a lawyer – taken in part from contemporaneous notes made to record her shame and disgust at what she was still doing to herself after so many years.

Section II : The author prepares for college by rigorous dieting to begin her new life looking like the slender models in Seventeen Magazine. The new life proves stressful. A scholarship student, she’s uncomfortable with wealthy classmates from private day schools, finds the unconventional educational methods at Sarah Lawrence unsettling, and can’t maintain 1000 calories a day on mid-twentieth century institutional meals. A blind date for a football weekend at Princeton proves disastrous, and a first binge ensues, memorable as a template for future escapes from pain. Although she has a boyfriend at the University of Chicago, twenty-five hours away by train, the author gradually slips into wildly aberrational eating habits that pile on the pounds during the long snowy winter. The slippage soon includes intensifying self-contempt as well as lies to mother and boyfriend. During the summer she first tries psychotherapy, unsuccessfully.

In her second year, she meets J.D. Salinger (age 33), Marguerite Yourcenar and, in Paris, a hungry not-yet-known Larry Rivers. The year features in-the-trenches sexual battle a la 1950 with the boyfriend, pouring peroxide over her brown hair to change herself, increasing tension with her mother, growing dependence on secret binging for a “fix,” and a student bicycle tour of Europe (temporarily abandoned for the dubious joys of Paris patisseries) during which she encounters the strong anti-American feeling still obtaining in Bavaria five years after the end of war, and perhaps lingering anti-semitism as well. During her last two college years, she steals (both food and money). She also experiences bitter resentment at the loss of a friend to an in-the-closet lesbian relationship, and the momentary but illusory hope of romance with a faculty member. She graduates in June 1952, having done commendable and serious academic work in which she had almost no interest, without boyfriend or job prospects and realizing that in all aspects important to her, she has failed.

Section III: Expecting unrealistically to leave binging behind, the author moves to Los Angeles with her parents. [To be continued: This section, not yet written, could contain – at a minimum — discussion of the author’s disorder at its later worst; its physical and emotional effect on her over the years; how at the age of 68 she eventually managed to reach a somewhat even keel; her experience with Overeaters Anonymous (and its offshoot, Grey Sheet); her views on psychotherapy (of which she’s had a lot) as both helpful and not helpful in resolution of her disorder; and some concluding thoughts.]

*****************

Now here I stand at the crossroads. Do I chalk the whole summer up to experience, or go on?  I’m quite serious in asking the level of your interest, and won’t be at all offended — possibly even relieved — if I learn from your comments that I should put what agent Nat called “nostalgic” behind me and forget it.  What do you think? Does “Eating” have any kind of a future? Don’t wait for someone else to say something. And don’t be nice.  Be honest.

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18 thoughts on “AFTER SUMMER COMES THE FALL

  1. I think it has a great future if you let go of the eating disorder as the organizing principle for the story. It seems to me that you are reducing what is a fascinating life to something that was there but was a lot less interesting than the life. The possibility that anybody will say anything radically or even marginally new about the eating disorder is very slim. But you have so many really new things to say!

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    • Clarissa, you’re amazing! A breath of fresh air blowing through the cobwebs of my mind! It took me a few minutes to get my bearings after first seeing your comment, but of course you’re absolutely right (although young me would have disagreed with you): “Something that was there but was less interesting than the life.” You have cut to the heart of the problem I had with it, and with laser-like precision. And it wouldn’t mean throwing away everything I’ve already written and polished up to start all over again. I think all I might need to do is rewrite the opening and ending, alter the emphasis of the intervening narrative by inserting some more new material that didn’t really fit under the present umbrella, and come up with a new title. I feel invigorated. Thank you so much!!! 🙂 🙂 🙂

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      • Agree with Clarissa. And while reading a few of your posts I understand you, Nina, aren’t interested in writerly commingling per se (particularly because: who can be bothered to waste their time with the untalented? I mean, really.) if you’re curious to have a fellow writer read your full manuscript for more thorough suggestions and marginilia (albeit, of course, just the opinion of one fellow writer) please feel free to let me know. And my in-laws live in Lawrenceville so it’s not difficult for me to meet face-to-face. Best of luck regardless — not that you need it!

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      • Thank you very much for your kind offer, Annittah. And also for a fantastically enthusiastic prior comment and tweet about my Iowa Review story. But I’d like to take a raincheck on it, if you don’t mind. I’ve set that particular manuscript on the back burner for a while, while I attend to other more pressing (and not literary) matters. And fellow writers (a small writing group of graduates of my alma mater) did already express themselves on the first thirty-five or forty pages of it, a few years back. As for meeting face to face, I assume you mean in order to talk about the full manuscript after you’ve read it. But if not just that, I’m always ready to meet with anyone with a CV like yours! (Yes, I looked you up after your earlier comment.) Was there anything else you wanted to talk about? If you still live in Philly, you’re only a hour away by car. Let me know. 😀

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  2. I am also keen to read the story. The topic of eating disorders is challenging & and maybe even uncomfortable for some, but it’s still prevalent in modern societies. Perhaps it may not be ‘new’ material, but, it will show another angle.

    The time periods covered in the story are also very interesting for me, especially the 1950’s (the protagonist meets JD Salinger!), so even if you didn’t focus on the eating disorder, your story would be very intriguing. Of course, it’s a lot of work for you, and you may decide to spend your time on other things. I’ll respect your decision either way 🙂

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    • Dear Takami, You’re always so loyal and faithful I was reasonably certain you’d want to read it, whatever it was. But if you check out Clarissa’s remarkably helpful insight in the comment just before yours, and my reply, you’ll see that you may be able to have your cake and eat it too (if you pardon the too-apt choice of metaphor). Salinger… plus food as the good girl’s drug of choice! This may take a while, as I have to think how to do it, but if I live long enough, you may get your wish! 😀

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  3. Nina, you are a talented writer and because I have read your work I would probably read this book although the main subject would not be compelling for me. Bluntly, though, I think your talent would be better enjoyed if you were writing about a different subject that you could really be passionate and excited about right now. You have so much broad knowledge and experience, I feel like if you chose another facet to write about, you would be able to actually enjoy the writing process and more likely put more energy into it if it brought you pleasure. Write something you love to write and it would seem more like play than work. Life is too short, follow your heart.

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    • Nancy, You sound a bit like Joe Campbell, who was at Sarah Lawrence when I was there: As you may know, “Follow your bliss” was his mantra. I do appreciate your blunt candor, though — although it always puzzles me when I hear from people out of their teens that I have so much knowledge and experience. Like everyone (except perhaps Clarissa, who seems to have total recall), I’ve forgotten at least 90% of what I presumably used to know, and barely remember what it was I’ve forgotten all the details of. As for “experience,” I’ve lived a fairly uneventful life. What may give me an edge, for purposes of writing about it, is that the life now goes back so far, to a world for many purposes completely different than the one we live in today.

      You’ve also hit the nail on the head about needing work to be enjoyable. I was resisting finishing the book I had because as presently organized, its subject is no longer compelling to me and going on with it would have been drudgery. However, Clarissa — two comments up — has now pointed me in another direction. Thank you for your bracing pep talk; it’s certainly energized me to follow through.

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  4. Jools

    Before I read a word of Clarissa’s first comment, I had the exact same response – let go the focus of the eating disorder and write what sounds like a fascinating memoir taking in so many facets of social history, literature and place.

    But then… I know what it is to press ahead with an idea which no longer excites you. And if that’s how you really feel, then move along. Write something you want to write, from scratch and with passion and excitement. Stop trying to revise and rework, take a deep breath and do something different.

    You write beautifully, and with insight and wisdom – I’d read whatever you produced.

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    • Julie, What a beautiful response. It brought tears to my eyes. And as for your advice, yes. Of course you’re right. But if you also read my response to Clarissa, you’ll find that I now see there’s a way to take what you’ve said, and she said, and Nancy said and write the unwritten parts of the book I already have — which does excite me — without entirely abandoning that which has been already written. (Which of course was not “just” about eating.) Thank you for YOUR insight and wisdom. Especially valuable coming from a writer who’s experienced some bumps in the road herself.

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  5. You have a had a lot of good advice here, Nina, most of it saying what I had in mind to say as I read your post. But if I may add a few words it seems to me that you have rather been putting the cart before the horse. What is important is not finding a publisher but writing what you want to write, what you can’t live without writing (the literary equivalent of compulsive eating!) and then, when it is finished (not with a sigh of relief but with a tear of regret) you think about sending it out like a child into the big world. And the world these days, when millions – literally millions! – of writers are self-publishing, many of them semi-literate wanabes, yes, but many, many of them very competent and producing work that fifty, seventy, years ago publishers would have jumped at, is the world of Amazon and Smashwords and so on. Of ebooks. Novelists now are in the same boat poets have always been in. Finish your book if you really want to (though there seems to me to be a lack of enthusiasm for the writing as opposed to the getting published) or better, write what you really want to write, and when it is complete (no one is interested in an unfinished work these days) publish it as a KIndle ebook with Amazon. And if one or two, or ten or twenty, people read your book and enjoy it, that is wonderful. Just don’t expect to make any money!
    Sorry about the “few words” – got carried away!

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    • Thanks for your very thoughtful “few words,” James. Of course, you’re absolutely right — except for your supposition that I was ever enthusiastic about publishing the manuscript in question. In fact, I put it away ten years ago as something I wasn’t going to go on with. If you had come in on the beginning of this three-month saga, you would have seen that I dug it out again and cleaned it up a bit because an agent had asked to see it. Then, having invested another two months of work in it, I hated to just abandon it, although in fact that seems to be what I have done since writing this post — at least for now. It’s the unsolicited query from the agent that got me all worked up. Rest assured, I’ve calmed down, at least with respect to that particular piece of unfinished business. I do appreciate your insights, though. And I love that you love writing so much!!!

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  6. I have no idea if there is a market for your book, but I am amazed that an agent contacted you in this way.

    To be more precise, I’m certain that there is a market for your book, but I have no idea how large it may be. I suggest you research similar books on Amazon and check their sales ranking. A ranking of around 75,000 indicates approximately 1 sale per day; a ranking of around 7,500 indicates 10 sales per day.

    Liked by 1 person

    • The Amazon ranking numbers are extremely interesting information, Steve, and thank you very much for offering it. As you’ve already read, though, this “book” was an unfinished manuscript, and may be a very different kind of book if I rework it as several of our blogging colleagues have wisely suggested. What may be ready for market sooner is a collection of the more essay-like pieces from this blog. What search term do you suppose one would use to research the ranking of “similar” books? 🙂

      I understand from reading interviews this agent has given in the past that he never considers unsolicited work. He subscribes to 100 literary reviews and journals; when he finds a piece that interests him for the quality of its writing, he contacts the author to see if they are unrepresented and have a “book” he could look at. However, a letter of inquiry is certainly no guarantee that he will eventually decide to represent you — as my experience with him plainly shows.

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      • Nina, I really have no idea how to find “similar” books. As the author of the book, you would know this best. I just wanted to share the sales information facts that I have learned so you can judge potential sales for such a book. (I’m a numbers guy.)

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      • It wasn’t a real question, Steve. Hence the smile. I doubt any essay writer is “similar” to any other. [Take you and me.] However….

        For a numbers guy, you write quite a blog! “Dysfunctional Literacy?”

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