[1st BOOKS] Shannon Huffman Polson: The Waiting

My fellow 85 Broad, Shannon Huffman Polson, has a first memoir being published by Zondervan/Harper Collins next Tuesday. Scott Russell Sanders calls North of Hope, "Daring, perceptive and eloquent," and says, "Polson's writing is clear and forceful. Like all true pilgrimages, this one is challenging, and well worth taking." Shannon has also published essays and articles in literary magazines and periodicals, and in More Than 85 Broads and the upcoming Be There Now: Travel Stories From Around the World. Her journey to publication is quite a story, too. Enjoy! And watch for North of Hope next Tuesday! - Meg

North_of_Hope_coverBefore I found a publisher for North of Hope: A Daughter’s Arctic Journey, my husband and I found something else: two lines on the white stick. This would be our second child; we had a happy, healthy two year old boy, but wanted a sibling for him. I was in the midst of waiting to hear back from my agent about the first round of submissions of my memoir to publishers. That suspense, finishing a remodel, and the demands of a two year old kept me more alert than I had been my first pregnancy.

The waiting seemed endless, and also secret. No one knew we were pregnant. No one really cares about a book until you have a pub date. Though it had been four years since I quit my day job to write, to start piling up rejection slips, to detour out to an MFA and back, now the days (the hours and minutes!) ticked by.

One our way out of town one weekend to the Methow Valley in north-eastern Washington, my agent called to ask if I had time to speak with someone from a publishing house. Did I have time? Of course I had time. We spent the weekend skiing smooth nordic trails, and I tried to ignore the fatigue of my first trimester which was tempered by the anticipation of my call.  We scheduled our Methow Valley departure to allow for a land line call; cell reception is spotty in Washington’s North Cascades. My favorite mountains in the state. Rugged, demanding, dangerous.

I talked to Bridget, the editorial assistant, who it turned out loved choral singing as much as I did and saw Annie Dillard in my writing. Had I read much of her? I’d read everything she’d written. Bridget was captured by the story; would I have time to talk to the acquisitions editor?

During my first talk with Carolyn, she told me her vision for my book: hard cover, a jacket, maps inside of course. A size you could hold, and engage with. She got it. She wanted to bring it to the marketing and sales meeting. It was two weeks hence. I understood, she wanted to be sure, that these could be tricky. Everyone had to like it, but she felt sure my manuscript would be compelling.

Having just discussed my book, I spent the next two weeks picking at it. Playing with a paragraph or sentence, almost compulsively, like twirling a pencil or biting my nails. It had been five years since I’d started writing and pitching. A host of false starts, or redirected efforts. Now a publisher wanted to talk about it!

The day I expected to hear back from the publisher was also the day of my first appointment with my OB. Wasn’t it amazing how the dates aligned? How these acts of creation lined up?  Wasn’t it incredible how much joy and anticipation a person could hold?

I kept my phone conspicuously available to pick up at a moment’s notice, even as I sat in the waiting room. I glanced at it as I filled out the blank fields on my paperwork. Previous pregnancies: 1. We were going to have our second child! Had the publisher called yet? I needed to clean up my last chapter. Really the last two chapters needed work.

Shannon_Huffman_PolsonMy husband and I went back to the appointment room and met with the new doctor. She seemed nice. I left my phone on the counter in case it made a noise. How was I feeling? Fine, fine really. I was still enjoying coffee this time. Isn’t it interesting how each pregnancy can be different? Then we went to the room for the initial sonogram. I made sure my phone’s volume was on, and put it in my purse.

I lay back on the table, the white paper crinkling under my body (the white paper, like the pages of a book!). I knew this drill; it was the publishing piece I needed to figure out. And still, our child! I remembered the thrill of first hearing a heartbeat two years earlier. The picture came up on the screen. The doctor looked at it and squinted, tried another angle.

“I’m sorry,” she said, with kind finality, “I’ll bring in another doctor to look, but this isn’t what I was hoping to see. You can see the pregnancy here,” she pointed to a small white spot on the dark screen, “but it probably stopped growing a couple of weeks ago.”

She went out of the room to bring in the second doctor. Something inside me collapsed. I stared at the silent sonogram, willing my inexpert eyes to see something hidden. I let the mascara streak down and run into my ears. I scheduled a hospital appointment for the next day.

I got back in my car in the dark parking garage to drive to pick up my son from preschool. My son. My beautiful, happy, healthy son. As I approached the cashier in the parking garage and my forgotten phone regained reception, I heard a chime. It was a text from my agent. “Congrats! They want it!”

I felt nothing. I forced myself to finger a return text: “great!” The exclamation point took effort. I couldn’t do more. I couldn’t think of more until sometime later that week. He must have wondered what was wrong with me.

One dream died. Another was born. Now I’ve held my second son, and I’ve held the advance copy of North of Hope. A big part of me is in a state of breathless wonder that North of Hope: A Daughter’s Arctic Journey is coming into the world after its several years in the making, a beautiful if imperfect creation of mind. The rest of me is in perpetual awe of two perfect little boys who came from my body. I believe both come from a place much bigger than I am. Life and love are tethers to beating hearts and breath, and the breaths and heartbeats we are allotted fuel our minds and souls to what, if we are lucky, might create something of substance and beauty. It’s not possible to know how long our efforts will take, when they will be complete, when they will fly.  We are not meant to know. We are only meant to continue to reach toward the creating. Even, and maybe especially, when it takes years. - Shannon

This post originally ran on 1st Books: Reading and Writing with Friends, hosted by Meg Waite Clayton, bestselling author of four novels, including The Wednesday Sisters (a writing group novel), the forthcoming The Wednesday Daughters. 1st Books features award-winning writers blogging about how they got started writing and publishing, as well as other readerly and writerly delights.

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Comment by Julia Fierro on April 12, 2013 at 7:40am

Another great post! I'm excited to read this. Thanks, Meg.

Comment by Arleen Williams on April 11, 2013 at 6:17pm

Loved the post and loved book. Here's my review...

In prose as crystalline as the Arctic wilderness itself, Shannon Huffman Polson's North of Hope took me on a journey to a physical place I do not know and an emotional landscape I know only too well. With grace and raw honesty, she shares her story of loss and longing, of eventual and inevitable acceptance, and of the healing spirituality of nature. I felt the warmth of my dying mother's hand as I read Polson's words: It struck me that there is no greater intimacy than sitting with someone traversing that tenuous boundary between worlds, sitting vigil with a spirit trembling on the border, reaching toward the new and releasing the old. It seemed to me that our fragile humanity experiences this intersection only rarely because we are not strong enough to bear it more often, because what we live in those moments will take us a lifetime to begin to understand. A lifetime indeed. North of Hope is a memoir worthy of a long, slow read, a read that allows time for reflection.

Comment by Shannon Huffman Polson on April 9, 2013 at 4:41pm

thank you all for reading and taking the time to comment! It continues to be quite a journey in all parts of life- and it's great to have North of Hope out in the world today!

Comment by Katherine Scott Crawford on April 9, 2013 at 1:41pm

Lovely, beautifully written post. Thanks for sharing!

Comment by Janet Singer on April 9, 2013 at 12:15pm

Thank you for this post......very inspiring.

Comment by Karyne Corum on April 7, 2013 at 7:17am

Meg, loved this, really and truly. I have one amazing son, and while my writing is my passion, I know that he is my greatest ms, a work of love and art that I will be more proud of than anything I ever produce on paper.

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