TAKING THE LONG WAY AROUND
I’ve been asked to keep a blog here leading up to the publication date of my next book, sort of a combination of personal stories, random musings, and practical advice about marketing, promotion, and writing. The literary version of a NASA countdown, in the hopes that other writers will pick up some useful advice or tips. I’ve got exactly 72 days left until my September 15 pub date, a little less than two and a half months. Ack. It makes me think of a T-shirt I wore for many years that came from Politics & Prose bookstore in Washington, DC. I think the owners gave it to me on my first book tour in 1994. It advertised the now well-worn phrase, “So many books, So little time.” Except now it feels like the author’s new mantra is, “So much marketing, So little time.”
So I’ve got 72 days left, and still about 49 items on my marketing to-do list to take care of before September 15. Last night I did what any author 72 days from pub date who can’t manage to prioritize her to-do list might do in under similar circumstances: I went for a run by the river. And I thought I’d start blogging with the story of that run, since it brings me back to the beginning and up to date at the same time.
The river in this story is the Iowa River, and the last time I ran alongside it was probably in 1992, just before I finished graduate school. I’d arrived in Iowa City three years earlier at the age of 25, after a short stint as a magazine editor in Knoxville, Tennessee. I drove my U-Haul into town with a slew of preconceptions about what it meant to become a writer, but no clear picture of what it meant to actually be one. I’d spent the last two months politely explaining to everyone that no, I wasn’t enrolling in the Iowa Writer’s Workshop, that I’d been accepted to the nonfiction writing program, which hardly anyone had heard of. I’d only learned about it by fluke myself, in a line on a freelance writer’s resume I’d reviewed the year before. At that time, I was fresh out of a broken engagement, badly brokenhearted, and ripe for a big change. I didn’t have enough money to make a go of it in New York, so I figured graduate school was a saner bet. Plus, I wanted to write. I’d always wanted to write, had always planned to be a writer, whatever that meant, though I had no idea if I had enough talent to be deserving of the title. Secretly, I was afraid I didn’t. Yet somehow I rallied the chutzpah to apply to two graduate programs: the first was what was then called the Masters in Expository Writing at the University of Iowa; the second was the masters of journalism at University of Colorado-Boulder. That was because I’d been to Boulder once and thought it was the most beautiful city I’d ever seen. Iowa offered me a teaching fellowship. Boulder didn’t. So I moved to Iowa City. It really was as utilitarian a decision as that.
Twelve of us started in the Iowa nonfiction writing program together that fall. We came from all kinds of backgrounds: editors, English teachers, ESL instructors, copywriters, PhD candidates, waiters. We hardly knew anything about nonfiction; nobody really did back then. (When I’d tell people that I was studying “creative nonfiction,” they’d invariably ask, “Isn’t that an oxymoron?” Now I prefer to answer, “No, it’s a redundancy.”) There wasn’t much to do in Iowa City except write and drink, and we didn’t have the glamour or the distractions or the prestige of the Writer’s Workshop (read: agents weren’t coming to town back then to meet memoirists) , which freed us up to do what we’d all come to Iowa to do anyway: write. Yes, we studied Bacon and Woolf, Orwell and Didion, and yes, we also drank, but mostly we learned how to write from the small, true places inside of us, the place I came to know over those three years as my most authentic home, in the hope that our stories would somehow, some way, make a difference to some faceless people out there in the universe of lost and literate souls.
And yet it seemed impossible that any of this personal writing would ever amount to actual publication. I remember one Christmas vacation when I flew to Los Angeles on my leftover corporate frequent-flyer miles. During the weekdays, when the friend I’d come to visit went to work, I spent idle hours wandering up and down the Venice Beach boardwalk. I’d inevitably end up at Small World Books, tucked behind the Sidewalk Cafe—where memoir was shelved as Biography--and I’d stand in front of the tall shelves running my fingers along the spines of books as if physical proximity could work magic on me. I couldn’t imagine how I’d ever get a book of my own up there. It seemed like pure and audacious fantasy, a desire so inattainable I might as well go back to pounding the pavement outside in humility for even having had such a thought.
And then, in the fall of my final year in Iowa, in a fast flurry of events that began with an essay about Bruce Springsteen, which led to an office-hours meeting with a professor, which resulted in a book idea, which led to a proposal, which—and this was the truly miraculous part—caught the attention of an agent in New York (but only after another agent ignored my calls and a second one left my proposal in the dining car of a train). You can read the full story here: http://www.hopeedelman.com/books-motherlessdaughters-edelman.htm.
That first book was Motherless Daughters, which eventually brought me back to New York. And over the next twelve years, three more books followed, all in the same format: research-based memoir, a hybrid of personal writing and journalism.
These twelve years have been an incredible ride. Ups, downs, good choices, bad mistakes, and always interesting people surfacing along the way. I’m not complaining—I’ve been able to make a living as a writer for the past 15 years (more or less) and I know how rare and precious that is. And yet despite all this, the books and the lectures and the readings attached to it have always felt like parts of my make-believe self, the one created to have a Career, while the real me has been secretly toiling away in my drafty Iowa apartment all these years writing memoir, still waiting for her break.
Next month, August 2009, marks the twenty-year anniversary of my arrival in Iowa City. I’m back this month to teach in the summer writing festival, as I do every July. I come to town with both of my daughters. It’s our version of family summer camp. Except this year I’m here with my first book-length narrative, a memoir, ready to pop out of the chute. This book is a huge departure from anything I’ve published before. It’s the story of taking my older daughter to Mayan shamans in Belize when she was three to get rid of her aggressive imaginary friend, and how my marriage was saved and my world view transformed in the process. I like to describe it as a memoir of faith. I’ve got a publisher who’s behind it, and believe me, I know how fortunate that makes me, but I’m also scared shitless most days about putting such a personal and decidedly wacky (yet true) story out there with my name attached to it. It doesn’t matter how many books you publish. Each one is still its own cause for insomnia and exhilaration and triumph and panic attacks at 3 a.m.
I was thinking all this as I was running last night past the buildings along the river that were damaged in last year’s flood, and then up Iowa Avenue and straight up the west steps of the Old Capitol building, which deposited me smack into the middle of the waning moments of the Jazz Festival. As I headed into and through downtown Iowa City, the Dixie Chicks’ “Taking the Long Way Around” came onto my iPod. Maybe you’re familiar with the lyrics. It’s the story of an iconoclast who forges her own path, like the proverbial Edward Albee character who has to go a very long distance out of his way in order to come back a short distance correctly. And I realized that’s what’s happened to me, too. I’m finally back in Iowa, having just finished the kind of book I learned how to write here, and the kind of book I always hoped I’d get to write. It took twenty years, but that’s all right. Everything that happens in the next couple of months--and I’m busting serious butt in the hopes that something will happen-- is cake compared to that.
So if you happened to be heading down Gilbert Street last night at about 8:45 and saw a medium-aged woman in a black-and-hot-pink running bra running along the sidewalk, air drumming in time to the Dixie Chicks? Yeah, that would have been me.