Welcome back to the ongoing Author! Author! series on various stripes of censorship and how they affect writers. As those of you who have enjoyed these posts in previous weeks are already aware, in an effort to provoke serious thought and spur some interesting conversation, I have blandished a select group of some of the most interesting authors I know to share their thoughts on the forces that discourage writers from writing (or publishing) what they want — or writing in the way that they prefer.
I discovered her memoir — a beautifully-written, quirky look at the pros and cons of same-sex marriage from the inside out, smart without being preachy, funny without being bitter, emotional without being maudlin — as a judge in a well-respected writing competition. Since, like all respectable literary contests, the judging was blind (meaning that the judges do not know who the entrants are), I read her first chapter anonymously. I spent the long intervening months between my round of judging and the announcement of the winners gnawing on my nails, waiting to discover who this gifted memoirist was, so I could get my mitts on the rest of the manuscript. When I was able to track her down at the awards ceremony (after the judge’s ethical imperative to remain silent had evaporated), I more or less demanded to read the rest of it.
Nor was I disappointed in the result. This is a pretty amazing book.
I’m not the only reader — or the only contest judge — who has felt this way about it, either. In the years since THE BRIDES OF MARCH placed in my contest, it has won a National Indie Excellence Award, a , an Independent Publisher Book Award. It garnered Honorable Mentions in both the Writer’s Digest International Self-Published Book Awards and the Reader Views Awards.
It was also a finalist in creative nonfiction at the Oregon Book Awards, a pretty impressive achievement in any year. The head judge praised the book’s skillful “veering from laughter to despair and at times a breathless ‘you-are-there’ intensity…Beren deMotier manages to create a spirited romp out of a contentious and often painful civil rights issue.”
So you would think that a book like that would have agents and editors clamoring for it, wouldn’t you? Wouldn’t you?
Well, I’ll let Beren tell the story — I think it will be of vital interest to all of you memoirists out there. (For a more in-depth look at the book’s rocky road to publication, please see my interview series on the subject beginning here.)
Please join me, then, in welcoming today’s guest blogger, Beren de Motier. Take it away, Beren!
I have become an expert, over the years, at receiving rejection letters. I know their feel, their smell; I can almost sense one in my mailbox.
When I first started sending manuscripts out years ago, rejection letters were crippling, leading to self-doubt, a re-questioning of priorities, and an aversion to completing any further literary projects. Then, I adapted somewhat, and though they didn’t stop me in my tracks upon arrival, they slowed me to a crawl, and three weeks could mysteriously pass without a word to paper. For a period they were depressing, requiring a day on the couch, much moaning, and an impulse purchase of lipstick or a half-gallon of ice cream. Nowadays, while I don’t rejoice over an envelope in the mail that contains a form letter or the personal note that still says “no,” I am definitely capable of surviving it intact and moving forward.
I got a lot of practice getting my memoir published.
Five years ago my spouse and I got married on a rainy Wednesday morning in March, and the next day I started writing a book about it. Not that I knew I was writing a book at the time. It began as a piece for my column, “I Kid You Not,” which ran in GLBTQ newspapers for over ten years. I called the piece “They Can’t Take This Away From Me.”
That morphed into a longer piece with a “you-are-there” urgency, trying to capture the day in its socio-political/romantic glory for those who couldn’t think of same-sex marriage other than theoretically. Then, when I heard a local gay rights advocate was pondering writing a book about the three thousand Multnomah County, Oregon, marriages, I decided I should write one, too; hadn’t I been writing articles about same-sex marriage for a decade?
The irony is that by the time I was finished writing my book, The Brides of March: Memoir of a Same-Sex Marriage, they had taken the marriage away from me — the marriages were annulled by state Supreme Court decision and declared null, void and legally non-existent. No gray area in that language. The book went from a joyous celebration of love conquering all after seventeen years and three kids together, to what I describe as “a giddy leap through a legal window, straight onto the barbeque pit of public debate.” History made it a better book (how many pages can you spend saying, “We finally got to get married and it was great!”), but I’d have bagged the book gladly and written a mystery if the marriages could have just stayed put.
After a strenuous campaign to get my memoir traditionally published, I self-published it so that I could add my two cents before same-sex marriage was off the political plate. This was definitely not my first choice for getting it in the hands of readers; having already published over a hundred articles, I had some confidence that I could write my way out of a paper bag, and the story seemed au courant and important. I was reasonably optimistic that it could find a publisher, however small, and maybe even an agent, after I did my leg work.
I know I did some of the right things (and read through Author! Author! to find out what these are, you won’t find better or more detailed writing advice anywhere) because not only were a good quarter of my rejection letters personally written by friendly editors and agents seemingly sorry that they couldn’t put my book on the best seller list (though that could have been an understandable desire to appear queer-friendly), but several agents and editors took it to the “send three chapters” and “send whole manuscript” level before deciding it was not for them. I was experienced enough to consider these rejections compliments, though a girl can’t help but get her hopes up.
However, some themes emerged among the rejection letters over time. One was of the “good writing/important story/can’t make any money” variety, and the low number of GLBTQ publishers who publish nonfiction (one, two?) indicates that the money part may be either a cold hard fact or an industry-wide assumption.
Another theme was “We don’t handle this kind of thing; you should send this to a gay-specific publisher, maybe Alyson?” I have a feeling that Alyson Books must get piles of submissions from writers rejected by “mainstream” publishing houses, but they can’t accept all of us.
The last and hardest to hear was the “not a big enough story” variety. One editor didn’t think it was a book — maybe a screenplay or a story for the New Yorker? One agent thought it could be “a novella or a terrific article.” Another agent said my writing was “charming, sexy, appealing and fun”… but that nothing dreadful happened; everyone lived, the couple was together in the beginning, still together at the end, and getting marriage rights denied, granted and taken away again wasn’t enough of a problem. She also said she’d have a better time getting my memoir published if I was an alcoholic, single mother—not that she wished that on me.
My wife, when I told her about it, responded, “Well, just rewrite the ending and have me killed by a hate crime; that should sell.”
Umm, talk about bad karma.
To give the agent credit, she read three edits of the book, which was darned generous.
But back up to the part about being denied the right to marry not being dreadful or enough of a problem; surely an author writing about interracial marriage before 1968, and how it impacted their family, wouldn’t be told that the subject lacked gravitas? Though the number of social commentary/humor memoirs about an interracial couple getting a marriage license with cries of “Why Don’t You Marry Your Dog?” and “God Hates This!” echoing from protesters outside the building, exchanging vows covered in cracker crumbs, holding a wedding reception only slightly marred by the additions of dog doo and razor blades in front of the house, mourning a constitutional amendment making sure their kind can never get married in that state again, and then their marriage being annulled by legal decision, must be low.
Anger was also something the book elicited; a literary contest judge (in which the unpublished manuscript won second place) began his comments with quotes from the synopsis of the book’s conclusion (“…devastated that the state we love, does not love us… How do you go on, in a nation that finds you so worthless?”) and wrote “That tone isn’t present in the chapters, but if it were it would make this reader stop at once. This book calls for humor, candor, insight, vulnerability and courage. Not self pity, and not made-up ideas of what the state or nation thinks.”
To paraphrase, it’s my memoir and I’ll cry if I want to.
But seriously, even though the lines he quoted are included in a synopsis of the book’s conclusion, and he himself says the tone isn’t present in the chapters he read, he found the lines so offensive, he put them at the top of his comments page.
The truth can be disconcerting; okay, all you queers reading this, raise your hand if you ever felt “devastated” and alienated when constitutional bans on same-sex marriage were passed? Anyone?
Yes, I’ve heard from you. Having our relationships legally defined as unworthy of marriage can make a person feel pretty worthless. I consider the ban on same-sex marriage character assassination on a national scale, and the idea that I shouldn’t find it “dreadful” enough to ponder repatriation involves a level of self-hate I’m not going back to. That’s what high school is for.
Not that, as a lesbian writer, I haven’t encountered the attitude again and again that “our” issues are less important than others, that all topics are straight unless otherwise specified, and that anything related to the queer community cannot be considered “universal.” I couldn’t count the number of times I’ve been asked by well-meaning people, “When are you going to write for real publications?” or been challenged by heterosexuals who think I’ve wasted my time writing about queer topics, i.e. the right to marry, my children (who happen to have two moms, making them a queer topic apparently), and, as a memoirist, my life.
There was the children’s book editor who asked why my main character needed to have two moms, instead of a mom and a dad, and I thought, well why not? About three million kids in the United States have gay parents. There was the literary journal editor who, looking at my list of published work, went on a tirade about one issue authors and found the issue of sexual orientation and gay relationships “tiring” and “looked forward to a day when gay men and women… can ‘forget’ about orientation and just write about all kinds of things.”
To the woman who writes about autism, Diet Coke, maggots, catching frogs, rejection letters, sex ed and being a high school “Band-aide,” among other things.
Fortunately, I’ve become a pro at receiving rejection letters and disparaging remarks with grace (and I wouldn’t share this story except that it does illustrate the subtle censorship that surrounds queer writing), so I didn’t give up on my book. After a whopping one hundred and ten rejections (ten percent “not without an agent,” forty-percent form letter, ten-percent hand-written note on returned query letter, ten percent “not at this address,” twenty-five percent individually written friendly letter, five-percent going on to request chapters or whole manuscript before saying no), I decided to self-publish through iUniverse, which was significantly less expensive at the time.
Since it was published in April 2007, The Brides of March : Memoir of a Same-Sex Marriage was a Finalist in the Oregon Book Awards in Creative Nonfiction, won a National Indie Excellence Award in Current Events: Political/Social, a in Gay/Lesbian Nonfiction, an Independent Publisher Book Award in Gay/Lesbian and Honorable Mentions in both the Writer’s Digest International Self-Published Book Awards in Life Stories and a Reader Views Award in Memoir/Autobiography.
I’m working on a Young Adult novel now, and yes, there are queer characters. There are also straight characters, Goth characters and a Pit Bull named Grendel. When it is time to send it out to agents and editors I will be interested to see if I get some of the same comments when the manuscript is fiction, not memoir, and lots of dreadful things happen (that’s what YA is all about, Charlie Brown).
Last fall I was on the “Queer Portland” panel at Wordstock, in Oregon, a sleeper hit of the literary festival full to the brim with writers and readers there to see Ariel Gore, Diane Anderson-Minshall, Marc Acito, Jake Anderson-Minshall, and me read and talk about our writing, and the invisibility/marginalization of queer writers. What seemed clear is that despite the success of specific GLBTQ authors, we are not at the place the literary journal editor described, where we can “forget” about orientation when it comes to where we can be published and what audience we reach, and that being “too gay” means limited options as an author.
Strangely enough, the underlying message of my memoir, wrapped in loopy conversational layers of relationship history, weaning the baby, exchanging vows, assembling a wedding reception in three days, and walking the beach in Canada with our kids, is that love is love, gay people are people, that the similarities vastly outweigh any differences between straight and gay, and that taking part in the culture we were raised in is not too much to ask.
The pronouns we employ in our writing shouldn’t limit access to an audience because publications and publishers find “queer topics” too marginal for the (assumed to be heterosexual) reading public. Right now, they do.
Beren de Motier spent her first 21 years in three seven-year stints in California, on Vancouver Island, and in Seattle, resulting in a Californadian accent confusing to her peers. After graduating from the University of Washington, she leapt head first into domestic bliss, moving increasingly south of Seattle, until coming to a full stop in cozy liberal Portland, Oregon. During that time, she wrote humor and social commentary about life as a lesbian mom for Curve, ecomagazine green*light.com, award-winning And Baby, prideparenting.com, on her website, and for newspapers across the country. She contributed to The Complete Lesbian & Gay Parenting Guide by Ari Istar Lev, and wrote for eHow as an expert in Gay/Lesbian Family and Relationships. The Brides of March was published in April 2007.
When she’s not up to her elbows in dishes, driving kids across town, or trying to find something funny to write about the flu, she paints portraits of dogs and horses. She lives with her spouse, their three children, and a Labrador the size of a small horse. You can read all about it on her blog, That Lesbian Mom Next Door.