Wednesday, August 31, 2011

The Journey of a Manuscript, or, Trying to Fit a Circle into a Square

Something quietly extraordinary is happening. How to put this simply? I have been working on a manuscript that I call Searching for the Heart Radical for well over a decade, and I finally feel close to bringing this process to a close.

It is hard for me to say definitively when I started working on this book, for many of the stories and themes in the manuscript have existed in various incarnations for many, many years. I suppose I have had the feeling that I am actually working on a book ever since I took off on my second trip to China in 1999, even if I wrote the bulk of the pieces at least five years later, while in grad school. Most of the oldest writing has been cut by now, but some ancient passages still remain, cut and pasted into newer forms.

For years I worked on individual pieces, writing when I felt called to explore a particular story or theme. I saw how the pieces could one day all be linked together, but I didn’t worry about the greater whole. I wanted to see what kind of structure they fell into naturally instead of trying to impose structure from the onset.

Gradually, I started to get more serious about writing and publishing. I became a better editor, and held my writing to higher standards. I went to grad school and got my MFA, I learned about the competitiveness of the industry, and started to think about how to market my book.

Somewhere along the way I heard (from several ‘in the know’ sources) that “essays don’t sell." Since depending on the piece (or the person), my writing could be categorized as either memoir or personal essays or some even lyric essays, I decided that it was prudent to call my book a memoir, or rather, a collection of memoirs. These days there were plenty of writers who were publishing creative non-traditional memoirs that were non-linear or written in multiple point of views, like Abigail Thomas’s Safekeeping or Nick Flynn’s Another Bullshit Night in Suck City (both of which happened to be amongst my favorite books). So, memoir it was, I decided, as I drafted my book proposal and began to query agents.

Many agents were excited by my query—it sounded like something they might be able to sell. Quite a few asked to see my sample chapters, and then asked to see the entire manuscript (or what I had so far of it, since with nonfiction, the manuscript does not yet need to be completed when you query). It was encouraging. My writing had been workshopped by many, and revised a thousand times. I knew it was worthy of publication. I felt hopeful that eventually my book would find its home.

But then the trail of rejections. The first agent that saw the whole thing (thus far) liked aspects of my writing, but ultimately, could not see it as a whole. Felt it read too much as separate pieces, lacked a narrative arc. But I was convinced that if she could see the whole thing as I envisioned, if she could see how the yet unwritten pieces would tie it all together, she would see that it did have an arc, very much so. So I decided to finish the book before I bothered to query more. Then, if I still got the same feedback, I would know for sure that it was based on the actual writing and not the outline of the writing to come.

This was back in 2007, I believe. And so I kept writing. And writing. And writing. I delved into long pieces about my spiritual evolution, about my youthful involvement with the Tibetan Independence movement, about my history of intimate relationships. I wrote short “bridge” pieces which helped fill in some blanks or explain jumps in chronology. I knew that in order for a memoir to be marketable it needed to have a clear idea, and I admittedly had trouble articulating in a nutshell what my book was about. Geographically, it took me from America to China and back and forth several times again, and so in this respect, it was easiest to describe the journey in a linear perspective. But I knew that this wasn’t a travelogue. And nor was it a book “about China.” Sure, you could learn lots of interesting details about modern China, but at core, it was a book about an interior journey, a spiritual quest, an identity quest, a cross-cultural love story, a coming of age tale—all of the above. I revised my synopsis many times, and finally alighted on a description that I felt did it justice. And yet, there was always some part of me that knew I wasn’t entirely representing it truthfully.

The manuscript grew and grew. It was almost twice as long as it had been when I finished grad school. It had definitely become much more of a proper “memoir”, and yet, inside I knew that many of the newer pieces (or oldest pieces that I kept trying to breathe new life into) weren’t as strong. But if this were to be a memoir with a narrative arc, I couldn’t see how to cut them; I had to somehow make them work.

At a certain point, a couple years ago, I decided to start sending the manuscript directly to small presses where it was more likely to find a home anyway. Again, I got enough interest to keep me hopeful. And yet, now I was pregnant. And soon, I would have a baby. And I knew that I would no longer have the time to keep researching and sending it out en masse. (Not to mention how expensive it gets to send a 350 page manuscript to New York, and how much time it takes-- months and months-- for them to reply.)

So fast-forward to now, almost eighteen months after giving birth, when I finally have the time and presence of mind again to start thinking about this pesky, beloved, dreaded manuscript. I’ve always known, I can’t just abandon it, be done with it. Some kind of closure needs to happen. And I’ve always trusted that this is not just some pipe dream. So what to do?

I’d never entirely rejected the idea of self-publishing, but I considered it a last resort. I wanted the esteem of being published with a real press. And yet, increasingly, I realize that the most important thing at this point is just to share this work, bring closure to this creative cycle, especially since I’ve long since moved on and started working on other projects. And as I’ve learned about self-publishing models that don’t require huge chunks of cash to order a minimum number of books that may sit and mold in one’s basement for years, but that instead people can order via Amazon and that will print on demand, I’ve started to warm up more to the idea. Finally, just recently, I’ve started to feel those first tingles of acceptance and excitement that say, Yes, let’s do this. Let’s go for it, take a plunge, join the do-it-yourself bandwagon and let go of any lingering stigma I might have about self-publishing.

As I’ve decided to do this (I’m like 90% there), I’ve had some major breakthroughs in how I see the manuscript. In short, I’ve been able to let go of my preoccupations with what is “most marketable,” and realize that I only WANT to publish my very best. This realization has thus allowed me to cut back the manuscript even more— in fact, to cut out almost everything that I worked so hard at adding in over the last several years. And in turn, to also call it for what it is: a collection of essays. A collection that, with the exception of a couple pieces, already existed in its entirety years ago.

Oh, the irony! You would think that I’d be incredibly upset at having WASTED years of my life on writing stuff that I inevitably turned around and cut, and yet, mostly, I’m just relieved. Relieved to alight on this new clarity, relieved to cut stuff that would have made some part of me cringe if published, and relieved to start feeling connected internally to the manuscript again, to start seeing it anew and feeling movement again, like something’s finally happening.

I still think there is a narrative arc, but it is not a traditional arc—instead of taking you from point A to point B, the journey I present is more of a spiral, with the same themes and questions echoing throughout on different levels. Letting go of the need to keep it in strict chronological order helped me cut even more pieces, and in turn, certain allegiances to sub-themes (like my love relationship in China) have lessened whereas core themes feel clearer (like my search to feel at peace existing in an "in-between" place, and to find my voice, whether in English or Chinese).

I think I always knew (or feared) that I was trying to fit a circle into a square. The fact that I persisted in calling them ‘pieces’ and not ‘chapters’ should have been a huge clue that inside, I still didn’t feel it was a chapter book—and yet, I stubbornly persisted in this vein until I exhausted that avenue.

Do I regret the “wasted” years? No. How could I? It’s the way it had to unfold for me, I really believe this. No time, no experience, and no writing, is ever wasted. Sure, it is tempting to groan in retrospect at all the stabs I took at trying to get certain torturous pieces "right", but I guess I had to do it this way, I had to go through all that, my own personal laborious process. 

So here I am. A huge amount of work still lies before me before I will be able to get this book into your hands. But the beautiful thing is, I can see it now, step by step, the work that remains. There is no longer the existential question of whether or not the book will one day exist, and in what form. And nor is there the same foggy sense that I am writing myself into some murky rabbit's hole or coyote den or whatever trickster characters might be conjured in this particular lesson I have to learn. 

It's too early yet to articulate just exactly what this lesson is, but you can bet that when I figure it out, I will be writing about it.


  1. So excited for you, Anne! Can't wait to hold your words in my hands...

  2. Thanks, Noriko. It's all coming together now that I've had the necessary distance and perspective, I guess. Combing through and doing some final edits now... then will start investigating the book-making process. Can't say I'm looking forward to the work involved, but it will be long overdue and sweet to birth this baby of mine.

  3. I've missed you.
    Reading a few of your posts here has brought a huge smile to my face.
    I'm like - yes, yes, yes!
    I'm with you on all accounts.
    Go for it, Anne. BE heart radical!

  4. Kris! I've missed you too. I thought of you the other week and looked up your website and am happy to see that you've got writing workshops happening this fall- I don't think I ever sent a congratulations on getting that going- no small thing! Very cool. Thanks for your sweet encouragement. Same to you, sister! Give that 'baby' a hug for me.



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