GENIE IN A BOTTLE
A Long Road to here . . .
I wrote this piece at the height of the pandemic on November 18, 2020. My consulting business had all but shut down with projects dried-up or cancelled. For the month of February 2020, I was up in Vermont on a high-profile assignment with prospects to stretch throughout the year. I came home in March to write a detailed report with accompanying strategies and boom - Covid hit.
And the world went crazy.
I thought, maybe, this might be the time when something might happen for me and my stories. It did. But not what I imagined. It’s interesting to look back to a year and half ago and see how my longstanding ambition has altered from then to now.
Tim Osner – 11/18/2020
Any of you relate to this?
I'm not published. There – I've said it. Nothing to be ashamed about. Lots of good writers in the same boat. But keep going. Keep working. It'll come. Those who don't make it are those who give up . . .
I got my first literary agent in 1985 - Phyllis Westberg at the Harold Ober Agency. I was thirty-three years old.
I had always wanted to write. In junior high I was a solid 'D' student when low-and-behold out of nowhere I received the only two 'A's that would come to me for the next six years - a short story about a werewolf and a poem about snow.
At last, something I could do that came natural. I was hooked. And once in college, which in itself was a miracle, my first declared major was creative writing. That is until one of my professors, Doris Roethlisberger, got my mind right - "Got your mind right, Luke? Got your mind right?"
Doris was a stickler and tough to please. God bless her. But she was also encouraging and a dear soul. I didn't understand it - 'D's. It was like my writing courses had turned into chemistry and algebra. For the final exam that freshman year, Doris gave a scenario from which we had to create a short story. This would be equal to half of our grade. I worked and worked, editing and re-editing. It had to be tight. And it paid off. When Doris returned my story, her comments were, to my mind, effusive: "Tim, you've come a very long way. This is the best piece of writing you've turned in. I'm proud of you. Keep it up. C–." I changed my major to psychology. I thought it'd be easier – sitting around listening to people's problems and giving advice . . .
But once out of college I could not help but write. Shogun - James Clavell's Shogun, I read it so many times. I wanted to write Shogun. Damn James Clavell, how did he beat me to it? And damn Herman Melville writing Moby Dick first. I had to come up with something. Okay, write what you know . . . What did I know? . . . Werewolves and snow.
It was called IN SHEEP'S CLOTHING at the time (I'll get to it later in future postings). My in-laws thought I was nuts. My neighbors were skeptical. This was 1985 and novel writing was not the national obsession. Though we did have one other writer on the block (Forest Avenue, Deerfield, IL) Jerry Jenkins. I didn't know Jerry well at all, but his wife, Diana, and my wife were friends, as were all the moms; they used to host school PTA meetings in their house. Jerry and I did go to the same high school, Forest View, but he was three years ahead of me. Before he got famous with the LEFT BEHIND series, he was writing these Evangelical romance novels where in the first steaming sex scene on about page 40, the man would stop unbuttoning her blouse to talk about God . . .
I finished this thing, IN SHEEP'S CLOTHING, and because I was a commercial photographer at the time dealing with advertising agencies, I knew if I was going to get any foot in the door, I was going to have to have an agent. I needed a QUERY LETTER . . . So how do you write a query letter? . . . Yes, the same shit back then . . . And don't let them tell you it was any easier to get an agent . . .
I bound up this massive manuscript and shipped it off to New York and Phyllis shopped it around. She'd mail me a Xerox of the editors’ responses (I still have the letters). IN SHEEP'S CLOTHING was almost picked up by Dell/Doubleday, but it was a bit too Catholic. Close, but no cigar. What would my life had been like if that had happened? Around that time F. Paul Wilson, Robert McCammon were coming on the scene. Peter Straub and Stephen King were young, but well established. Phyllis stuck with me until 2001 for two other manuscripts. I'm a terribly slow writer. I was lucky. You see, I didn't know who Phyllis was.
In the early 90s I'd hired an editor to work on a manuscript before I sent it off to Phyllis. She was going over the pages with me and suddenly stopped and said, "You said you have an agent?" "Yeah, Phyllis Westberg at Harold Ober." Her brow knitted. "Harold Ober? Harold Ober? Why are you with Harold Ober?" I blinked. "I don't know? Is that bad? What are they, some kind of schlockmeisters?" "No, they're good." "Have they represented anyone I've heard of?" "Yes." "Who?" "Fitzgerald, Hemmingway, Buck, Salinger, Faulkner, Agatha Christi . . ."
It turns out Phyllis was the grand dame of New York literary agents and was the agent for J. D. Salinger. Those of you in the industry are now probably rolling your eyes at my ignorance at the time. She went on to become the president of the agency. I hear she's retired now. I never met her. Only spoke to her once on the phone. But she has been a great part of my writing life though she'll most likely not remember me. I owe her much. And Doris Roethlisberger too. And I know why I didn't get published, my writing was close, but not good enough. I hadn't learn the wisdom of Doris' C–.
When it comes to publishing, I sometimes feel like the genie in the bottle, trapped for a thousand years. For the first five hundred years, the genie vowed that who would ever free him, he would lavish that person with the riches of the world. The second five hundred years he vowed whoever freed him, he'd killed the first son-of-a-bitch he sees . . .
God help you if I ever get free . . .
I hope it's not that way. No, it won't be. Besides writing can be a reward in itself . . . if you let yourself be so rewarded without approval. Good writing is like a good meal. It doesn't have to be a featured item on a restaurant menu. In fact, the best meals we have are usually at home. They're private and at times best shared with friends. But just think - all you unpublished thirty-something writers now just where I was in 1985. Will you still be at it if you’re nowhere in 2057? You talk about your passion now, but how strong is your tether? It binds you even when you realize your stuff is dreck. Or merely passable. Deep down, we think we’re frauds, but we have to do it. And some of us are like in the Emperor’s New Clothes, parading around naked. If you’re still there in 2057, still trying to write the “one true sentence”, you have something valuable - a writer's life.
By the way, I had another accomplished agent, Chip MacGregor, who stuck with me from 2008 until he went exclusively nonfiction in 2018.
Flash forward to today - I’m in a different place.
I think I defined it best for me in a recent comment I made on the post, I Almost Quit, Again, by a fine writer and fellow Granite Stater, Betsy Marro, at firstname.lastname@example.org, who, as a traditionally published author, struggles with the frustrations and uncertainty of the art, herself, and the very nature of the beast, as she wrestles to complete her next novel:
Betsy - I so relate to the writing struggle, having been doing it so many, many years. I've come so close a number of times, but just never get there. And that I write so slow, I find my emotional state and growth (or decline) mismatches the story. I'm at the point where I do not want to be traditionally published any more. After being with two very established and successful literary agents for years, I'm tired of trying (and I acknowledge my lack of success is my fault, not theirs). But I still have to do this thing. "Am I the real deal? . . ." I don't care anymore, especially in this current publishing environment. Everything is "LOOK AT ME! LOOK AT ME! LOOK AT ME!" "Someone, please look at me".
Of course I want to be read, but I want to write what is true to me, or how I see it, and realize I maybe wrong . . . and do it with high craft (or what I think is high craft). My family and friends do not like my writing, only the occasional stranger, the reader who doesn't know me. And sometimes I think, what the hell did these two agents see to keep me on so long? But I keep at it and love it and hate it, lazy, distracted bastard that I am. It's probably more a narcissistic delusion to keep the emptiness off - something I think I do well and have control over. Maybe, in part, pathological. Herman Melville is my hero and muse. His work was finally read extensively, just not in his lifetime; he didn't know what he would become and isn't around to enjoy it . . . And "Yes", the times and circumstances makes my writing feel vain and silly and stupid. I guess we always think the person that we are at the moment matters more than who we were - it must. I'm just a cranky old guy now.
Well - your post touched something in me as this is the most I've ever responded to an article. Don't know if I answered your question, but it got me thinking. As a side note, we're going back home for a visit in Portsmouth and Melvin Village at the end of May - an automatic decompression once back home. Be well.
So I think about MILES CHRISTI and its rewrite, an old story of mine, drafted by one person, a kid, edited by a 40-something, grabbed and rewritten by a man in his 50s, and now in the hands of septuagenarian with all the regrets and failings of years . . . some triumphs too but not that many - the story’s protagonist, my friend, Tìbald, for those of you who’ll read it, how he’s matured these many years . . . (wasn’t that a run-on sentence). He’s been many men and just one. And still, a pasteboard mask . . .
I believe we who “write” do so because we think and feel deeply and therefore want it expressed. That it be unique, and have value and meaning. But need it be? Must it be? Can I be separated from that which I write and have it live on its own and be small? Can any writer? It seems nowadays, especially, Personality trumps all. Persona actually. And I, like my friend, Tìbald, become a pasteboard mask.
“LOOK AT ME! LOOK AT ME! LOOK AT ME!”
Esch - I broke my own rule . . .
MILES CHRISTI is coming . . .