Poor Old Michael Finnegan Begin Again
ALUMNI FEATURE – FEBRUARY 2018
By Features Editor Diana Jenkins
I don't usually go in for making New Year's resolutions. I don't like setting myself up for failure, especially since it's already such a central feature of my vocation. I really feel like I've got failure covered. We're good. But perhaps a list of resolutions will be a revealing exercise, so what the hell: let's give it a burl.
1. Trust my instincts.
Hmmm, on second thoughts, let's pause for a moment. That's a biggie, right there, because I've come to believe that I ignore my instincts at my peril. My most recent lapse of judgement was doing something I resisted doing for many, many years. It started with following advice that has now failed me twice: use your industry contacts. It's an idea I find vaguely off-putting even in an abstract sense, but in practice the experience was far, far worse. All a bit sickening, really, like laughing too loudly at a superior's joke. You may recall from last November's feature that my first bungled attempt to make use of a contact was asking an agent I know in professional circles if he'd look at my manuscript. No, he would not. Okay then, moving right along!
The second failed (see, there it is again) attempt happened hot on the heels of the first, when I finally relented and asked one of my oldest friends if she'd consider passing it along to any agents she knows. And she knows a lot. Here's what happened. Have you got a biscuit? Good.
She's a Londoner and very well connected in the literati scene there, so I figured she might be prepared to flick it down the line to an agent or two. I've resisted asking for a great many reasons, but as you may recall, toward the end of last year I was really adrift, feeling terribly down about my writing and just about everything else. I was low enough that I finally decided there was something prideful and obtuse in my continuing to refuse her help (she'd once asked my husband why I had never once asked for it).
So I asked. And she said all the things: yes, of course, absolutely, she'd love to, blah blah blah. So off it went as an email attachment, and I felt the tiniest, forbidden stirrings of renewed hope take root in my heart.
But already there was that gut doubt, too, erupting and taking solid form somewhere within, and it shook its head at my folly and pitied my vanity and stupidity. Sure enough, the warning sign arrived right there in the first line of her initial response:
'I've just finished your lovely lovely book and have so enjoyed the trip down memory lane.'
I know I sat frowning at that line for a long time, wondering how to respond in a way that was tactful and utterly devoid of all the indignation, frustration and irritation I actually felt. Because it's not a 'lovely lovely' book, nor is it a trip down memory lane.
I should clarify. There is no doubt whatsoever that people I went to college with in Canada would recognise some of small things that happen in the story. There are lots of little things about college life: authentic details that hopefully make the setting more convincing. Indeed, these are things I put in specifically because one editor told me a prior draft did not pass muster in this respect. Where were the other students? When did they go to class? Where was a description of the college? Where was mention of what students did in their spare time?
Now, I went to an international residential college for my last two years of secondary school, so I was in a solid position to attend to all these omissions. I know firsthand what college is like, so I tried recreating bits of it on the page. Perhaps stupidly, I also went ahead and gave just about every character the name of a friend from those days. I thought if ever it were published, my college friends would find it amusing, and I'm certain it helped me, too, in achieving a greater sense of time and place. Now I think I need to change every single name in there, just so there's never, ever any confusion or crossover (not that I need worry about anyone's response in the event of publication, because that ain't happening!).
For the life of me, I can't understand why this confusion exists, but it won't go away. Case in point? My friend's chief feedback - really the only thing she wanted to say on the subject - was to ask me if I could contemplate rewriting my fiction manuscript as non-fiction.
Oh. My. God. I'm shaking my head even now, as I sit at my desk banging this out on my keyboard in a minor, after-the-fact fury. Seriously? No. No, my dear, I could not contemplate rewriting my made up story as a true one.
(Tears hair from scalp.)
The very worst of this is that it's a question that has dogged this manuscript from the beginning. I could scream, I've heard it so often over so many years. Just about everyone who's read one version or another has had something to say about elements that apparently read like non-fiction. You would think this would be a good thing - some sort of testament to the quality of the writing - but it's not. It's really, really not. It's the opposite.
And because it really is made up - without the minor scaffolding elements I've already alluded to - I'm really screwed, because I cannot and never have been able to make a non-fiction claim for this story. It is not my story. I could never say it was. For me, when I look at this manuscript, all I see is everything I imagined, everything I invented: my characters and what happens to them. For my friend, all she seemed able to see or hear was...me. She read my manuscript and decided she would much prefer it if I wrote about the things and people she only knows about because we're friends.
I wrote back saying her response was effectively the death knell for the project, because after all the intervening years and effort, here I was right back where I started. So I told her about the latest agent rejection, and my sense that I need to stop spending time on this and return to work on the next project, and she agreed that I should just let it go.
I badly regret asking her to read it - hence my New Year's resolution. I wish she hadn't. I'd love to be able to turn back time and listen to that sane voice in my head, whose counsel is generally so sound and true. Don't do it, it said, and for years I listened and obeyed. But finally I hissed, "Oh, shush! Just shut up, dumb voice. Maybe she'll love it! Maybe she'll give it to just the right person! Maybe I should've done this years ago!"
But no: I hesitated for a reason, and I wish I'd listened to my instincts and trusted them, as they have never really steered me wrong. Just saying.
Other resolutions? Oh, just the usual. Keep running. Stop yelling. Don't waste my evenings. Read more. Drink less. Sleep well. Don't ever withhold praise or admiration when it's so easy to give freely. Get my financial shit together. Finish my other manuscript. Be kind.
Last year was a bit of a stinker, but here are some things I tried to do well in 2017 that I'll aim to repeat this year: I tried to be a good mum. I tried to be a good wife and friend. I tried to write well, to the best of my ability. I read aloud to my children almost every night and day. I sang their little made up songs to them most nights too. I read books and essays. I took every cuddle from my children that I could get. I also went on a phenomenal family holiday (that we really couldn't afford) and spent time with some of my favourite people on the planet.
When I put it like, last year really doesn't seem so bad.
Looking at this list of 2017's wins, I think I need to try to remember that for all the work, all the years, all the awful disappointment and tears, really that manuscript is still just a collection of words on a series of pages. It would be one thing if I had failed to write it, if I had failed to try, but in its own way, it exists, and I'm beginning to see that there's a good deal of peace in that.
I hope you all have a creative, rewarding and productive year of writing. I look forward to sharing your own wins (and woes) with you. Good luck.