Tuesday, July 25, 2006

Happy is Good Enough: The Eli Gottlieb Experience

I’m going to talk some trash about Eli Gottlieb. The author, Eli Gottlieb, who wrote the New York Times Notable Novel of the Year The Boy Who Went Away, and regularly contributes to the magazine 5280. I’ll admit that I’m putting all this here, at the top of the entry, because I am trolling a little. I’m wondering if, one night, when he has nothing to do, Eli will open a browser window, point it to Google and enter his own name into the search box. Maybe, after a bout of ego-surfing, he will end up here. After all, it's happened before.
A few years ago, I "blogsmacked" Laura Pritchett, the author of the kickass novel Sky Bridge. Although I never intended to flag her down, I gossiped to the blogosphere that she’d just won a contest that entitled her to something small, like a free workshop or something. A contest that I figured would make little difference to her career, but could really boost…someone else’s. It was like Michael Jordan trying out for the Special Olympics, I argued. “Hey, Barbara Streisand,” I think I wrote, “why don’t you just try out for American Idol?” And in reply to the email she sent me after finding my snarky entry, I made sure she understood the good news: She’s Michael Jordan. She’s Barbara Streisand. It’s textbook Godfather, hon: Leave the gun. Take the cannoli.
I clung to that same philosophy for the half-day I spent at the nonfiction workshop Eli led as a part of the Lighthouse Writers Workshop’s Summer Literary Festival. “Where are you going?” my mom shouted into the phone, “A misery festival?” Her hearing is not as good as it used to be, and sometimes my goiter cozies up to my vocal chords and muddies everything I say. And I was weary; Sophie had pneumonia at the time, just two months after she'd broken her collarbone, and I'd adopted the philosophy "Why sleep when you can fantasize about checking in to a mental health facility--preferably in a nice, warm climate?"
“No, a literary festival.” I chuckled. Because if you believe that there are no accidents, you might say that Mom had it right the first time.
Like all Real Authors®, Eli had something about him that made the twelve of us in the class sit down, shut up and listen. He’s been a prizewinner, a fellow; he’s been an editor and a gentleman, and he cameos as Ann Patchett’s boyfriend in her big-time memoir Truth and Beauty. He was working his craft—and working it hard—way before I painted myself green and gold for the Colorado State University Fall Freshman Chug-off Invitational and then almost set myself on fire in the big bong-lighting snafu of ‘87. (Note to self: Paint is flammable.) And while I was developing a foolproof system for choosing the perfect Wendy’s value meal based on appetite, mood and wardrobe (patent never pending), Eli was studying and teaching in Rome and Vienna.
Eli was going to make sure that our tuition for class was well-spent, and so he came out of the gate sprinting. “The bad news is that you write,” he said. So right away, we understood where we stood in the world of art and media: Siberia. Nobody reads, he told us, and more specifically, nobody reads us. I was sitting next to him, and when I leaned over to peek at his notebook, I saw scrawled in blood his outline for class.
I. You’re all going to die.
a. Alone.b. Penniless.c. Unpublished.
II. Why everyone hates you.
a. Why you suck.b. Why you should give up now, before you embarrass yourself any further.
III. Markets for your work.
a. The express checkout lane at Safeway, right next to the little rolled up horoscopes.b. The free Web page you get with your Earthlink account.c. The Gay Porn Cowboy Newsstand, on Broadway and 1st (not that I’ve ever been there.)
IV. Wrap up, Q&A and parking validation.
I could tell right then that I was in for an experience similar to Paper Chase, only with Richard Lewis standing in for John Houseman. I couldn’t wait to hear the rest. I wanted him, as the kids say, to bring it on. And then he did.
The gist of the rest of his opening statement was that we have chosen to be writers, a vocation that continues to breed a fiercely competitive climate in the all-out absence of demand. But at least we’ve chosen nonfiction. God help you if you decide to write a novel. You might as well put yourself on Dr. Kavorkian’s wait list right now, which, by the way, is populated to the margins with writers, as it should be, along with the poor souls who put their good money down on a Gigli/Glitter double feature.
And that was the point at which I’d started assigning nicknames to Eli like Slappy and Jingles and Sunshine. As in: Boy, Smiley is just full of good news.
As if I were in front of the Oracle at Delphi, I had to ask, “Will I, Gladbags McGee—I mean Eli—ever sell my collection?”He adjusted his glasses, looked into the middle distance, and spoke. “An essay collection is a tough sell. The only way to guarantee a sale is to get one of your pieces into the New Yorker. And even then, you won’t get rich. You might get happy, but you won’t get rich.”
I wrote in my notebook: Happy is good enough. Get into the New Yorker.
It wasn’t just me; none of us were going to make any money. Personally, the news came as a let down, considering the kind of huge money I’m pulling down right now as a stay-at-home mom. Further, we hadn’t earned our MFAs and all the networking contacts that go with such a thing. We were delusional and green and perhaps too hopeful. We live in Colorado. We are on the untrained, unsophisticated side, and I don’t think I’m telling any secrets when I say that, while most of us weren't yet qualified for stellar rates on car rental through AARP, nobody in the room was young enough to appear on the pages of Elle, either. And Eli knows that because he was once an editor there.
He was giving us the tough love treatment, of course. I’d bet money on it—money I’m never going to make writing a book, mind you. He was playing bad cop, forgetting that he'd left the good cop back at Hazel's Donut Haus. There was something about his delivery that told me, if it’s cool to sound all maudlin about our chosen labor of love, it’s extremely uncool to pat us each on the tush and tell us to, “Go out there an get ‘em, tigers!” We were the Richard Gere in An Officer and a Gentleman to his drill instructor—which in this case would be played by Lewis Black instead of Louis Gossett, Jr.
The next note I wrote myself said: That sly bastard.
If I was right, he was tearing us down so that he could rebuild us. Better, stronger, faster, or at the very least, little, yellow, different. If I was right, he was cheering for us in there, under his white man’s fro, and he was probably doing it in Italian, because he could. And it was working, because by the time his class was over, I was saying as much to myself as I was to him, “You don’t scare me, Eli.” Yes, I learned about markets and pitches and agents and publishing, but the knowledge that matters most, the knowledge that I will continue to apply, is about myself. I am unafraid of writing. More importantly, I am unafraid to be a writer.
A few years ago, when I fingered Laura Pritchett for being the overachieving author-maven that she is, I was afraid, very afraid. But things have changed since then, and thanks to the introspection our friend Eli afforded us, I now know what they are. First I had a baby, then I had a goiter; I’ve lost my income and the freedom to use the bathroom by myself ever again, and I'm all too often moved to ask the question, "Are you poopy again?" Shoot, what’s a little rejection letter in the mail? Just this side of two years ago, I was in labor for two days and then pushed a human being through my vagina. Between pregnancy, midnight, 2 and 4 o’clock feedings, childhood illnesses and a thyroid gland gone awry, I haven’t slept in—no shit—almost 26 months straight. Top that, J.K. Rowling.
I've tried the corporate thing; I've tried the start-my-own-business thing. One was lucrative, but soul-sucking; the other was wildly unsuccessful and soul-sucking. You can do the math on which one was which, or you can conclude, as I have, that I've chosen poorly in the past and I'm not dead. I'm a little embarrassed now and then, but I'm not dead.
I’ve chosen two vocations that will last my lifetime, or maybe they chose me: Writing and motherhood. They are both utterly hopeless, everything you do is wrong, there is no insurance and the pay sucks. That’s what vocations do, though; they rob you of everything in one way and embarrass you with riches in another, and thank goodness. It makes me shudder to think about how close I came to law school. Being a lawyer? Now that would have embarrassed and killed me.
So I say, Chuckles, pass me the cannolis and take a few for yourself while you’ve got them in front of you. You earned them, tiger,now go get ‘em. And guess what else? It could work out. This whole thing could unfold in crazy, wonderful, non-maudlin ways, and I could end up not dead again. Better yet, I could end up like a Gen-X Anna Quindlen, only with the perfect Wendy’s value meal at my desk instead of a Pulitzer. Maybe it’s my medication talking, but I’m optimistic. In fact, if I had a little hat that I could toss up in the air, I would. Because you know what I think? I think I’m going to make it after all.