COUNTDOWN: PLATFORMING

This is the second installment of the “countdown” posts I’m doing for shewrites.com.

In my last post I chronicled the long and winding road I travelled to a contract for my new memoir. I feel incredibly lucky, but, as I’m sure you know, getting a book contract is only part of the publishing picture.

In the same message telling my wonderful agent that my memoir had been accepted, the kindly editor added a kind of warning, or at least a very strong recommendation, despite her enthusiasm for the book: “Nancy will have to work on her platform.” Platform?

I was not completely bewildered by the phrase—translated by the editor as the need for me to develop an “online presence.” I had heard it before. Indeed, I had entered the “platform” world with What They Saved. And shared my struggles with the process of self-promotion (at the heart of the platform) in this very column. I described the injunction to launch news of my work into the vast Internet ether as a sado-masochistic plot. A twisted plot in which I became my own torturer. After all, I was promoting “me.” So why was I complaining? And to whom was I complaining?

DominatrixI learned a lot and even enjoyed my book launch. So this is what  “real” (read: non-academic) writers do. But now that I’m ready for another go-round in  dizzying trade book land, I’m having that sinking feeling again. It’s not enough to write your book, you have to take it to market. It’s time to take out the whip.

At this point in my countdown, I have no idea whether I am successfully platforming, or whether my shameless self-promotion has accomplished what it is meant to do. Has my online self come into existence? Will that make a difference in the book’s fate?

Is platforming even a verb? Maybe not, but hey there’s: Tweeting, Tumblring, blogging, Facebooking, just to name a few of the activities that have been urged upon me and that I’ve done, with a little help from my friendly publicist, who is a fan of Tumblr; ditto for Twitter. (Tweet: Pretend you are sending newspaper clippings to your friends. Remember, like your father used to do?) I comb newspapers and magazines looking for something to comment on. Oh, and there’s Goodreads. (Well, I would be reading anyway, wouldn’t I?) As far as I can tell, Goodreads is a place where my publisher gives away book galleys for free. (A good reader is someone who knows a bargain when she sees one?)

Um, should I participate in something that’s not a real word—tumblr?—to tumblr? (tumble +bumble+blunder?), though tweet probably is one by now, since everybody does it. Am I not contributing to the illiteracy problem in our country? Next I’ll be saying “awesome.” Every week, at the instigation of my web designer, I post a meditation on the diary page of my website, instead of preparing my seminar. My students can just check out my website if they want to know what I’m thinking!

At least I have eschewed LinkedIn (that must have been the inspiration for leaning in, another unfortunate coinage), and a few other web activities that are supposed to be good for one’s profile (platform?)

There’s also the fact, if we think about these words literally, that for a woman of a certain age, by which I mean a woman like me in her seventies, standing on a platform, or showing one’s face in profile, may not really be a selling point. And above all, no “selfies.”

Only time will tell. For now, given my grouchy temperament and my Jewish anxiety genes, a shameful confession: despite immense gratitude that I’m finally publishing my memoir, I can’t help feeling I’d rather be home trying to write another book than out there (is there a there there?) trying to sell one. In the end, it’s less lonely.

COUNTDOWN: The Journey

I’m posting four installments on the amazing website shewrites.com about the imminent publication of my new memoir. The countdown is a regular rubric where members share their experience of that special moment when a book is about to come out. Here’s number 1.

In four weeks, Breathless: An American Girl in Paris will be officially published. So soon, you say, didn’t you publish a book in 2011? Two years ago? What is this, speed writing? Yes and then no.

breathlessBookCover

I’d be thrilled if I were the sort of writer who could produce a new book every two years. Alas, I’m not. The secret to the appearance of my streamlined production is that I began writing the Paris memoir in the late twentieth century―if anyone remembers that far back. For an academic to write a memoir is a guilty pleasure. And so I only felt entitled to devote myself to this project during my sabbaticals. To be sure, sabbaticals are supposed to provide time for research and the preparation of “serious” books. But as luck would have it, my sabbaticals happened to fall right after I had just published an academic book. In that way, my crime remained safely hidden. Not that I wasn’t punished.

I wrote a first draft in the late ’90s; a second in the early aughts; a third and final draft after finishing What They Saved. That modest number does not include many, many rewrites and revisions between drafts. After the second draft I sent the ms. to an agent with fancy credentials who said she “loved” the memoir. Unfortunately her love did not translate into a book contract. The ms. was rejected 35 times over a period of almost three years, a miserable phase during which fell deeper and deeper into despair, hoping, as Gertrude Stein said of her own, that someone would “say yes to the work. Everyone said no, sometimes regretfully, to the tune of a phrase I came to loathe: “not quite marketable.”

The problem with having your memoir turned down is that it becomes impossible―at least this is the case for me―to separate the book from the life. Each rejection of the ms. felt like a rejection of the life I had lived, in a word, of me. I had to reenter therapy and resume anti-depressants to deal with the wounds the refusals inflicted on “me”―the “me” of the memoir, the “me” of the memoir writer. By the end of the therapy, and the 35th or maybe 36th rejection, I concluded that the book should be filed away in a very deep drawer, never to see the light of day.

In order to get over my sense of defeat and disappointment, I turned to a completely different project. I had been doing research on my family history. Thanks to the Internet, ancestry.com, and other archival sources, little by little I pieced together a missing piece of my family story, the origins and immigration of my father’s side of the family. After a while, I started to see a book in the making. I found a new agent for this project who fairly quickly (as if anything ever happens quickly in publishing) found a publisher in University of Nebraska Press.

What They Saved had a nice reception, primarily in the world for which it was written: Jewish readers interested in their family origins. I was quite happy―the book looked great and felt like a new departure―but paradoxically its (moderate) success made me feel worse about the Paris memoir. It pained me to know that the ms. was sitting in a drawer. Maybe its time had come. Maybe with my new agent I could try again.

I steeled myself against rejection. But this time, we proceeded more realistically. No big deal presses, just small independent ones. At the risk of making this sound like a Cinderella story within a few months, a friend who believed in the book and knew an editor at Seal, urged her to look at the memoir. The editor acquired the book for Seal. I was astounded at my good fortune.

Someone finally had said yes.

This Sex Which Is Not One

Sound familiar?

Cast your mind back to Luce Irigaray’s essay (also book title). Sometimes I think everything important about women was written in the 1970s, and it’s been downhill ever since.

“Female sexuality,” the essay begins, “has always been conceptualized on the basis of masculine parameters.”

That is the sentence that jumped into my mind when I started to read the latest installment on the “gender conversation.” The article is part of a column called the “Corner Office” and it typically deals with the attitudes and beliefs of “top executives.”

13CORNERCOMBO-jumbo

In this case the author focused on four women about leadership styles, and reports “frustration with the stubbornly low number of women in executive suites.” I was interested to learn that having an executive suite―emphasis on suite, presumably―says volumes about your standing in a given company: the next step, I presume, after the office with a window and a corner office. (I wonder if it also means your own bathroom.)

The women interviewed (including as an add-on an interview with Janet Yellen) all sound completely intelligent and thoughtful (one even quoted Adrienne Rich about dutiful daughters), but mostly the women accept, however reluctantly, that success entails negotiating with the status quo―the way things are, those “masculine parameters.” Only one woman seems proactive. When asked what steps women can take to have their voices heard, Doreen Lorenzo reports on strategies worked out in women’s groups that meet after work. I especially like one that deals with what to do if “you’re treated like a secretary.” Say something like “We’re going to end the conversation until you listen to me. If you can’t listen to different opinions, we shouldn’t be having this meeting.” I can think of many times I would have liked to say that when I was a young, untenured faculty member.

Readers were invited to give their own advice before the column appeared. In a side bar, several of the responses are cited. My favorite awful recommendation could have come straight from the columns of Seventeen magazine from the 1950s. How can girls become more popular? Get more dates? “My honest advice for women early in their careers is to ‘play the game.’ What I mean is, engage in banter. Get to know what your superiors are into, and be able to engage with them in conversation about those topics.” Sound familiar? Learn to discuss baseball, cars. Be interested in what HE is interested in.

The fly in the ointment of my argument, of course, is that Irigaray posited a universe (however utopian or rhetorical) in which women would live in a world shaped by their values. Not exactly the business world.

But perhaps all is not lost.

Three female Republican women have joined forces, despite their overall low numbers, to come up with a viable deal to break the deadlock created by the partisan divide: Susan Collins, Lisa Murkowski, and Kelly Ayote. Despite their ideological differences, they found a way to join forces: “we are used to working together in a collaborative way.” Macho McCain uttered, jokingly, it seems, the predictable reaction: “The women are taking over.” But the point here, it seems to me, that the women are proceeding differently, in part because they decided to rise above the status quo, despite their minority numbers.

I doubt that any of these competent women would like to see their actions described as due to the parameters of female sexuality more than male. Irigaray would probably make them shudder. But without having to proclaim that they expressed themselves through a parler-femme—women’s language, not to mention labia—they took action without waiting for the status quo to sink any lower.

If you add to that the winners of the Nobel, Alice Munro, and the Man Booker prize Eleanor Catton—the youngest ever– perhaps some things are changing for the better.

What I Don’t Want to Remember

There are lots of jokes about forgotten anniversaries, usually to reprove husbands who have forgotten the anniversary of their marriage. I have forgotten my own wedding anniversary numerous times, much to the chagrin of my husband. But an anniversary I would rather not remember is the date of Carolyn Heilbrun’s suicide. Today, October 9 as I write, is the anniversary of my friend’s suicide. Actually, it was a Thursday not a Wednesday, but I guess the date is more to the point, though the day seems more real. Carolyn believed in routine, and Thursday was Susan Heath.

I was in England when Carolyn’s great friend Susan Heath called with the news. Thursday was their designated day for dinner, and when Susan arrived at the building for their date she discovered the body. “The journey is over,” Carolyn wrote in the only note we know about, “Love to all.” Carolyn had left little to chance and she had counted on Susan to have the strength to survive the experience.

41Qb2iDjtVLToday I was teaching poems by poets Carolyn loved and admired, even if she had occasional minor quarrels with them―Rich and Sexton. Reading poetry today in the digital age is a heightened experience since we can look at and listen to poets reading their poetry. While looking at the YouTube menu, an interview between Diane Middlebrook and Anne Sexton caught my eye. I couldn’t resist making the students listen to Diane’s voice―we had just read her wonderfully explanatory essay “What Was Confessional Poetry?”―and it seemed appropriate to listen at least briefly.

Slipped into my copy of  Rich’s The Fact of a Doorframe, was a fax from Carolyn: CGH to NKM, dated March 19, 1998. It was the closing stanza of “Snapshots of a Daughter-in-Law.” Beneath the poem Carolyn had handwritten a quotation from The Second Sex in which Beauvoir creates the metaphor of the amazing woman that Rich seems to reprise when she writes–“as beautiful as any boy/or helicopter.” Beauvoir’s prose: “she is a helicopter and she is a bird.”

These two friends loved poetry and both are dead, Carolyn by suicide in 2003, Diane from cancer in 2007. Sexton’s suicide links Carolyn and Diane in my mind. Carolyn was an attentive reader of suicide; so was Diane, since she had also written the biography of Plath in her relation to Hughes.

Suddenly, there I was in the classroom looking at bright young faces and feeling very far away, in a place where death was all too real. I did not mention the anniversary to the students because it would not have been an anniversary for them; they had nothing to remember.

For over 20 years, I had dinner with Carolyn. Tuesdays. As each week passes, I remember that I’m not having dinner with Carolyn, or as my husband used to say, “having Carolyn.” That day of the week always seems empty to me.

I’ve picked up the weekly dinner with Victoria Rosner, who had also been Carolyn’s student. Carolyn almost always dines with us.

I wish Carolyn had not felt so alone. I wish she had let time catch up with her. Today she’d have been 87. It’s not, I think now, that old.

I’ll Have What She’s…

How many readers still know how to finish the sentence? Or that “I’ll Have What She’s Having” found instant fame in Nora Ephron’s 1989 witty movie When Harry Met Sally? I wonder whether the editors at the New York Times assumed its readers would get the reference behind “I’ll Have What She’s Thinking”– the headline announcing the somewhat surprising and altogether fascinating report on women’s capacity for spontaneous orgasm via the brain.

2013-10-01 17.09.53Neuroscientists at Rutgers University have been able to document by brain scans that women can reach orgasm just by thinking! It’s not clear what exactly they are thinking about—I wish I knew—but the subject matter appears to be erotic fantasies that cause the pleasure centers of the brain to light up. Dr. Gina Ogden, who researched the topic for her doctorate at the Institute for Advanced Study of Human Sexuality in the 1970s, praised the new study: “If we just notice what’s around—notice what people are doing and saying and feeling—we can do a better job.” That’s just what happened in the restaurant scene in the movie When Harry Met Sally–somebody noticed.

To win an argument she is having with a skeptical Harry (Billy Crystal),  Sally (Meg Ryan) demonstrates that it’s easy for a woman to fake orgasm. She vividly fakes one herself without leaving the table, and then calmly resumes eating her salad. At that point, an older woman  (played by director Rob Reiner’s mother) seated at another table, who has been watching the performance, says to the server in Katz’s deli waiting for her order: “I’ll have what she’s having.” (Billy Crystal, Harry, is credited with coming up with the line.)

The graphic illustrating the article encloses the woman’s rather sinister “thinking” head under a bell jar (pace Sylvia Plath), but even the bell jar (stand-in for the scanner, presumably) can’t take away from the excitement generated by the report.

Now, if we only knew what she was having…

Hold that thought.