“What’s Happening With Your Book?” About that…

Twelve years ago I went fishing to save my life. I begged a six-week sabbatical from the non-profit where I ran a dinner program and trolled alleys for young people in crisis, asking for a week at sea for every year I’d spent on land. My childhood best friend, Marlin, needed a deckhand. I needed to know if I still existed outside city shadows.

 

Fishing’s familiar demands soothed me. The physicality of the work pulled me back into my body, while the monotony forced introspection I’d long avoided. The six weeks washed by. Each revealed a new layer of how burned-out, broken, and outright fucked-up I’d become. When the realization that I couldn’t go back to my job outweighed my shame and fear of letting people down, I sent a mass email to my colleagues, rather than honoring my employer with private notice. I didn’t even see the impropriety. That’s how far gone I was.

 

I’m recalling that group email today as I write to share some news. The kind of news that should be shared in person, individually, with eye contact obscured only by steam rising from a cradled cup. Instead, we are here, communicating across screens and time. Once again, it’s the best I can do.

 

Join Me for a Cup of Coffee

 

 

 

The Nerka spent most of last May trolling off the Washington coast. We leased a permit and charged out to fishing grounds known as the Prairie, 35 miles offshore. With weekly catch limits of forty king salmon, it didn’t take long before we’d be back at the dock in Neah Bay, guests of the Makah Indian Nation.

 

During one of those times in port, I scheduled a call with my literary agent, Pamela, to see if there was any news about my book. We hadn’t heard anything from my editor since I submitted the fourth revision in late February. I’d reminded myself everyone’s lives are chaotic and complex; her silence didn’t have to be about me or my book.

 

Standing on the deck, I laughingly warned Pamela about the background noise, a pride of sea lions lounging on a neighboring pier. Even over their bellowing, I could hear her take a deep breath.

 

“I have some very hard news. Your editor has decided not to accept your latest revision. They’re retracting your contract.”

 

We each have our own walk through grief. Automatically, I always first turn to the path my parents cleared: don’t wallow, problem-solve, get shit done. Even as my stomach dropped to my toes, my brain focused on getting shit done. Okay. Okay. If she doesn’t want it, who else will? Do I have to rewrite the original proposal, or can we submit the book as is? What do you need from me first? I fumbled for a pen to take notes.

 

Pamela’s gentle words were extended palms, urging me to stop rushing to the next task. Stop trying to outrun my feelings. And those feelings did indeed catch right up with me, steamrolling over me. I don’t understand; she responded so well to the third revision in December; she named the problem areas, I thought I addressed them. What changed? How did we go from “We’re so close!” to “Never mind”?

 

This confusion was what broke me. I puddled to the deck, struggling to mask a thickening voice. Pamela wasn’t fooled. Being the bearer of hard news takes a special kind of strength and compassion. Then and now, I’m grateful to have heard this from her, steadfast support audible as she spoke. After confirming Joel was with me, that I wasn’t alone, her voice steeled. “This is not your book. This is a terrible, shitty, shitty experience, but it’s not your book.”

 

Joel was waiting in the cabin. I crumpled into his arms. Mouth stretched in silent keening, I couldn’t answer his questions, join in his outrage or accept his consolation; couldn’t hear anything but my own insecurities, affirmed. I’d held the golden egg writers dream of – and I’d lost it. How am I going to tell everyone who’s been so supportive of Hooked?

 

Sometimes, in times of deepest wounding, even the gentlest touch is too much. Maybe especially the gentlest touch, when we believe ourselves unworthy of such kindness. I shrank from Joel’s hand stroking my back as I bent over the galley sink; his insistence, firm as water’s downstream promises, that this wasn’t the end. I pulled away from it all, went down to the fo’c’sle, crawled into the bunk fully dressed and drew the blanket over my head.

 

I dreamed I was going fishing with Marlin. Marlin: my chosen brother, the captain who provided a refuge from social work, the friend who urges reflection. I dreamed we were in a mad scramble to throw everything on board and charge out to the fishing grounds, no time to consider the chaos or tend to the details, now we had to go, go now! I dreamed my nerves vibrating from the urgency, the recklessness, the absolute absence of control.

 

Only as I cut the dock lines did I get a look at the boat taking us to sea. Below the spray-painted name and littered deck, the rusted steel hull was visibly thin at the waterline. It was a derelict I’d noted in my waking life. I’d cringed walking by. That doesn’t look like a boat that’s ready to leave the dock.

 

There is nothing subtle about my subconscious.

 

I woke from that dream knowing my book and I were going to be okay. Not only okay: knowing this was for the best.

 

Yes, this was a shitty experience. It hurt. But my natural tendency is – as author Heather Lende urges – to “find the good,” and it didn’t take too long a look to recognize this hurt was one of ego. Rejection lands so personally: fear of what it says about me, my work; fear of what people will think. Pamela’s firm assurance (“This is not your book”) pulled me through this initial response of ego, through the fear and pain. The friends who’ve accompanied me on this journey – you, reading this – have always embodied love and encouragement. How could I imagine you’d receive this news with anything other than compassion?

 

So I find the good:

 

Hooked sold on proposal, as an idea and a few sample chapters. After conversations with a handful of interested editors, I chose the one who most responded to Hooked’s feminist themes. That she was with a remarkable publisher, home to countless authors and books I admire, was a serious confidence booster for this first-time author.

 

Midway through our work together, my editor took a job with another publishing house. I didn’t think much of it, assured that her new employer would allow her to see pre-existing contracts through. Maybe that didn’t end up being the case; I don’t know and ultimately, it doesn’t matter. What I know is that I came into this partnership with little more than a dream of a book and now, thanks to her initial enthusiasm for and belief in the story, that book exists. As those 319 carefully crafted pages and I move forward on our own, I’ll never forget the impact Hooked’s first editor had on both.

 

I can’t find the good without seeing you. You gave me the courage to pursue this work. You give me the conviction to continue.

 

If you’ve asked me about my book recently, I’ve lied to you. The contract had to be formally revoked, our divorce finalized, before I could talk about it or make public this post. So I’ve spent the past six months lying – to the barista at my favorite coffee shop, to the beloved teacher who is Hooked’s godmother, to my stepmom who opined that no news must be good news. To every loving friend who’s championed Hooked. Over and over again, I answered with a shrug and a smile, forcing a casual tone, I don’t know, I haven’t heard anything, I’m just going fishin’… That, dear ones, has been the hardest part of this experience. Writing memoir is about truth-telling – valuing, believing in, committing to the truth as I know it. Whether by direct falsehood or omission, I have hated lying to you.

 

Of the few friends I told in person, some questioned my need to publicize this news. Posting this was important to me. Despite my silence over the past year, we made this blog an honest place, a safe place, through years of intimate public conversations. I wanted this to be a space of online vulnerability and trust. Your willingness to reply in kind made that possible. How could I not share this with you, in this way?

 

I wish I could have come out to you sooner. I’m glad to be here now.

 

 

Fairweathers in Fog

 

 

History repeated itself. As the North Pacific received a social service refugee all those years ago, she took me back in this summer of need. I went fishing. I again lost myself to the work and the mountains, to long days and maritime meditations. I practiced being present with Joel and friends in a way that I haven’t been for the past three years. I made a plan for Hooked’s next steps, determined to make sure this paper ship is seaworthy, and allowed periodic waves of sadness, garnering strength for the work ahead. Preparing – once again – to get shit done.

 

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Coming Up: 19th Annual FisherPoets Gathering!

It’s almost time, friends! Oregon’s nineteenth annual FisherPoets Gathering is less than two weeks away, with storytellers, musicians, and poets readying to flood Astoria this February 26-28. It’s an immersion into the authentic, captains and crew of diverse fisheries and eras reflecting on the single moments and entire careers that have both nourished and devoured us. It’s an exercise in expressing what has often seemed beyond expression, and the belief that the effort matters. That belief pulls us back, a flood tide, every February.

 

FisherPoets has been the highlight of our off-season ever since we made our first trip in 2012. (I was the only one of us debuting on the program that year, but who can forget this moment, Cap’n J’s rock star emergence at the on-site poetry contest?) Joel’s been practicing his material for months. With the final (final?) revisions of my book due the day we hit the road for a pre-FPG Portland gig (Salvage Works, 7 pm on the 24th!) I may not be as polished as my partner, but I’ll be no less joyful for this annual fisher-artist reunion. Our people.

 

Meezie and Cap'n J

Meezie Hermansen & Cap’n J

 

 

Our people come from all over. A record ninety-five are scheduled this year, hailing from Alaska to Florida, Massachusetts to California. A couple British Columbians. One made the trip from Finland last year. The BBC came in 2014. Just as distance is no match for passionate FisherPoets, neither can it hinder the draw of stories. Our audience members come from just as far, and are just as eager.

 

Fifteen bucks buys you an entry button for the whole weekend. That’s a $15 buffet of two days’ access to six venues of performances, as well as all the special events: workshops, films, photography exhibits, conservation and advocacy discussions, a silent auction, a dance party, Saturday night’s annual poetry contest.

 

Ray Troll & Ratfish Wranglers 2015

Ray Troll & the Ratfish Wranglers, 2015

 

And if you can’t join us in person? Enjoy a private show in the comfort of your own home, curled up on the couch in your pajamas, for FREE. Thanks to KMUN, Astoria’s Coast Community Radio, listeners can livestream the Events Center performances, Friday and Saturday nights, 6 to 10 pm PST. Check the schedule to be sure not to miss your favorites.

 

(One of the first-time acts I’m most delighted to see is Belly Meat from Sitka. I like imagining a giant house party in Sitka – maybe at the Larkspur – of the home crowd tuned in to cheer these guys. They should be streaming about 9:00 on Friday night.)

 

Nineteen years… The FPG’s success is the proof of heroic volunteer efforts. Organizers, MCs, performers: we’re all volunteers. We foot our own travel, lodging, and food. When the weekend’s over and the bills all paid (event buttons, publicity, sound/lighting tech, occasional venue rentals), the committee divvies up what remains and recognizes each FisherPoet a small travel stipend, based on how far they came from.

 

Not to get too NPR-annual-drive on you, but because we have such a full boat this year, I’m making a special request:

 

If you tune in to KMUN’s livestream to enjoy the show from home, consider contributing the $15 that would have been your entry fee. If you’d like to see your business listed on the FPG website as a supporter, consider a $250 readership. If you value this event and are in a position to make a donation, please do. Tax-deductible donations can be made directly through the FPG website, or mailed c/o Tillicum Foundation, PO Box 269, Astoria OR, 97103. We’re grateful for your support in all its forms.

 

All this said, FisherPoets is ten days away, but my book deadline is seven. If you’re planning to make it to Astoria, please do let me know – I’d love to see you. For now, I’m off to work, with love and best wishes until reaching the other side.

 

Astoria Street Musicians, FPG 2015

Photo by Tia Jensen

 

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A Voice Lost, then Found

 

On December 15th, six hours after submitting Hooked’s final revision, I lost my voice. Literally. All these years a devoted disciple of the “tell your story” gospel, and, upon surrendering that story for my editor’s review, I couldn’t manage a rasp of a whisper. (Dear Universe, must you be so heavy-handed in your metaphors?)

 

I won’t lie: the six weeks leading up to that deadline were rough, reminiscent of the final push to get through the fishing season, when Joel, the Nerka, and I all stagger into September, hanging on by threads of winter promises. I made similar promises for all the things I’d do after the book was sent off, lining the kitchen table with a sheet of butcher paper and, whenever I walked by, scribbling vows to neglected friends and responsibilities. Oil change. Renew driver’s license. Dinner w/ Mom. Call AB. Haircut. Trim toenails. Our roof started leaking, weeks of heavy Pacific Northwest rains distilled to a steady drip from the kitchen light. I taped the switch off, spread towels across the linoleum, and went back to writing. My left eye developed a twitch.

 

Those butcher paper promises ended up being just that – paper promises, further IOU’s. As soon as the book was out of my hands, I collapsed into bed for days. Honestly? Losing my voice was a relief. My loved ones wanted to celebrate this long-anticipated landmark, but I didn’t feel celebratory. I felt unmoored, missing the companion that had so long anchored my days. This was a side of writing a book that I hadn’t foreseen: the loneliness when it was gone, the uncertainty of what would take its place.

 

(A week into this feeling, I came upon a post by Dani Shapiro that perfectly named it. Bereft. As if to balance out the ham-fisted smack-down of stripping me of my ability to tell any story, the universe proffered just the right reassurance at just the needed time. I may have been sad, but I wasn’t alone.)

 

My voice returned, but I stayed quiet. Subdued. I’ve shared deeply personal writing over recent years, yet it wasn’t until submitting this final offering that I felt truly exposed. I didn’t want to do anything but hunker down with Joel and retreat.

 

But Joel wasn’t having it. He insisted I’d achieved a major life goal – a dream! – and that deserved recognition. “You’re the one always telling me we choose how we feel. You can spend these weeks waiting and feeling miserable about what might be, or you can be proud of what you accomplished and enjoy this time we have together. It’s up to you.”

 

In my book and in life, Joel always has the best lines.

 

So I took his advice. That means re-appearing in my life, turning my energy outward. Giving back to you who so generously carried me all these months. It means celebrating what is, while trusting what will be.

 

And it means being able to say yes to invitations I would’ve had to decline earlier this winter. Opportunities like Wage Slaves: the 78 Cents Edition. I’m honored to join Sonya Lea, Storme Webber, Michelle Penaloza, and Jean Burnet in this January 19th reading about work, hosted by Seattle’s Hugo House and presented in collaboration with Hedgebrook.

 

Following that theme of work and writing, I’m excited for the Young Fishermen’s Storytelling Workshop in Juneau on January 30th, a class sponsored by the Alaska Marine Conservation Council that I’ll be co-teaching with Alaskan author Miranda Weiss. (If you’re thinking about attending the Alaska Young Fishermen’s Summit 2016 that week, go ahead and plan on staying one extra day to join us – we’re going to have a fantastic time!)

 

FisherPoets Gathering, of course, is just around February’s corner, the 26th – 28th this year. The schedule will be out soon, and there’s already an impressive line-up of veteran favorites and first-timers. (Especially thrilling: Belly Meat, Sitka’s favorite bluegrass band, is making the trip down to Astoria!)

 

Finally, at the AWP Conference in Los Angeles on March 31st, Christine Byl, Eva Saulitis, Susannah Mishler, Lu-Anne Haukaas Lopez, and I will talk about how physical labor provides the lifeblood for our creative work, on the panel, Women at Work: Labor and the Writing Life. If there could there be a more appropriate capstone to this winter’s themes, I can’t imagine it.

 

That’s what’s going on here, friends. If you’re able to make it to any of these events, I’d love to see you. Meanwhile, thanks for leaving a light on – it feels good to be back with you, and I’m eager to hear how you’re doing. How’s 2016 treating you so far? What are you celebrating, where are you focusing your energy, what are you choosing to trust?

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