One old adage told to every writer early on is “write what you know.” There are some pros and cons to such advice, but to me, “write what you care about” is a more important message. It is certainly not the most lucrative approach, but it is the most rewarding. I keep reminding myself of this as I send out book proposals about people and subjects that matter to me. When the rejection letters come in, I follow a three-step ritual. First I file the letter (more often a postcard or preprinted form) for future use – perhaps I will use them to wallpaper my bathroom much the way jazz saxophonist Paul Desmond used Christmas cards from the White House. Then I mail out a fresh copy of the proposal to another publisher. And finally, I remind myself that most authors’ proposals get rejected many times before they find a home; after all, that’s what happened with my last book.
It was early 1997 when my mentor asked yet again, “As a woman of a certain age, are you sure that’s what you want to do?” Still fresh from the cancer wars, my future far from certain, a well-intentioned mentor thought that perhaps I should focus on something more lucrative, more commercial. A dozen years earlier, I began writing a biography of John Levy, the bassist with Billie Holiday and George Shearing way back when, who in the early 1950s became a trailblazing personal manager with a list of clients who were the cream de la crème of the jazz world. He was also a man for whom I worked and with whom I fell in love. I worked on this project, on and off, for many years. Research turned up recordings and lots of events that John did not even remember. I interviewed George Shearing, Dakota Staton, Billy Taylor and others to piece together John’s early years. Now I wanted to finish it. My proposal made the rounds, but because John himself was not “famous” and because it did not include “dirt” on all his clients, no one was interested…until, one night at a patron’s dinner, a San Francisco Jazz board member referred me to a friend of his, a publisher of a small press in Maryland. “Men, Women, and Girl Singers” was finally published in 2001.
Hopefully it will not take fifteen years to find a publisher for my current proposals. Being a woman of a certain age, I am unlikely to change my ways, or my mind, but sometimes I wonder if my writing life would have been any different had the first message been “write what sells.”
ps. If you’re not hip to Paul Desmond, check out Doug Ramsey’s new coffee table biography
Take Five and listen to some great music, perhaps Bossa Antigua
Dotard viewer and dotard review are just two of the many anagrams I found when plugging DevraDoWrite in at the Internet Anagram Server. Six months shy of my fiftieth birthday, I hardly qualify as a golden-ager or oldster, but I promise you that should my postings ever show signs of a “decline in mental poise” (Britannica’s definition of dotage), I will pull the plug. Still, I do find that this coming birthday occupies my thoughts more than any previous ones. It feels like a deadline or sorts – a time by which I should be able to mark some major accomplishment or achieve success, whatever that is.
Perhaps a more apt anagram for me at this time of self-reinvention is vita reworded. While my life as an author began with computer books published in the mid-to-late 1990s, it is only in the last few years that I have found my raison d’etre as a writer: to tell the stories of people who make a positive difference in the lives of others. The people I find of interest are not A-list names and their stories may lack broad commercial appeal, but their contributions merit recognition. Some of them, such as Johnny Pate and Luther Henderson, worked with well-known musical artists, but others are just average folks like the parents and teachers involved in the birth of the middle- and high-school students marching band in Pasadena, California.
I’ll be blogging about these and other people in future posts. Meanwhile, if I heed Arthur Schopenhauer’s words – “The first forty years of life give us the text; the next thirty supply the commentary on it” – then I have twenty more years to make good, and that should relieve this admittedly self-imposed birthday pressure.
I always thought May Day was all about dancing around the maypole, fun and frolic in celebration of spring – a tradition that dated way back to when the Druids of the British Isles celebrated Beltaine and the arrival of summer. Then, availing myself of the power of the internet to check my facts before posting, I discovered that May Day is not just about the arrival of spring. In the 1880s, May Day became synonymous with demands for more humane treatment. It was May 1, 1886 when American workers clamored for a more reasonable eight-hour workday. So I guess it is ironic that I chose to launch my blog on May Day, as the very act of blogging is going to increase my workload exponentially. Perhaps “mayday, mayday” will be more like it. The international distress signal, derived from the French “venez m’aider” (come help me), may turn out to be my refrain. Of course, if I am to share in the rarified ether of some super-literary friends and colleagues, I may do better to associate “May Day” with F Scott Fitzgerald. Within the pages of “The Skeptic,” a biography of H. L. Mencken by Terry Teachout, there are several references to pieces by Fitzgerald that Mencken published in “Smart Set, and while “May Day” was not mentioned in specific, I think that is where it first appeared.
Music, books, good works, and other reasons for living – that’s what this blog is about. In other words, whatever is on my mind – snapshots of my life as a writer and a reader, a listener and a watcher, a wife and a daughter. Categories under which these musings, opinions, and commentary are likely to be filed include Rants & Raves, People, Hmmm…, Quotations, Word Play, Writing Life, Reading Life, Discerning Ears, and Timely Thoughts. My goal is to make daily postings (at least on weekdays), and while I do not plan to allow readers to post comments directly, I will welcome your emails. Please stop by often, and let me hear from you.
If you are a creative nonfiction colleague from Goucher College’s MFA program, a jazz cohort from the Jazz Journalists Assn (jazzhouse.org), a friend from the Creative Nonfiction Foundation, a compatriot from PEN, a fellow member of The Authors Guild, or a fellow FLXer, please accept my special thanks for your virtual attendance at my blog launching.