This past June, I got a tattoo: three ginkgo leaves that span nearly the length of my inner forearm. The leaves dance in an invisible breeze, and I love it. My mother-in-law believes it’s a temporary tattoo, one that will rub off with summer swims in Seattle-area waters of body—lakes, canals, chlorinated pools, Puget Sound. But no, it’s not going anywhere.
One of my dear friends and writing partners told me, “You know what I love most about your tattoo?” Without waiting for me to answer, she waved her hands in circles, palms open toward me, indicating my whole exterior: my Capri pants and gingham-checked blouse, probably my cross necklace too. “This,” she said. “This outfit and you and a tattoo. It doesn’t make sense in all the right ways.”
Getting a tattoo, however, was not about getting a tattoo. It was all about the ginkgo leaves.
Because I spend a considerable amount of time with my sword raised against the menace of bipolar disorder, sometimes the simple act of getting through a day or an hour or a minute seems too hard. I needed a visual reminder to endure, persist, survive.
Did you know that the ginkgo tree carries with it a symbol of longevity and endurance? That a ginkgo tree can live for one thousand years? That four ginkgo trees survived the bombing of Hiroshima and still thrive today? So now and forever, right there on my forearm, I have a constant reminder that I can survive my own petite Hiroshimas, no matter how many bombs fall from clear blue skies.
But here’s my point: Humans appreciate labels and find comfort in arranging others into discrete categories. And it turns out that I, an almost forty-five-year-old mother with a cross necklace and preppy tendencies, and a tattoo, am difficult to categorize.
Walking my dog a few weeks back, I was stopped by a chatty woman trying to control the chaos of her raised veggie bed. We talked about kids and work and the merits of dogs and husbands. And then she asked about the tattoo. “It’s beautiful. But you don’t look like someone who would get a tattoo.”
I was wearing a Wonder Woman t-shirt and gym shorts.
I had never seen or spoken with her before, yet she seemed to know who and what I was. And who and what I wasn’t.
We humans enjoy assessing whether another person is this or that. Friend or foe. Familiar or strange. Male or female. Pop or rock. Labeling others makes us feel safe. But labels can suppress. They isolate. They limit. Think of the scarlet A Hester Prynne was condemned to wear in The Scarlet Letter. The armbands forced upon Jews during Hitler’s reign. The neon yellow sticker with the word Biter stuck on the back of my friend’s daughter while she was at school.
Still, we find comfort in labels.
Now I’m really getting to my point: Traditional publishing is no different. When acquiring a novel, editors must be certain of the genre and the audience. A publisher cannot sell a novel if it doesn’t know what it is. It cannot effectively market a novel when it doesn’t know the intended audience.
Unfortunately, I seem to write novels that confound editors just as my appearance confounds strangers. While books #1 and #2 have made it so very close, they have not earned the approval of the publishers’ editorial boards. Why? Many editors report that my first novel, narrated by a child, is too childish for adults and too dark for children. Other editors report that my second book, one I tried to firmly plant in the genre of middle grade fiction, ends in a way that middle grade books simply cannot end.
Of course, there are other editors who have offered gracious “no thank you’s” because the books just don’t work for them. They don’t fall in love with the story or they don’t connect with the protagonists. But the most common feedback: I don’t know what to make of this book, and I can’t sell something if I don’t know what it is.
My patient and loyal agent is helping me guide book #3 as I write because we are both worried that I may come to the The End and find myself in this too-familiar genre limbo.
A few months ago, I sent one hundred thirty pages of book #3 to my agent, hoping for her stamp of approval; this time I was sure I was nailing it: Adult Fiction. Instead she said, “I can see it as adult fiction, but I’m so sorry … it’s just not resonating with me like your other books.” Whatever magic she saw in the first two books was MIA in book #3.
Then she asked me, “Sarah, do you love this story?”
I thought about her question. “No,” I said. “No, I really don’t.”
My best guess? I was trying too hard to force a single label on its chest. The result was a 2-D story.
Gah! Can I write a book with a single, tidy label, something that is either fully preppy or fully tattoo’d, male or female, Republican or Democrat, and have it be any good? I’m not sure.
Of course some books don’t play by the rules. Adult-theme’d books for young people (The Book Thief) and adult books narrated by children (Tell the Wolves I’m Home) were published to great acclaim. And those are anomalies. And they were not initially marketed to both adults and youth. A novel can be described as Moby Dick meets The Hunger Games, Gone Girl meets Pride and Prejudice, Hamlet meets Girls. But there’s no such thing as Adult fiction meets Middle Grade.
Over the past year, there have been plenty of times when I have considered giving up, finding a real job, self publishing. And I might, but not yet.
I tossed those one hundred thirty pages and have returned to the drawing board. For now I am determined to keep going, to write a novel that feels true to me, and with luck and hard work and guidance from my agent, one that can wear a single Hello . . . My Name Is X label.
For now, I embrace the rules of publishing and try not to get too frustrated or impatient or upset.
For now, I look down at the three ginkgo leaves on my freckled arm and whisper, Endure, Endure, Endure. Isn’t that what we all do as writers? As artists? As humans?
Your turn! How have you or your writing had trouble fitting into a tidy package with a single label? What are your favorite authors or novels that don’t play by the rules? When have you had to play the game in order to get published (or paid) and what were the highs and lows of the experience? Thank you, dear WU community. I thought of getting each of your names tattooed on my arm, but my arm isn’t that big.
Ginkgo leaf photo compliments of Flickr’s Segfault79.
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