For the last year, I have been trying to find representation for my novel-in-stories.  I have been close many times, but it just hasn’t happened yet.  And in that time, I have made changes and received a lot of advice from great writers and editors.  Now, I’m at a new crossroad.  Let me explain.

This week, I received an unbelievably genuine and thorough response from an agent who had been reading my book for the last few months.  She liked a lot and didn’t like other parts, and she suggested some revisions.  What she suggested was that I should think about positioning my book as memoir — with revisions of course to make it accurate — to find its most advantageous place in the marketplace and on the bookshelf.

And I have heard this before from people I respect, but I’m starting to think — is it time to make this change?  Am I ready?

I envision this as the cover of my book.

Allow me to get a little bit more specific.  My book, my novel, is a coming-of-age story about a kid named James Tully, growing up in his working-class mill town, dealing with a mother who has a mental illness, and trying to find a place where he belongs.  The book is set mainly in a Massachusetts town — pretty much my hometown — that prides itself on an  illustrious past, while at present it faces economic challenges.  Many of the characters share the town’s eccentricity and dreams.  And the main character struggles with visions—moments of lyrical and psychotic intensity—that compel him to believe he is mentally ill like his mother.

Well, the truth is that I am James Tully.  I have a mother who has a mental illness, and, in the past, this tore our family apart.  When I was younger, even in college, I struggled with the idea of what it meant to be mentally ill.  I struggled with trying to figure if my mother was actually sick or a victim of a social stigma.  I struggled with the reality of mental hospitals.  I struggled with the enigma that maybe I was sick like my mother.  And I always struggled, most, with the question: what really separates the mentally ill from the normal?  That question is at the heart of my book.

But because the character has visions and some of the events were dramatized, I didn’t think I could call the book memoir.  I think people get away with a lot, today, with what writer’s call truth.  And that word truth, well, what that hell does that mean anyway?  Truth, to me, has nothing to do with facts and what matters most is dramatizing the internal, writing about the life of the mind in a way that engages the audience.

To me, fiction is just as much of a truth, sometimes, as any memoir.  Like John Dufresne’s great writing book, it’s The Lie That Tells A Truth.  Think about books like Bukowski’s, Ham on Rye, Jack Kerouac’s, On The Road, or Mark Twain’s, The Adventures of Tom Sawyer.  You could totally slap memoir on those books and it would be so.

Main Street in my hometown, Clinton, Mass.

Unfortunately, this is the writing era of truth.  That we must distinguish between what is real and what is not real.  Well, when it comes to mental illness, isn’t that the heart of the problem?  How can we really write about the mind, the sickness, delusions and projections, with the tyranny of truth standing over our desk?

Well, maybe I can’t change the mold.  Maybe I can’t expect an agent or an editor — especially during this economic hardship — to take on a book that defies convention, purposefully.  Or maybe my book isn’t good enough the way it’s written, like many agents have pointed out, to compete in the current marketplace.  I’m leaning towards the last one.

Part of me believes that my inability to label this book as memoir is that I am afraid to step out of the haze of fiction.  That I am afraid to acknowledge, yes, my family was ripped apart by illness.  That I am afraid to hurt my family.  And this is true.  Shit, I guess I just admitted it to you, reading this blog.

So, if anyone has any thoughts or advice, I would love to hear it.  Over and out.  I will continue to update.

4 thoughts

  1. Families are torn apart by so many various issues. Some big some not so big. There are other illnesses/deaths that can cause familys to fall apart not just mental illness. But, I have come to believe when the family members experience open, honest, sensitive and compassionate communication then feelings (the good and bad) can and should be shared. It is the silence, feeling alone and hurt, isolated self talk and unwillingness to understand, forgive and let go that hurts the family unit and can lay the ground for it to be torn apart. (Speaking from personal experience at this moment). Mental illness is an illness just like anyother illness. True it can not be seen and it has a stygma associated to it. Never the less, it is an illness that requires medical treatment as does any other physical more visible illness. In my own humble opinion I think stepping out of your “haze of fiction” to write a memoir of your life, written in an honest yet loving, sensitive/compassionate way toward the family members involved can be of help to you, your family and others who may read your book who I’m sure are experiencing similar conflicting difficult emotions and situations. Your shared insight and experiences from a very personal perspective of mental illness does not have to hurt anyone if written with a tone of sensitivity and compassion. That is not to say you shouldn’t be real with your thoughts, emotions, and reactions to situations etc. Your feelings are yours and should not be shuved down so as not to hurt others. But, I’m sure you can find a way of expressing those raw emotions in such a way that wont cause unnecessary pain. I think it’s worth a try. I also think it would have a valued place on the market shelf. Good luck.
    Your cousin, Candy

  2. Hi Candy/Cuz,

    Thanks for sharing your thoughts. It’s funny, because when I wrote this post, I was worried if anyone in my family would see it. Then they might be angry or confused why I had to share it, but your words are important to hear and to know there is an understanding out there.

    You’re right, mental illness is a lot like a physical illness, and there are many families out there who are torn apart with similar circumstances. But I wish that, as a culture, we had a little bit more sympathy towards mental illness. It still has a stigma, and it is looked upon as a weakness. I think it’s getting better because of the awareness around PTSD and out veterans, but when I was younger, it just wasn’t so.

    Really appreciate you reading my blog and your words. I hope you’ll keep coming back. And for the record, my family is probably doing better, now, then we have in a very long time. I’m sure you’ll be glad to hear that. Well, I appreciate your support, Candy.

    Best,
    Joseph, Your Cousin.

  3. Joe,

    Have you thought about having two manuscripts? You could write/market them for different genres and see which one gets accepted.

    I think that, as a writer, you know how the story should be written intuitively. If it’s fiction it’s fiction. Maybe your memoir is a different story completely, with a different perspective, maybe a different lesson to be learned altogether. The Joe who exists today isn’t the same Joe who wrote that book, and while that doesn’t lessen the quality or the hard work or the truth that was put into it, maybe it’s an indication that you have another story to tell, from the perspective of the Joe who left Massachusetts to pursue his dreams. Maybe the act of giving up your job and pursuing writing is your next story. Look at Bukowski, Fante, Ginsberg, all the beats.

    Who really knows? I’d say that if you believe in the book, don’t give up on it. But also don’t close yourself off to the idea that there might also be other stories out there for you to write, there’s no telling which one will take off.

    Either way, keep writing and doing what you do.

    -Scott

    1. Hi Scott,

      Thanks for your comment. I have thought about two manuscripts. I’m going to keep the draft of the old one and try and publish some of the stories.

      But you bring up a lot of really good points. Should you stick with what you have thought first or move forward? It’s tough. I dumped a 100 pages from the manuscript last night to see how it felt, and it was very strange. But when is it time to move on?

      You’re right, our identities change with time. How does that relate to our work? You bring up many tough questions, Scott, and I thought I had it all figured out. But people keep making me think. The book, the one I have written, ends when I leave Massachusetts. So you’re right. I have another book to write. And those writers you have named, well, they blazed a trail I would love to follow.

      Thanks for your comments, Scott. Always appreciated to hear from a great poet.

      Joseph

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