Nancy Mairs: How I Became a Treasure
August 27, 2008
Nancy Mairs is a poet and essayist whose work includes A Dynamic God: Living an Unconventional Catholic Faith, Waist-High in the World: A Life Among the Nondisabled, and Ordinary Time: Cycles in Marriage, Faith, and Renewal. She recently received the 2008 Arizona Literary Treasure Award, which prompted this essay. She lives in Tucson with her husband, George.
"It is my pleasure to tell you," the letter began, "that the Arizona Humanities Council will be awarding you the 2008 Arizona Literary Treasure Award this year." After a second reading, I decided that this was not a form letter (for all I knew there could be a whole chest of treasures out there) or a hoax. Although the name might sound a little silly ("Gee, it sounds like you should be dead," a friend remarked), I was delighted to have my work singled out for such recognition. I took years to call myself a writer—it sounded so pretentious—and then more years to stop thinking of myself as a Boston poet and start identifying myself as a southwestern writer, and now the Southwest has embraced me. This is not a trajectory I could ever have conceived 35 years ago when I arrived, husband and two little children in tow, to spend a couple of years earning an MFA in creative writing at the University of Arizona. I can no longer recall the visions and ambitions of that young woman. One of the features of getting old, I find, is that I look back time after time and ask myself how the heck I got here.
I am most commonly asked, when I speak with writing students, "How do I get published?" and the only answer I can come up with is, "Beats me." I'm not being facetious with this less than helpful response. But when I look back, I see my writing life as a series of (mostly happy) accidents. I was 40 when my first full-length book was published, and that was by happenstance. The Western States Book Award had just been founded, and Jim Hepworth, the director of what became Confluence Press, asked if he could enter a collection of my essays. I wasn't yet thinking in terms of a book, but I'd written ten essays by this time, which I happily gave to Jim and, since there wasn't any entry fee, I asked whether he would submit a manuscript of my poetry as well. Politely, though unenthusiastically, he agreed.
Just beginning a new job, I didn't give the competition further thought, even when Jim dropped by my office a couple of months later. "Remember the essays I submitted to that contest?" he asked. I nodded. "Well, they won honorable mention."
"That's great!" I said. Jim sat quietly. "Better than nothing." Jim agreed but didn't get up to go. "And the poems?" I finally asked.
"They won." He grinned at my dropped jaw. This was not the outcome he had hoped for, I knew, but he never grudged my joy. The award included $2500 for me, a trip to the ABA convention in Washington with a reception on Capitol Hill, and support for publication. Jim did eventually publish In All the Rooms of the Yellow House. (Even with financial assistance, small presses struggle). I was happy because I think books of poetry are harder to get published than books of prose; the essays could look after themselves.
As in fact they did. An editor at the University of Arizona Press who knew they'd received honorable mention rang me up and asked if he could take a look at them. A couple of months later, he rang again and asked if the press could publish them. Just like that. They constituted most of my doctoral dissertation, so publication had to be put off until I'd finished my PhD. Many people said I should hold out for a trade publisher who would pay an advance, but people who read them loved them and I wanted to make them available to a larger audience right then. I have never regretted my choice. The U of A Press publicist hand-carried the manuscript, Plaintext: Deciphering A Woman's Life, into the New York Times Book Review, which gave it a positive review, and I was off and running. One of the essays, "On Being a Cripple," has been published in many anthologies, including the Norton Reader, and the permission fees have been welcome.
So you can see why I say luck, luck, luck! All I had to do was to write poems, write essays (and I'm not denigrating the work that went into them), and they found their way into print. I'm not reluctant to tell people how I got published, but neither am I the person to ask. Better to consult someone who has experienced the struggles the process can entail and found ways to surmount them. I haven't worked hard enough! I did have an agent, but small presses and university presses don't use agents, although she has been wonderfully helpful since then. I belong to several writers' organizations, such as the Authors Guild, PEN America, and Poets & Writers, whose publications offer helpful information, and I remember years of perusing the Directory of Little Magazines and Small Presses and the Writers' Market. I collected a good many rejection letters and published a handful of poems. I even had a pretty little chapbook of my poems published by a short-lived but tasteful small press here in Tucson. In retrospect, I'm glad I didn't publish very much early on, because I don't have a lot of juvenilia to live down.
In my experience, a writer's life has been a tranquil one. Perhaps the report of an author of bestsellers would tell a more glamorous tale, but I am lucky to sell a few thousand books. I do not seek out publication in magazines, though I have been sought out for a number of articles. I usually accept invitations to speak, but I don't solicit them. Early on, I think I'd hoped my books would sell by the cartload (in the same way a parent hopes that her child will get the loudest applause in a school play), but hope is no longer a part of my emotional repertoire. Contenting myself with what I have has taken over. I soon realized that the stuff I write is never going to cause a stampede at the bookstore. I could try to write a bestseller (always my mother's choice for my career), but I probably wouldn't produce a very good book. I write very good personal essays, to which my audience of reflective readers respond strongly (although sometimes with shock), dealing with matters I consider life-and-death: the body's frailty and strength, the mystery of the spiritual world in which it is embedded, the actions on which this world depends for survival. Hardly popular material. But except for the money (I have a decidedly venal streak), I feel no remorse about the odd little foot path I have followed.
Lest my placid writing life seem dull, every so often it erupts in wild elation. I was even in a bidding war once! My proposal for the book that became Remembering the Bone House created a little flurry, culminating in an advance of $52,500 From Harper & Row. This was by far the biggest advance I have ever had, but I regretted the choice. Except for my editor and a liability lawyer, no one ever read the book, much less publicized it. I felt I had caused tremendous disappointment, as I felt after HarperCollins (by then owned by Rupert Murdoch) published the next book, Carnal Acts, and so I felt more released than dismayed by the rejection of my proposal for Ordinary Time. My experiences with a trade publisher had been debilitating. "Where do you want me to send it next?" my agent asked, and I responded without hesitation, "North Point or Beacon."
North Point, a wonderful San Francisco publisher of beautifully designed books by authors like Wendell Berry, accepted it but then folded; Beacon agreed to publish the book if only I would write it. Just then (and I mean that literally: I got the news from Beacon as we were walking out the door to go to the hospital) my husband was diagnosed with stage-IV melanoma, and writing a book seemed out of the question. But Beacon had assigned me to an extraordinary editor. Andy was my children's age, ABD in ethics from the University of Michigan, and mine was his first book. When I gave him a draft, he had a gift for asking me questions that stimulated me to rewrite in ways that expanded and deepened the material, leading me to ideas I didn't know I could have. Mine are the pretty turns of phrase in my work. Andy is responsible for their resonance.
I have stayed with Beacon for nearly twenty years, and I plan to die in their stable. Presses sometimes sell the paperback rights to books, for which they may get tidy sums of money. After Beacon sold the rights to an exceptionally successful book, I panicked. "You won't sell me, will you?" And they never have. Maybe they've offered and gotten no takers, but they're too polite to tell me. Whatever the reason, they've published four more books of essays, the last one written at their request. How lucky is that! To belong to a publisher who not only agrees to bring out your work but asks you to write more. My advances have gotten smaller and smaller over the years—but I tell them it's not about the money. At Beacon, everyone reads my books, from the receptionist to the director. I'm treated like a treasure, not a disappointment—and that's a whole lot better for the soul, let me tell you.
I've had other peak moments. I received an NEA Fellowship one year. I wrote A Troubled Guest with the support of a handsome fellowship from the Project on Death in America of the Soros Foundation. My only real regret is that I never won a Guggenheim Fellowship. I applied for more years than I can recall, and every year in March I was devastated by the rejection letter, until I recognized that my grief was unwholesome for my life. I stopped applying several years ago—and now March offers the promise of spring instead of several week of emotional prostration. I can't remember all the projects I fruitlessly proposed, but five do stand out: an exploration of the ways in which my surroundings have shaped my erotic life; observations of ordinary life from the perspective of a Catholic feminist; meditations on living with a disability; narratives about death and its impact on the living; and notes from the radical religious left. Since these became Remembering the Bone House, Ordinary Time, Waist-High in the World, A Troubled Guest, and A Dynamic God, I can't claim that the Guggenheim has been utterly useless.
The lessons of my writing career have proved pretty pedestrian. If you concentrate on the task at hand, without aspiring to a particular outcome—whether wealth, literary acclaim, or audience adoration—something will happen. Something always. I can't tell you whether it will be good, but I can promise you that it will surprise you. You just have to slog along. I don't know whether I'll write another book. I don't think so, but I've said that before. For the time being, I'll relax and bask in my status as a literary treasure. Until I find out Whatever Happens Next.