By Carolyn Flynn
I keep telling my father to go away. But here he is in Austin, Texas, on the sign at the construction site one block from my hotel. FLYNN it says in all caps, Flynn Construction, and it’s red, white and blue like the logo for my father’s home building company. Just like it, except not, because here I am in Austin for the Agents & Editors Conference to pitch my book, and it’s Father’s Day 2007. He’s been dead for 12 years. He’s not supposed to be here.
I am staying in a hotel that is four blocks away from the conference hotel. I feel away, very away, though it is just two ups and downs on the pebblestone sidewalks. I feel exiled from this group of Texas writers. They are writing books about rodeo queens and trailer park murders. I am writing a memoir I call All: The Too-Blessed-to-Be-Stressed Life of a Single Mother of Twins, a title that strikes me as capturing the Zen (before the colon) and the frenzy (after the colon) of 21st century parenting life, which is in fact what the book is about.
Essentially the character in that post-colonic string is, well, me. Pitching a book about yourself is a challenge, not because people won’t read it or buy it – most of the people here are pitching memoirs. That is the literary fashion, the fastest-growing market, according to Lee Gutkind, founder of Creative Nonfiction magazine, professor at the University of Pittsburgh and godfather of the genre. The agents and editors gathered here want memoirs. In just two days, I have learned the sorting out words. They are “prescriptive” or “practical.” Prescriptive is the new “how-to,” and it’s the kiss of death. Apparently, and I would agree, there are already a lot of books telling us how — how to do anything from being a sex goddess to creatively visualizing your life. I have published six of them. No, the challenge of pitching a book about yourself is that, well, people might not like it.
Every morning, or really just the past two, I have walked the four blocks down the hill and up the hill to the Sheraton, which stands like an obelisk of Kenyan soapstone against the sky. It’s raining this morning, and on the radio cheerful people were expressing relief, because it hasn’t for two months and that’s not normal, like it is in Albuquerque, where I live. Every day I have walked down this hill, but on this day, what’s rolling around in my brain like a very Southern thundercloud is the NPR interview with a woman who wrote a memoir about her father, who was haunted by his time in the Vietnam War. Her father would take her along to the bar, where he would tell vivid stories, trying to purge the memories.
On my trail up the hill to sell my book, these are the cairns that keep me true to the path: the purple triangle flowers, the brilliant orange Mexican bird of paradise, hedge-thick clusters of spearmint, the limestone antebellum building that could easily be a courthouse on the square of any little town in Kentucky, which is where I grew up and where I like to keep my father. I’ve tucked him away in the memories of growing up there and not here, in a city to which he’s never been. But here my father is, his name on a sign on a chain-link fence, right at the doorstep of my hotel, reminding me: Time to write.
It’s annoying he would find me here. I told him I needed to do this alone. He has been hovering over my heart, echoing around in that atrial chamber that didn’t sound right on the EKG. They heard turbulence there.
For nearly 40 years, he tells me to write write write. I am driven, driven to the point of obsession. This past week I was up at 4:15, the witching hour, every morning to complete the book proposal. Let me just say I am not a morning person. I know why they call it the witching hour. In those pre-dawn moments, my twins’ new puppy, Snowflake, sat on my lap, occasionally popping her paws up on my keyboard to get a look at my screen. One of the last photos I have of my father is of him typing on his laptop with my sister’s cat Savannah stretched over his forearms. I am just like him. I don’t want to become like him. With each passing year, I am increasingly desperate not to be him.
TAKING YOUR MUSE ON A SPEED DATE
It’s intense to be in a room with 350 hopeful writers and 25 picky, snobby agents who don’t want to like what you’re pitching because they’ve heard it before and they’ll hear it again. Each of us signed up for a 10-minute moment with an agent to make a pitch. It’s like taking your muse on a speed date.
Only just one problem, my muse doesn’t date. If my muse were to be on match.com, it would definitely check off “quiet dinner at home” or “sunset walk on the beach” as ideal dates. Contrast that with the Agents & Editors Conference: “raucous whitewater rafting misadventure” or “three days in the Amazon jungle wrestling with boa constrictors.” Pitching your book to an agent is an extreme sport.
Speaking of dating, the first night mingle yields a few new contacts, including a single man who reminds me of my twins’ pediatrician (ybonesy knows who this is!). I had a wicked crush on him when I was a new mother and I didn’t get out much. That is, unless my twins had a sinus infection. So dressing to the nines for my children’s doctor appointment became a ritual, an event that required actually putting on makeup in front of a mirror as opposed to in the car. This continued until I realized I was in danger of becoming a pathetic post-divorce cliché. I’m guessing the twins’ pediatrician had seen this sort of thing before. Was I really that transparent?
So with the single guy at the Agents & Editors Conference, it occurs to me to respond the way I normally would upon meeting a creative, attractive single man — that being to flirt. I think about all the usual tried-and-true ways, and I just feel tired-but-true. It’s time to be true to myself. Do I really want to put my brain through the cat-and-mouse chase-and-retreat game – or do I really just want to ask him interesting questions, then move on? I’m here to find an agent, not another boyfriend. I have plenty of those, currently two, fortunately in different states, though July could get dicey when one heads to a zip code near me. But this is June, July’s a long way off and I need to put on my war paint for the battle at hand: selling my book. I switch my brain over to longtime SAGE contributor Miriam Sagan’s definition of flirting: Flirting is attention without intention. This definition allows her to enjoy flirting as an extreme sport. The way she puts it is this: “I have an unlimited interest in people.” I get back on track: I mingle.
GREETINGS FROM SOUTH AMERICA
My father has been here the past few days, in secret, the same way he comes back in my dreams, looking very swank (my first clue that it’s not real), trim (my second clue) and not bald (the confirming clue). He announces he has been living in South America because he had been working as a spy and he really couldn’t tell us that, he just had to go into hiding. He hasn’t really been dead all this time. Today I rather suspect he’s been being a spy again, even though I have sent him away, only this time he was pretty stealthy, hiding in that sign. It took me three days to notice.
What haunts me is that last image of him alive, typing with the cat sleeping on his arms. I know what he was doing there. He was writing his mystery novel. And he was dying. He didn’t know he was going to die a week later. His heart gave out. I wonder now if it was the atrial chamber. I wonder now if anyone heard the turbulence.
I say I wonder if he knew a sudden death was near — because he typed so feverishly. I have been typing feverishly ever since. For 38 years, it seems, I have typed feverishly, from the moment I knew I was going to be a writer and he told me he believed in me, when he bought me a Brother typewriter and a collection of Hemingway short stories. In the 12 years since he died, I have typed, I think, because that’s how I know I’m alive and he’s not. It’s an important distinction.
Last night the agent from San Francisco gave me a kick in the pants. The agent said, “go write it. What are you doing here? Go back to your room. Write it!” I protested that I already had six published books, that I had most of this written and I was knocking on the door of refinement. I have one more essay (“Have a Plan: Nitro and Baby Aspirin Wasn’t It”) yet to write, maybe two. But he smoked out what no other writer, agent or editor had: I had yet to write what I really cared about. Even six published books can’t protect me from the turbulence. If 480,000 words won’t do it, what’s the cure?
“Write it,” he said. He wouldn’t let me protest.
“You’re flustered,” he said.
“Yeah,” I said.
“Why are you divorced?” he said.
“That’s not what the book is about,” I said.
“You have to be willing to lay yourself bare,” he said.
“But …” I said.
Lately I’ve been reading Paulo Coelho’s The Pilgrimage, about the author’s spiritual journey on the Road to Santiago through France and Spain. At the beginning of the journey, one of the first people he confronts is a person disguised as his guide. He assumed that the man under the tree at the dusty edge of the southern French village was his guide. When the real guide shows up, Coelho learns the first man was his devil. Coelho had momentarily forgotten to confirm the identity of his true guide with the password. The true guide shows up, speaking the password. “It is good that you have met him early,” says the true guide. “Some people don’t encounter their devil until they are midway or later on the path.”
I greeted my devil early on at this conference. Coelho says in The Pilgrimage to name your devil so you will know him. Three weeks ago I named mine. I recognize him all the time now. (You never share the name of your devil.) The devil brings you to the brink; he is free and rebellious. He is the messenger, the main link between us and the world. He has much to teach us. Coelho says when we let him loose, he disperses himself. If we exorcise him, we lose all the good things he has to teach us. So the trick is not to banish him, but to hear the message. You have to live with him.
You thank your devil, but you always dictate the rules of the game, not your devil. It’s how you win the good fight.
I am typing now, typing feverishly as Boarding Group A clusters at the gate. That’s plenty of time to write this blog post; I’m in Boarding Group B. Natalie Goldberg says, “Write until the atom bomb goes off. And when it goes off, write until the radiation gets you.”
TOUCHED BY AN ANGEL
I had “an Elaine moment” when I pitched my book. An Elaine moment refers to Seinfeld when they were always getting themselves into awkward social situations – remember Jerry screaming “Delores” out the window when his girlfriend challenged him to remember her name, hinting that it rhymed with female genitalia? By then it was too late. Jerry and Elaine were always too late. Past the point of apology.
The morning of my pitch, I met my angel. It was Irish Goddess (Celtic knot tattoo on her ankle) from Wide-Spot-in-the-Road, Texas, and she needed business cards as much as I needed business cards, so we decided to join forces to get the job done at Quik Print, which turned out to be a few blocks away near the Capitol and the only place open on a Saturday. My angel let me rehearse my pitch as we sat at a café table outside Starbucks. From the corner of my eye, I saw a young woman sitting across the corridor from us, and I wondered if she was an agent. Because my agent was not pictured on the conference board, I thought briefly, “I wonder if that’s my agent.” Truth: I thought neurotically, “I wonder if I’m really blowing this because that could be my agent over there.”
My angel liked my pitch, but moments later in the waiting area before pitching, I asked the timekeeper to point out which agent in the room was mine. It was the young woman who sat across the corridor. Well, no matter, you make the best of it. Time to go Zen. No attachment to outcome, full mindfulness of effort. When I greeted her, I confessed my neurotic moment. It was a great opening line. I was lucky: She hadn’t heard the rehearsed pitch. I was even luckier: She liked the pitch and asked me to send a proposal.
“Send me a proposal” is like getting a third date when it comes to the Agents & Editors Conference. It was cause for high-fives all around.
One note: I got my first “send me a proposal” on the first mingle night, right after I cut myself off from flirting with intention. Like I say, I know my devil.
RIP IT UP, START OVER
“I’m still speaking to you,” I say to the San Francisco agent the next morning, though I really don’t want to see him again so soon. I am still raw. I have every reason in the world not to speak to him. At one point the night before he said, “Am I being an asshole?” I was too Southern to answer the question.
Last night I left the hotel feeling the ground shaking beneath me. In the cab, the driver was listening to sad Latin music, full of yearning. My eyes watered up. I bit my lip to hold myself down. I rested my brow on my interlaced fingers. The windows were open. I felt the breeze, felt it in my hair. The Latin song rose, unfettered, through the night. I was in tatters, white pulpy scraps of paper.
Natalie Goldberg says, “Don’t get tossed away.” Earlier in the day I had said, to encourage Fort Worth Dan, who did his pitch just before me. “It’s just a matching game,” I said. “You have to believe that. And don’t let yourself get tossed away.”
I almost got tossed away last night.
Your angel is your armor; your devil is your sword, Coelho says. You can use your sword, or it can fall to the ground and be used against you. But this morning the kick-in-the-pants agent reminds me that everybody here wants to publish good writing. He’s speaking softer now. “I just want you to write it,” he says.
Here’s why I sent my father away. I came to Austin because I wanted to get to the next level. I’m not making enough money writing books, and I’m not writing the books that are about what’s closest to my heart. I don’t have time to write that book because my clients come first. I have to feed a family. After eight intense hours in the Top Gun cockpit of a daily newspaper, my multitasked brain is too fried to remember the title of my book, much less keep writing it.
I’ve been doing what my father did in his 40s, running on fumes, taking financial risks — some shrewd, some scary — letting myself die inside because I’m not pursuing my dream. My life as a single mother of twins has become an extreme sport. I have vowed I wasn’t going to let my dreams die like his – cut short. He died at 62. I was 34. For most of my life, since I was 14, my father’s tragic life has motivated me to do the impossible. I’m unsinkable; I don’t know what impossible means.
It was feeling too heavy to believe “I have to do this because my father didn’t.” I could say I was doing it for me, but I have always been doing it to prove something about his life, to create a restoration of sorts, the happy reunion in my dream that there’s another outcome that doesn’t involve an alter-identity in South America.
Two months ago, I told my father I was going to take this from here. “You are making this too hard,” I said. My heart was turbulent. He had a hook in it. His ghost was haunting that atrial chamber. A clot could be forming. I told him I was going to go it alone. “This is my deal,” I said. “Not yours.”
Alisa’s here! Can it be? The godmother of chica lit, who got a half mil advance for her first novel? Upstairs, waiting to talk to an agent is a woman who must surely be Alisa Valdes-Rodriguez, best-selling author of The Dirty Girls Social Club and three others. But Alisa lives in the North Valley, is moving to Scottsdale to get her son in a gifted education program and was the keynote speaker at the SAGE Making a Difference luncheon. Alisa got a $500,000 advance — did I mention this? – for her first novel and doesn’t need to be waiting outside to meet an agent. But this woman has Alisa’s sleek hair. She’s stylishly dressed in a robins’-egg-blue A-line coat dress. I almost say, “Alisa,” but something stops me. I notice, for starters, that she’s with a woman who looks like Sara Ford, who moderated the panel on which I spoke at New Mexico Press Women. Then the two of them are whisked in to meet Agent-Who-Will-Later-Kick-Me-in-the-Pants.
I’m sure this can’t be Alisa, whose book is being made into a movie (and did I mention she got a half mil advance?) yet I’m stunned at the resemblance. I go down to the registration desk to ask if they have anyone by that name registered. Yes, they do. Are you sure? Yes, she’s a volunteer, they tell me. How many double-named people can there be? I want to say, “Well, lots.” But I think she just heard “big long Hispanic surname” and she figured it was a match.
These alter-identities are coming up everywhere. Alisa, Sara, the twins’ pediatrician … who knows where my father has been hiding, though.
It’s time to write. At breakfast, I skip the sessions on publicists and query letters and I find the table next to the power outlet so I can charge up the laptop. A woman I met on the first day invites me over, but I say, “No, I need to write a blog post.” I have an assignment. It’s to keep the pen moving. My friend ybonesy and one of her Natalie Goldberg intensive friends have started red Ravine. I have a deadline. This is comfortable.
As I am writing, I feel the sudden stretching of time, a bliss wave. It is 8:52 for an hour. Diners come and go. My friendly, forgiving agent of the Elaine moment goes by. The godfather of creative nonfiction slips in with his son. I don’t even notice. When I look up, a woman is standing before me, asking me how I did. I tell her something that makes her sit down, and her proposal is a nonfiction book about motherhood. She writes for Austin Monthly and other magazines. We talk for 45 minutes. We’re speaking the same language. We see the same issues. I’m good now. I’ve reconstituted myself. Here’s another someone like me.
It is Father’s Day. Of course that’s why he’s back. That hits me on my way upstairs for the last mingle. Fort Worth Dan walks up as I’m texting the firefighter I’m dating to wish him a Happy Father’s Day. I’m telling the firefighter that it’s been rough.
He texts back, “Are you OK?”
I text, “It’s all material.”
He texts, “It will all be OK when you are back.”
The room is emptying out. My shuttle has arrived. This all has a tinge of sweetness to it. On the way back down and up the hill, past the FLYNN construction sign, I break off a sprig of spearmint. I crack the stem to release the scent. I notice the building my father is working on is a buff-colored brick. Brick by brick, I think. The shuttle driver is waiting.
GREETINGS TO MY INNER CHILD
In the security checkpoint line, the woman behind me is reading Paulo Coelho, only it’s El Diablo y Senorita Prim (The Devil and Miss Prym). The devil again. She tells me she lives in Panama City, but she’ll be spending the night in Atlanta tonight because her plane is delayed. Panama City is a great city for international living, she says, clean and beautiful. “I love Paulo Coehlo,” I say. She got started reading Paulo Coehlo with The Alchemist: A Fable About Following Your Dream. Hmmm… I had forgotten that was the subtitle. The devil is my messenger.
On the plane to Albuquerque, I’m in Boarding Group A. I don’t hardly know what to do with myself; I am always a B boarder. But this means I have a choice about who I sit with. Near the front of the plane is a little girl sitting alone by a window wearing a child travel tag. She is so small, smaller than my twins. I whip back one seat to sit in her row. She tells me she’s 7 and going into second grade. She’s got curly red hair and a sprinkling of freckles like my son’s. I call them angel kisses. She’s got a Highlights magazine and a bag of candy. Her name is Faith.
Faith loved first grade, and her favorite subject was math. But they don’t make it hard enough, she says. “I could do math all day.” She has 12 cousins, and there are lots of babies in her family. She has sisters who are twins, but they are older. Her family took her to Paris, where she got to see “the Awful Tower” or the “Eye-full Tower,” she’s not sure. Faith is going to see her father because it’s Father’s Day.
Another mom sits in our row, and we two moms look out for Faith. I can’t imagine letting my child travel alone on a plane. She sparkles with innocence. She radiates pure sweetness. She will come to no harm. Faith has done this before, and she knows what to do. She’s not worried.
“I had curly hair when I was little,” I tell Faith. And I did. Just that color. The other mom asks her the question I always got asked, “Are there others in your family with red hair, or are you the only one?” I was the only one. There is a photo of me with my father, and my hair was still that vibrant auburn, the color no one could bottle. My father is prematurely bald, but young and slim, the way my mother remembers him, the way he comes back from South America in my dreams. We are playing with a toy Model T.
When the plane lands in Albuquerque, the flight attendant leads Faith by the hand down the jetway. She is tiny, a little gummy bear with stick legs and plump hands. She is wearing pink crocs that rattle loose on her stubby feet. When she sees her father, she runs and gives him a jump-up hug. He holds her there like a little X. Her arms are too short to fit around him. Faith asks her father how he’s been. “I’m OK, but I’m really good now that you’re here,” he says.
About Carolyn Flynn: As a single mother of twins, Carolyn has a big long to-do list. It includes catching snowflakes, flooding the house, saving the soccer world, doing Sufi laundry and pursuing economic independence, for starters. She is editor of the thought-provoking and ground-breaking women’s magazine, SAGE, published monthly in the Albuquerque Journal. She has six published books and is currently working on a memoir, All: The Too-Blessed-to-be-Stressed Life of a Single Mother of Twins. The only way Carolyn has time to write is because she keeps the pen moving, no matter where, even if the atom bomb goes off. Lately, she’s discovered no one will interrupt her at 4:15 in the morning, so that’s when she gets up to write.