When I prepared my application to the MFA (Masters of Fine Arts in fiction) at Pacific University, I needed a short story, a very brief literary analysis essay, and a personal statement. This was 2004. My mother had been dying for over two years, and my brother had declared me “the most disfunctional person” he knew.
I had recently unshouldered the yearbook and left the high school cross country team, but I was teaching high school English full time, and visiting my mother at least three times a day since her collapse in 2002. My husband, too, carried this burden, stopping on his way to work to get Mom up and make her coffee, at lunch, and again on his way home. I have my annotated calendars from those years. They do not list these and other daily tasks or fun events as they would have during my working-my-way-through-college years. They note my mother’s hospital visits.
There was a four day period that included my high school Open House and three visits to the ER. I never missed school. I trudged on.
It’s true that I felt disfunctional. I was overworked, but I did not have the leisure to alter my obligations. I loved my mother and she was too stubborn to change. I was only halfway through the most stressful and painful and emotionally destructive period of my life, but I was doing the job. All the jobs of teacher, wife, mother, and daughter.
In the midst of this chaos, halfway through what would be the five years of Mom’s dying, I began to carve out a new life for myself. Our older son had completed his first college degree and our younger son, despite taking time out for commercial and regional theater and a leading role in a film, was completing his degree. I was, I see now, adjusting to my life chaos, struggling to regain space for myself as an individual.
My application to an MFA program, then, was essentially a survival strategy. I have absolutely no memory of what I wrote in my personal statement. I wrote my literary analysis about how Edward P. Jones details events without reflection in The Known World. And then, because I had never written a story longer than ten pages, I set out to write a story of close to twenty.
“The Promised Hour” was based on a pair of a true events, one of personal experience in college when I believed a child was being molested and I confronted the man after the Seattle Police said they could do nothing. The other, more recent event, concerned a local doctor, a man I knew whose daughters had gone to my sons’ grade school before moving out of the area. After his wife left him, the doctor deliberately bankrupted his practice and then seized and murdered his children and killed himself.
These deaths were reported in the newspaper and had a devastating impact on my community, on the people who knew the girls, teachers who had cared for them in the classroom, neighbors and school friends. I kept trying to understand how that mother could ever recover.
That was the story I told, the story of a woman carving out existence after devastating loss. I told it badly, I was later told, but well enough that someone thought I might have potential as a writer of fiction.
The story itself went through endless revisions. I mostly stopped keeping track after the first forty or so rewrites. I moved events into and out of chronological order, added and deleted scenes and details. Removed characters and created them. The story has since been submitted to literary journals a few dozen times. Sometimes it is summarily dismissed. A few journals kept it for months past their normal review time. Some wrote back with admiration and perhaps even sincere regret, but always rejection.
Then, in 2016, I turned it into a novel, which allowed me room to explore this woman’s life after death, the years of clawing her way back to life. Only fourteen drafts of the novel, and I am done rewriting. That novel has done no better than the story in submission. Mostly, it does not get past the query letter.
Everybody’s Mother Dies, a literary novel of about 78k words, follows a woman’s odyssey through grief.
Thena Justice was building a new life near Seattle after the death of her mother and breakup of a terrible marriage when her former husband murders the neighbor-babysitter and their daughter before committing suicide. Lost in grief, Thena first hides in a friend’s converted garage, then in a tiny cottage on the Pacific coast, thrashing her way through apathy, anger, and routine. Instead of returning to Puget Sound, she moves to the city where she was born, takes the bus to a retail job each day, and keeps her head down until a child crying in the night wakens whatever it is that gives existence meaning.
One agent wrote:
“But no, I’m sorry. . . . I read this query letter, it’s thoughtful and well-written. I don’t, however, have the mental energy to read a novel of this description, the world has become such a violent and angry place, I find myself unwilling to read fiction which deepens that impression. I’m sure there are others who will disagree with me and toward that end, best of luck.”
Though I rewrote the query, too, others do not disagree with her. Even the reader who read the entire work and liked it ultimately said no,
“I would love to take your manuscript on and work with you in placing it, but I’m afraid my current workload simply wouldn’t do it justice. This project requires care and attention – because it is no doubt a beautifully quiet yet impactful story – that I don’t feel I can give. I say this with a heavy heart.”
Whatever care and attention it requires is beyond me. Though the bulk of my story is about recovery, not the devastating loss that demands it, I cannot help but respect these views. The world has become too angry and violent. And I have written my story badly.
Two agents and seven* small presses have sample pages, and then I will regretfully put this work aside permanently.
Sometimes the only way to survive is just to fly on.
*I had to go look this up. Not four, seven.