I’ve spent thousands of dollars on therapy, so I am someone who is self-aware. After all, the point of all that internal exploration is to understand who I am and either make peace with it or work to change it.
One thing I know is I am not indie. I’m about as indie as an Olive Garden bread stick or a Best Buy flat screen. There’s literally nothing indie about me. And it’s not that I once was indie, but somewhere along the way decided I hated being so marginalized for my coolness that I “sold out” and started following Ryan Seacrest’s musical recommendations or Oprah’s book picks. No, I’ve always had a top 40 sensibility, and my life has been marked by very few forays into counter-culture.
However. I got swept up into the frenzy of a writing conference and signed up to pitch my book to an indie press. You know, because “it would be a good experience.”
To prepare, I looked at the press’ catalog and read the first chapter of about 10 of its books. The only thing my book shares with those books is that we are all using words to convey meaning. Each of the press’ books, including the one that one a major literary prize, has gorgeous language (think “elegiac”, think “shimmering prose”), big themes (“the nature of consciousness”), and is not concerned with traditional narrative elements. Like plot.
My book, by contrast, is pretty plotty. Without the plot, there’s plenty of lovely language lying around, like the eloquent passage where my protagonist describes her impure thoughts about Judd Hirsch (“I concentrated on his hairy eyebrows and thought about his dramatic arc on Barney Miller.”). Trust me, ya’ll, it’s poetic.
Of course my book isn’t any more indie than I am, but I put on the only clean clothes I had left in my suitcase and prepared to pitch my heart out. I know what you’re thinking. What’d she wear? Yes, it would have probably been more helpful if I wore a vintage dress with some artsy boots and glass jewelry– at least I could show some indie sensibility. OMG if I only had some funky glasses. I considered getting a tattoo– a quote from an obscure REM song or Spinoza. I didn’t. I put on my sweater set, my seersucker pants (red and white, which is edgier than the traditional blue and white, amiright?), and my ballet flats.
When I sat down with the editor, I reminded myself that this was an exercise to get experience and not to land a book deal. I looked into the editor’s kind eyes and unfurled the tale I’ve spent 61 weeks writing. Maybe I looked like a seersuckered jackass, but I heard passion in my voice, and I felt proud of and grateful for the story I’d conceived.
The editor, however, didn’t experience the same rapture. “It sounds commercial,” was the assessment, delivered in the sincere, nonjudgmental tone of a professional.
As I walked back to my room, the word commercial rattled in my head like a marble in a wooden box. I tried to muster some indignation or offense, but I couldn’t. The truth is that it feels like a compliment even if it wasn’t intended as one.
As time passes, threads of shame have woven themselves into this story. To combat their potency, I’ve started a running list of things that are both commercial and not soul-destroying. So far I’ve got The Help, S. Pellegrino water, Ikea, Dollywood, The Happiness Project.
Maybe one day I can add my debut novel to this list.