After many months of pitching my book, HILLBILLY, QUEER, I’m delighted to finally say that I’ve signed with NYC-based literary agent Julie Stevenson of Massie & McQuilkin. In the end, I received four offers of representation. The final four were all great and had much to offer, but Julie is the one who I feel truly gets me and the book.
When I queried Julie in April, she wrote back within an hour and told me what she loved about the pitch and how it has connections to her own lived experiences. She told me that my dad sounds a lot like her dad and she couldn’t wait to read my book. Then when we first connected by phone, the synergy was immediate. We talked for over an hour. She knew my book inside and out, she understands my career as an author and where I want to go, and she has clear ideas on how to get there.
Julie grew up in a working-class town in Montana and made the big move to New York for college. She has been a literary agent for 10 years. Prior to that, she worked in the editorial departments of Tin House and Publishers Weekly. Over the past 10 years, Julie has signed authors who have gone on to become New York Times Bestsellers and Pulitzer Prize Winners. Her agency, Massie & McQuilkin, represents a strong family of writers including people I admire like Lidia Yuknavitch, Roxane Gay, Sharma Shields, and Ashley C. Ford. I am completely in awe (and shock) that my name will be added to that list.
This is a feeling I never want to forget, and, after months of swimming in the slush pile, I’m allowing the universe to send this my way while remaining humbled by knowing that I am only one of many authors who sign with an agent each year.
There are many people who helped me along this path to getting an agent. But, most namely, I want to give shout outs to my husband, Cory, for believing in me and allowing me the time and space to write and pitch (and for handling my melt downs with grace), and to my best friend and partner-in-crime, Kelsey Timmerman, who gave me kicks in the ass every time I said I was going to quit; and he always gave me sound industry advice when I needed it (even if sometimes I’d argue with him on how I thought he was wrong).
This is just the beginning. The next path forward is finding the right publishing house, and I know this part of the journey will be smooth sailing with my agent, Julie Stevenson, by my side.
Thank you for all of your support, friends.
I’m going to be really honest: I’ve been down in the dumps lately.
I can’t explain why other than I continue to pitch my book, Hillbilly, Queer, and I continue to get rejection after rejection from agent after agent. But I should be jumping with joy because, through all of the rejections, the full manuscript has been requested by two agents (one of whom is still reviewing), and that doesn’t happen often. If you aren’t familiar with the writing/publishing world, hard rejections are the norm. Getting a full request (or better yet, getting published) happens to only 1% or so of all queries/pitches.
So I should be jumping up and down because, at the end of the day, I wrote a book. I wrote a freaking book! I put my whole heart, mind, and soul into this project and spent seven months writing it, and the feedback from all rejections has been positive: “Great writing; love the plot; realistic dialogue; made me laugh and cry; a sweet and powerful story.”
Still, what the agents haven’t liked has boiled down to one thing and it lingers in my mind: “Your platform isn’t big enough to have a memoir.”
If you don’t know what that means, platform is your current audience and who you reach. It’s the number of followers on Twitter, the number of national/international publications that have covered you or your work, and how far your “brand” extends beyond the comfort of your friends and family.
That’s a big splash of cold water to the face.
In other words, it’s like someone saying, “You’re not a big enough deal for me to think anyone will care about what you have to say.”
Commercial publishing is a fickle world, and it’s one I’ve been living in for the past several months. Somedays I can’t help but think if I’d written the book as fiction rather than memoir, I’d have an agent by now because platform doesn’t matter for new commercial authors who write fiction; just for those who write nonfiction where memoir is lumped. And other days I wonder if I wasted all of that time writing the book because who really cares about the story of a gay kid who grew up in rural Indiana.
But yesterday I had another splash of cold water to the face that said, “Wake the fuck up, dude, your story matters.”
Kelsey and I keynoted the Campus Compact for Southern New England’s Student Conference at Quinnipiac University in North Haven, Connecticut, and we went through the motions of what we always do on stage: He shares a bit of his story, I share a bit of mine, and then we talk about how our stories converged to create The Facing Project and everything we’ve learned from the power of stories.
Because I’ve finished my book, I decided to mix my part up a little and read an excerpt—a scene where my dad finds a love letter from Steve and it ultimately outs me—before going into the part of our talk where I discuss being brave enough to own my own story. If you follow this blog, you may recall Kelsey talking me into sharing my coming out story on stage a couple of years back when we gave a talk at the University of Saint Francis and how doing so has connected me to people in ways I never imagined.
Some of those experiences have included a college dean who said the story provided him hope to cope with a recent suicide on campus and to find new ways to reach out to students who feel like they are the “other”; a victim of rape who said she had felt alone, but she was inspired to share her own story as a way to create connections and help others feel brave; and the Vietnam Vet Marine who shared that he recently had a coming out of his own—telling his friends and family what he experienced in Vietnam after years of hiding the horrors in his mind.
Time after time, my story connects with people who aren’t even gay but can understand what it means to feel vulnerable and how freeing it is to just let it all go.
After our talk yesterday in Connecticut, I had an international student come up to me after everyone had cleared the auditorium to tell me he had something to say. He stood there, nervous, his eyes searching. I knew. I knew exactly what he wanted to tell me.
I put my hand on his shoulder and told him it was okay. A tear fell from his left eye and rolled down his cheek. He bit his lip. “I’m gay but I can’t tell anyone because my parents will disown me.”
“You have to love you,” I said.
“You don’t understand,” he said, “in my country I will be sent to prison for fourteen years or put to death.”
I didn’t know what to say. We stood there, a moment of awkward silence between us, and just as I started to speak he beat me to it.
“I needed your story today to remind me that I’m not alone.”
Tears started to well up in my eyes and then I did something I rarely do but the only thing that seemed right in the moment: I gave him a hug.
If you know me, I’m not a hugger . . . but that’s a different story.
I told him to be brave but to only share his story when he was ready. He said he plans to tell his family after college, when he has a steady job, but he knows he’ll never see them again after that.
Sometimes being who we are means walking away from other people’s expectations of what they want us to be. And that’s the caveat for this strange world we live in.
He turned and walked away, down a spiral staircase that led to the exit of the building, and I knew I’d likely never see him again or learn the fate of his story. But he will remain with me, always. And what I didn’t get to tell him is that he did something special for me, too. He kicked me out of my funk and reminded me to keep writing, to keep pitching, and to keep sharing my story because you never know who’s listening.
I haven’t blogged on my own website in seven months. Seven months! In the world of writing, that’s almost criminal.
The truth is, I haven’t spent much time blogging on this site since I launched it in 2013. My heart has taken me in other directions.
Not long after the launch of jrjamison.com, Kelsey and I founded The Facing Project and I shifted much of my time to developing the organization (including blogging over there). Then in 2014 I became Interim Executive Director of Indiana Campus Compact (while maintaining my role as Associate Director), and in the spring of 2015 I officially became the Executive Director. That summer, I also agreed to join the Editorial Board for the International Journal of Research on Service-Learning and Community Engagement. All exciting things for sure, and, honestly, I find each of them more interesting than my personal blogging about community engagement in higher education.
Another truth is I likely won’t blog on this site much in the coming months because all of the above is growing.
The Facing Project has spread like wild fire and there are now over 100 chapters of the organization in communities across the country (almost 60 of which have come on board just in the last few months!). That’s keeping Kelsey and me pretty busy. Indiana Campus Compact continues to expand the work we’re doing with our partner campuses, most namely around assessment and student engagement, and I’m now co-hosting a national podcast through the Campus Compact headquarters in Boston called The Compact Nation Podcast. Actually, Episode 1 will be released tomorrow!
But another thing that will keep me from blogging on this site . . . drum roll, please . . .
I’m writing a book.
When I’m not doing all of the above, I will spend my time bringing the rest of the #drivingwithdave experience to life into a full-length book. If you’re thinking, What the hell is #drivingwithdave?, I took a trip with my dad this past summer to rural Missouri for his 55-year class reunion and live tweeted and Facebook posted the entire trip.
The five days together was more than a trip for the reunion, it was time to bond with my dad: He, a straight good ole boy from rural Missouri who supports Trump, and, me, a gay liberal who likes my craft beer. We hadn’t spent that much time together since we made the same trek in 1994. Much had changed between us since that time, but the trip made me realize the distance I thought was between us really isn’t that far. And I can’t help but think that’s where I hope we get as a nation with our own divides—if we just spent time finding our common ground. Side note: Don’t get excited my conservative friends; there’s no way in hell I’m voting for Trump.
So we’ll see where this goes. I’ve devoted three Saturday mornings thus far to writing and I have just shy of 10,000 words. Just 70,000 more to go. My goal is to shop this to agents by this spring. Wish me luck! Now that it’s out in the open, I’ve got to finish this thing.
In the meantime, if you’re interested in my work continue to follow The Facing Project as the 60 new projects unfold over the next eight months, watch the growth of Indiana Campus Compact over the next year, and tune in to The Compact Nation Podcast the first Wednesday of each month.
And buy my book when it comes out!