Don’t Give Up On Stories — Stories Always Matter
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.