The past you like, the past you hate

pencil erasing the phrase "the past"

The great thing about America, they say, is that it’s a land of second chances. People come here to make a fresh start. Your ancestors probably did. And it’s a land that loves to forgive, to let people try again and start over after their mistakes.

That’s a lovely theory. But how do you “start over?” There’s no reset button to life. There’s no way to erase the past. There are real-life reasons (financial and familial and familiar) why most of us can’t just fold up our tent, hop a train, and start a new life in a different town. And even if you could, would that really be escaping from the past? You tote your past with you everywhere you go. It’s the invisible baggage that no porter will ever carry for you; only you get to push and pull and tug and lug it from place to place.

Whitman, one of America’s first great poets (and a personal favorite), famously claimed that he was large, that he contained multitudes. Beautiful. Lyrical. It’s a fundamentally democratic poetic statement, abundant and amenable to differences. I loved it as a college student. I love it as a theory.

The darker side that I overlooked in my first enthusiastic embrace? What if you can’t stomach some of the past (personal, cultural, national) that you contain? How do you make sense of not just the good that you have done but also the errors, sins, and mistakes that you have committed?

In my novel Ghost Music, characters try different tactics: some attempt to ignore the past wholly, some are swallowed by the past and lose the present, while others learn to balance what happened (good and bad) with the present. It’s a delicate issue, this effort to contain not only the multitudes that you like, but also those that you want to excoriate and burn and vomit away.

Yes, Mr. Whitman, we do indeed contain multitudes. At times, though, it is easy to wish we did not, that we could be simple, happy, uncomplicated monads, blissfully unaware of the past and able to leave all mistakes behind. Ghost Music shows the impossibility of that wish. It is a novel not just about past sins, but also about learning to forgive (both yourself and others) and attempts to reconstruct.

Waiting for the publisher

Writing a novel, I’ve discovered, is not an ideal undertaking for those who are impatient. I’m not good at waiting. I hate going to the bank, or the post office, where lines seem to take forever. I’d rather take surface roads and drive the long way home than sit on the freeway in rush hour traffic and move slowly. You get the idea.

Beyond the hours and months and years invested in taking an initial idea to completion as a novel, though, there is an unbelievable amount of time where you can’t do anything but wait. What looked like the finish line–completing the novel–is actually only about the midway point. Then it’s time to find an agent or look for a publisher directly. That means a query letter. Then waiting, weeks or even months, to hear back. If they like what they read, maybe you’ll be asked to submit a longer sample, or even the full manuscript. If not, welcome to form letter rejection hell.

I’ve experienced both, several times. I’m never quite prepared for either outcome. Logging in to find an email from an agent or publisher still gives me a shot of adrenaline. Opening the message is like getting a gift from a secret Santa at work: you have no idea whether it’s something you’d like to display on your desk or bury in a drawer, but you’re pretty sure that whoever is doing the gifting would do a much better job if they just knew you a little bit better.

Assuming the gift is a good one and you’ve been asked to submit a full manuscript for review, the process feels like it’s jumped forward dramatically, only to come to a standstill almost immediately afterward. Publishers and agents are ridiculously busy. And though your novel should, obviously, be their top priority and you know it will grab their attention once they start reading it, there is evidently some unusual wormhole in the publishing world that slows time to a crawl. Four to six months seems to be pretty standard for a manuscript review. In an age filled with texts that jump back and forth with ease and messaging that has become “instant,” waiting months for something that is so important to you feels interminable.

I’m in that interminable, difficult, wormhole-like spot right now. The good folks at Oak Tree Press have asked to review my manuscript. They are exactly the type of press I’m looking for: a company that has helped other new writers get a start and forms a partnership with authors. Sunny has been especially helpful already, quick with replies and suggestions. Check out their books when you get a chance. Here’s hoping that this time my gift is an offer for publication–that’s a gift I would definitely enjoy seeing on my desk.

–Patrick