About the content below: I discovered this letter recently on my laptop when its hard drive began to fail, and I bought a new machine, and during the task of ensuring safe transfer of all my scattered writings I partook in a little organization and clean-up. As you can see from the date in the heading, it was written nearly 4 years ago. I never mailed, or emailed, it. Apparently I lacked the courage or did not feel sufficiently desperate. Or perhaps the exercise itself served a purpose.
Why am I sharing it now? Ostensibly to lay bare the realities of this profession. I think it’s important for young writers to know that the loneliness of the slog, the hardships, the doubts, are burdensome for us all, even those of us who have published a thing or two. I hope my students do better than me at seeking the support they need—because the events of the interceding 4 years, as I look back now, do not suggest the level of resilience that I aspire to. In fact, I put aside the manuscript mentioned in the letter, after 80+ rejections, and moved to other projects. Only in 2018 did I resume work on it, by hiring an editor through Reedsy, who gave me a bolstering MS assessment, and subsequent developmental edit.
This collaborative work got me back on the agent-submission horse—a ride which is still highly precarious. Recently I caught a friend’s band at a street festival: David Kraai and the Saddle Tramps. When I first heard the name, I thought it was Saddle Cramps—which I found to be an evocative medical term, and perhaps suggestive that however we get where we need to be, it ain’t always gonna be comfortable. I was wrong about the term, but the point stands: if agent subs are a horseback ride, then rejections are saddle cramps. In the last few weeks I’ve done an additional 20 subs, and I’m enjoying a few “howdy, pardners” and I am once again applying lineament to the tender, affected areas. But it’s all part of the journey. This time my attitude is “Wyoming or Bust.”
Above, I said “ostensibly” (adv., to all outward appearances). Full disclosure, I’m trying to drive some traffic to my Fall 2018 workshops, so check the QR code or link to cash in! Thank you.
November 24, 2014
c/o FSG Books
18 W. 18th Street
New York, NY 10011
Dear Donald Antrim:
Hello. I’m Benjamin Obler, and this is a fan letter of sorts. I’m reading Betsy Lerner’s book Forest for the Trees: An Editor’s Advice to Writers. I find it full of gospel truths about writers and the industry, some of which I’ve experienced myself. Some heartening, some disheartening. And then unexpectedly toward the end, it mentioned the reams of author mail that publishing houses receive, and it occurred to me that the fan letter might serve my purposes. I read a few years ago that David Foster Wallace wrote a letter to Don DeLillo and received a reply—the idea first came to me then that I might write to one of my favorite authors and receive an encouraging word. But I never did. To do so seemed sad and a little desperate—pleading for attention from the famous. But actually a few other recent incidences have conspired to convince me, What the hell. Among them: writing today for a paid assignment about French composer Edgard Varese, I read that a 15-year-old Frank Zappa, who loved Varese’s music, wrote him a letter. And then this evening I was thinking about writing you, and I opened the issue of One Story in the day’s mail, and was met with your name in a backcover ad for your new book.
Congratulations on the publication of The Emerald Light in the Air. The stories in it that have appeared in The New Yorker and the 2013 O. Henry collection I’ve enjoyed immensely. The others I will enjoy very soon, after my next trip to a bookstore (Inquiring Minds of Saugerties or Half Moon Books of Kingston). Of your other books my very favorite is The Hundred Brothers. I have assigned passages from it in the writing classes I teach at Gotham Writers Workshop. I have recommended it to many friends. In fact, my copy is currently out on loan. I have always enjoyed and appreciated your style, voice, characterization, plots, humor and the wonderful madness of things that transpire in your work. But on top of that I’ve felt the closest affinity to you, among my favorite writers, perhaps because of your daring explorations of the fraught and the frightful—your courageous candor, if I’m getting that right. Last year I read your memoir and was startled at what I found, but deeply touched too. And I suppose I felt that if you could persevere after your family exploits and nobly mine the material in a variety of ways without undue bitterness, then I ought to be able to do the same.
And yet, at this time, I am struggling to persevere. Yes, we’ve reached the point where I unburden myself. Which is not of course, your responsibility; nor is it your obligation to address it. But I wish to say something of my situation, and if you have the time and the inclination to reply, then it could be of great help to me, and I would be very grateful.
I have published one book. It came out in 2009 in the UK. On a good imprint, mind you: HamishHamilton with Penguin. In a sense, a dream come true. I was on the publisher’s author page along with Updike, Wallace, Dr. Seuss, Capote, Sontag, Zadie Smith, etc. I wrote a second, using my own experience with addiction as the basis. It is no doubt more parts catharsis than art, and I know that, and so I have not despaired that the two or three years spent working on it have not resulted in publication. Rather I should say, I did despair but have since finished despairing. I wrote some short stories, one of which just won a contest, which pleased me greatly. Then two years ago, I moved on and began writing a memoir about my experience. Rather than coding my experience in bildungsroman allegory, this is all the hard facts and painful truths. I’ve enjoyed writing it (up until recently). I feel I’ve matured in almost all writing matters—though I’m lacking my former naïve arrogance and raging ambition. Of this book I have at times harnessed great conviction in myself and in the work. People of good discernment in the matter who have read parts have commended it strongly and not merely to appease me, I believe.
It sounds, in a sense, as though I ought to have nothing to complain of, or any real need of direction.
But going back to Lerner’s book (the editor). She writes with such painful honesty about writers, their neuroses, how many don’t make it, how many don’t publish a second, the changes in the industry that have made it a statistical anomaly for a good writer to have good career. I feel validated by many of her assertions because I have direct experience with most of them. But then she made the assertion that it is very, very hard for some writers to keep their hat in the ring in the face of rejection and long odds, etc., and what every writer really benefits from is having a mentor, advocate, support. That is me right now. In that department I am lacking. I was blessed on my first book. I was in the unlikely situation of having an editor at the publisher cheering me on from the first 25,000 words! She waited three years for me to complete it. Now I have nothing like that. I wouldn’t expect anyone ever will again. I don’t even have the awful agent in London I used to have, who wasn’t qualified to shepherd an olive out of a jar, and I’ve quit a position as a managing editor in an educational publisher in NYC and moved upstate, and it seems that the more time I spend on this book, the closer it gets to completion, the more mortified I am by the possibility of failure, and the more the feeling arises that I’ve made a dreadful mistake and have been feeding on delusions.
It’s possible that this career breeds paranoia as well. As I send out queries and samples and meet so many voiceless rejections—whether two days or two years later—I begin to suspect that agents are looking at my published novel’s bookscan numbers. I think of that Seinfeld episode where the doctor keeps scribbling privately, ominously, in his chart at Elaine’s every new protest, eyeing her suspiciously. The worst mark against me would be that I didn’t promote the book well. It’s no excuse, but honestly, I didn’t know. I was not a social media user—I was a writer, bookworm, and reclusive addict. Now, I like my blog posts and feel they represent me well and show a variety of styles and voices. But sometimes I think agents are going to my website and seeing something so glaringly wrong about my form of self-promotion that no matter how pleased I’ve felt about the marvelous sonorous qualities of sentence variety and word choice in my memoir, the musicality of my descriptions, the humor in my dialogue, etc.—no matter this because it is all going on right here on this very laptop screen and nowhere else, and so it might be a grand delusion to even hold out hope of further success because I am not a conventional writer, nor a savvy self-marketer nor eccentric enough to thrill a publicity department, and now that I have a track record, I feel like I will not have a chance to have my work judged on its merit, just the top google reviews for my first book, and a pass.
What a hard luck case, eh, Mr. Antrim? On the one hand, I would be a writer just the same without my suffering, but then enough is enough. I wasn’t voted most likely to succeed, however; I was voted Best Dressed in my high school class, and so when I read in the Times piece on you that you have a flare for the sartorial (your mother’s influence, no doubt), I felt this is a man I can understand even more than I already do—or believe I do—through his work. And perhaps he can understand me. Or at least my situation. I’d be grateful if you could speak to that situation, should you decide to and be able to answer.
I know I ought to keep writing and on the one hand, I know that I will. I stopped for a time once, and it felt every bit like having a transfusion of some fetid, nutrient-deficient fluid swapped in for my blood. I’m sure my struggle won’t grow and grow, but some days it does occur to me that if it should, it would soon become insurmountable. I wish I knew who to apologize to for not being the brass-testicled kind of man who would keep going and spit in the face of all doubters. Maybe I can take a chutzpah seminar or something. But in the meantime…
Betsy Lerner says that having a strong blurb really excites agents, editors, and publicity departments. I’ll enclose a paragraph of the MS, and if you think you could stomach reading enough of the MS to blurb it, then that would surely be a monumental boost like none I’ve known in my career. I have in fact said in query letters that I think readers of my book (working title: Life in Blue) will get some of the same pleasures that readers get reading Donald Antrim. But if you could attest to it—well, that would be straight from the esteemed horse’s mouth, no?
Regardless, I thank you for your attention and for your work, which has brought meaning, inspiration, and enjoyment to my life.
Stone Ridge, NY
Also published on Medium.