I’ve only been a first-time author for about two weeks now, ever since my first collection of poems The Forage House came out. However, I do know something about what to do while waiting for a book to come out. I’ve been about to be a first-time author for nearly two years, ever since the book was accepted. Coincidentally, my son was born two years ago. I joke that my kids are spaced two years apart.
My book isn’t a kid exactly, but talking about the book launch, people, me included, immediately revert to metaphors of creation, of making, of birthing. People say that having a book is like having a baby. That may be true, spiritually, but I would say that the process of making a book come into the world is also at lot like wedding planning. That is to say: You should get at least one fabulous dress out of the process, and in the meantime, there are a lot of spreadsheets.
In a strange way, I had already used book-launch “wedding-planning” skills in my real work. I knew the work that goes into packaging a book—I’ve worked as a journalist and for an agent. I’ve publicized book events and pitched editors and written exciting-sounding jacket copy. But in the same way it’s sometimes easy to clean someone else’s house but hard to clean your own kitchen, helping your own book be born can be tricky.
I was lucky to encounter some good people to guide me along the way. An early lesson came when James Arthur, a poet I’d never met but whose work I quite like, wrote me. “We have such and such and so and so in common” he said. “Would you let me know where you like to read? Can you connect me with reading series? Would you like to read together?” He was so friendly, and talented, and kind, that I felt delighted to help him. I picked up the phone. I sent along introductions. I thought, if I feel this way about him, maybe other people will feel this way about me. And so, I began querying other writers, building a network of venues where I might read.
My next lesson came when my editor called. “Do you have any other writing you might do when your book comes out?” she said. “Essays? Journalism?” As it happened, I did. I had an essay or two in the hopper, languishing unfinished. I had some ideas in the margins of my notebooks. “Polish those up,” she said, “unless you’re writing another book.” It turned out that polishing essays was a great way to keep calm after my galleys were in, but before the book came out. Writing essays is a better way to deal with nervous energy than pacing, less figure-destroying than eating carbs. I sent my essays off with cold efficiency—after all they were not poems. I had good luck—VQR took one essay, the New York Times took another, Oxford American will soon come out with third.
A third revelation came when I realized I needed to keep track of all this stuff—essays, venues, people I’d written to—on spreadsheets. Those people who know me know I am almost comically analog—hard copy, hard file, etc. But information was flying fast and furious. I felt dizzied with e-mails. I had a stroke of luck. I had learned I was going to get published right about the same time I had a baby. I hired myself a babysitter so I could get back to some form of work. When you have a small baby, work is everywhere, and the baby is all mixed up in it. I have always known that a writer has to be her own best secretary, her own girl Friday. A writer is part inspiration, part jack of all trades. But when it came to managing spreadsheets, I realized immediately that I would rather be spending precious time with my child than assembling an address list of potential reviewers.
It happened that my babysitter, the gentle and efficient Saph Hall, had a previous career as an office manager. She was terrific at filing information, at assembling lists, at helping me streamline what needed to happen. So even though I had asked her to babysit while I worked on these projects, she ended up working on spreadsheets while I took my child for long walks in the garden. This meant I was freer to focus on teaching and writing and oh, yes, changing diapers. My point here is there are a lot of hats to wear: Find a way to do what you’re good at, and do your best to ask for help with the rest.
And now: I am learning to let this book—a labor of eight years—go. This is odd: It means allowing myself to be the best advocate for something that is no longer wholly mine. I asked a fellow writer, dear friend and Guggenheim winner Michael Lukas, how his book tour had gone. “Well,” he said, “a book tour is the service you do to the person who wrote your book.” I loved that sentence—its sense of allowing distance between the writer I was when crafting these poems and the person I am now as I talk about having once been the person who crafted them. It’s all right, then, that even that as I launch this book and talk about it that the person talking warmly about these poems is not the same soul who wrote them. The woman who wrote this book was a recluse, single-mindedly at work on a mysterious collage, hunched over traces, in the thrall of historical absence. The woman who is on a book tour now is doing a service to that introvert, that craftsperson. There are some writers who get tired by launching books, and I can see why they would. But I loved Michael’s notion of doing service to the artist, service to the art. He offered the process a kind of spiritual dignity.
And he gave me space to think about imagining the artist I want to be again soon. These days I feel a bit like a farmer going to market to sell wares, or a wine merchant describing my vintage, or a chef explaining my menu. I am looking forward to meeting you, I want to talk to you. Let’s lift a glass. Let’s toast this birth, this harvest, this work. Somewhere inside me, I am already thinking about next season’s grapes.