Yesterday (April 2, 2010) I received news that the University of &^%$#@ Press, the place I’ve had my heart set for years, the place who sent me several emails within several hours asking for exclusive rights to my memoir, the place where it felt like just a formality to go through the peer-review process, rejected me. It happened because I didn’t realize when I selected peer-reviewers that I could select anybody in the field I knew. I listed several mentors along with a writer I’ve never met but who has similar subject matter. My greenness in that choice, and the sheer blind luck of who their editor chose, culminated to form a horrendous review of my work, so bad the editor who wanted the work knew he couldn’t send it to another reviewer because know matter how good the next review, the editorial board would never accept a book with a review like this on record. My writing was called sophomoric. I was called “not emotionally or intellectually mature enough to handle this book.” It was said that my “head is in the clouds,” and that the book makes no contribution whatsoever to the field, although paragraphs later when asked what the book might compare to, the reviewer states: “I honestly can’t think of anything.” Despite brilliant reviews from creative nonfiction master Dinty W. Moore and UFC (Ultimate Fighting Championship) Hall of Famer, Ken Shamrock, “Caged: Memoir of a Cage-Fighting Poet” was flat-out denied (single-handedly by one person no less) by a Press that excitedly wanted it. (Since then, it has been accepted by Tuttle Publishing. The book is forthcoming Fall 2011.)
My first book of poems is coming out with Salmon Poetry in 2012, I told myself. I’m engaged to the most wonderfully intriguing, beautiful woman I’ve ever met. I’m healthy. No matter. I gave myself years for this memoir – each day putting one new egg (Easter is coming, why not go there?) into this Press’s basket. I got out of my computer chair and looked at the WARRIOR tattoo across the flesh of my stomach. No matter. The rejection made me feel like I’d taken a flurry from boxer Manny Pacquiao. My back flat to the floor, arms wide, eyes on ceiling’s blank white page. I remained there for maybe an hour. I remained until a Euschistus servus, aka, a brown stinkbug somehow wriggled its shielded body through the window screen and into the space above the garage I call home. I heard its buzzing. But what I really heard was the way it crashed its hard body again and again into refrigerator, doorframe, dumbbells, window, tuna cans, books. I felt guilty listening to this stinkbug’s confused struggle. But it didn’t quit. And since then I’ve felt a strength I can’t reach the bottom of.
Rewind five years. 2005.
Rhythmic pulsation of drum, bird, water. It’s one of those nights in the produce department of Martin’s Grocery in Altoona, Pennsylvania. The drumbeats are the stems of cabbage bouncing into the stainless steel bi-sectioned sink as my knife blade runs through them; the water rushing to fill up another sink where celery rejuvenates after its trip from California; the bird chirping coming from the thick-haired nostrils of a co-worker, an elderly man forced to work due to losing his pension – he says something about being ripped off by Alan Greenspan.
Four years, I think to myself. I’ve punched 0 4 8 0 6 6 into this same keypad for four years.
I was a Criminal Justice major at Penn State Altoona. Had no idea what else to do in life so I figured I’d learn how to incarcerate bad guys. There were good people and bad people. Nothing in between. No shades of gray.
Until I took an Introduction to Poetry class sophomore year (2005). The money from Martin’s was saved to travel monthly to Renzo Gracie’s Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu Academy in Manhattan – home to the world’s best fighters. I loved the minute details of the fight game (and later found writing to be of the same mold), how a degree difference in hip angle means either getting smashed or forcing your opponent to submit to an armbar. I learned skill nearly always beats toughness. I learned skill and toughness when combined are unbeatable.
The fans in the LC Pavilion in Columbus, Ohio screamed my name as I was announced. Upon entering the boxing club at thirteen years of age, I’d been training to become a mixed martial artist, training to cut my way not through cabbage stems but through manhood to find what the whole thing meant. It’s not ironic I was thirteen when my father left my mom for alcohol, money, to continue exhibiting his lack of communication skills with other women. It’s not ironic I was thirteen when I saw the UFC VHS with Ken Shamrock on the cover and knew I had to watch it. It’s not ironic what I saw in Ken – a man who carried himself confidently postured, who articulated himself well and showed respect for others, who could make world-class fighters quit to an ankle lock – was everything I wanted to be as a man. There was a reason. There is always a reason if you look hard enough. I won my debut fight by choke. Afterwards, I screamed ten years of pent-up emotions. The fans screamed for me too. They screamed my name. The name I share with my father.
Fast-forward two and a half years. 2007.
I’m chopping. I’m depressed. I’m chopping chopping harder harder faster. I chopped myself accidentally, the knife blade worked its way through the mesh glove and sliced a chunk from my thumb. I bled into a sink of romaine lettuce, an hour of work gone. I maintained my Criminal Justice major, but added the English major. I fell in love with poetry and creative nonfiction. The way the reading and writing of them gave me new perspectives on every topic – something I was not getting in the depressed former railroad town of Altoona. I wanted to be a fighter and a writer, however wildly impractical. As I bled I ran into the cooler, turned off the lights, sat on the ever-damp Dole Head Lettuce box and bawled into my apron. Sixteen straight MFA rejections. Everywhere from Iowa and Iowa State to Florida to Wyoming to Notre Dame to Oregon. I’m going to be one of those lifers at Martins who’s here until my nose hair whistles while I work. Why doesn’t work ethic pay off? I’m 21 and I’ve never tasted alcohol. I go to school, do homework, train my body, stock bananas day in and day out. What gives? The cold water crept into my underwear. Is this what mom worked sixteen-hour days for? Is that what I’m going to make of the sacrifices she went through to put store-brand rigatoni’s on the table for me and my sister? Is this what I’m going to make of myself?
Fast-forward four days.
A Friday and I work from 3-9:00pm. The mailman came at noon everyday and brought nothing but dog barks, bills or rejections. I check. Arizona. I can’t breathe. This is it. The final letter. They either say yes or I will work another year at Martin’s and apply to twenty MFA programs next year. Here we go:
On behalf of our faculty and staff we would like to congratulate you on your acceptance into the University of Arizona’s MFA Creative Writing Program.
Yada yada yada blah blah blah.
I sprinted through the linoleum kitchen in socks, slipping and revving my legs like a cartoon character. I hugged mom hard. Our sacrifices paid off. The furthest west I’d been was Ohio, and I didn’t have money, so in addition to Martin’s I took a summer job building a deck and a rock wall around a pond. It happened. So it goes.
Fast-forward two months.
I’m chopping chopping plopping green leaves into water in the produce department when I receive a phone call. I take my cutting glove off, my plastic gloves off. I dry my hands and scramble to the drawer where I keep my phone. I clear my throat.
520 area code.
“Hi. This is Frances Sjoberg from the University of Arizona Poetry Center, may I speak to Cameron Conaway?”
“This is him.” (Or he? Darnit, I hope I didn’t ruin my chance with that).
“Hi Cameron. We’ve had many applicants interview for the Poet-in-Residence position here, but we’ve got some good news. We’ve decided you are the best candidate for the job. We’d like to offer you the position.”
I walked into the same freezer, sat on the Dole Head Lettuce that is always there on the front pallet and cried again. The time when mom was curled in a ball on the bed in her room and crying on the phone, begging with the bill collector to turn our heat back on in the dead of winter, telling him over and over that a check was on its way. I remember her mascara running down her face – the left side teardrop racing with the right – as she mouthed to me “this is why you need an education.” My younger sister, only her head exposed from under the green sleeping bag on her bed, was flu-ridden and vomiting into a garbage can.
The heating company places a large metal lock over your outdoor heating unit when they turn the power off. It’s similar to “the boot” for a car with excess violations. I grabbed a hammer from the basement, screamed to mom, “I’m pounding that lock off!” Mom covered the phone with one hand, “It’s a felony to take that off!” she yelled as I brandished the hammer above my head. “Cameron, please no, you’ll go to jail!”
We now know that it takes four full-body whacks with a hammer to break the lock.
But what was a young man of eighteen to do when he’s the man of the house? When mom is crying, at her weakest, and sister seems on the verge of death from cold? Each winter one of us tells this story and we’re able to smile about it.
If pain is a pot of boiling water, humor can be the rising steam.
Fast forward to November 2009.
I’ve moved to Charlottesville, Virginia to be with my fiancée and begin training seriously in mixed martial arts again. I’m young, now is my time to see what my body can do. I’m spending an hour each day querying agents and publishers about the memoir. Some are interested, most aren’t, all make me wait months for a response. I’m teaching “Crafting the Essay” online for Johns Hopkins Center for Talented Youth yet I can’t seem to get my own collection of essays accepted anywhere. On a whim I send my poetry manuscript to Salmon Poetry. They’ve published Adrienne Rich and Ray Bradbury so I figured why not. The manuscript grew out of my experience as Poet-in-Residence teaching creative writing at an all-female pod at the Pima County Juvenile Detention Center in Tucson, Arizona. I sent an email query letter with some sample poems on Friday November 13, 2009. Jessie Lendennie, the editor, sends me a contract the following Wednesday. Expected publication date: January 2012. My first book accepted all within six days after years of struggle and rejection. It happened. So it goes.
Lesson learned: nothing is predictable in this writing game. The only consistency is personal toughness. Either the writer keeps plodding along, reading, researching agents, rewording query letters, manuscripts, explaining to family and friends that money isn’t everything, that “No, I will not self-publish, here’s why,” that “I understand so and so celebrity has a book out but they are not a literary writer, they do not live the literary life, they probably didn’t even write it, they may not have even read it, they most likely do not care or know how letters, words, images, associative leaps blend, and how hard it can be to make this happen.” They do not know of the writers who have spent their lives literarily, only to never see success during their lifetime. “Why do so many writers kill themselves?” they ask.
When I tell the news of how Salmon Poetry accepted my book for publication I get a “Good news. Did I tell you about my fishing trip last weekend?” And the fishing story goes for ten, fifteen minutes. This is irony. This is irony that hurts deeply but sprinkles seedlings in the dirt of personal toughness.
Lavish praise may come, but most likely not and not in sufficient quantities to sustain confidence. More likely are heaping plates of disappointment in yourself, the constant feeling that nobody understands why you are dedicating yourself to a craft that anybody can do – after all, everybody signs their name or writes letters, so what is hard about writing? You will feel confused because close mentors will offer conflicting advice, you will struggle to make money from your craft and will be forced to balance a job or two or three to pay bills. You will struggle and get upset because of the difficulty to even find an hour to write. You will begin to hate money even more – how you must spend the majority of your energy to make it so you have a roof over your head so you can write (the latter part rarely happening). You will watch New York Times Bestselling authors, whose attention to craft is minimal at most and whose story is only somewhat engaging, bathe in the spotlight and have huge displays at Barnes & Noble and you will then question yourself, if what you are doing has any merit whatsoever, if you should, say, begin studying for a personal training certification because that is a field on the rise. You may be forced to stand in an unemployment line (MFA programs are churning out hundreds of grads each year and there are only a handful of job openings in the field) behind people with vein pockmarks who visibly shake because their last hit was two hours ago. You will have to ask your landlord if they can hold off on cashing your rent check until the middle of the month. You will need to have ultimate faith in your skills, and in your constant ability to read the best writers and absorb something from all of them. You will have to develop toughness just as you’ve developed writing skills. It’s that important.
Drive with the windows down on freezing cold days. Push yourself at the gym and go when you would rather not. Avoid stopping at fast food restaurants because it is easier than preparing a meal. Let an itch itch (so long as it’s not from some type of stinging or biting bug). Get a cold shower when all you want in life is a warm bath. When you do have the time to write, research something you are not at all interested in. Skip the coffee one morning. Listen to a news or radio station you can’t stand or you don’t agree with. Bring awareness to each breath for five minutes rather than focusing on work. Open your hands and spread your fingers wide for five minutes rather than letting them naturally curl. Engage the gas station attendant in conversation when the only thing you want is to get home. Instead of watching television for thirty minutes, think frequently about those who do support and understand your work – never forget the team you have around you. Consider humanity a team.
Find ways to build toughness because if there is one overlooked variable to becoming a writer and maintaining your longevity as a writer it is toughness. Some say to play the middle road – to not get attached and therefore you won’t be disappointed. The negative of this is (1) we are writers and therefore incredibly emotional beings and (2) the middle road means when great news comes we won’t be nearly as excited because we haven’t given our all to something. My advice is to give yourself fully to whatever you do. Then you will truly cherish the few moments of absolute stunning unexpected excitement. You will also fall hard when you’ve given yourself to a project for years and it is repeatedly rejected. Learn to fall like the judoka – slapping the mat to distribute the force away from the body. Or, fall fearlessly like the brown stinkbug, who even while falling hard fully understands how to fly again.
Cameron Conaway is the author of the forthcoming Caged: Memoir of a Cage-Fighting Poet (Tuttle Publishing, Fall 2011) and Until You Make the Shore (Salmon Poetry, January 2012). He was the 2007-2009 Poet-in-Residence at the University of Arizona’s MFA Creative Writing Program and currently teaches for Johns Hopkins Center for Talented Youth. Visit www.CameronConaway.com for more information.