Friday, September 21, 2012

How literary agents are like cats

Minky: "It wasn't me."
The other night I woke up to howling. Was it the young cat, Opossum, in heat? No. Since having her spayed on Tuesday, her hormones seemed to have taken pity on her. Was it the older cat Minky showing Opossum the pecking order? No. The younger cat didn’t appear to be in the bedroom at all and Minky had already taken her favorite spot, pinning me down on the bed. Was it my husband snoring? No. He was as quiet as an opossum.

The howling was coming from our four-year-old sleeping between us, on his second excruciating leg ache of the night. Under his little body writhing in pain, the sheet was wet; maybe he needed his night diaper changed too. But then why was his pyjama top wet? And my pyjamas? And the top of the blankets?

Even in the darkness, it didn’t take a Sherlock to realize that we’d been peed on. And that the culprit probably wasn’t the sedate, predictable and nearly toothless Minky breathing heavily on top of me, but the spritely young thing who’d just had her ovaries removed against her will. And we hadn’t been merely sprayed on, but thoroughly drenched by a water balloon of ammonia as we lay there dreaming.

It’s hard not to take it personally.

A literary agent too will say not to take their rejection personally. But that’s a bit hard when the letter is personally addressed to you. And yet at the same time, the communication style of a standard rejection letter feels just as indiscriminate and mysterious as getting sprayed at as a bystander in a turf battle.

This triggers a guessing game. If you’re like me, first you blame yourself. Where did I go wrong? Should I have been more assertive? Less assertive? Did I break all cat-rearing/agent-querying rules? I should have done my homework instead of being so impetuous and taking on someone I couldn’t handle. The problem is that it’s not clear what the rejection itself means: was it a form of sincere – though crass – communication – or was it just a random stress response? And how can you even be so sure that it was so-and-so who rejected you and not just her assistant? Were you really judged fairly then?

After your head begins to spin with all the guessing, you simply feel misunderstood. How could the cat not understand how much I love her? How could she not grasp what a cushy set-up she has here in this awesome house with lots of couches and a wild garden? How could the agent not grasp what a winner she had in her hands? Is she totally blind? She will live to regret this!

The disappointment is as leaden as the old cat asleep on your chest. And to think it seemed like the perfect match…

If these thoughts occur to you in the middle of the night, or if the urine has soaked all the way down through the mattress, you may not be able to get back to sleep. The darkness and the silence envelop you and you start to think in absolute terms. I can’t do this anymore. This is just one of many many instances. The aftermath is just too much work, especially with a kid, a part-time job, no dryer. What was I thinking? It’s just too much for me. I give up. First thing in the morning, she’s gone.

But then, despite everything a glimmer of hope creeps back in through the crack in the curtains – or is it the moon? You put on your dressing gown and get onto the internet. And surprise surprise: you find out you’re not alone. There are thousands and thousands of other people out there who have experienced exactly this kind of rejection and have made it through. They haven’t thrown out their manuscripts, their cat or their mattress. They have found solutions and survived. And you will too.

Sunday, September 16, 2012

My Kiwi son still speaks English like a wop


Since shamefacedly taking two months’ unapproved leave (without pay) from blog writing, a few things in my life have changed. A copyediting deadline has lifted and so has the forehead wrinkle between my brows; my eyesight has considerably improved too. I now have time for National Geographic and The Biggest Loser. Or sometimes in the evenings I indulge in this really amazing new practice called sleeping. I have reconciled with the spiritual world. I now make my nachos with black beans and ground beef. And my son has turned four.

Well, not exactly four but “three plus one”, or “tre più uno”, to hold onto that favorite number for a bit longer. He likes to do things his own way, including speech. But such originality in manipulating language comes as no surprise: my four-year-old is a half-American, half-Irish, New Zealand-born bilingual Italian-English speaker. Now try saying that five times fast. In Maori.

His Italian has up till recently far surpassed his English. In fact, his Italian vocabulary remains overall more impressive, as he pulls out words like “paleontologo” (paleontologist) and “schiacciasassi” (roadroller), and he still claims to not understand Scooby Doo at all unless it’s in Italian. All these moments make me feel vindicated as a mostly stay-at-home mom doing her best to raise a child bilingually. So even though I’m starting to hear the English creeping in and taking over more and more every day, I try to pay it no mind. I ignore the fancy colloquialisms (“What in the heck is that?”), the Kiwisms (“Cool, eh?”) and the inaccurate but still shocking indecencies picked up from gosh knows where (“Stop it, you’re f***ing me out!”).

Instead I choose to focus on the Italianisms that linger in his English, the endearing mistakes that shed insight onto his churning four-year-old mind while making his nose crinkle and his lips pucker in a totally cute way that – for just an instant – make him truly look three plus one. Here are a few recent examples:

“Wake yourself up!” I too think that English just doesn’t have enough reflexive verbs, like svegliarsi, but I try not to worry myself about it and to relax myself instead.

“Don’t worry of me. I’m going at the museum.” In his head, my little automatic translator justifiably chooses to render the Italian preposition di as the English “of” and a as “at”. But of course if English prepositions were that tidy, we ESL teachers would be out of a job. Andare a scuola = go to school; vivere a Napoli = live in Naples; parlare al telefono = talk on the phone.

“Look at the persons.” Correct, but in a dorky European way.

“Me don’t never feel tired.” Ah, the double negative of childhood, as good as sweet strawberries dipped into the sugar bowl. However, for my son this is a well thought-out grammatical choice based on his knowledge of Italian – Non mi sento mai stanco. And you’d better believe he means it.

“Give it to she.” In spoken Italian, “she” (subject) and “her” (object) is just lei. Just like “he” and “him” is just lui. In that way, lei can give it to lui and lui can give it back to lei. Now that’s handy.

“I don’t know how they look.” They look with their eyes! his dad must have been thinking as he heard this while playing with our little man yesterday. But this is a direct translation of come as “how”, from Non so come sono fatti, meaning, “I don’t know what they look like.” Sometimes I don’t know how his father understands him!

“Tell me.” Ah, one of my favorite sayings in Italian that is just impossible to translate into English. Dimmi, literally “tell me”, is a way of saying that you’re truly listening, you’re ready for someone to potentially open their deepest, darkest secrets to you. You’re crying? Dimmi. You saw the coolest thing today? Dimmi. You have a new favorite number? Dimmi.