The last few weeks my arms have ached, as if I was carrying a large, heavy box I couldn’t put down. What was in that box? Stress, worry, frustration, loss, sadness, the inability to work. Things that weighed more than you can imagine.
It began late January when I was buried under a tower of bad news. Then someone laid the last straw on the tippy-top and I had a breakdown. Doctors don’t call them nervous breakdowns any more, but that’s what it was. First I broke down like a car on the side of the road. Then I flew apart into a million pieces. And finally, I cracked wide open like an egg on the sidewalk.
In the middle of it all, I left my agent of nine years. My reaction was to lash out, to be able to control one aspect of my life, to do the leaving for once.
A breakdown is nothing like the movies. You know, Bette Davis swooning in one scene, and in the next, she’s on a chaise lounge, a blanket tucked around her, while a nurse brings a cup of tea across a well-manicured lawn. I was sick for months, though I kept it a secret, healing without the benefit of lawns and nurses and tea. Mostly I had to be there for my sister, so I hid my pain.
When I was able to think straight, I set about looking for a new agent. I scoured web sites, talked to other writers, tried to sort out who might best work for me. But I had to have a project. I had to write a query! It wasn’t enough to say, “Hi, I’m Candice Ransom and I’ve written X number of books. Don’t you want to represent me?”
My first few queries, I forgot to include word count. I figured if I’d written enough middle-grades, then wouldn’t it be obvious my books were the right length? Very quickly I discovered in the world of agents I was just another writer with just another book and nobody gave a gnat’s butt. Most of my queries went ignored.
Get organized, I told myself. So I started a list of pros and cons, and also a submission record (stuff my agent did for me).
Here’s an excerpt from the submission record:
Submitted query to Agent ABC 6/25. Response 6/26, “Storyline not interesting.” [My story? Not interesting?]
And this is from my pro/con list:
Agent XYZ. Pros: Very successful, editorial background, focuses on money. Cons: Stone-hearted, ditches clients, money-grubbing.
It went downhill from there. One agent asked to see the sales figures from my last books. When we spoke, the agent said my sales figures were so bleak, publishers probably wouldn’t want to take me on. My best bet was to change my name and write sexy YA. Change my name? Not be a mid-grade writer any more?
For weeks, I reeled from this suggested course of action. How could I become someone else? How could I give up the beloved books I needed to write? And how on earth would I write a steamy sex scene? After I quit reeling, I froze. I didn’t work. Didn’t read. Didn’t even write in my journal. Every waking minute I wasn’t worried about health crises, I fretted over how to get an agent.
I had nightmares. I got shingles (for the fourth time). I developed premature heartbeat (not life-threatening but tiring). I felt as if I’d been shoved out on an ice floe.
An agent did ask me what I was looking for in representation. I was so stunned someone actually cared enough, I couldn’t speak at first. Finally I stammered out I wanted an agent who believed in the kind of books I wrote. Stories about people who live on the margins, kids who have to figure things out mostly on their own—in other words, stories about the very unsexy and untrendy human condition.
Well. Agents didn’t exactly trample my door down.
One night I lay awake thinking that, for me, looking for an agent was like Dorothy looking for the Wizard of Oz. When she found him, he wasn’t at all what she thought. I think most agents are honest and fair, but pulling that curtain back was always a disappointment for me.
That night, which happened to be the night my brother-in-law passed, I thought about how brave he was, right to the end. I wished I could be that brave. I thought how I wanted to end my own pain, how all I really wanted was someone to believe in me.
How I wanted to go home.
And so I did. I reached out to my former agent. She has always believed in my work. She has always believed in me. After eleven months, I gratefully put down that box.
Time for me to get busy. People who have little or no voice are waiting for me to speak for them, to tell their stories. They are my people.
[Photos: This gentlemen sat in the broiling sun at an outdoor flea market every Saturday, selling vintage IBM Selectric typewriters. The way he tried to hide his cigarette reminded me of my stepfather.
The boy was at the county fair, in line to auction the heifer he’d raised from a baby. He hoped to get at least $10,000 (he did). He looked down to blink back tears.
I met the little girl at a farmer’s market. She and her chicken were keeping each other warm. This was a few months after the earthquake and this town was at its epicenter. She told me she would be scared of fear the rest of her life.]
My brother-in-law left us Thursday, November 14, around 4:00 p.m. It was my privilege to be at his bedside and wish him well on his final journey.
Thanks to everyone for your kind thoughts and prayers all these months. I appreciated every one. And so did my sister. I showed her my posts and your caring comments.
This summer I watched a spider. Not one of those beautiful jewel-toned orb weavers that decorate gardens, just a plain brown Charlotte’s Web spider.
Our spider took up residence in one corner of the garage doorway. When I went out for the paper, I noticed the design of the web changed every few days or even each day. I learned webs become coated with dust and dirt and lose their insect-trapping stickiness.
So at night, the spider would take the old web down, rolling it up and eating it. After resting she’d begin spinning a new web, usually between 4:00 and 5:00 a.m. Dropping down from a thread of silk, she’d anchor it into a Y shape, and start weaving.
Sometimes I’d catch her at work. She always stopped (don’t think spiders can’t see us, they do). During the day, she’d hide above the doorsill, one strand connecting her to the web, a prey motion detector.
June. July. August. The spider kept spinning. And we kept waiting for the inevitable to come to my brother-in-law.
In early September I found the spider tending her egg sac. She had laid it inside the garage, high up on the wall. The sac was tobacco brown and soft-looking, about the size of a nickel. She patted it with her legs, freezing when she saw me. I went back inside. When I went out again, the sac and the spider were gone. The next day she had crocheted a new web, so I figured she hid the egg sac somewhere in the garage and carried on business as usual.
The days grew shorter, the nights cooler. Our spider had completed her main task, laying her eggs, yet she continued making new webs. My brother-in-law reached a plateau—the catastrophic event we’d been dreading since April seemed far away on the horizon. The doctors were wrong about the time, maybe they were wrong about all of it. The days passed in a golden haze.
October arrived, pumpkin-bright. The spider stayed, long past her natural life cycle. So did my brother-in-law.
Then about two weeks ago, I saw something odd in the doorway of the garage. Not one web, but two.
The big lacy web was constructed between the top and side of the garage door, as always. Just behind and at right angles to the big web, she’d tatted a gorgeous little doily of a web, the size of a saucer.
For five days, our spider presented us with exquisite double webs, like an old lady who had extra thread in her shuttle she needed to use up. I studied the webs for a sign. Why this incredible flourish? What did it mean? On the sixth day my brother-in-law dove off the plateau.
Our spider wove one final web. All this week I’ve checked to see if the pattern has changed. Was that hole near the top always there? Was the bridge line always so swoopy? But the dirty strands, the forgotten insects, told the story. She was gone.
I understand everything has its season. But that doesn’t make it any easier when people—and yes, even spiders—leave us.
We are down to days now. I am treasuring these moments as the women in our family, the home-keepers, do this important work. I want to remember the cool cloth on his forehead. I want to remember his still-strong clasp. I want to remember giving the back rub and turning the pillow to the cool side, smoothing the afghan, holding the cup. I want to remember his laugh and his nickname for me, spoken in a whisper. We have only a single silken thread connecting him to us.
November winds have torn our spider’s last web but I’m leaving it up. When the final thread breaks–days, maybe only hours–I’ll take down the web and sweep the doorway clean. Next spring one of the spider’s babies will spin silk in that same place.
Until then, we have to get through the long dark nights of winter.