Telling your story


village, acrylic on canvas, www.carolineallen.com

I’m trying to get Earth published, my novel, and I’ve joined the ranks of the first-time novelists trying to get noticed in the sea of submissions agents and publishers receive. I had this dream around it: the fact that you are different is what will sell this book.

In the book, Pearl Elizabeth Swinton, the main character is “different”. She’s a very fictionalized version of myself. She has back-arching visions where she sees herself growing roots into the earth, where she sees the past, present and future and cannot tell the difference between them. She also does not want what other people seem to want, to get married, to have children, to have a house, a car. She’s confused by why these people want these things, when there is the Earth all around to glory in. Through a series of man-made trials and tribulations, she’s uprooted from the earth and travels the world looking for her place in the scheme of things.

I had a dream that my difference, how different my own life has been, will be a good way to market the book. Blogging this is my first go round at understanding it. It’s very difficult to see yourself and your own life, so it takes a while to understand HOW to write your own “pitch”. Anyway, here’s my personal story.

I grew up in the Midwest, on a subsistence farm. Until I was 12, we had no store-bought food. We ate from deep in the earth — carrots, potatoes, onions. We butchered the small band of livestock on our property. My father and brothers hunted deer, quail and ducks. I grew up learning how to live with the land. I was the land.

My mother insisted my father start a floor covering business. They made some money. The first luxury item my mother purchased from the grocery story? Cheerios.

No one told stories in my house. There was no time for it. The only book we had: The King James Bible. I was voracious for books. With nothing else around, I locked myself in the upstairs bathroom and read the King James Bible word for word, page by page. Finally, a teacher introduced me to a closet of paperbacks she usually reserved for the older kids. I ate them up.

I was passionate for story. I knew how we told our stories defined who we were. I knew stories changed the world. I felt the truth in my gut of the Hopi proverb: The one who tells the stories rules the world.

I earned a scholarship to one of the best journalism schools in the country. I hated the roughness of the farm still in the blood of my family (I don’t now; I did then). I wanted out. I moved abroad with no money, no contacts, and no precedent – no one in my family had ever been farther than Mississippi. I landed in Tokyo. I became an editor at a major English daily newspaper. I became a travel writer through Asia. I became a journalist at the major dailies in London. Years went by. I didn’t go home.

We all must come home again. It’s all about the cycles of the earth. Growth upward toward the sun, then death, and mulch. I moved back to the U.S. I turned my attention to becoming a fiction writer. I wanted to write my story in fiction form. I have just finished my first novel Earth, one in a series of four: Earth, Air, Fire and Water. Each follows the life of Pearl Elizabeth Swinton, a girl who grew up on a farm (Earth), was uprooted from the land, moved abroad where she floated above the culture (Air), burned like the Phoenix in London (Fire), and ended up near the healing waters of the Pacific Northwest (Water).

I also started coaching fiction and nonfiction writers, especially women (but also men), who needed to tell their story, who’d somehow had lost their voice and needed to find it back.

A lot of this is in Earth, and I’m surprised by how many people don’t equate it to my life. Actually, as I’m writing this I realize: Why would they equate those facts to my life? Earth is a novel, from their vantage point all of it just came from my imagination.

Also, even when I’m telling people my story, even after they know the truth of my life, I’ve found again and again they don’t believe me. This has happened too many times to count. A friend in London I knew for years, always thought: It’s so funny how Carrie makes up these stories about butchering squirrels. We’d known each other seven years before she believed me. In fact, I had an artist friend just last week tell me I was making up having grown up on a subsistence farm, that he was sure I was a New Yorker. I was surprised by his reaction. He was surprised by my passionate insistence that I’d spent my childhood reaping, sowing and butchering. I think all the years in Tokyo and London made me seem to be a sophisticated world traveler. Perhaps?

So, let’s say publishers go to your bio on your writing website and read about who you are. They’d see a professional bio, make some judgments about you. Another would-be writer trying to write the great American Midwest novel. Another Mark Twain. Perhaps? (I’m sure it’s more complex than this, just venting here…)

For me writing is my blood, the earth beneath my feet, my soul. To not be seen is a travesty. So now the question is: How do I tell this personal story. What if I included it on my website? How do I pitch it to publishers and agents in an authentic way? How might that change perceptions?

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