Youmans (pronounced like 'yeoman' with an 's' added)
is the best-kept secret among contemporary American writers.
--John Wilson, editor, Books and Culture

Thursday, March 24, 2011

The House of Words (no. 3): Metanoia: Marsha Parker

3. Metanoia: Marsha Parker

Marsha Parker is a grand example of someone who turned away from publishing and made a different sort of creative life. The passage below is as she wrote it, minus one lovely compliment now marked by an ellipsis. (Thanks, Marsha!) At the start she is referring to a request she made for a very particular sort of poem; I wasn’t sure I could fill the request. The only other cryptic thing is a reference to her life in England. I would guess that her memory may be slightly off in what she says about her agent—yes, they get a cut, but the more painful slash from her paperback rights would have been the customary 50% to the original publisher.

Marly: I’d like to know why you quit the world of publishing, how you switched the focus of your creative life, and what you think about it now, looking back.

Marsha: You . . . warned me that poems don't just happen--neither does prose, least of all digging into those ancient opaque glass jars full of spiders, nettle, coon droppings. Seeing my young face peering back at me from the back cover of the book [Ghosts] only reminds me of where the photo was taken. I was scrubbing freshly dug carrots in the sink at my old farmhouse. A friend, Bruce Williams, a photographer, took the photo. In the first shot I had a big brown egg balanced on top of my head. I wish that Dutton had used that photo. Egghead, trying to hatch a new life.

I wrote two novels after Ghosts, submitted both to my agent, Ellen Levine; her response was tepid. She presented one to Jane Rosenman at Dutton, equally tepid response, so I decided to cut my losses, and found work as a journalist, until The Scarlet Letter took off. It provided a steady income, and I enjoyed designing without anyone else telling me how to tweak this or that. One of my worst memories of publishing was having to be told to put sex into my book. I doubt that my mother ever read it because of that (my father died in 1975, before it was printed in 1982. Thank goodness.)

I've never ever returned to the novel-writing part of my brain once I realized that I could survive off the grid and didn't need New York or Oxford to get by. I felt so awkward in NYC. When Ghosts was published I was back in Wisconsin living on a small farm, feeling a bit high and full of myself, 28 years old, still poor, recently divorced, yet feeling so free and flush with the $10K advance, and then the sale of the paperback to Berkeley for $25K (agent got most of it). I found an old log house to restore, and previous passions for architecture, art history, textiles (love to touch and feel what others touched and felt centuries ago) re-emerged.


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Photograph: I found this picture of Marsha holding newborns Antioch and Lebanon in a letter from 2006.

7 comments:

  1. Sounds like she was entirely out of her element as a successful novelist. Surely there are ways to be successful as a writer on one's own terms? But I guess we don't get to decide that ourselves?

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  2. I don't think that we do get to, not entirely. At least now when we play with the big boys...

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  3. I'm finding this series very interesting Marly - and very glad Marsha found happiness and fulfillment away from the page.

    I often think I would love to give up writing but don't think I can because I always have. For me it is like breathing. I suppose I am a little envious of Marsha in some ways because she has found a different way to breathe.

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  4. Clare,

    Yes, she definitely did, although right now she is having some difficulties due to need to care for another in very poor health... It would be interesting to have a memoir from her, wouldn't it?

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  5. Marsha is inspiring! thank you for sharing part of her story with us.

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  6. Yes, in a addition to being a lovely and amusing person to know, she is stalwart and does the right thing and works hard.

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  7. Drat!

    That was not the adorable visiting Jin from China but MARLY. It is lots of fun having a houseful of teens for eleven days. But may I say that young women of 19 eat like horses that have been on a fantasy rescue mission for the king? Must go fix that login.

    Word verification today is CHING, oddly enough--after taking my youngest to foreign language night, we saw the infamous UCLA "ching chong ling long ting tong" youtube video. And the youtube song in response by a Chinese student, also from UCLA... Liked the idea that the song writer's favorite part about his well-publicized response is that a couple in their 30's told him that they now say "ching chong," meaning "I love you," when they wake in the morning. Now that's taking casual racism and performing metamorphosis...

    Sometimes I think word verification really is poking fun at my life. Ching!

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Alas, I must once again remind large numbers of Chinese salesmen and other worldwide peddlers that if they fall into the Gulf of Spam, they will be eaten by roaming Balrogs. The rest of you, lovers of grace, poetry, and horses (nod to Yeats--you do not have to be fond of horses), feel free to leave fascinating missives and curious arguments.