Monday, April 30, 2007

Losing My Sense of Humor

Today I was going to write more about yesterday's comments from the college senior who's bipolar, was quickly diagnosed, easily able to find medication that works, is stable, and wonders why there aren't more "happy" bipolars out there with a sense of humor.

Actually, her questions made me think about a lot of issues that aren't easily answered. However, it turns out that she prefers to communicate privately with me. So I have time to think about the questions she posed, which I will address in the weeks to come. (I do want to thank Polly and Marja and everyone else who wrote to her, told their stories, and offered such hopeful advice.)

However, I must admit that I, too, wonder why some of us use humor to write about pain, suffering, and disappointment, and others don't. One of the reasons I was unable to sell my memoir for so long, fourteen years. was that it wasn't sad enough. After numerous rejections, my agent lost faith in it. So I began sending it out myself until I couldn't deal with any further rebuffs.

It sat in a manuscript box in the closet for three years until I decided that I wouldn't feel better until I could tell my story. I began sending it out once more. A few months ago, while I was waiting to hear from the publisher in London, I sent a few chapters to a small local publisher.

Within a few hours, she rejected it and wrote the following email. "I recently bought a book from a mother of bipolar children. I cried the entire time I read it. I don't think this subject is funny. I just want you to know where I'm coming from."

Her response infuriated me. Like all "well-behaved authors," I had remained silent when I had been rejected by "A" list publishers for similar reasons, among others. I barely blanched when my agent told me that an important editor from a major New York publishing company had said, "Susan's book is too amusing and a bipolar friend assures me that this illness is not amusing at all."

I gritted my teeth when the senior vice president of another big house wrote, "Maybe Susan should consider turning the manuscript into magazine articles. She's a talented writer but she's not famous. No one's interested in a 'disease of the week' book by someone who's not a celebrity."

Perhaps, the most disappointing rejection came from an assistant editor who worked for a very famous (or infamous) publisher. I was walking my dog when my husband took the phone call. I returned it immediately but couldn't get through. For the next two hours, I danced around the house with high expectations.

"You know, they never call if they're not going to buy your book," I told my husband. "This is incredible. Ms. X is the perfect person to publish this. She's a marketing maven. I'll be the new bipolar poster woman. Wow! Maybe I'll be on Oprah this time."

When the assistant editor finally answered his phone he said, "Ms. X just wanted me to call to let you know that she still loves your writing style. (The word "still" was telling because she'd rejected The Mommy Guide ten years earlier even though she "loved" my writing style then.) She thinks you're very talented but...the topic's already been done by Lauren Slater with Prozac Nation. However, Ms. X wants me to let you know that she's interested in seeing your next book."

"Who calls to tell you you're being rejected?" I asked my husband. "When I didn't say anything in response, this guy said...Susan, are you still there?"

"Maybe, I should have pretended I was mute," I told my husband. "Do you think there's a market for a book written by a mute manic-depressive? It's got a certain alliterative appeal."

Yet, all these years later, I wasn't going to let some "C" list publisher so rudely reject me and remain silent. So I decided to eschew the rules of publishing etiquette and respond.

"It's fine that you don't like my manuscript," I wrote. "But if you truly think that the world needs another doom and gloom book about bipolar disorder, you're mistaken. The fact that I've survived so many depressions with my sense of humor in tack is far more noteworthy!"

Upon reading my response, the publisher probably said to her husband and co-publisher, "Wow! How unprofessional can you get? She'll never get published."

Yet, writing to her was truly cathartic. It's bad enough to be bipolar but to allow someone else to tell me how to express my feelings of pain and suffering was a joke--and not a very funny one--as far as I'm concerned. Or have I finally lost my sense of humor?


jinnah said...

Back in 1999, two years after I had been diagnosed, I had written in my diary,

"If we can't take our lives with a large dose of humour, we are in BIG trouble."

That's when I still hadn't found any medications that would work well for me, and when I hadn't gotten a handle on my life. But the comment was true then and it's still true now.

Like you, I hate it that others expect that our stories are supposed to be sad. It's like going up to a person in a wheelchair and saying "You poor poor thing."

When your publisher says that you are too upbeat, she is implicitly saying that we should not be so, or that she believes the market (ie everybody else) thinks so.

I don't like wearing sackcloth and ashes, thank you very much.

My mood swings are frequently annoying, intrusive, inconvenient, frustrating, and often a royal pain in the ass. But then, so are my dogs, or my job, or my partner.

Oddly enough, people don't think my life is a mess because I have a job.

We survive well because we have hope, because we have humour, because the world around us is a beautiful, fascinating, magical place and we recognise it as such.

Your publishers may think that courage and/or success is having a sad story and rising about it. That's bullshit. Courage is looking at your life every day and choosing that it will be great.

And that goes for everybody, not just us.

marja said...

I think there should be a place for every kind of response a person might have to her/his disorder, whether it's with humor, sadness, or feelings of great optimism. It's refreshing to get different takes on the same subject.

Personally, I don't have a lot of humor - unless I'm high - which actually happens to be quite often. Myself - I feel bipolar disorder gives us a lot of good things not available to the stable masses. I would not have found the creativity I have without the intense moods. I am thankful for my life with bipolar disorder, even if it is so often hard to deal with.

So, for me it's not humor - but joy in who I am and in the life I lead. I wonder what kind of rejections I'm going to get from publishers I've sent my proposal to.

Polly said...

I'd much rather read a book with some humour in it than a book with no humour in it, no matter WHAT the subject. Regarding this particular subject, we obviously have a perfect right to decide whether we wish to find some humour in our own experiences. If other people are too uptight to appreciate this humour, well, then they're missing out.

I think it's funny that I got arrested once and was so out of it that I didn't even NOTICE I was being arrested and still have no memory of it (I hadn't committed a crime; I was just refusing to go to the hospital). I think it's funny that when I was going through some bags of stuff I'd bought when I was manic, I found that one day I'd purchased a bunch of books solely because they all had fluorescent orange covers... and I hate fluorescent orange. I'd much rather laugh about this stuff than cry about it. What good would crying do me?