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?