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by Marty Castleberg
I am alone. In the busy intersection below my sixth floor home, the only thing moving is an occasional piece of trash. It is a cold, barren, and windswept New Year's Day: a perfect day to stay indoors, and a perfect day for self-flagellation.
I am eyeing the stack of rejection letters for my manuscript, my first attempt to publish a complete book. It’s an impressive stack, actually, comprised of many elegantly worded dismissals from some of the most recognizable publishers in the business. But this stack pales in comparison to the copy of a letter in my hand, forwarded from my agent, written by a reviewer who judged the worthiness of my manuscript for an academic publisher. The letter has been sitting in the corner of my bedroom for weeks, like a leaky can of Drano on a buffet table, and it is time to do something about it.
So I sit there with a highlighter and a steaming mug of peppermint tea, feeling completely naked. Line by line, I face the arrows.
"The introduction was not a good beginning to the book. He gets a trifle obscure ...He is not above mixing his metaphors ... He leaves me more confused than anything else."
The reviewer has skewered my abilities as a writer, but I know that this is only the beginning.
"Far more concerned with ...than giving any lucid opinion about... Mary McCarthy may turn in her grave."
My jaw muscles tighten as I read on.
"Soon it becomes apparent that he is not ...When he confuses ...I know that this man is not..."
The destruction of my credibility was only an appetizer in a meal that seemed to have many courses.
"He is trying to play the _____angle because that will get the book published... I got the feeling he has never ..."
My once-warm tea turns to bile in my mouth. I leap from my chair.
"Of course I’ve never—that's the point—I said so in the fucking book you pompous asshole." My words ring out to an empty room, the letter crumpling in my shaking hand.
To add insult to injury, my last name has gradually morphed from "Castleberg" to "Castleman;" like a Viking marauder, slashing everything in sight, the reviewer has extended the massacre to my entire family. The review feels personal, a sucker punch from a nameless bully. But what hurts worse is that no publisher is buying the book, my memoir, my story. In a sense, no one is buying me.
Much of my career had involved writing, from creating radio spots as a minister’s intern, to writing my doctoral dissertation, and then to support my consulting work. Still, I had never thought of myself as a writer, nor had I ever studied writing, even though friends and colleagues were accustomed to hang the label on me. I particularly remember one comment by one of my consulting clients.
"You’re a writer—I don't know why you're doing this consulting crap. You’re not a consultant; you’re a writer," he said.
At first, I thought he was merely commenting on my consulting skills, but I came to realize his appreciation for my writing. Inflated by his faith, I cut back on my consulting work and drafted my first book. What did I have to lose, I thought? If I wasn’t successful, it would prove to my friends and colleagues that they didn’t know what they were talking about and it would put an end to their naive encouragement. In fact, I fully expected any reader unfortunate enough to be subjected to my drafts to declare my work mindless seepage, while demanding that I turn over any writing instruments.
To my surprise, I found a writing coach who saw promise in my work, and with his guidance, I picked one agent out of three who were interested in my proposal—another surprise. The stars were aligning perfectly to propel me on this new adventure. I kept hearing that landing an agent is one of the toughest ordeals in writing, even tougher than finding a publisher. In my case, it was only a tease, a reason to keep going, a cosmic set-up.
I remember taking a trip with my family as a small boy and writing a postcard to a local merchant back in my little midwestern town. He was a man with whom I frequently shared friendly insults and stories, a friend, a person I respected. When I got home from my trip, I found that he had shared the postcard with the entire town, highlighting the fact that I wrote "tack car" rather than "take care" at the conclusion of the message. He hung the postcard on the front of his cash register. That was all I needed: another adult pointing out that I couldn't spell.
My early history with writing, spelling, and punctuation consisted of a series of ‘special’ classes and degrading exercises. This shame followed me all the way to graduate school. But I was also a musician, a singer and a guitarist who played by ear; and these same skills ultimately aided my writing. My ear allowed me to get past the laws of writing, spelling, and punctuation. Sentences evolved into uninterrupted analogs, making sounds that gently lifted off the page. Punctuation and grammar still give me problems, but I am learning to trust my ear and the eyes of a good editor with a sharp pencil.
Once my nemesis, my musical writing style is now my ally. Yet the ghosts of the past remain, rattling my confidence each day. Why would someone at the top of his profession make himself so vulnerable I ask. My change in life would make more sense if I wrote with the ease of a prolific novelist. Instead, I grind out each word like a tormented romantic, all the while praying for elegance.
Throughout my consulting career, I had seen how writing could impact people and I had learned to respect its power for change, both good and bad. But the writing I was doing now was different and it existed within an unfamiliar world. In this new world, I began to discover writing deities whose words kept me hungry for the next page. Every book I read gave me reason to read more; their words consumed me. I wasn’t asking for much. I just wanted all of the plain rawness, the cut-to-the-bone audacity of Bukowski and Auster, the exacting language of Capote, and a touch of David Sedaris’ sardonic humor. These were the voices I could hear most readily in my ear—voices that flowed like the music I played. But pulling in these voices and making them one, my voice, a voice alive and visual, was a different matter.
I remain in my chair, still shaking on this cold and desolate New Year’s Day. The reviewer’s words swirl like a dust devil in my head, the printed words now crumpled next to my feet. I consider the message. Am I merely a poseur, a pandering opportunist, or a coward?
I know the review sounds more like a conspiracy theorist’s Internet rant than an objective assessment. But I’m still paralyzed when well-meaning friends constantly ask me, "How’s the book coming?" I realize, sitting alone in the silence and shadows of an empty room, that I have a long way to go.
The logical thing for me to do would be to walk away and renew my old career, but that seems impossible. After all that has happened, I am only compelled to write what I want to write, and I write because I must.
And as for the future, if my writing stirs up strong emotions—which I hope it will—I can only ask that they get my name right.
Having recently left his career as an organizational consultant,
Marty Castleberg is emptying his regret box by traveling the world
with guitar and pen in hand.
Contact Marty at firstname.lastname@example.org
Contact Marty at email@example.com