A Post-Mortem on an Exercise in Futility
You cannot tell the world that somebody they’ve never heard of is important if you cannot tell them why.
That is the conclusion I arrived at over this past weekend after receiving a message from a literary agent who spent the past six weeks reviewing the material I submitted late last year in the hope of finding representation — and ultimately an actual publisher — for a book I have been researching and writing for very nearly six years.
The book is (or would have been) Defying Gravity: The Parallel Universe of T. Townsend Brown, which I once whimsically described as “the biography of a man whose story cannot be told.” I might have been better served if I’d recognized the truth in that whimsy sooner.
Townsend Brown discovered an anomalous electrical effect — known now as the “Biefeld-Brown Effect ” — as a teenager in the 1920’s. The effect is regarded in some unorthodox scientific circles as an “anti-gravity” effect, though Brown himself never much cared for that terminology. The effect was heralded at the time as the physical evidence of Albert Einstein’s Unified Field Theory, the proof of a connection between electricity and gravity not unlike the symbiotic relationship between electricity and magnetism. It has since become regarded variously as the manifestation of “zero point energy,” as proof that there really is an “aether,” and has been given credit for enabling every science fiction fantasy from inter-dimensional communication to time travel. Since engaging this enterprise, I’ve had my own hand in extending some of those fantasies.
But the truth is, all we really know about Townsend Brown is that he spent one half of his life engaged in classified military research, and the other half of his life conducting covert intelligence operations designed in part to conceal the classified research. That is really the entire 80 years of Townsend Brown’s life boiled down into a single sentence. Beyond that, we really dunno shit.
Nevertheless, drawing largely on information supplied by my own “covert” sources, I managed to forge my way through the “first draft” of a manuscript last March. The intent of that first draft was to simply find some path through the mercurial material. I was not really sure what the true essence of the story was, but I decided in the fall of 2005 that if I just started the work, the thematic heart of it would eventually materialize.
It’s hard to tell sometimes when you are neck deep in wishful thinking.
After completing a voluminous (nearly 600 page!) first draft and taking a few months to get some distance from material, last summer I compiled a detailed book proposal. This is the reverse of the usual procedure; It is more customary to write a proposal first, secure an advance, and THEN write the book. But because I felt I needed to write the book before I would be able to effectively convey what it is about, I put that cart in front of the horse. That might be when I started seriously “pushing” in the absence of any “pull.”
Once the proposal was finished, I slowly and methodically began submitting query letters to a carefully culled list of literary agents whose past experience commended them for this particular and unusual project. More than half the the queries generated no response at all; most of the other half replied that the material was not right for them. Two agents requested to see the full proposal.
The first agent who read the full proposal arrived at this conclusion: “The proposal didn’t work for me – I had trouble following Brown’s story and couldn’t see how the book would convince a skeptical readership to take the story seriously enough to sustain [the] narrative.” That was not exactly the first time I’d gotten that sort of feedback.
But, you know, in any creative endeavor, you’re not supposed to listen to the critics or take their rejections to heart. You’re just supposed to, in the words of Townsend Brown himself, “go forth.” So I persisted through the fall, sending queries and receiving rejections. Finally, in November, another agent — we’ll call him “P.R.” — wrote back that he felt the project “shows promise” and asked for the full proposal. He also asked for a period of up to five weeks to consider the material exclusively, meaning no more queries submitted or proposals sent out. I agreed to wait until the first full week of the New Year to hear if P.R. wanted to take the project on.
The exclusive period gave me a lot of time to think about where I am with this project — how much time I’ve put into it, how I feel about the material, how I feel about its future prospects. And, rightly or wrongly, I found myself putting a lot of stock in the response of this one agent. Coming as all this was on the cusp of a New Year, I began to recognize in myself a high level of exhaustion from pushing on this string: if there wasn’t some indication from the larger Universe that somebody besides myself and a handful of others was interested in this story, I didn’t think I had the will to persist any longer. I needed some kind of “pull” on the other side of my “push.”
Last Friday, the last day of the exclusive period, the prospect of some kind of “pull” pretty much evaporated when P.R. finally wrote back. The essence of the response is embodied in the opening paragraph:
*”The promise is there, the possibility is there, but there is no meat on the bones … there is still no detail as to what he actually did discover.”
And that, I have concluded, is the end of that.
It’s funny how suddenly the truth glares out at me. “No meat on the bones” is all he needed to say. The simple fact is: in one, in ten, in a hundred or six hundred pages, we still don’t know “what he actually did discover.” The book is, as Ralph Kramden might say, “a mere bag of shells.” And, I must finally admit, a bag of empty shells at that.
There may indeed be a pearl in there somewhere, but I must now confess that I have been unable to find it. In lieu of that kernel of truth, I have conjured substitutes. I built a shell around a non-existent story using a firmer narrative of related characters. I injected my own story, using the metaphor of falling down a rabbit hole.
But in six years, I have not found the bottom to this rabbit-hole, and I have grown endlessly weary of the falling –along with various forms of psychological abuse I’ve had to endure during the fall. But I know how to stop the abuse. I just did.
In all this time, I insisted to myself that I could fabricate some way to tell this story. It was really all up to me, I told myself. And If I could not tell the actual story, then I’d tell the story of trying to tell the story. But the story of telling a story only works if the first story is actually told. Which, in this case, it is not.
I spoke at length last week with a mentor of sorts who has stood by my side through this whole undertaking; this was Thursday, the day before I received the letter from P.R. In the course of describing my growing ambivalence, and my need for some form of “external validation,” I came up with an interesting metaphor: As a writer, I imagine myself to be a cannon; my secret desire is that my material will prove to be a cannon ball, which, upon launching, will land somewhere and have some kind of an impact. I think that’s all any artist asks for.
But for as long as I’ve been working on this story, I have avoided the realization that has now weighs heavily on me: This story is not a cannonball. It’s mush. I’ve tried to wrap the mush up in a more solid shell. But absent a clear grasp of “what he actually did discover,” this agent has seen the mush for exactly what it is, and now I simply must face that reality.
I have indulged myself for entirely too long in the belief that by the sheer force of my will, by the “scheming of my ego,” or by some manner of clever verbal alchemy, I could turn this narrative mush into solid iron. This agent has done me an enormous favor, by simply and effectively demonstrating for me the power of my own self-delusion.
I know that there are some of you reading this who are surprised and disappointed — if not downright outraged — by this conclusion. Sure, there are alternatives. I could persist in my persistence. I could continue working on a revised draft. I could edit and proofread and self-publish. But the first draft is already “out there,” circulating in unknown ways through the cyber-ether. And the inescapable fact of the matter is that there is not any amount of re-writing that is going to reveal any more than what has already been told, what has already been launched into the firmament.
Maybe the sadder fact here is that I have reached the limit of my own faith in the power or appeal of this material. I know what some of you are probably thinking, that I’m copping out, giving up, throwing in the towel, pulling the plug. And maybe you’re right. But like I said, absent some “pull” on the other side, I’ve pushed all I can.
Maybe it’s unreasonable to expect an agent or publisher to believe in material that I have myself lost faith in. I can’t expect somebody else to believe in material that I don’t believe in myself. The bottom line is: I don’t believe in the material because I really don’t know how much of it to believe. I’ve wrestled with that conundrum long enough. The passion is unrewarded, the effort is unrewarding, and there is little to add.
I put on 20 pounds sitting down every morning for 2-1/2 years with coffee and dark chocolate; that was the glue that kept my fanny in the chair long enough to cobble together nearly 600 pages of mush. In the past few months, I’ve paid closer attention to my diet and shed the extra weight. Now maybe it’s likewise time to jettison the rest of the baggage — the baggage I’ve been hauling around inside my head.
Best to start the new year with a clean slate.