Guest Blogger Kathleen Witkowska Tarr | A Harvest of Wisdom—Lessons from a First Book

A Harvest of Wisdom—Lessons from a First Book

Kathleen Tarr working at the kitchen table—her home office.

I signed the contract for my first book in an east Anchorage home exactly one year and ten months ago, on December 16, 2015 at 10:30 p.m. in the middle of a Christmas party while nervously sitting in the host couple’s master bedroom.

During the holiday cheer and chatter, my publisher, Vered Mares (VP&D House), and I stole a few minutes of private time to talk. We sat on the host’s bed amid big piles of winter coats and scarves stored there by the many guests. Time was short because early the next morning, Vered was leaving on her second trip to Havana, Cuba and it would be almost a month before she returned to Alaska.

The irony that a hard copy of my almost 400-page draft was going to be hand-carried in and out of Castro’s Cuba by a woman born of an Israeli mother and Latino father was not lost on me. Thomas Merton ventured to Cuba, pre-Castro, as a young man in the 1930s and fell instantly in love with the place. He commented on it frequently in his journal, and later, after becoming world-famous, he developed a close kinship with Latin American poets.

As jubilant as I was to be signed as Vered’s 14th author, I exited the holiday gathering—attended mostly by poets and writers—with surprising restraint, without screaming at the top of my lungs,“Hey everybody! I did it! I did it! I finally signed a book contract!

By New Year’s Eve, after receiving a gracious invitation to stay at a friend’s home outside of Las Vegas, a place I always avoided, I took off on a whim to celebrate. I found myself on the Vegas Strip walking through the Bellagio Hotel’s ornately decorated lobby, watching the fireworks show with the best-dressed partygoers. In the surreal atmosphere of blinking slot machines, I lifted one-too-many champagne toasts.

Reaching this long-awaited milestone of signing a book contract was either a test of true grit and endurance, or proof that after ten years of focused work, I might finally be cured of literary psychosis. (Little did I know it would take another 22 months of writing, revising, editing, and design before the book could be physically realized for its shipment to press this November.)

Prior to signing on with VP&D House, an independent, boutique publisher, I faced rejections by 14 different publishers.

The University of Alaska Press turned down my spiritual memoir, as did the medium-to-larger houses such as HarperOne San Francisco. Prestigious religious/spiritual publishers such as Loyola Press and Paraclete—both Catholic oriented—politely passed. And of course, the over 25 highly targeted agent query letters I sent through the years to NYC and other locales led to dead-ends. Such is the fate of an obscure writer from the hinterlands, one with a personal story about how a mystical and intellectually-charged Trappist monk became her spiritual guide.

It lacked juicy, dramatic commercial appeal. A spiritual topic was a death knell for the academically-minded editors. I had a highly-polished, well-thought-out book proposal that took years to refine. But I was a nobody writer. My “platform” rested on nothing but gusts of glacial air and dreams.

I received valuable feedback from several of those rejections, however. Sometimes, you have to thank God for unanswered prayers. All the rejections, the wrong turns, and the agonizing delays were a kind of shock therapy that I didn’t know I needed. At this moment in time, I feel the deepest deep gratitude my book was overlooked.

So there I was, full circle, finishing 2015 with an unexpected acceptance from a small press based under the shadow of the Chugach Mountains in the state I love.

What timing! One month earlier, after a decade of dedicated research and work, after filling over 40 journals of raw reflections and miscellaneous observations and notes, after re-tracing Thomas Merton’s steps in five states and traveling back to Russia, I concluded it was time my draft manuscript and book proposal went to the dust bin for a while. In this case, back to the covered plastic totes I had always lugged my files, notes, and drafts around in.

I desperately wanted to finish this book before it finished me. But I knew I had lost my perspective. What was I doing? I quit my full-time job with benefits after five years as the first Program Coordinator of UAA’s new low-residency MFA program to work on The Book.

Though I never stopped writing ever since I completed my MFA in nonfiction at the University of Pittsburgh in 2005, The Book languished.

I engaged in all the conventional literary maneuvers along the way. I applied to various writers’ residencies to find solitude to write. I built up serious publishing credits in journals, magazines, blogs, and anthologies.

Grad school friends and acquaintances, many of whom had gone on to publish popular books, including Rebecca Skloot’s wildly successful, The Immortal Cells of Henrietta Lacks, eventually stopped asking me about The Book, imaginary as it seemed. Writer-friends regularly met me in coffeeshops to shore up my spirits while listening to my tales of angst and woe. I laughed at the truth behind such questions as: “Hey, how’s the War & Peace of memoirs coming along?”

My family was sick and tired of hearing me talk about The Book. There goes Mom dragging her boxes and laptop to somebody’s borrowed cabin again to write. They couldn’t understand how or why The Book took so long and why my kitchen table constantly looked like the desk of a scatter-brained professor.

Couldn’t I just self-publish on Amazon, make it an e-book, and be done with it? Couldn’t I produce a YouTube video or a podcast to attract some much-needed attention like musicians and singers do, or blast social media to find the right publishing match?

Right before I introduced my project to Vered via the book proposal and sample chapters, I thought the best course of action was to pull back and re-evaluate everything. Maybe if I put The Book aside for a while, I’d gain more literary clarity, understand what its structural flaws were, what it was I was trying to say and apparently not saying well enough. It dawned on me that I was having trouble because I wasn’t going deep enough in the narrative.

But then along came this one-woman dynamo, this incredible entrepreneur and risk-taker, the tenacious Vered Mares who, all while she has been working with me, is also overseeing the establishment of her independent bookstore on Spenard Road called The Writer’s Block Bookstore & Cafe—set to open before the end of 2017. Before construction began,  she had to tear down a former sex shop to make way for the new business. I wondered if Thomas Merton would get a kick out of that?

Last weekend, we met at her house, as we so frequently have. We sat in Vered’s living room and drank Cuban coffee and discussed the forthcoming release of The Book. Her cat Tabby was nowhere to be found, though this summer, she used to sit on the piles of my manuscript pages I stacked on Vered’s couch during our seventeen editorial work sessions.

Vered is the furthest thing from having a Simon & Shuster type of publisher/editor, but she comes from an impressive literary lineage. Her father, Tony Mares, was a well-respected New Mexican poet and widely published essayist. Her uncle, Melvin Kinder, wrote the bestseller Smart Women, Foolish Choices and her father’s brother, Michael Mares, wrote a thick tome on the history and ecology of deserts. Her 82-year-old step-mother, Carolyn Meyer, is still working non-stop as a professional writer and has over 60 books to her credit.

It’s autumn and Anchorage has seen at least three frosts already. I miss the summer days when we took breaks in Vered’s spacious backyard. She’d grab a smoke and I’d lean my head back in the sun or watch her toss mealy worms to her chickens running loose over the grass and in front of tall thickets of raspberries.

The roof and walls are now up on The Writer’s Block Bookstore & Cafe. Things are moving faster and growing more complicated. We needed to discuss last-minute details before We Are All Poets Here goes to the galley stage. We had all the marketing to think about, and when we should plan the book launch party. (To date, Don Rearden’s book release for his novel, The Raven’s Gift, remains my favorite such event.)

Over the course of researching and writing the draft manuscript, my personal life unraveled, my over 30-year marriage broke up, one of my former professors and close friends committed suicide, and four close family members died.

While working on “my project” I had three different operations for skin cancer. I moved seven times, including to a foreign country for almost a year—Poland—where I went solo and sight-unseen to a rental in Krakow. My oldest son got married and two grandchildren quickly followed.

As she generously filled a plastic grocery bag of apples for me from her backyard fruit tree, Vered reminisced about what we’d gone through in the past two years of working together. She’s traveled back and forth from Alaska to Cuba six times (including being there for Hurricane Irma) and eventually married a Cuban man named Yovany.

She lost her beloved dog, finished her MFA at UAA, and sold her family home in New Mexico to help financially underwrite the costs of her new enterprise. While personally working with me on The Book, she drowned in a tangled morass of infinite government forms and documents involving U.S. Immigration attorneys over the problems and approvals for her husband’s visa to move to Alaska. At any day, she may have to fly to Bogata or to Havana for their final immigration interview that keeps getting pushed back.

“Can you believe we’re finally at this point?” I said. “The Book is 99% done. Just a few more small details to wrap up. It’s doesn’t feel real.”

“Yep, we’re finally here,” she said. “We’ve worked closely and more personally than most writer-editor relationships. At bigger publishers, editors are usually juggling many titles at-once. And they don’t always get the book, not on such an intimate level, the way I feel I know your book. The way I understand Merton’s legacy now.”

I showed up at her house recently, a bag of nerves, wound-up, frenetic, speaking literary gibberish about the future of The Book.

“Vered, tell me the truth, do you think I’m insane?”

She laughed and assured me that everything was perfectly normal.

Kathleen W. Tarr is the author of the forthcoming We Are All Poets Here (VP&D House), a blend of memoir and biography, a story about the struggle for spiritual clarity in confusing, chaotic times that involves Alaska, Russia, and Thomas Merton. In 2016, Kathleen was named a William Shannon Fellow by the International Thomas Merton Society (ITMS) and was a Mullin Scholar at USC’s Institute for Advanced Catholic Studies (2011-2013). She is a contributor to the international anthology honoring Merton’s legacy and centenary, We Are Already One, (1915-2015) Thomas Merton’s Message of Hope (Fons Vitae Press). Her work has also appeared in the Sewanee Review, Cirque, Creative Nonfiction, and Tri-Quarterly, and will soon be anthologized in Merton and World Indigenous Wisdom (2018). For five years, Kathleen served as the program coordinator for the University of Alaska Anchorage’s Low-Residency MFA Program in creative writing. She lives and writes in Anchorage and occasionally teaches for 49 Writers.

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