I’m smiling as I write this. Perhaps because it means I am “in the game.” I’ve taken another step into a vulnerable and unknown place in publishing.
Last week I began putting “They Don’t Eat Alone in Spain” in the hands (inboxes, really) of literary agents, hoping one will find this post-divorce memoir with the possibility of a happy ending – no partner required – compelling enough to represent.
It’s taken a long time to get here, far longer than I imagined.
It was a little more than two years ago that I sat in the drawing room of my Madrid apartment and asked the universe for guidance. It came in the form of a single email from an old beau – an introduction to the Rocaberti Castle Writers’ Retreat – and called all of my “one day-s” to task. Did I really believe a blog chronicling my path from desperate divorcee to European ex-pat – told through the lens of a weekly solo sojourn – could be a book? Was I willing to find out?
I decided to say yes … and so did many readers who funded my trip to the castle that fall.
Upon my return, I began working one-on-one with my retreat writing coach. I developed a proposal (story summary, audience analysis, competitive landscape and marketing concepts), a chapter-by-chapter outline and agent query. I spit-shined the introduction and two other chapters and made a list of target agents and a spreadsheet to track my communications.
Last Sunday night – filled with doubt and trepidation, my heart racing – I hit send. At that moment, I truly understood impostor syndrome for the first time. Who was I to pitch a writing project – my writing project – to an agent, anyway?
A few years ago I read that most people would rather fail by not trying than by trying.
I get that. And thankfully, I’ve never wanted to be “most people.”
When I received this note on Tuesday, I was assured I wasn’t.
“Dear Lesley, Thank you so much for querying me. “They Don’t Eat Alone in Spain: How 52 Solo Sojourns Healed My Heart and Helped Me Write My Own Happy Ending (No Partner Required) sounds like an interesting project, but I’m afraid I’m going to pass on looking at more. My client list is very full, forcing me to be extremely selective about taking on anyone new at the moment. But please do keep querying other agents, and I wish you all the best with your writing career.”
I’ve taken this agent’s counsel and have continued to query. Meanwhile, a friend suggested I keep all of my rejection letters … “You can have fun with them later,” he wrote. “Maybe include them in the preface in future books.”
A few days ago a friend of mine from university posted this message on my Facebook page — “Read this and thought of you this morning. Smooches bubbala!”
Every year, The New York Times recommends 52 Places to Go, one place to dream about exploring each week. The list is an ambitious forecast of which beaches will remain unspoiled, which starchitect-designed museums will live up to their renderings and which culinary treasures are worth hopping a flight to eat.
This year, we want at least one ambitious traveler to turn our wish list into an itinerary.
We are seeking a journalist who, over the course of 2018, will go to every destination on our list and tell us the story of each place and the story of life on the road. The ideal candidate is a permanent student of life and astute documentarian of the world. This person should have a well-worn passport, the ability to parachute into a place and distill its essence and to render a compelling tale with words and images.”
As part of my application, I had to write (only) 500 words on the most interesting place I’ve been to. It was fun to go back on the Marrakesh Express … Fingers crossed!!
Marrakesh – I expect it to smell otherworldly like Tangiers, fragrant with spices mixed with sea water, but it doesn’t. Instead, I notice steam rising from the black-tar cement and yellow maze-like lines that direct us inside the airport where there is no air-conditioning, no Wi-Fi, not even a vending machine selling over-priced water.
Outside, under a white tent, wooden benches teem with drivers holding signs, like breakfast, it is included with the price of our riad.
We pile into the car and drive towards the old city. A woman wearing a cobalt blue kaftan and matching head scarf keeps pace with us as we circle the roundabout. The streets are lined with palm trees and resorts tucked behind colorful walls.
We stop abruptly at an uninspired entry point to the medina. Our driver hands us over to a small man with a wheelbarrow, who tosses our luggage into it. We follow him down cobblestone streets with no names to an unremarkable door, behind it is a courtyard with a small dipping pool and our host, waiting with mint tea. He takes us to our room — white-washed and pristine with wooden shutters that look out across the courtyard to its mirror image and upward to the sky. He marks our location on a map with an X and shows us how to reach Jemaa el-Fnaa – the main square.
We snake down dusty paths with no street signs, but that more or less match the design of the map, taking photos of the low archways we pass through and doors on each corner – my own version of breadcrumbs that will lead us home.
The streets are loud with a language I do not know. Tongue-y and shrill. Spices are piled in the shape of cones – mustard, orange and saffron-colored. Babouche, brightly colored slippers with pointed toes, line the walls. I have been advised not to look unless I am prepared to purchase, so I avert my eyes, the same way the women walking two-by-two avert mine.
The labyrinth-like streets drop us on to the main square where there are rows and rows of pop-up restaurants with metal picnic tables covered with plastic, checkered tablecloths. Each host carries a stack of laminated menus and tries to pull us in. “You are so skinny. You must be hungry. Come. Eat.”
There are tall stalls with men selling fresh dates, dried apricots, cashews and almonds. Sitting perched at the top, they grab their wares with long, metal claws and hand us samples, then fill cardboard cones with our purchases. We drink fresh-fruit smoothies served in real glasses at a make-shift bar.
Snake charmers sit on the warm cement playing flutes called pungis while serpents dance to their melody, as if agreed upon before the show. Monkeys on leashes pose for photographs. Amidst the pandemonium the Muslim call to prayer sounds from tinny speakers that crackle. It passes through me like a breeze and reminds me I am a long, long way from home.
Five years ago today I boarded a plane bound for Kigali.
I was in the middle of a divorce I didn’t quite see coming, and certain I had no idea of where I was going, other than to Africa — a place I had dreamed of visiting since I was a child.
Several months earlier I had signed up to join a group of volunteers from my synagogue, working with two AIDS service organizations in the Rwandan capital. Little did I know that there — under my mosquito net in the wee hours of the morning — I would reclaim my voice as a writer, that I would succumb to the siren of the blue-light glow of my computer to tell the stories of my experiences on my blog — http://www.awanderingjewess.com.
I had secured the blog address about the same time I secured my place on the trip and had a vague notion that I might write about the road to becoming a rabbi. Instead I wrote about the road to Bombogo – a village on the outskirts of Kigali — where students learned to create kitchen gardens that would feed their families.
I wrote about house visits with social worker and part-time saint, Mary Grace, and her clients. The reed thin woman who sat in the dark, her face illuminated by a hole in the metal roof, who was unsure how she would feed her family now that her rabbits — her source of both food and income — had been stolen. And the robust one who replied to the missionary offering to help her build a roof, “Roof? I need a house!” and then built one for her and her daughters, and then another — thus becoming a landlord.
I wrote about painting walls and filling prescription packets. Dancing with a professional troupe in a style close to the one I had been studying for years. And about a room full of girls all with shaved heads, curious about the “Muzungo” with the same “do.”
The trip that began on Independence Day 2012 returned me to my craft after a 15-year hiatus, changing the trajectory of both my life and my blog. It led me to write about my experiences post-divorce, about dating, and mostly not dating — taking myself on solo excursions AKA Artist Dates instead — and ultimately moving to Madrid, the basis for “They Don’t Eat Alone in Spain.”
I recently sent an update on the status of this project, one year after launching it. Many thanks to Tanya Gazdik Irwin, Jan Mekula and AJ Benham who responded to the update with contributions to the “They Don’t Eat Alone in Spain” campaign.
The “They Don’t Eat Alone in Spain” campaign was created to defray the costs of the Rocaberti Castle Writers Retreat which I attended in the fall of 2016. Additional contributions have been used to pay for coaching sessions with Debra Engle, my retreat mentor, who is guiding me in the process of taking my writing from blog to book to screen.
I hear these words often in recovery circles — usually in reference to romance or finance but its application is universal. Truthfully, I prefer”my time,” but it seems that’s not how things work — not even in writing, of which I have more than a modicum of control.
According to Facebook, “On This Day” in 2016 I launched my Go Fund Me campaign. I wrote:
“For those of you who have asked, ‘When’s the book coming out?’ (And those of you who haven’t …) I need your help! I’ll be returning to Spain this fall for the Rocaberti Castle Writers Retreat, to meet with industry experts who will help me go from blog to book. I received a half-scholarship to the retreat. Please consider a donation to help defray the remaining costs … ”
I hit my goal in October of last year and went to the retreat in Girona the same month. Inside the cocoon-like confines of the castle, I pitched my project to industry professionals, and received constructive feedback and guidance on my manuscript — both one-on-one and in small work circles. The shorthand takeaway was MORE — more details, more lushness of language, let go of the tight journalistic training and “take us there.”
Eight months have passed … and I naively thought I’d have a book deal by now. (Politics aside, I feel a bit like our current president when he said that his job was way harder than he anticipated. Turns out … so is going from blog to book.)
Today’s “On This Day” seemed like a nudge from the Universe to let those who so generously supported this project know the status of it.
What’s Happened Since the Retreat:
Returning home, I began to incorporate the feedback I had received and quickly found myself lost in my own story. So in early 2017, I took retreat mentor Debra Engle up on her offer of a complimentary 30-minute coaching session, to see if she could help guide me out of the weeds. She did, and then some … so I hired her.
We have completed eight of 10 coaching sessions. (I anticipate buying a package of five more for a total of 15.) It has been a slow and enlightening process.
I discovered many Artist Dates included in the original manuscript got tossed out as they didn’t move the story forward, while others that were seemingly less sexy were added because they illustrated the growth trajectory on my journey from “we” to “me” so well.
With Deb’s guidance I have completed a solid Introduction and Chapter One — which took “seemingly forever.” (Again, God’s time, not mine.) According to Deb, this is normal. “You’re setting up the whole book,” she explained. The “why” of the 52 Artist Dates, which received short shrift in the first-draft manuscript.
In addition, I have completed a chapter-by-chapter outline — 54 easy-to-scan one paragraph summaries that show the arc and trajectory of the story.
Once upon a time writers could bypass the agent and take their work straight to publishing houses. This is no longer the case with the exception of small, specialty houses, which Deb suggested I not consider as the story has “universal appeal.”
I am currently working on the proposal to send to potential agents. It includes:
*Chapter-by-Chapter Outline. Status: Done
*Three Sample Chapters. Status: Introduction and Chapter One completed, rewriting third sample chapter to include “more lushness.”
*The pitch — A summary and overview of the book, consideration of the market, its competition, marketing and “About the Author.” Status: About 75 percent complete.
My goal is to have the proposal “agent ready” by July 4 — Independence Day, which seems fitting as I found every Artist Date moved me towards greater emotional and spiritual freedom — and to begin shopping it July 5.
The original “They Don’t Eat Alone in Spain” campaign was created to defray the costs of the Rocaberti Castle Writers Retreat and related travel costs. Time with a writing coach was not factored in. To that end, I have not formally re-opened the campaign or changed the fundraising goal. However, I am accepting donations towards this cost — $900 for 15, 30-minute sessions.
It is four weeks today since I left Paris. It feels like forever ago.
Not for the reasons most people think. Not because I love Paris, have dreamed of living there for as long as I can remember (even before I had ever visited), and occasionally wake up with French words on my lips – even though I don’t speak the language. Not because a reiki practitioner once told me I have “agreements” with Paris. (I still don’t know exactly what that means.) Although all of that is true.
Quite simply, I left my heart there … and I miss it, and him and what we shared.
What was meant to be 14 days together, zipping up to Normandy on his motorbike (“It will be like our honeymoon,” he said.) was goodbye instead.
I never saw it coming.
We met in October, on my way home from a writer’s retreat in Girona, Spain. It was, as my friend Michelle likes to say, “A romance for the ages.”
We found one another in a church basement – the kind where we both learned how to get and stay sober a number of years earlier – on his birthday, the day before mine. What began as coffee led to a meandering walk through Paris — sharing our stories, and a piece of cake — and ended with three knee-buckling kisses at the Bastille roundabout, my salmon-colored wool and silk scarf blowing in the breeze. One for his birthday, one for mine, and one to “tide me over” until we saw one another again in two days. The stuff of Hollywood movies.
Four days later, my last in Paris, he told me he loved me, and that he was in love with me.
“Is that crazy” he asked over a steaming bucket of mussels and live accordion music that wafted up the stairs.
“Yes,” I replied. “But I get it.”
He also told me he didn’t want to think about me every day, that he didn’t want to know how I took my coffee.
“But you already know how I take my coffee,” I said, smiling.
We agreed that we wanted to continue getting to know one another and that neither of us knew exactly what that meant. The next morning, boarding a plane back to the United States, I received a text, “Still love you, babe.”
Later that week, during the first of many marathon phone calls, he asked if I would come back in the spring. I said yes without hesitation and purchased a non-stop return ticket from Chicago to Paris for $500 the following day. I had never paid so little to fly to to Europe and chose to see it as a sign — a nod from God.
We spent the next six months writing long emails and sexy Facebook messages, talking on the phone for hours and eventually Skyping. What joy it was to finally see one another again.
I felt like I had met my twin. Funny enough, one of the last things he said to me was, “I met myself when I met you.” That was four weeks ago, when we said goodbye.
One month earlier, I had received an email, “I have some difficult news …” he wrote.
His son’s mother had asked once again if they might get back together. This time she said “all the right things.” This time, it was he who didn’t hesitate to say yes.
Brokenhearted would be an understatement.
Ten days later we Skyped and I asked if I might see him in Paris … to say goodbye.
“You’re still coming?” he asked, visibly surprised.
“My ticket is non-refundable. I’m going on to Barcelona, but I’m still flying in and out of Paris.
“Can I see you? To say goodbye?”
He agreed, and so we did. And when we did, he reminded me that his nine-year-old son lives in Paris … so he lives in Paris.
I knew he had certain ideas about the family he wanted – what it looked like – and believed he was healing some childhood wounds by giving his son what he had wanted most, stability and love, and the picture of family that he himself craved.
“I’m portable,” I said, reminding him I had said this all along.
He said I wouldn’t like living in Paris. (I disagreed.) That it is extraordinarily hard to get work there as a non-Parisian, even teaching English. That he never wanted a long-distance relationship.
He also said that we were “magic,” that I was his “vacation” and his “fantasy.”
What he didn’t say was, “Move in, lean in … we’ll figure it out.”
And so, with seemingly no other choice, I dropped the rope.
The day I had asked if I could see him in Paris, he asked if we might still be friends. “This,” he said, gesturing heart-to-heart, “I’ll miss this.” I said probably one day, but that I would need time — brave words that fell apart once on the other side of the Atlantic, when I hopefully asked, “Will we stay in touch?” even though I had been the one to ask for space after our goodbye.
“I don’t think so … I’d prefer not to,” he said. “I want you to go back to Chicago and write to me and tell me you found a man there who can give you a real relationship.”
I was crushed. Writing these words now, my heart aches.
But a funny thing happened when I returned to the United States, something that had never happened after a breakup before — I respected his wishes.
We agreed I would let him know when I arrived home and that I would send some of my writing to him – musings about our time together. I did both and he responded warmly, but without opening any doors. “I’m not ready to read this just yet, but it’s good to know it’s here” he wrote, and thanked me for sending. Seems this ending is difficult for him too.
Now there’s nothing left to do but grieve.
I’ve never had a clean break before.
In my 20s, breakups included language like, “Of course we’ll be friends,” which seemed to mean something entirely different to my former partners than to me, which looked like me acting as if nothing had changed, except for the addition of some teary, “I miss you’s” and “Are you sure’s?” In the end my ex’s usually had to push me away, it seemed the only way I could give time and space apart.
Since my divorce five years ago, I’ve had only one other relationship, which only sort-of ended when I moved to Madrid in 2015. We spent my year abroad in a liminal space which, while not exactly ideal or exactly what I wanted, seemed to suit me on some level. It was never entirely over until I moved back to the United States last July.
So this is new, this clean-break thing, and here’s the rub – it still hurts like hell. There’s nothing to do, nothing to be done. This clean break means there’s no drama around calling or not calling, writing or not writing, dissecting every bit of conversation. The not-clean-break means I can feel like I’m still in something. There’s some kind of crazy hope, but with this there is none.
Just memories. And sadness.
Yes … I have days where I’m not really sure we’re done. Others say that about us too. But I know, at least for now, we are.
Michelle was right. I did have a romance for the ages … and I haven’t even shared a tenth of it. I haven’t written publicly about it at all, until now. It was tender and private and new. It was ours. It still is. But it is my story too and I am a storyteller.
Last night I listened to a TED Talk by Anne Lamott. In it, she said, “You’re going to feel like hell if you wake up someday and you never wrote the stuff that is tugging on the sleeves of your own heart, your stories, memories, visions and songs – your truth, your version of things – in you own voice. That’s really all you have to offer us, and that’s also why you were born.”
It was those words that inspired me to write. That, a fire in my belly, and the memory of blogging about every other romance gone astray since my divorce. Sharing my story and opening it for conversation had felt both vulnerable and healing. There is something about speaking one’s truth, being witnessed, and hearing, “me too.”
It’s what we do in those church basements where he and I got sober and where we keep going so we can stay sober. As my friend Bob likes to say, “A problem shared is cut in two.” If that is so, then posting this hits it with a sledgehammer – cracks it right open sending sharp little shards in every direction that I will be picking up off the floor for months to come, even when I’m certain I’ve vacuumed them all up. The sun will hit the hardwood in a certain way and I’ll find another little piece.
I guess that’s what great love does – cracks us right open and destroys us. I hate it. And I wouldn’t change a single thing.
Five days, 12 writers, 3 mentors, a genius staff who could both dream and deliver. Chefs who fed our hearts and our bellies. A castle, many missed photo opportunities and so much unbelievable talent.
I knew I was truly immersed in the moment when I received an email from my mother “just checking in” because she hadn’t seen me on Facebook in a while. (Sweet, right?)
It is only now, after leaving the “bubble” of the Rocaberti Writers Retreat, that I am able to begin reflecting on all that I experienced. All that I learned. All that happened. And all that has yet to happen.
In the cocoon of the castle, I was able to practice pitching “They Don’t Eat Alone in Spain” to mentors — three individuals steeped and successful in the business of movies, television and publishing — as I would for agent representation or a book deal.
I introduced my work as “Eat, Pray, Love” meets Dora the Explorer, and was immediately met with the challenge — “Why a cartoon character?”
Quite simply, because I could not think of a single happy ending for a solo female protagonist over the age of 12. Think”Ramona the Brave,” “Harriet the Spy,” and yes, Dora.
Our resident feature writer and producer, the one who had challenged me, was able to summon just one — Holly Hunter in the 1987 film “Broadcast News.” One.
In that moment I knew I was on to something. And yet, I already knew. Because of all I had experienced. All I had written. The support I had received via Go Fund Me. And the feedback from my retreat mentor — one on one — and from my colleagues in small group sessions.
In addition to learning about my own work, I received a practical education on next steps and the nuts of bolts of publishing. And opened my mind to the possibilities of film and television.
And now? More…
I’ve been asked to let go of my newspaper training and blogging terseness and to let the lushness of my language fill in the blanks. To tell the story of how I went from mikveh (the ritual bath used in a Jewish divorce) to Madrid. The experience of 52 Artist Dates and how they changed me … that when given a chance at the kind of love I had called out for, I ultimately chose myself.
It is one of the many reasons I prefer bookstores to the ease of Amazon. That and the sense of possibility. Of community. Staff picks. Book Club reads. All laid out on tables, ripe for reading. A smorgasbord of words.
Land of Enchantment by Leigh Stein. Grunt by Mary Roach. M Train by Patti Smith.
I pick up each one and tuck it under my arm, carrying a small stack with me through Women and Children First Bookstore. Artist Date 6.2 (122).
Because I know of Leigh but I do not know her. Because we belong to the same women’s writing collective, but we have never met.
Because I heard Terri Gross’ interview with Roach on Fresh Air while I was living in Madrid. Their English sounded so good to my American ear and home didn’t seem so far away.
Because just this afternoon, my friend Spencer suggested Smith’s book to me.
I feel connected to these stories. Like I want to hold on to them.
Others I don’t.
Spinster: Making A Life of One’s Own by Kate Bolick. The Lonely City: Adventures in the Art of Being Alone by Olivia Lang.
Because I fear there is no room in this conversation for my voice — my manuscript, They Don’t Eat Alone in Spain: How 52 Artist Dates Healed My Heart and Landed Me in the Center of My Own Life. Traveling alone. Living abroad. Writing a book. Because I fear I have nothing new to add. Because I believe publication might finally allow me to be “done” with my divorce.
Crazy Time by Abigail Trafford.
Because it takes me back to a time before Artist Dates. Before traveling alone and living overseas and writing a book. When I was just embarking upon my divorce.
I am still living in Seattle, still sharing a home with my soon-to-be ex-husband – but sleeping in separate bedrooms.
I am head-over-heels-over-head for my friend M in Chicago. He is also going through a divorce and we prop one another up through our disbelief and fear, talking on the phone each night into the wee hours of the morning.
I am also a wee bit obsessed with my friend (another) M in Seattle. He is the first man to see me naked – other than my husband or my doctor – in 15 years. We kiss endlessly, stopping only to share our stories — whispering under a blanket that smells faintly of dog.
But only once.
Since then we seem to be dancing a familiar “come-here-go-away” cha-cha. I know the tune, but still haven’t mastered the steps.
My therapist Saundra tells me about Crazy Time.
“Because it is a crazy time,” she says, speaking from both personal and professional experience. She says to tell Chicago M I have to go to sleep. She rolls her eyes at the mention of Seattle M.
“You told me I get to make mistakes.”
“You made yours,” she says.
We look at one another, a little bit shocked by her frankness and laugh.
“You don’t get to say that.”
“I know,” she says. “But it’s true.” And it is.
Saundra believes it is preferable I grieve the end of my marriage before jumping into another relationship. She says if I don’t, I’ll only run from the pain of it – from bed to bed, relationship to relationship – rather than addressing the source and healing.
It doesn’t sound so bad, really.
And yet, it is not my path.
I pull Crazy Time from the shelf and begin thumbing through it – only half reading.
“It starts when you separate and usually lasts about two years. It’s a time when your emotions take on a life of their own and you swing back and forth between wild euphoria and violent anger, ambivalence and deep depression, extreme timidity and rash actions. You are not yourself. Who are you?
“Then at the height of Crazy Time, you may get a reprieve. You fall in love – a coup de foudre – and the block of lead in your chest miraculously melts; you can’t believe it, you laugh, you dance. You know it’s too soon, too much like jumping into a lifeboat that you know leaks and has no oars. But you smile, feeling so good after feeling so bad for so long. Therapists call this the search for the romantic solution. But it’s usually not a solution.
“You crash… Now you’re really scared. You can’t believe how frightened you are; about money, your health, your sanity. In all the feel-good rhetoric about divorce being a growth opportunity for the new super you, nobody tells you about Crazy Time.”
Four years have passed since my divorce was made final by the courts.
Since then, my ex-husband has bought a home that he shares with the woman he’s been seeing for a couple of years. Chicago M is about to become a daddy. And according to Facebook, Seattle M — the one with the dog blanket — is “In a Relationship.”
I pick up Smith’s M Train and take it to the register, first slipping the other books back into their proper places on the shelves.
Still traveling alone. Still writing. Sometimes still in Crazy Time.