I have to have a funeral, I thought, walking in my neighborhood cemetery on a hot July afternoon last year.
Not for a dead person, mind you, but for a dead dream. Mine.
Earlier that month I’d received a strained call from my literary agent. My first novel, Family Plots: Love, Death, and Tax Evasion, had just been rejected for the sixteenth time.
Given that some wildly successful authors have been rejected many more times than that, I didn’t think it cause for alarm. But my agent informed me that the publishing industry—like many professions—was in financial crisis, and she didn’t think a first-time author with no sales history had much of a chance in this climate. “You should try some of the small presses,” she said, “or even self-publish.”
Self-publish? After all the time, money, work, visioning and prayer I’d put into this?
That wasn’t part of the plan.
After I became a widow at age 38, something told me I’d better get to work on my life-long dream of publishing a novel before my own stint on earth was up—and as luck would have it, my dearly departed husband had left me with a juicy tale to tell. He was a criminal attorney who, it turned out, was committing a few crimes of his own. In an attempt to find romance, family, and financial stability, I’d stumbled into a world of pseudonyms, fake weddings, and hidden bank accounts. Events that landed my beloved into the family cemetery plot, also revealed unexpected secrets and stashes that transformed a seeming tragedy into one of surprising healing and redemption. It was a great plotline, but I still needed to write it down.
This is not one of those stories where the author gets an idea, God dictates it to her in thirteen days, and then, while flying to Kalamazoo, she fortuitously meets a famous agent who promises to sell the book. No. Labor and delivery of this baby was harder and possibly more expensive than the one I raised and sent off to college.
With love, support, and regular spiritual mind treatments from countless Religious Science practitioners, I harnessed the inspiration and discipline necessary to get to work. I wrote four versions of the manuscript over four years. After that, I hired three professional editors to help me cut, trim, revise, and re-pace the book. A New York literary agent offered representation, and we celebrated my good fortune when a best-selling author went on record saying it was a page-turner.
The fact that it took seven years—the time it takes to replace every cell in the human body—to prepare the manuscript struck me as a good omen. I wasn’t even the same person as I was when I’d started, and the new me was confident that this book would find exactly what I’d prayed for: the perfect publisher.
When my agent threw in the towel, I spent countless hours cocooned in bed, feeling destroyed—like the caterpillar that dissolves into goo, having no idea if it will ever re-emerge into the light. After all that work, mentally and spiritually, it seemed impossible that I didn’t have the backing of a reputable, recognizable New York publisher to provide the marketing, PR, and distribution to bring my dream to life. What had I done wrong?
I was especially depressed that I wouldn’t get to hold a book launch party at the cemetery, where so many scenes in the novel took place. I’d had such a clear vision of the event, from the pallbearers carrying a casket filled with books, down to the tombstone brownies for dessert. Despite my hard work, prayers, and the colorful vision boards I’d hung all over the house, my dream was dead—or at least it had reached a frustrating dead end—and there wasn’t a thing I could do about it.
That’s when the miracle happened. It became clear to me: /My dream had died, but I could still have a book launch at a cemetery./ It could be a funeral, which was thematically appropriate for the book and the rejection. This was even BETTER than a mere book launch.
The clouds parted, a chorus of angels sang, and the butterfly emerged from her cocoon. How perfect! Not only would I embrace this failure—I would flaunt it. I’d have a funeral for my dead dream of landing a mainstream book contract, and use it as a publicity stunt to draw attention to my book. Guests would be invited to bring remnants of their dead dreams and dashed hopes to toss in the casket as well. What better way to acknowledge and overcome life’s disappointments than to do it in community, with music, ceremony, and a tasty snack buffet? We could all use an opportunity to take ourselves a little less seriously.
The idea immediately resurrected my spirits. I’d been praying for “the perfect publisher,” and apparently I was the one I’d been waiting for all along.
Doors opened immediately. The cemetery management loved the idea and donated the chapel, casket, and reception hall. Friends contacted the media and articles appeared in the local and national press, generating a standing-room-only crowd. A gaggle of chic, black-clad wailers filled the pews and made the appropriate scene as the pallbearers escorted the casket and me into the chapel. My beloved practitioner played the role of “the preacher,” and by the end of the service, I, as well as most of my guests, had thrown remnants of dead dreams into the coffin and were dancing in the aisles to James Brown’s /I Feel Good./ The book received great reviews on book blogs and Amazon.com, and newspapers, radio, and TV booked interviews. I even had bloggers criticizing and debating the relative merits of the event, teaching me that there’s no such thing as bad publicity.
Lest I mislead anyone, deciding to produce this spectacle was not /all/ rainbows and unicorns. I wrestled with the demonic inner voices of fear, and was worried sick that no one would come to my funeral, or that I was wasting time or pouring money down a hole.
But I ignored the naysayers, even in my own mind, and squeezed more fun out of the event than I ever thought possible. By the end of the year, I even had an offer from a new agent to pitch my next book: /Cemetery Mary’s Turning Life’s Crap Into Compost/ (CrapIntoCompost.com).
When a dream has died, how do we avoid the urge to crawl into the coffin with it?
It’s hard to believe that celebrating death could feel so uplifting, but isn’t that what we learn as students of Science of Mind? “The experience of dying is but the laying off of an old garment, and the donning of a new one,” says The Science of Mind. Many of us are able to accept this as truth—so much so that in this philosophy, the word “death” is replaced with “transition,” to help us reframe the experience.
But as we know, concepts are easier in theory than in practice. The death (or transition) of a cherished person, relationship, or dream inevitably comes packed with grief and is far more disorienting than a simple garment change. It’s more like having our skin peeled off, followed by a period of over-exposure and raw pain, and then a gradual healing. No wonder we do whatever possible to deny, ignore, or resist it.
But everyone and everything in our lives is going to die—to transition. It’s the only way to make room for new growth. Spouses, lovers, parents and children; relationships, careers, and artistic endeavors; youth, beauty, and bank accounts—no matter what visions we hold, they will ultimately die in the ebb and flow of time. And sadly, sometimes they die before their time—causing us even greater trauma, because that wasn’t part of our plan.
That’s why one of the first things I publicly tossed into the casket was my vision board. Creating vision boards, lists of desires, and measurable goals offers great tools and direction. But when our goals and visions are not out-picturing exactly the way we have dictated, I wonder if clinging to these road maps may block a path to greater possibility? Maybe there is a time when we have to let go of the dream or relationship or expectation because, let’s face it, it’s not working or making us happy.
When I finally put to rest my grandiose dreams of publishing contracts, movie options, book tours, and a guest spot on the Oprah Winfrey Show, the rush of the release was liberating and invigorating. Though the book publication didn’t turn out to be even close to the way I’d rendered it on my vision board, a comment made by a business associate who’d watched a YouTube video of the funeral best summed up the deep satisfaction I ended up feeling. “Wow,” he said. “I can’t imagine what it would be like to be so completely creatively expressed.”
If I’d had a publisher, a marketing department, and a cast of others, all with opinions, who knows how it would have played out? Even my agent, whom I told about the funeral, warned me she thought it odd, and in fact a bad idea. /Bad idea?/ Impossible given the doors that were opening and the fun I was having, I thought, suddenly relieved she was no longer my agent.
Just like our over-attachment to vision boards may limit our view of greater possibility, our egos often get in the way of our spiritual growth. And let me go on record as saying my ego was freaking out about me stepping in as publisher and producer of my own book launch. (Who did I think I was? New York didn’t take me, why should anyone else? Bury the book privately and get on with it!)
But when we select a spiritual path, we are consciously choosing expansion and growth. There doesn’t seem to be a lot of support for the ego in that process. The old ideas about who I was and what I deserved had to die too—there was no other way to make room for new growth.
Though becoming my own publisher garnered me some great attention, it has not yet catapulted me to fame, fortune, or a seat on Oprah’s couch. And while that would be nice, the beating my ego took in the process of trying to get my book published made me realize that it didn’t matter anymore. Recognizing that I had the power within to realize my vision for this project without getting outside approval from the book-publishing industry made me feel a bit like Dorothy when she learned she’d always had the power to return to Kansas.
Giving up the dream of how my book was to be published pushed me to be more courageous, creative, and resourceful than I ever knew possible.
Where my writing career will travel from here remains a mystery, and I am certainly not creating a vision board to guide it. Everything I’ve ever tried to force has become a struggle, so I now cheerfully surrender, and focus my efforts on enjoying the work.
Is this bad? Is it good? Who knows? It just is.
Watch the Trailer!
A writer since the age of eight, Mary’s award winning creative non-fiction has been published in Alligator Juniper, Room of One’s Own, San Jose Mercury News, and the San Francisco Chronicle. Her professional writing has appeared in numerous trade journals. Mary is the 2003 recipient of the nonfiction award from the Soul Making Literary Competition sponsored by the American Pen Women, and winner of a 2004 honorable mention. She was awarded writing fellowships at The David and Julia White Artist Colony, Hedgebrook: Women Authoring Change, and The Vermont Studio Center. She recently published her first book, Family Plots: Love, Death, and Tax Evasion.
Attention! Mary (aka Cemetery Mary) is holding a funeral (December 31, 2009) and resurrection (January 2, 2010). These two events will allow others to bury dead dreams, dashed hopes, old habits and grudges in 2009 so they can come to the resurrection to begin again in 2010. Information about the live and webcast events will be posted at www.CrapIntoCompost.com, so readers are invited to sign up for the mail list.