As we enter this new year, a year full of promise and possibility, I realized that I could not in all fairness properly close out the old without first repaying a major debt, one that I owe to you, dear reader, for quite literally saving my life.
To begin, I have no idea when we first connected or how you stumbled upon my novel. Maybe it was the cover, peaking coyly at you from a stack in a bookshop. Perhaps you saw one of the online advertisements, or heard about it from a friend, or read one of the "illuminating" promotional interviews with yours truly. Whichever the route, you likely had no idea, when you reached for the book, that the very act of reading it could so profoundly affect me, and all for the better. How could you know, after all, that while I'd long envisioned a life for myself as a writer, until you contacted me, I'd begun to consider stopping altogether?
You see, writing in itself is a pretty lonesome existence. It's usually just me and my yellow pad, or the old laptop, irritatingly hot, sitting at night in the dark at the end of a very long day, trying desperately to be inspired. If I do have the urge to share with another a witty or profound line I've written, I usually forego it, as the kids are likely off to bed and my partner Russ has wandered elsewhere, in search of his own entertainment.
When I do interact with others, it is more often than not about "the work." I answer the same questions, time and again, as to my inspiration, book structure and my decision to use a "sad" word such as "depression" in my title. ("Think marketing, darling! 'Depression,' you know, isn't the most appetizing of images!") Book signings can be much the same, always focused on "the sell," which is so hard to do, especially if, like me, you hate "the sell." I want people to buy my book because it appeals to them, because, by reading it, they might find themselves enriched and ultimately create change within. I never envisioned myself as a used car salesman, but that is a large part of what being a writer has become.
Now, don't get me wrong: I love writing. I love telling a story. I love trying to conjure another into an emotional state, simply through the words I put on paper. That was the whole reason I began writing in the first place: to inspire change. Still, the business side of writing, in actually trying to sell a book, can easily overwhelm the good stuff.
You probably know that my novel took me over 12 years to write, and that, though fictional, it was inspired by my experience of being caregiver to my then-partner, Shane Sawick, who succumbed to AIDS in 1995. It was a pivotal moment in my life, and I felt that by communicating it to others, I might help open some emotional doors that had long remained shut. It meant so much to me to tell the story of what it meant to be alive during that heart-rending time, and when I'd finally finished, I'd never felt more exhausted -- or prouder.
Then came the rain.
I approached literary agents of every stripe and publishing houses large and small, only to be left with over 200 rejections. No matter how complimentary the letters were, all I could focus on was the one recurring word: "No."
It was thoroughly deflating. I'd poured my heart out, only to find it stomped on and smashed to bits. I thought of giving it all up, of chucking the book out the window, but something told me to persevere, to find a way forward. And I did.
I created my own publishing company and learned things I never dreamed: how to build a website and write HTML code; graphic design; video production; book marketing, promotion and distribution; and so much more. Approaching the age of 50, I found myself learning things that I'd long found intimidating, and it was rewarding to discover that I still had the capacity for growth.
When the novel at last was published, I was elated. The reviews were wonderful, but given the mountain of rejection I'd previously experienced, as well as my tendency to shrug off praise, in each critique I would search for the negative: What didn't they like? I couldn't simply enjoy the good; I had to find the bad. Even with over 25 five-star reviews on Amazon, it is the other one, the lone one-star review (as of this writing), that draws my attention and keeps me up at night.
Maybe it's just me, some fluke in my personality that has a hard time accepting praise. I shrug it off as if it were superfluous, yet I treat the slightest criticism as if it were spoken from God's own lips. Putting myself out there as a writer means that my own doubts and insecurities are themselves in public view, and learning to take the bad with the good can be an arduous process. It would be easier, I reasoned, to save myself the time and heartache and give it all up. As I went further into debt, supporting the novel with my credit card, the thought of quitting crossed my mind, with increasing frequency, again and again.
But then I met you.
You reached out to me on my website, expressing your love of the book, and began to reveal to me elements from your own life and your journey as a gay man. You talked about having married when you were young, only to come out late in life. You talked about how watching others suffer from AIDS while you remained in the closet created a sense of shame, and how you felt responsible for their fates, given your silence. You opened up to me, Bob, and showed me that the words I'd written meant more to you than simply ink on a page; for you those words were transformative, helping you grieve your losses and process your emotions. And by sharing all that with me, you let me know that the years of toil and struggle had not been in vain.
To say that you "literally" saved my life may seem hyperbolic, given that I had no intention of suicide, but the importance of our interaction cannot be minimized. So much of who I am and the strength I have comes from how I identify myself and, as much as I hate to admit it, how others view me. Though in my youth I had a whole roster of labels (actor, model, singer, writer, activist), as an aging gay man, I find that I've largely become invisible, left with only the vague title of "dad." As cherished and as honored as that name makes me feel within our walls, when I step beyond our gate, being only a dad didn't feel like it was enough. Though I realize that that is my own insecurity, being able to finally add "author" onto my list allowed me to pull myself up a bit, giving me needed self-esteem and an increased sense of self. Suddenly I wasn't just an old suburban guy, chauffeuring the kids around and schlepping through my day job. I was a writer, with a book on the shelf bearing my name. I'd told a story, my story, and the fulfillment that accomplishment provided cannot be dismissed.
You gave me the courage, Bob, to keep going. It wasn't enough just to have the book "out there." I needed to know that it meant something, that it had a larger purpose than simply entertainment. When you shared that the book had resonated so deeply with you that you'd already read it four times, I cried.
By both of us sharing parts of ourselves, we were able to help each other move forward, enriching our lives, which is exactly what prompted me to write in the first place. Writing can change lives. I know it has changed mine.
And, thanks to you, Bob, I'll continue.
Kergan Edwards-Stout's debut novel, Songs for the New Depression, is the winner of the 2012 Next Generation Indie Book Award in the LGBTQ category, was shortlisted for the 2011 Independent Literary Awards and was named one of the Top Books of 2012 by Out in Print, Indie Reviews, Alfred Lives Here and Butterfly-O-Meter Books.