I knew before I was ten years old that I would be a writer. I just knew there was something I had to say. I didn’t know what it was, but I needed to say it, to get into print something I wrote. I wanted to whisper something important in someone’s ear. That would be my lot in the world, how I would be recognized as part of the great scheme of things.
I wrote a few short stories in my early 20s. I took a creative writing course. I found myself working and reworking scenes, introducing a character, walking him into a room, sitting him down, endowing him with some tell-tale mannerism that revealed his inner state, having him say something vaguely hinting at that inner state.
And then what? Where was the story?
Years later, working in the editorial office of an NGO, I confessed to my director – a playwright himself – that I had always wanted to be “a writer.” I was tasked, but not trained, among a myriad other things, with taking publicity photos in that underfunded, well-intentioned world. I learned to see story in terms of image. Grab the compelling shot, write a good cutline and sell the reader. My boss urged me to try poetry – that arduous search for just the word.. le mot juste. He assured me everything would flow from that.
I wrote poems over the years, but I was busy managing the publication of other people’s texts, then, later, producing documentary films. It wasn’t until retiring and moving to North Leitrim that I could entertain the still-flickering urge to write. I turned for subject matter back to my troubled childhood, growing up Catholic and gay in the Bible Belt of rural America in the 1950s and 60s. For source material I had a stack of old photographs, some school report cards my mother saved for me, and fistfuls of joyful memories and indelible grudges. The research was already done; I knew how things turned out.
The first draft of what ultimately became my memoir, Waltzing a Two-Step, ran to 80 pages, single-spaced on A4. I did it in a feverish month. I set it aside, a habit developed over a professional lifetime. By the time I returned to it, I had already come to loathe it. I saw that it was all wrong – wrong tone, wrong pace, wrong point of view – wrong, wrong, wrong.
But an outline was there. The story was there.
What must have been two years and a thousand rewrites later, I had a memoir, all typed up and no place to go. I had no plan beyond completing the manuscript. I could think of no publishing house where it would be a natural fit. Past professional contacts who read it said nice things, but they had no idea what to do with a debut memoir. My queries to publishers were met with encouraging thanks-but-no-thanks. And that should have been that.
But I had spent too many quiet afternoons in a half-lit study staring at a computer screen, rethinking each scene, refining it or deleting it, rewording each phrase, restacking each sentence. I simply couldn’t let it go. I created a spreadsheet and headed the columns with publisher, address, query pitch, date, and response. I crawled across the internet copying down any and every special focus that felt like it could lead to a plausible pitch (“Given your interest in non-fiction… given your interest in gay themes… given your interest in 20th century Americana…”). I plugged away, emailing, posting, cajoling. There were more than 30 attempts. Sheer stubbornness.
What finally worked? Reading the New York Review of Books, I came across a two-page spread of advertisements under the banner Independent Publishers. I copied down the company names, googled each one for an address and an editorial focus, and sent out another volley. I was thrilled to hear back from three of them. What they each offered was a hybrid approach (joint funding from both publisher and author). Calling Card Books, an imprint of MKZ Books, Inc., identified an interest in people whose stories inspire others. They were the last to respond. Their tone was warm and personal. They spoke to the subject matter and its execution. Would I fill out an “intake form”? What did I want my book to accomplish?
The moment had come for me to decide how important it was to whisper in someone’s ear. I imagined all the things that could go wrong. I was risking my own cash. I knew that without trade reps I’d have to beat my own drum. After a couple of wary zoom meetings, the publisher still wanted to proceed.
So did I.
My experience has been affirming. I am proud of the book. The publisher proved to be a wise editor, and the creative director a perceptive artist. In a local newspaper interview I was asked if writing it was a cathartic experience. Perhaps, I answered. But more than that, it was revelatory. I didn’t know who I was, really, until all these years later, talking at last about things I should have said long ago. No longer whispering.
(c) Dan Juday
About Waltzing A Two-Step: Reckoning Family, Faith, and Self:
Waltzing a Two-Step is the first-person account of a boy born into the rural Midwest in the middle of the 20th Century. A bright, timid boy, he is enthralled with the grandeur of his local library and his Catholic church.
One of five children in an upwardly mobile family, he struggles with being gay. Contemplating the paradoxes that life presents him, he looks for his proper place in an enticing but unwelcoming world, a search that takes him overseas-chasing lost happiness and struggling to fit in. His search ultimately reveals that he has been looking for himself all along. It is a cautionary tale told late in life out of the comfort and regret that come with memory and with the bitter-sweetness of time and opportunity gone by without addressing things that should have been said earlier. The story has many parallels to the world in the 21st Century and is a must-read for those searching for life’s answers.
The story takes place during the pivotal era of the ’60s and ’70s. He shares stories from his youth that echo many of the issues facing the United States currently making headlines around the world.
His writing shows the depth of his compassion, through tough times as well as good times.
Order your copy online here.