It’s Complicated: Or How I Got Sucked into an Unhealthy Relationship with My Book Proposal
Aug 09 ● BY Julie Poole
For the past year, I managed to convince myself that all my personal and financial problems could be solved if I wrote the perfect book proposal. In a feverish and over-caffeinated three and a half weeks, I had finished writing the first draft of a book, which I glibly called my mental hospital memoir. Instead of sinking all my effort into revision, I got distracted by something I read on a blog: even if my book was done, polished, ready to go, I’d still need a proposal to accompany it. As a new author with few publications, no agent, and a non-existent social media presence, I had a long uphill trek with loads of emotional baggage.
I made a trip to the library, checked out every book I could find on crafting a “stand out” proposal, and made an effort to read each book cover-to-cover. More than a few were laughably outdated. One spent a chapter on positing how e-readers were going to change the industry. Another mentioned sending manuscripts with a SASE (Self-addressed Stamped Envelope). The Art of the Book Proposal was the most helpful. It took me a month to do every written exercise in the book, and I amassed a stack of papers that automatically went into my closet. All I really needed to know was that a book proposal is typically made up of six parts: an overview, a chapter outline, sample chapters, a marketing plan, a book comparison section, and a bio. Depending upon which literary agencies you submit to, some want to see all the parts and others do not.
To say that I became obsessed with writing the perfect book proposal is a bit misleading; I became obsessed with perfecting the book comparisons section (or comps as they’re sometimes called). Comps give agents and publishers a sense of how your book is similar to or different from what’s already on the market. After I realized that I was too anxious to write an overview, I didn’t feel confident in breaking down my chapters when the structure of my book would likely change. The only section I managed to complete was my bio—and that took all of five minutes because, well, it’s short.
Now might be a good time to mention that—in addition to not wanting to revise or even look at all my sad first-draft sentences—I really did not want to read books about mental illness. I was worried that doing so would a) seriously bum me out; b) expose certain aspects of my experience as cliché; c) confirm that, while writing about my experience of being institutionalized for a month might be of vital importance to me, the reader wasn’t likely to have much fun. “I don’t even want to read my book,” I told another writer. She very wisely said “You are not your book’s audience.” I tried to imagine readers who might be interested in a bipolar-infused love story set in a psychiatric ward.
I made a list of twenty-six titles about mental illness and tried to think of the whole project as a Band-Aid to be ripped off quickly. My timeline for completion was just stupid. I calculated that I could read about 210 pages a day, which meant that I could cruise through twenty-six books in roughly thirty-seven days, or a little over a month. I wrote out a firm deadline and started chomping through pages like a termite, realizing on day one that I couldn’t actually read 210 pages a day. I told myself that I’d done so in graduate school, but I conveniently forgot that I never finished all the assigned reading, which was sometimes upwards of 500 pages a day.
In fact, if I remember correctly, I took the advice of an English Ph.D. student standing at the copier making handouts for his class when he said: You’ll never get through all the reading, so don’t even try. Pick out the important stuff, gauge what others say, and contribute a comment or two. In short, BS it in seminar. I was three years out of school and could barely read beyond a couple chapters.
In essence, I was planning to devote over a month to reading mental illness memoirs daily, while completely ignoring the fact that I was exhibiting telltale signs of clinical depression. Without the support of a therapist or an individual I could turn to when I began to physically relive some of my traumatic experiences in the hospital, I stubbornly started my reading frenzy mid-June, when Covid-19 numbers in Texas were starting to go up and my bank account balance was starting to go down. Friends and family members did not mince words: This is a bad idea, they said. And I, of course, ignored them.
When I submitted my online order to local independent bookstores, I wondered what booksellers thought about my choice of reading material: Girl, Interrupted; The Glass Eye; Prozac Nation; Haldol and Hyacinths; Just Like Someone Without Mental Illness Only More So; The Collected Schizophrenias; Manic: A Memoir; Mental: Lithium, Love, and Losing My Mind; and Ten Ways Not to Commit Suicide. A shocking number of titles included the word madness. I also ordered Brain on Fire: My Month of Madness; The Center Cannot Hold: My Journey Through Madness; Darkness Visible: A Memoir of Madness; Gorilla and the Bird: A Memoir of Madness and a Mother’s Love; An Unquiet Mind: A Memoir of Moods and Madness; The Quiet Room: A Journey Out of the Torment of Madness; and Madness: A Bipolar Life. In an effort to prove I’d be okay, I added Samantha Irby’s Wow, No Thank You to my shopping cart (a telling title considering what I was about to undertake.)
Book by book, I started to knock ’em back like pints: highlighting, underlining, finding seeds of myself between the lines. I knew that no agent in their right mind would read a comps section with twenty-six titles when five to ten titles is plenty. I wanted to read widely so that those five to ten titles would be absolutely perfect.
It wasn’t long before I started to feel sick: fevers, stomach aches, muscle soreness, migraines, fatigue, insomnia, bowel troubles, a general zombie-like pallor to my skin. I attributed these symptoms to the horrifying state of the world and didn’t think much of how Susanna Kaysen’s experience of overhearing someone screaming in Seclusion might be provoking my own traumatic memories.
One night, unable to sleep, I got out of bed at 3:00 a.m. and sat in my living room in the dark, staring into the shadows, feeling the need to cry. No tears arrived—only a numbness buzzed on my skin. I finally admitted to a friend that I was feeling unwell. I texted her a photo of the next book on my reading list, Darkness Visible, and added a weak sounding “LOL” at the end. She wrote back “stoppppppppp,” and told me that if all she did was read mental illness memoirs she’d be “a wisp of a person.” I was surprised by how this so accurately captured my state of being: I imagined hot Texas breezes blowing through my ribs, floating me off into the sky, where I’d eventually combust in the heat of the sun. Her next text did not mess around: “I feel like this is a sophisticated form of self-sabotage.” She added a “Haha!” to soften it a bit. This was not untrue; somewhere on the periphery I thought the same thing, too.
I wondered what I was trying to prove. Was I trying to become some sort of mental illness memoir expert? Was I afraid of what would happen if someone asked me if I’d read Mariel Hemingway’s Out Came the Sun: Overcoming the Legacy of Mental Illness, Addiction and Suicide in My Family, and god forbid, I said “no”? Was I trying to stare into the depths of my pain by staring into the depths of the pain of others until the point of inoculation? Was this whole exercise an indication that I wasn’t capable of finishing my book? I forced myself to read One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest (a novel — not a memoir) because it’s one of the only books people reference when I tell them I’m writing about mental illness. And it was not fun.
Sadly, I think my biggest fear had something to do with stigma. I still did not completely trust myself or my own experience because I’ve lived with a diagnosis, labels, and generalized hurt for so long. Doctors told me I was “unstable,” that my “judgment was poor,” that my speech had become “disorganized,” and that my overall thought process had “decompensated.” When I entered the hospital, I was pronounced “severely disabled.” For nearly five years, I felt desperately stupid and questioned my grasp on reality. Despite being stable now for over four years, I still live with the fear that I’ll wake up tomorrow and wander off into the woods of a delusion never to return.
One might assume that, after realizing that I needed to preserve my sanity, I put a stop to reading books about mental illness. But that’s not what happened. I did, however, take a nice long break. I compiled a more important list of creature comforts that allow me to feel safe in the world: self-help audio books, carbs, dumb-shit reality TV shows, scented candles, clay face masks, a weighted blanket to wrap around myself whenever I need to feel hugged.
My process doesn’t always look healthy: sometimes I take a four-hour nap to recover, sometimes I devote an entire Sunday to old episodes of Project Runway. I have learned in the years since I started writing my book that I need to give myself some credit, I’m doing the best I can with the resources I have. If those resources happen to include a giant bag of peanut butter M&Ms then so be it. The important thing is I know I’ll get there and it helps to be patient and kind to myself.