Time plays tricks with history, even when the history is personal and the time-scale short and recent. I wrote the first sentences of Collections of Nothing
within a week of September 11, 2001, and I had an early version of the complete story finished by June 2002. The book finally came out in July 2008. What came between were years of rewriting and coping with rejections, followed by years of rewriting and coping with acceptance. It got larger and smaller, then larger and smaller, again and again. It kept trying to be finished, and the ending kept changing as the moment of finishing marched forward in time. Finally, the word "finally" escaped its quotation marks and became a statement about how long the book would always be and how it would always end.
The moment of closure lies in the summer of 2005, when I was just about to marry Wendy and seek a new house and a new happiness in my life. I met Wendy just eight months before we married, and within a month of our meeting I gave her a version of the manuscript to read. As a strategy in courtship, this had not worked all that well with previous women I had dated, and by the time Wendy read the manuscript I had even included paragraphs about how ludicrously unappealing it had seemed to various eligible women for me to own x thousand of y worthless things (not to mention, to write z rejected manuscripts of a memoir about collecting, the latest printout of which I was handing to her because the book still had no publisher in sight). So, giving her the book within weeks of our meeting was a risk. Then again, I could hardly conceal my self-exposé forever.
As it turns out, she liked me before reading me, and she liked me afterward, even in plain view of a certain kookiness. The fact that the book had not been published yet was of no great concern to her. What she liked was the fact that I wrote — the process (of writing, not collecting) more than the anticipated product. Publishing is the institutional hoo-hah of writing, where the business of value might corrupt the basic activity. Since my collecting is dedicated to the cultivation of no value, I might have taken a lesson and become less driven to an end product. Anyway, the mature books I had previously published or was then writing as an academic theater historian, about an art she enjoyed, meant as much to her as my flight of autobiographical in-fancy. To her, I was someone who loved the arts of language and the daily exercise of facing my own tongue, and the fact that I had lately taken to looking at myself in the mirror seemed therapeutic, as if I had enrolled in a Pilates course to work on my core.
Therapeutic impulse was in there somewhere, of course, but after three years of rejection I had developed that clenched-jaw determination that I was, by golly, going to make the world notice my autobiographical abs. I felt perversely confident that my collected nothing was good for something, if only I could find the appropriate collector/reader. Collectors will take a dozen or a hundred or a thousand objects, each one worth little, and find a greater value in the aggregate. Readers will take a million or so syllables, each one incoherent, and do the same. Somewhere in the semantics, syntax, and grammar of collecting lay my text, if only I could make it legible.
On one point, I was rigid: I would not settle for "self-publishing." I see why it works for others, offering a showcase. But for me, the book was about breaking out of the semi-autistic bubble of my ingrown, disconnected collecting, so I needed the recognition of an "other" up front. Could I convince a "publisher," with a nameplate on the door and a regular staff of editors and publicists and the like, that I was an author worth publishing?
Then, too, could I convince Wendy that I was a story worth engaging?
These questions seemed oddly related, and they soon oddly merged in that I wrote a new final chapter, which brought my life story to the point of marriage, when I had been accepted in both senses, or almost. I had just celebrated my 50th birthday, and I was anticipating a move into a new life. All of that happened, and within a year the book, with its new last chapter (happy ending), had attracted the attention of the University of Chicago Press — attention, I say, not acceptance.
Up to that point, I had been treating the book as something distinctly other than an academic book. I had written to countless agents, hoping to find one who would open the door to a commercial press, and I had tried by myself to approach the few commercial presses that will accept manuscripts from unrepresented authors. All I heard was rejection. Rightly or wrongly, I came to think that the fact I was a professor doomed me from the start because it was easily assumed that academics are boring to everyone except themselves, or including themselves. Any claim on my part that I was a renegade academic, an alien artist in a strange land, trying hard to find a different voice, probably seemed just an ironical academic ploy.
How odd and appropriate, then, when I turned at last to an academic press — one with an extraordinary reputation and an impressive list of "creative nonfiction," but nevertheless an academic press — that they showed an interest. "They," here, means Susan Bielstein, the executive editor, who protested immediately, upon receiving my letter of inquiry, that she had vowed not to consider even one further manuscript. But I had a point she could not ignore. In 2001, I had read an essay in the University of Chicago alumni magazine about the "collecting mania," and the author was a Chicago professor, and he seemed to be writing about me or someone like me. Collecting was, unmistakably, a topic, and I was the odd piece of data who also writes a monograph about himself.
Collecting has enough association with neurosis, or worse, to seem more worthy of treatment than appreciation. A problem I had been facing all along in writing about myself as a collector was squeamishness about looking at — and revealing — the twists and turns of my psyche. However, Susan Bielstein has a strong stomach and a bold spirit, enough to stick her neck out for a book that interested her. An executive editor is, after all, a collector, and Ms. Bielstein is a collector through and through. She sent it out for review. Of the initial reader reports (this is a phenomenon of the university press — we call it peer review, which sounds gentle, but it's often hellish), one was positive, one was mostly positive, though questioning whether the happy ending was "needed," and one was negative. All it takes is one negative to sink a Chicago ship.
Married, then, less than a year, and dying to move beyond this thwarted book, I groaned, I flailed, I dead-fished in our tidy living room. That living room was a hard-fought victory for me, and for the first time it was a living room, not a warehouse. In moving into this new life, I had been forced to downsize. I had shed thousands of books and records, also diverse collections of nothing, including numerous tobacco tins of plastic caps, like the sort you find on bottles of Tabasco sauce. I remember staring long and hard at these caps and deciding that I could not think of a single reason why anyone would ever be interested in them, and only then did I realize that I myself had no interest. Even so, I convulsed when they went in the trash.
So, my collections of nothing were smaller, and the book was finished just before the downsizing, and the happy ending was true, because I felt better owning less nothing, or having more than nothing in my life, also being married. But the book was no book.
For a weekend, I sang the sad song of misery, like a vaudeville regular, three shows a day — doomed, doomeder, and doomedest. Then, I read the negative report again, and I became convinced that this ass had done the too-typical thing (among "peers"), which is to expect nothing other than the book that he would have written. And yet I just knew that this fellow had never collected 800 envelope linings (or was it now 900?) or 40 to 60 tuna-fish-can labels (do I still have those? yes, I do! also the 1,800 cereal boxes, or was that a projected estimate?), so how would he know the book one must write from that? So I wrote a last-ditch appeal to Ms. Bielstein, who had already waved goodbye, and somehow I came back into the plane, having fallen out without a parachute.
She advised me to rewrite, to attend scrupulously to all objections that had been raised. And, oh, by the way, could I transform these stray bits of carbon, here and there, into diamonds? Then she would send the manuscript to another reader, a "writer," and we would see.
I had done it before, so many times, and I did it again, end and end and end it again, after beginning it again as many times, and giving hell to everything in between. Then I waited. The wait, at every stage of publishing these days, is approximately five times what you think reasonable, three times what you think you can possibly bear. It's like you've gone to some other planet where the "day" is 12 days long.
At last, good news arrived, but from that point to the appearance of the book was nearly two years, with several rewrites in the interim. Meanwhile, I was — am — still collecting, and this summer I added two dozen new water labels, 15 new blueberry labels, and over 300 business cards. However, I don't collect the way I once did, in a blind frenzy, with abandon, because the writing, the living through of the book and the mid-life crisis and the mid-book crisis, all pointed to new ways to cope with the impulse, which is the curious impulse to live in a curious age with a curious collective psyche.
And history shows that Wendy is okay with that, or at least with me.