Marcel Toussaint and I met through the St. Louis Writers Guild. Art, lyrics, novels, poetry–Marcel Toussaint does it all and has learned how to get his work out into the world.
How did these gifts and skills develop throughout his life? How did he learn to overcome rejections, get published, win awards, and gain a following? Here’s his story.
(You can read other Riehlife posts on rejection in the Riehlife archive.)
LIFE TAKES TIME. SO DOES PUBLISHING
by Marcel Toussaint
An Artist is Born
I started writing at the early age of twelve with short wishes for holiday events. I included my drawings of small Moroccan landscapes on waxed paper with stencil. They ended up printed on white paper and folded to fit an envelope.
Looking back, I had a brisk business mostly at Christmas time and the New Year. My mother used to take my sisters and me, the youngest, to the US Military Hospital in Rabat, Morocco. We brought cookies and candy to the wounded American soldiers on Sundays. We met appreciative staff soldiers who we started inviting to our home so they could have a family dinner away from their demanding assignments.
I showed some of my cards, done by hand, one by one, to the guests. Soon they saw a way to allow for repetitive prints to expand the number of cards. They brought me the waxed paper sheets and then took them back to their offices where they printed them out. To my surprise they paid me a token of francs for my efforts, and there I was: published and in business.
An Actor is Born
In school, literature and acting provided the channels for my need to express myself. In class I would “recite” classic French poems of famed writers. My classmates–who were unaccustomed to having a fellow student enrolled at The Conservatoire for L’Art Dramatique–teased me. An actor among them!
A Writer Is Born
The professors were demanding and, while my efforts in writing received good mention, it was mostly for effort and not for content. I began navigating unexplored avenues that took many years, much paper, and ink as I developed my skills. My enthusiasm never waned; persistence kept me writing. In time, writing became increasingly more comfortable and satisfying.
As a member of the Emission Enfantine, I was fortunate to have a part in the weekly theatrical productions and skits. Meanwhile, my English in school continued to receive top grades. I ventured to translate a comic strip story that I liked, and presented it to show Producer Marise Vally. I never heard back. I did not recognize then that the silence was to be my first rejection! Out of college, I became an interpreter.
My letters became essays, something that no recipient expected. I wrote short stories, and dabbled in poetry as years passed. Over time I wrote novels; poems accumulated in all subjects. I wrote about events–becoming a troubadour in modern times.
Joining writers groups and having an audience once a week gave me the motivation to be productive. Members of the group would receive me with, “Well, what did you write this week?” to the occasional chagrin of the group moderator.
As a teacher, I had to write curriculum for my classes. As a college director, I did it for the programs for which I was in charge. Words were always flowing from my pen.
A Writer Gets Savvy
After years without any effort to see my work published, I decided to take a course in publishing. Following a recommendation, I enrolled in a class entitled “How to be Published” at Meramec Junior College in Saint Louis. It seemed I had embarked on a gargantuan task, although the course was presented in a logical manner and with much enthusiasm by the professor, a well-published author. At first, the experiment was less than pleasant, and too taxing–filled with demanding details.
When I received my second rejection, I was devastated. The professor suggested that in the future we not submit to only one publication. Instead, twelve should be submitted – all at once! We wondered: Did he pick that number out of a hat? Or was this the “lucky” number? He assured us this would result in at least one acceptance.
Following his advice, I picked different poems to send out. The longest time went by, and nothing came to my mailbox until, one day, a rejection arrived. That upset me to no end, and I kept mute about it to my classmates. Then came an acceptance and, scattered during a long period of time, eventually ten more acceptances arrived.
Still, the rejection was not to be forgotten. Not one to admit defeat, I sent the rejected poem to another publisher who eventually sent me an acceptance. Now I could finally say that all twelve had been accepted. Taken with this process, I continued submitting poems, and in a couple of years some of my poems appeared in a total of fourteen anthologies.
Continually filling out forms was tedious, and proved to be exhausting. I decided not to pursue publishing until I could recuperate from the first experience. But the recuperation would not last for long. I was young, but already in the stages of being put together. Applying what I had learned from the Meramec Junior College course, my anthology of poetry was eventually self-published and carried by Barnes and Noble and Borders Bookstores.
This gave me wings. It made me believe I could see about having a novel published. I had just finished writing “Terms of Interment” in collaboration with Cyrus Pars. I took my chances with a publisher who sent me his rules and format. Again, it proved to be tedious, but every single detail was attended to, and the manuscript was submitted.
I then braced myself for the inevitable long wait and the suspense I would be subjected to. Finally, I heard back by way of an acceptance. Then a contract. I read with enthusiasm until I reached the part of, “We reserve for ourselves the movie rights, other rights, and more rights…” Furious, I immediately composed a letter asking for the novel to be returned. They responded with, “Can we talk this over?” My response was, “Absolutely not! Send the novel back to me.” They did.
I loved writing and enjoying the process. I was not into battling editors and publishers. In the How to Publish courses, I had been taught that a new author can be vulnerable and taken advantage of when submitting a first book to a publisher. I knew of no way to bypass such situations, and all the novels that I had been writing remained on a shelf.
A Lyricist is Born
I became interested in writing lyrics and in finding someone who could write music and who could sing French songs. This search took me to many singing events, but with no resolve for my need. One day, while walking along Delmar Boulevard in the Loop area, I came upon Brandt’s Café, and heard a French song being sung. A singer and a keyboard artist who called themselves The Poor People Of Paris were performing on the sidewalk. Many were oldies I had heard in my youth with my French background.
I met with the singer to discuss some of my lyrics. This encounter eventually brought about the recording of Elle se souvient. The engaging melody written by Elsie and Donita to my lyrics was set to orchestration and performed at Power Hall and various other venues by orchestras. Several years later, the three of us collaborated on another song, La Poule de Pigalle, which was also set to orchestration.
The Poet & Novelist Gains a Publisher
This turning point gave me exposure to a new set of “groupie” admirers of the French culture. Among that group were an editor and a publisher of their own material, who became interested in my poetry. I would frequently read my poems at the galas in their manse. Linda began to catalog and organize my printed poems. Time passed.
Then one day she announced she wanted me to write my autobiography. I balked at the thought, and suggested that someone write a biography. One way or the other, I felt disoriented by the fact that here was a possibility that my life would be presented in book form before my death. I could then read about myself. What a strange feeling! I kept on thinking: “Is this for real?”
Nevertheless, “Poetry of a Lifetime, An Autobiography” was published in 2009. In it, my life’s timeline merged with my poems’ timeline. A photo gallery included pictures from childhood to the present and provided a visual recollection of life along the way.
A year passed. Linda, my Editor, mentioned that she wanted to see one of my novels published. Although she had another one in mind, I was set on “Terms of Interment,” in collaboration with Cyrus Pars. In spite of the disappointing experience with a publisher years earlier, it still topped my list of novels to be published. I asked her to reconsider and she agreed to reread it. The novel was published in October 2011.
This experience provided security knowing that an editor and a publisher showed interest in my works. No longer needing to look for a publisher, relieved me of the stress it created each time. Linda recently announced that my new anthology was going to be a book of poetry entitled “Reflective Reflection,” named after the title of one of my poems written some years ago. She felt it was just the right title. In fact, she had been working on the project even before telling me about it! The book came out this year.
From all these publishing events I learned that the editor is a key player. She is strong in her opinions. As a writer I will have to agree with most of her decisions. Fortunately, Linda has my interest in mind. When a divergence of opinion occurs, a discussion usually results in a compromise somewhere between standing my ground and her enlightened skills.
Publisher Charlie presides over the cover design and always has several styles of artwork for me to chose from. He is king in the presentation of the pages, and the table of contents when one is appropriate. I have learned to accept what I cannot change. The publishing aspect of writing is wonderful when an editor and publisher knock at my door. Now, the dust can finally be removed from the unpublished novels standing in line on my shelves.
Marcel Toussaint won the National Gold Medal 2011 Veterans Creative Arts Inspirational Poetry award, representing St. Louis at the National Festival. You can reach him at: firstname.lastname@example.org