Book Rejections

Last night, I was chatting with a friend who is selling a book off of proposal. She was asking me questions about the process, which I couldn’t really remember–it was over two years ago and since that time, I drove myself crazy writing a whole book–so I dug through old correspondence between me and my agent about my proposal and the feedback it was getting from editors at publishing houses.

These were some of the responses I had received back in 2014:

With that said, part of what was so appealing to me about a book like LITTLE GIRLS IN PRETTY BOXES was the way that it addressed gymnastics (and figure skating) through a multifaceted lens, combining commercial exposé with a larger cultural commentary. Dvora’s book is admirably less sensationalist and more investigative and analytical – but again, the lens is far more narrow, diving deep into the sport rather than extrapolating outwards.

And this:

Unfortunately, the response from my team here was lackluster about how the “characters” come across on the page. As much I love that Dvora’s reporting is about the sport itself, others felt that it needed more juice, or rivalries, or drama between team members. I can understand the sentiment that we need those personal stories to shine through as a way to keep the material interesting, but I am disappointed that this was the consensus. If Dvora happens to revise the material to focus more on particular gymnasts, which might deliver a more dramatic approach, please let me know.

There were a few other rejections that were similar in tone and content. It’s interesting to read this feedback now that the book is already out in stores and on digital bookshelves and I got the opportunity to write the book I truly wanted to write–a deep dive into women’s gymnastics, treating it as a sport, not as a setting for drama and sensationalism. (It seemed that in the latter rejection, the editor corresponding with my agent really did share my vision but couldn’t persuade others to come around.)

At the time, I was fairly devastated reading this kind of feedback even though none of it was truly bad. I was very convinced that gymnastics needed a serious analysis about the sport itself, not just the pathologies of the sport. I wanted to write a book that examined the history, analyzing women’s gymnastics on its own terms, and staying away from sensationalism. I wanted to write–or at least attempt to write–the kind of sports journalism about gymnastics that you see written about tennis or baseball or basketball.

To read that what was desired from publishers was the exact opposite of what I wanted to do was discouraging, to put it mildly.

Of course, all it takes is one person/editor to say yes. And I’m so grateful that my editor at Touchstone shared my vision of the book and let me write the kind of book about gymnastics that I had dreamed of writing.

Judging from this review in this weekend’s Wall Street Journal, I wasn’t alone in wanting to read a deeply reported book about women’s gymnastics either.

The Evolution of the Leotard

I can do more than parse Hebrew written on the sleeve of Gabby Douglas’ leotard for mean. I can also write about the fashion of leotards too. (This might be the only kind of fashion story I’m qualified to write.)

Today over at ELLE, I have a new story up on the evolution of the leotard–how it went from granny cuts to the shiny glitter-fest we currently see out on the podium. To trace the progress of the athletic apparel that has given ever top gymnast a wedgie at one point or another, I spoke to designers at GK Elite and Alpha Factor about fashion influences, changes in fabric technology, and of course, all of those crystals.

Check out the article if you want to know just how many crystals are on Team USA’s leotards. DO IT.

Gabby Douglas’ Hebrew Leotard

As is now typical, the top gymnasts, through leotard manufacturer GK Elite, often release the designs of their leotards before the start of a major competition. I tend to not pay attention to those press releases, preferring to wait to see what the leotards looks like on the gymnast in the competition under bright lights.

But thankfully Twitter user Becca Feldman told me to take a look at Gabby Douglas’ nationals leotard. In addition to the usual sparkle and bling, it contained a surprising addition: the Hebrew word “elohim,” expressed in Hebrew letters, on the left sleeve.

Gabby Douglas’ championship leotard via GK Elite

This is not the first time in recent memory that a gymnasts performed at nationals with writing in a different language on her leotard. Back in 2008, Shawn Johnson competed with Chinese characters on her nationals leotard to honor her Chinese coach, Liang Chow.

GK Elite released an explanation of Douglas’ unusual sleeve design choice on their site: “The Hebrew word ‘Elohim’ (translation: The Strong One) was added to the left sleeve to honor her rich heritage of faith.”

Douglas wrote of her family’s participation in some Jewish rituals in her memoir so her desire to use Hebrew is not necessarily that surprising. What’s raising my eyebrow is the proffered definition of “elohim.”

I spent 13 years in yeshiva, which is not something I ever thought I’d be forced to invoke when discussing gymnastics. I’ve never encountered that definition of “elohim” before. Typically, “elohim” is a term found in the Old Testament and is commonly understood to mean “God.” Or, depending on the context, it can be plural and refer to pagan deities. (The “im” suffix usually signifies that masculine plural.) In the Ten Commandments, the word “elohim” appears in this context, “You shall have no other gods before me.”

Which brings us back to Douglas and her use of “elohim” on her leotard. While God/gods are undoubtedly strong–an all powerful deity certainly signifies strength–the term itself does not appear to mean what has been stated in the explanation. At least I can’t find an interpretation or translation of “elohim” that fits theirs.

Still, Douglas’ Hebrew leotard has provoked a robust and interesting debate over the particulars of Hebraic grammar on the Gymternet and Twitter, which is not something I’d ever thought I’d see. It has also enabled me to put my 13 years of yeshiva training to gymnastics use, which has been so much fun. My worlds colliding in the best possible way.

UPDATE #1: Rachel Abrams reached out to her father, who is an ancient Hebrew linguist, to see if Douglas’ translation of “elohim” has any sort of basis. He wrote back pretty quickly because this is clearly an urgent matter and she sent it my way.

He said: I have a faint recollection of some 19th century scholars who suggested that אל and אלהים may originally mean ‘strong’, based on a hunch —  but there is no real evidence for this, other than the fact that both words can be used as the superlative, e.g., הררי אל ‘lofty mountains’.  Dvora got it right, go yeshiva education!
UPDATE #2: This one comes from my college friend via Facebook. He offers an explanation that gets closer to Douglas’ intent. He writes:

As best I can tell, the word אֵל (short for Elokim) can also refer to general power, not just divinity. See Genesis 31:29 (JPS 1917 Translation)

יֶשׁ-לְאֵל יָדִי, לַעֲשׂוֹת עִמָּכֶם רָע; וֵאלֹהֵי אֲבִיכֶם אֶמֶשׁ אָמַר אֵלַי לֵאמֹר, הִשָּׁמֶר לְךָ מִדַּבֵּר עִם-יַעֲקֹב–מִטּוֹב עַד-רָע.
“It is in the power of my hand to do you hurt; but the God of your father spoke unto me yesternight, saying: Take heed to thyself that thou speak not to Jacob either good or bad.”

Also, in the interpretation of Rabeinu Tam on the 13 Attributes of G-d (Exodus 34:6-7) the name אֵל refers to the power of G-d (at least according to the note in the Artscroll siddur).

Must every account of gymnastics be about its pathology?

For much of the casual Olympic viewership, there’s a single story (as Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie would say) about women’s gymnastics: that of a preternaturally gifted, young teen girl who performs spectacular acrobatics under enormous pressure, who is pushed too hard, too young, who is injured, who is possibly suffering from an eating disorder.

That’s not the story I tell in my forthcoming book, The End of the Perfect 10, not because I don’t believe that it’s true–it most definitely is in some cases–but because I don’t think that every account, short but especially long, has to be solely about gymnastics’ pathologies. Just as I don’t believe that every account of football has to be about its huge concussion and CTE problems.

My book doesn’t spend much time retracing the steps of Joan Ryan’s Little Girls in Pretty Boxes. That very true, very necessary account of gymnastics already exists. And thank God it does–I do believe that her book and the publicity it garnered did force the sport to grapple with some of its deeper pathologies, from injuries to eating disorders to borderline abusive coaching. I am also not naive enough to believe that all of these problems are resolved just because one book and TV movie was produced. (Look no further than world champion’s Maria Olaru’s recently published memoir about her time as a gymnast for proof of problems with coaching abuse and food restriction. If someone can translate this from Romanian, please tell me!)

Instead, I was interested in the history of gymnastics as a sport almost created for women; the ideas and symbolism around the 10 and why Nadia was the first to earn one; what was at stake in the scoring changes; and how the world order of women’s gymnastics has changed over the last 20 years since the breakup of the Soviet Union.

These are some of the other stories of the sport, though certainly not all of them. I hope they help fill out the overall picture of where the sport comes from, where it is at the moment, and where it’s headed in the future.

My first published essay in International Gymnast

Last week, I was going through old papers, throwing out notes from college seminars and I came across an issue of International Gymnast from January/February 2006. It was the 50th anniversary of issue of the publication, which started in 1956, way before the era of the “pixie” gymnast had started, and it contained my first piece of writing published outside of a high school or college newspaper.

IG 2006 1

It’s a personal essay about my early years of online gymnastics fandom and downloading gym videos. In college, I had (with the aid of a T3 internet connection instead of the dialup I had at home) discovered the world of online gymnastics message boards. There I encountered knowledgeable posters who pointed the way towards gymnastics videos and routines I had never heard of before. I was just a lurker but I learned a lot during those early years of online gymnastics activity.

The essay was my first stab at finding and creating meaning out of my passion for the sport, which often mystified me since I was so bad at actually doing it. If I wasn’t in gymnastics for excellence or success then what did the sport offer me? It took me a long time to figure out how to answer that question. (In many ways, this essay probably laid the foundation for my Kindle collection, Heresy on the High Beam: Confessions of an Unbalanced Jewess.)

It’s hard to read things like this, so many years after the fact, without cringing. When I wrote this essay, I was less than a year out of college. I was barely 22. I hadn’t done any professional writing. I hadn’t yet started MFA program for Creative Writing. I knew next to nothing about writing for an audience. Boy, does it show.

IG 2006 2

(And yet I’m sharing it with all of you instead of hoping it remained hidden in some landfill because I’m clearly a masochist. I should bring this up with my therapist at our next session.)

Cringeworthy or not, it’s fitting to happen upon this essay again less than a month before my book on women’s gymnastics is published. It feels like I’m closing the loop on this longstanding gymnastics passion, at least from a writing standpoint. It started with a personal essay, trying to sort out what gymnastics meant to me. And ten years later, it’s ending with a deeply reported 300 page book that’s attempting to figure out what role gymnastics plays in the wider athletic world and pop culture.

 

 

Why I Wrote This Book

In less than a month The End of the Perfect 10 will be published and as my anxiety mounts over its publication and reception, it helps to remind myself why I decided to write this book in the first place.

IMG_8356

Like many gymnastics fans, I read anything and everything I could get my hands on about the sport when I was growing up. This was in the pre-internet days so there were no blogs or Tumblrs or message boards. In short, there was no gymternet. The literary pickings for an ardent gym fan were quite slim. I had to rely on whatever the public library had to loan. I took out the same books over and over again. There was a biography of Mary Lou Retton that I hid under my bed rather than return it. (My mother caught me and made me bring it back and pay the fine.) There was a how-to gymnastics guide that had diagrams for basic skills like handstands and walkovers, which is how I first learned how to do, or, to be more accurate, attempt those elements. (That book also contained a bit of history and I assiduously studied the index for gymnasts names.)  And then there was the classic, A Very Young Gymnast, which followed the adventures of Torrance York, an aspiring gymnasts in the late 70s and early 80s. Aside from the odd gymnastics article here or there–I didn’t discover the existence of International Gymnast Magazine until I was around 12, a full five years after I started doing gymnastics–that was it.  It was only around the Olympics that my thirst for gymnastics reading material was fully quenched.

When I was younger, I didn’t read critically. There were no bad books about gymnastics; just books I hadn’t yet gotten my grubby little hands on. But as I matured, my reading tastes evolved too. I still loved gymnastics but I wanted to read articles and books that were as interesting and complex as the sport itself. Also, I had a coach so I no longer needed the diagrams and how-tos. (Besides, diagrams are really shitty at spotting for back handsprings.)

Though there were good pieces here and there, most of the coverage tended to be very superficial, always focusing on the basics–who is the new adorable superstar, how wide the balance beam is, and the Olympics. (In its obsessive focus on the Games, gymnastics was not considered an entity that existed year round in its own right; rather, it was only something worth analyzing or discussing in the context of the Olympics.) Or there were memoirs riddled with cliches about hard work and overcoming obstacles.

I still continued to read everything I could find about gymnastics, a task made easier when I got online and connected to the wider fan community on message boards and social media. In the online space, fans and experts were able to have interesting conversations about the sport that couldn’t be found in regular coverage. I learned so much in those early years reading about gymnastics online.

Even though I now had a better reading outlet for gymnastics, I was still disappointed with the mainstream coverage of the sport. I believed that it could be so much better and detailed without sacrificing accessibility. I really believed that we could bring more people into the gymnastics tent if we contextualized the sport in the greater athletic world as opposed to treating it as an Olympic “other.”

Around the 2012 Olympics, I decided to stop grousing so much (but not completely otherwise I would not be me) and be the change I wanted to see in gymnastics writing. I was really gratified by how my work around the Olympics was received and very grateful to editors at places like Slate and Deadspin for trusting me and letting me write without much interference. These editors let me assume a certain level of intelligence and competency in the readership, that even if they didn’t know a lot about gymnastics, they could read about it as they did the other sports they followed and enjoyed and find it relevant. I hoped that these readers would enjoy my work the way I enjoyed journalism and analysis about sports that are unfamiliar to me, which, at last count, was almost all of them. If I could read a really good, complex article or book about tennis then why couldn’t the average sports fan read an interesting story about gymnastics if it was well crafted?

I wrote the book with a similar idea in mind. In my perfect world, I want mainstream readers to appreciate the book, if not all of the particulars, and find it relevant to other sports, to gender, to politics, etc. Gymnastics doesn’t exist in a vacuum. It is part of the greater sporting culture even if this fact is rarely recognized.

And for the gymnastics fan, who is near and dear to my heart (BECAUSE I AM ONE OF YOU), I wanted to offer a book that contains some new information and analysis (though I doubt that I can totally surprise the most passionate gymnerd). But more than anything, I wanted to present the sport we all know and love holistically–its past and its present, its good and bad, its beautiful and ugly. I only hope that the sentences, paragraphs, and chapters in the book are as rich as the sport itself.