Good Times, Bad Times

An inauspicious anniversary recently passed; it’s been a full year since I signed a contract with a literary agent to represent my novel. The day marked twelve months of suspense, frustration, and heartbreak at rejection emails worded with such tact and positivity that it seemed like those editors should have just bought the frigging thing. You wanted to be best friends with my main character and you laughed out loud the whole way through? Well then please take it off my hands already!

It’s also been a year of learning how the publishing industry works and how my agent does her job, and a year of revising, killing (15,000 words have been exorcised from that first ‘finished’ draft so far), resurrecting, sweating, swearing, hoping, fantasizing and accepting ‘no’ for an answer. So be it. At 49, I’m under no illusions about being an ingenue.

I’m a late-blooming sort anyway; didn’t finish college till 25, for reasons including time management fails and full-time jobs off-campus. Despite being engaged once or twice, and even close enough to the altar to have a dress ordered at one point, I didn’t get married until 34. Then motherhood arrived so late as to require medical intervention (and I’m happy to report we don’t have quadruplets).

Writing was always a passion and a plan for the far-off future, a dream hatched by a third grader toting around a notebook and pen and inventing new families and lives. But my situation demanded more certainty than ‘writer’ provided, job-wise, and my low-income, high-pragmatism upbringing delivered me (by bicycle) to the local state university to study journalism – a guaranteed paycheck for writing!

Newspaper work was excruciating, yet endlessly interesting, every day so different from the one that preceded it. But 60- or 70-hour workweeks called not for after-hours novel writing but for bars and concerts, where I unwound and tried to fall in love. There seemed time to write books later.

I backed away from writing gradually, first leaving daily journalism for web content production, then leaving that for marriage, a cross-country move and a grab bag of freelance gigs. Then there was nothing but a barking dog and baby cries and the love I had fallen in.

It was sheer fear of regret that eventually urged me forward – how could I possibly look myself in the eye later in life if I never even attempted to chase my dream?

When the kids learned to bathe themselves and climbed onto school buses, I finally “finished” my book – at least to the extent that an agent read it and agreed to represent it/me. On life’s scale, that moment was a high-ranking thrill indeed. Then, as months passed and rejections rolled in, hopelessness took hold despite knowing that many friends (and strangers) charted similar paths to eventual publication. Many days I took no comfort in the achievement of finishing the manuscript and finding an agent, and many days I still don’t. Inside the head of an unpublished novelist whose work is on God knows whose tablet on a train bound for Brooklyn is not a pleasant place to dwell.

The only thing that assuaged my patented blend of resignation and panic, aside from top-shelf margaritas, was writing more. So instead of fighting to quiet the voices, I opened the floodgates, starting a new novel, blogging, writing a monthly newspaper column and taking assignments for a new local magazine.

Each time I complete a piece – from idea to the research and human interaction required to the architecture and design of the writing itself to the final polishing – I’m left in a better place, with a mixture of pleasure at being done, mental invigoration around whatever I just learned about or contemplated, and curiosity at how the world will receive it.

It can be hard, and lonely, and discouraging. Not writing is much more so.

Those who don’t write sometimes seem mystified by all the opining and navel-gazing. They find it masochistic to publicly turn one’s head inside out. Some see it as self-important or, who knows, maybe even boring.

It’s none of that. No, it’s just what feels right. I’d argue it’s more self-important to go through life without examining and reflecting on the world and its inhabitants, which is what writing is for me. Incuriosity is a sad and scary form of self-importance. Note to people who don’t read: You mystify and frighten the rest of us.

The novel will either sell or it won’t, but at least old lady me can look in the mirror and know I tried. And I wrote something I love. That will stave off the self-loathing.

7 comments

  1. You’re past the point where I turned to indie-publishing instead (which has worked out reasonably well for me, knock wood), but never fear. With writing this good, one way or the other you’ll get there.

  2. You’ve gained at least one fan by the excellent writing above. What are those publishers thinking? If your book is anywhere near as good as the way you expressed yourself here, I would buy it in an instant. Popping right over to your web-site to sign up to read more. And I know you might not want to hear this, but is there a possibility you need a new agent?

  3. Thank you very much for the encouraging words! Writing is so joyous, but so solitary…positive feedback is truly energizing. And yes, moving on from first agent. Onward!

  4. Susan Bernhard

    Michelle, this is so eloquently written. Thanks for sharing your journey, which is similar to mine, and to opening up about your process and pain. Late bloomers still bloom. Your time is coming but is also now, based on this beautiful post.

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