What if our hard work ends in despair?
What if the road won’t take me there?
Oh, I wish, for once, we could stay gold– Stay Gold by First Aid Kit
I was standing at the Grand Army Plaza subway station, staring down the tunnel waiting on the 2/3 train when those lyrics floated through my headphones. It wasn’t the first time I had heard them. I’ve been a fan of First Aid Kit for years, but on this day they hit differently.
Very differently. I was months into being on submission with the book, Palimpsest, that landed me an agent. Rejections were starting to roll in. Publishing with Big 5 (Penguin/Random House, Hachette, Harper Collins, Simon and Schuster, Macmillan) means getting through a lot of gatekeepers. First off, you have to write the whole entire book. Then you have to query agents. The year that I signed with my agent she signed 10 new clients out of thousands of submissions. Like I said, gatekeepers. Then once you get the agent, you revise and revise some more and revise again and then you go on submission which means your book is being sent via your agent to editors at the different imprints of the Big 5. And then you wait. And wait. And wait some more.
Like I said, gatekeepers.
So on this particular Tuesday or Thursday or whichever day it was, I had gotten a bunch of rejections from editors. They were nice rejections – which is a thing – complimenting the world building or the writing but some other aspect stopped them from saying, I’m gonna take this book to acquisitions!
(Sidenote: Acquisitions is a big meeting where everyone at the house, other editors, publicists, marketing, design, etc, all sit down with the editor who loved your book and she then tries to convince them not only to love it but that it will sell well and be worth investing in and if they are all convinced then you get The Call. That’s the thing about publishing. It isn’t about getting one person to love your book. It’s about getting dozens of people to love your book. Again….gatekeepers.)
So as I was saying on this day, as I stared down the tunnel trying to will the train into existence, First Aid Kit sang those lyrics into my ears.
What if our hard work ends in despair?
And I just started crying. I had spent 7 years writing and rewriting and rewriting again. Seven years learning how to tell a story, learning what my narrative voice really sounded like. Seven years is enough time to get really attached to a story. The book was called Palimpsest and if you google that word you’ll see how ironic this previous sentences are.
Seven years and making it through agent queries and agent rejections and revision and here I was getting an inbox full of rejections. Seven years of getting up at 4:45 am to work in the wee hours of dawn before I went to my job. Seven years of wondering and worrying and trying as hard as I could. What if my hard work ended in despair? What if I didn’t get past this one last hurdle? What if I didn’t have the currency to pay this last gatekeeper?
And it turns out, my pockets were empty. I had no more currency, no more tricks up my sleeve. As the train pulled into the station I thought of that scene in Inside Llewyn Davis where Oscar Issacs get his shot in front of a producer and sings this achingly beautiful song and at the end the producer says “Sorry I just don’t hear a hit.”
After the rejections and a difficult talk with my agent, we decided to revise. I worked on this revision nonstop for months. It literally involved me breaking this book down to the bones and rebuilding it over again. I cried. A lot. When all was said and done, I sent the revised book back to my agent.
I took a few days off of writing and then sat down and wrote something new. Something different. Something that brought me joy. It was a spooky strange story about a girl who had bounced around my head for awhile but I could never find the right story for her. I felt good writing it, writing something new after so many years of writing the same story over and over again. I finished it in six months. My agent read it and wrote me back saying this was my debut.
She was right.
Since then everything has been amazing – signing my GHOST GIRL contract, working with my editor, cover reveals, giveaways, opening my arcs – all of it has been incredible.
I made it past all the gatekeepers. My hard work didn’t end in despair. I should be thrilled.
And I am. But also, not.
This has been my dream since I was 8 years old. And I told myself, year after year, that once I got it everything would fall into place. I would be a Real WriterTM.
Getting published by a major press changed some things but not everything. I still have the same anxiety – actually more now – I still have the same insecurities. I still feel like an imposter even with a book coming out. And now I worry about the next step – reviews, reader response, if I’ll get to tell another story.
But the one great thing I do have is the same commitment to storytelling. To creating the characters and shaping the story. To those wee dawn hours when the city is still asleep and I am alone in my little writing closet. I’m staring to realize the validation was never external. Don’t get me wrong, I’m proud of what I accomplished but it is the writing itself that sustains me. That keeps me going forward. The validation is internal. It always was.
I used to say to my husband what if I do this thing, what if my dream comes true and I still feel empty and he would look at me with a wary eye and say, I worry about that with you.
And it’s not that I feel empty. But I do feel the pull towards the next story. That is the internal validation that I’m talking about. It’s a commitment to the act of creating. Because it is through storytelling that we reach the dawn. That is how we get through the dark.
Maybe when my book is on the bookshelves and in readers hands I will feel differently but I don’t think so. By then the book belongs to them, not just me.
I think it will just be a reminder that it’s still me, in the wee hours of dawn, and the writing. That’s all it ever was or will be and that’s okay.
It’s good actually.