“Just Keep Writing Anyway”

The title of this post was what I contributed to David Ebenbach‘s annual writer advice post for my birthday, which he slaps onto Facebook each time one of his writer friends has a birthday. It’s one of the nicest things that one of the nicest writers I know does for the literary community.

All of this is to say: I’ve kept writing anyway, despite the fact that I was having a hard time getting stories accepted and that I was full of dread over the next part of my writing career. I kept writing, even though nobody seemed interested in publishing any of my stories for the entirety of 2020 or 2019.

I kept writing, even though I finished my Ph.D. in the middle of COVID and didn’t get to share some of my dissertation novel-in-stories with my any of my colleagues in our program’s annual graduation reading, and I defended my work on Zoom before I drank a whole bottle of champagne by myself in a seven hour span, during which I felt relieved and devastated at the same time.

I kept writing, even though I was still reeling after having sent a novel out to 117 agents and nobody picked it up, though it came close. That novel was the culmination of five years of writing, sometimes at four in the morning before I left for work to teach three classes in a row at the community college. Over those five years, I produced five major drafts, one of which clocked in over 350,000 words before the final draft came down to about 100,000. [When I say major draft I mean, I pretty much started over, and the five doesn’t count the minor revisions where I edited and rewrote sections.]

About thirty agents asked to see it, and maybe five read the whole thing. One of those agents even emailed me in the middle of reading it to tell me how much she loved the book before she eventually rejected it. I closed the email and went for a jog to make myself feel better.

But I kept writing, even after the novel won “Best Pitch” at a local writing conference before that same agent who chose my pitch rejected the with an email that said,

Although you do have dialog[ue]… it seems to take second place to the narration.  The narration seems stronger somehow…”

That email was kind of a blow, but not as much as a writing buddy of mine who I respect a whole lot graciously took the time to read it before they recommended that I more or less start from scratch. So I kept writing anyway, but now as one of those writers with a novel in a drawer.

My next project, an 80,000 word personal narrative, was vetted by everyone who appears in it (well, almost everyone), including my parents and my ex boyfriend, and ready to send to agents just as I learned that publishers weren’t looking at new writers’ memoirs because they weren’t selling, which might explain why the handful of trial run agents never got back to me about it. One did–the same one who rejected me right before I busted my nose running. This time, she said:

“I don’t, unhelpfully, have a piece of terminal criticism to give, only a sense that I don’t feel certain I have a full grasp on how to pitch and steer this one, and that someone else will do better. “

By the time she got back to me, I already knew why she wasn’t feeling certain. But I kept writing and sending work out, all the while wondering if I’ve already had my writing career. Meanwhile, I went through stretches where I couldn’t go into bookstores without feeling devastated, and I would gaze at the books I own with wonder and fascination about what they had mine don’t.

I kept writing, mostly because I have been exchanging work with folks. I started a new novel, which is in progress. I’ve been writing like it’s unlikely that nobody will ever read it except for people exchanging work with me who’ve kept me writing.

I kept writing, even though I would take weeks off, during which I would watch soap operas in Spanish in Italian instead of writing or reading. I took a job helping out with a college program in a prison and would sometimes write flash fiction or the next chapter to my novel in there. I started a secret Substack detailing my prison experiences and thoughts about abolition, so at least I knew someone was possibly reading my work.

I picked up yoga. I became a democratic socialist and started writing for our chapter’s Medium. I bought a house and put all my books in one room so I could avoid them if I was feeling depressed about writing. I started organizing for a leftist agitating organization that hopes to get rid of prisons. I started learning how to read Ancient Hebrew. I planted a garden.

I taught comp classes about prison abolition and invited some of my students from work who have survived prison to come speak to my students at the university who have never been impacted by prison. I taught literature courses in the prison. I wrote and submitted and submitted and submitted, until I had eleven different pieces out in seventy-five different slush piles.

And then finally. Finally.

Finally, somebody picked up a story, which I wrote as an exercise while thinking about what life will be like out here for one of my students currently surviving prison after she gets out. And then I got a contributor copy for that story. And then I got a couple more emails from editors who wanted to publish my stories.

And here is the point: I was thrilled, of course I was, but the news wasn’t validating in the way that kind of news used to validate me. Because what writing anyway taught me is that while publishing ever again is not guaranteed, as long as I am sending my work out, I can expect to be disappointed by a rejection. Again: rejection is guaranteed.

And, as so many of the writers I know who have published books have taught me, publishing a book is not a cosmic quick fix that guarantees happiness and financial abundance, or a full time teaching position. Many successful writers teach me that a Pulitzer doesn’t make all your problems going away, nor does a National Book Award. Basically, I decided I wanted to write anyway, write books anyway, even, and have good mental health at the same time. And in order to do that, I stopped believing in the cosmic quick fix as a reason to write or frankly, do anything.

Maybe I will never publish a book in my lifetime and have a Van Gogh type career (see caption on picture at the top of this post). Maybe I will never publish a book at all. And maybe I’ll quit writing one day, when I’m no longer having a blast. But I’m still having a blast writing, and I have a couple more stories coming out this summer. I hope you will read them.

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