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Agent queries are the writer’s time to be gutsy, fearless and resilient. Or to pretend to be.
Pretend is the operative word, here. Fearless ain’t the natural order of things. Inside every writer is a failure waiting to be exposed. Terror scratches at the back of our heads like the lioness in that much-seen YouTube video—the one that tried to eat a toddler’s head through a glass wall. Fear is the lion. It’s hungry. It’s relentless. The claws and fangs of rejection are always back there. The question is, what can we do about it?
Good news: As a writer, I’m not alone in fearing rejection. Bad news: Every writer is alone in that fear. Given the content on the websites I’ve been reading, writers are a single organism of quivering neurosis.
Makes sense that we would be. We spend months and months in the company of characters who are more real than the breathing phantoms around us. We flee from the world in favor of a more fulfilling (and, let’s face it, often way more interesting) space in our minds. We write and rewrite. We polish and we suffer. We embrace and cast away. We are nudged by the lover-page in the dark hours; we are exiled to the islands of ourselves. And now, we must put a busy cadre of agent-others in the position to send us packing. Nice.
The most honest, self-aware thing we can say is that the prospect scares us shitless.
One of the poisonous pools of doubt comes from having be picked up by the first agent who saw my first book…and published by the first publisher who read it. Being declined (and, full disclosure, I haven’t yet toted up enough rejections to count on one hand) proves the worst things we believe about ourselves. Forget the soaring passages that sing to us, even now. Forget the voice that is so strong that, barring terrifying self delusion, it is driven by a real sense of wonder. Forget the honest accolades that have come from beta readers who’ve seen the work. One word of anything less than praise speaks to the hack, the fantasizer, the trembling Ordinary in us all.
Don’t the words shine so brightly off the page that the agent must see the glow through the avalanche of query emails? Shouldn’t the power and potential be instantly apparent?
As we wait, we’re caught between the equal urges toward hand-wringing and neck-wringing. We are possessed with reading about triumphs despite adversity: “[author’s name] was turned down by [appallingly large number of] agents, and the work is still in print”; by self-induced platitudes such as “all books aren’t for all agents; all it takes it one.” Thanks. I’ll remind myself of all that when people tell me how ugly my baby is.
Time to make failure my ally; to make fear my best friend. The agent is out there. The publisher is. The audience is. It’s my job now to find them. The work that should have been finished isn’t done at all. And the only sure way to guarantee not being published again is to do nothing.
The greatest joy for the writer comes with the passage that writes itself; the shimmering fabric that presents itself whole in our heads and asks us to do nothing more than lay it to the page.
Other times, we’re bricklayers.
Sometimes, the big picture refuses to coalesce. The unvoiced question refuses to be answered. We send ourselves dutifully to the chapter and labor at it, building it one brick at a time. It ain’t easy. And a brick wall is, by its nature, no shimmering fabric.
But there’s a grace in bricklaying. There are several.
A brick wall can be disassembled—a lot more easily than a shimmering fabric can be unwoven. We lay one element and make it level. We lay another and test whether they lay true. We can tease the bricks apart. Or pull them down altogether. The wall holds its place nicely for a while…until a better structure presents itself. If we’re lucky, we wind up with a passable, workmanlike thing. That’s tough when we ask, demand, something more of ourselves. And yet, what we have built stands for something—effort if not inspiration.
This has been a hollow weekend, in some ways. A bricklaying session supreme. I started with a wonderful image, set to music real and imagined, only to discover that there was a hole that I hadn’t anticipated; one that I didn’t know how to fill…a character who has moved the story from the beginning, whom I had allowed to disappear. I’ve been laying-in the bricks of this created encounter, waiting for the ahahhhh, for the mental mortar; knowing that there is a beautiful moment hiding in the pile, but not quite finding it yet.
Which brings us to the other grace, the one that comes with the effort itself. A day spent writing—even poorly—or painting, or doing vocal exercises or stretching the body to dance is a day spent well. The practice may not make us amazing limber or reveal an unexpected genius, but at least it is the opposite of atrophy. The wheel, well oiled, may not carry us over our personal mountain passes or win our internalized Indy 500, but we can be pretty sure that it won’t seize up at the least opportune moment. Lay brick, and our brain-muscles will be more toned and ready for fresh demands than if we’d sat on the sidelines of ourselves.
Bricklaying as an exercise in self-forgiveness. Who’da thunk it?
The truth of the writer is a phoenix-truth: every day we rise from the ashes of the previous day’s shortcomings. In each new day at the page, we have the chance to get it right. To do it better. To find the small, exquisite alchemies that bring us closer to the ideal that keeps us alive.
Tough task, that.
Doubt is built into who we are. We are our own mythical serpents, swallowing our better selves whole, from the tail up. Grace is tough to come by when we have a mouthful of our own refusal. And it’s nearly impossible to find self-forgiveness when we’re choking on our shortcomings.
I’d rather write, I tell myself, than spend time crafting a letter to the agents who will take this burden out of my hands. In the limited time (and with the more limited energy) I have to fight for a chapter or a paragraph or a sentence after the workday is done, I’d rather craft a half-assed few words than the other, hated task. I’ll tackle the submission letter when I’m done with this book. Or the next one.
I know that’s a procrastination, even though there is truth in it. And the procrastination is a knowledge as shaming as it is genuine. But how does one un-swallow one’s self? What happens to the writer if she succeeds, sadly, in consuming herself?
We do not vomit ourselves back into the world. We do not decide to untangle our lives as we seek to untangle the locked-in secrets of the story. We wish that someone were there to take the burden away. We are chewing on our own tails. And the bite sinks deep.