My Big F-You to the Writing Rat Race

A few weeks ago, I posted this blog post. It was all about my need to get off my butt and get some real writing done, my sense that the space I’d rented needed to serve as an imperative to produce, produce, produce—and about my difficulty getting started, in part because it was summer, hot and gorgeous, and my work schedule had drastically slowed down. But also because after spending eight years writing a memoir, and being in that limbo state before the route to publishing it has become clear, it was hard to even think about The Next Big Thing with a clear head. After I published that blog post, I got a few comments of congratulations on starting a new project and some encouragement to keep going.

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My kid flipping the bird

And then I encountered some resistance from two people: one, my friend slowmamma, who is on a one-woman crusade against the American rat race. The other was a therapist I really should be seeing more often. Slowmamma reminded me that the nice weather wouldn’t stick around, and that I should enjoy it while it lasted. The therapist reminded me that when any project is finished, it’s essential to take some time to sit with it. She talked about how, in the school of thought she follows, after any big life event (like finishing a memoir and an accompanying book proposal) there is a stage called “completion” and a stage called “rest,” and that if you shortchange the rest, you really don’t feel the completion. Take a break, she said.

For about two days, I kept the words of these wise women close. I reminded myself that breaks are good. I tried to quiet the voices telling me to keep pushing even when I wasn’t feeling it. I meditated. I sat in the sun and thought. I fully believed that I would honor the promise I had made in the therapist’s office: I was going to take a week off from writing. I would read some comedy, watch some comedy, jot down ideas as they came. Freewrite, perhaps. Rest. I said that on a Thursday.

But I lied. The following Monday, I’d convinced myself that I was ready to start work again. I tweeted that I was going to write 750 words a day, no matter what. I opened a new file, and I started again on the novel. I fantasized about having a completed draft in six months. I diligently put down those daily 750 words for about a week, though they seemed to come more and more painfully each day, and then something happened: the words just wouldn’t come anymore. So I wrote a poem instead. I stared into space, I washed some dishes, I cleaned the bathroom, I checked my email, I graded papers, and I wondered if I should have honored that rest period after all. And then I began to feel intensely guilty.

And afraid. 

All summer, trying to write and failing to write, trying to give up and failing to allow myself to give up, I have been ruminating on what it is I might be afraid of. Put most grandiosely, I think it’s fear that if I take a break, if I don’t produce, produce, produce, I will disappear off the face of the earth and never write again. That I’ll disrupt this trajectory I have wanted to believe myself on, a trajectory where I’m publishing regularly and going to writing conferences and connecting to other writers and “building a platform” and adding likes! And followers! And friends! And fans! And while some of this is the kind of garden-variety, free-floating anxiety I always feel when the writing isn’t happening, it’s also what we 21st-century writers are told we have to do if we ever want to get ahead, if we ever want to be widely read: Don’t. Ever. Stop.

I do want to be widely read, but lately I’m finding it hard to swallow the bitter pill that an act of creativity has become so tethered to consumerism and to getting ahead. When did it become the reality that books are merely “content” to be produced? When did I begin to feel that there weren’t enough hours in a day or years in a life to explore, to try new things, to think a little, to make mistakes, to pause, because if I did I might not get enough, say, Twitter followers? Didn’t I just blog a few months ago about not wasting my life? Why do I feel like I’m wasting my life by worrying so damn much about whether I’m producing enough?

I don’t know, but I do know I’m not the only one who’s obsessed. The voices are everywhere, and they’re loud. On She Writes the other day, the blog post The Art of Submission debated the finer points of quitting “being” a writer (in other words, stopping submitting and platforming and just, well, writing). No, the blogger declared. She would not do that. She needed to keep submitting, to write like her life depended on it. She needed to remain hungry to be published. And then there were the comments; one reader reminded everyone to push through and keep going at all costs—”try for 175 rejections!” she intoned. “Here I go.” Meanwhile, over on Twitter, every second tweet is about building your platform or improving your brand. Whole businesses are built on marketing for authors, social networking for writers, blogging to change your life. How to get more followers, more likes, more tweets. Even my trusted writer friends are at it: “What’s your hustle?” one asked me the other day.  In that moment, I just wanted to hustle myself to my bed, pull the covers over my head, and sleep—for days.

I’m not a naïf; I understand that we live in a different world than we used to. I can see the merits of social media for writers. I love that the blogger on She Writes is hungry—good for her. I always want to work hard, even when it feels difficult. At different times in my life, I’ve embraced those tools and that ethos and excelled. I’ve been hungry. But right now, I’m craving a much more innocent, and unplugged, space. I’m wanting to feel more like I did on the weekend I moved into my new writing studio, when I put my iPod on shuffle, sang along to every song, and slowly and happily applied a new coat of paint to the walls, thinking, I’ll finish this when I’ll finish it. I’ll hang pictures when I want to. And then I’ll sit at that desk and remember what it is when words are good and hard and raw and beautiful.

I’m a lucky woman; I have created the kind of life where I get to spend hours, sometimes, alone in a room creating. (To some of you, that may sound like hell, I realize.) But with that kind of life comes a lot of pressure and many voices, not all welcome. And here, today, on this blog, I’m calling it: I refuse to make my writing about the rat race we Americans make everything about. I don’t, ever, want to conflate producing and publishing and platforming with the much more fulfilling work of WRITING.

Which, sometimes, requires a break.

A break.

A break.

 

It’s lovely to get this off my chest. Thanks to Jesse Taggert for the encouragement. What’s YOUR experience with the rat race, writing or otherwise?

 

Journey to Getting Published Part Deux: Finding an Agent

I keep riffing on the idea of “finding” someone; someone who’s lost, or someone you didn’t know existed. You can even “find” yourself, as many of us, through writing, perhaps, have done. But it seems to me there’s not much that’s poetic or philosophical about finding a literary agent.

Well, maybe that’s not true. It’s just that it’s challenging to look through the websites of hundreds of agents, wondering which one might take a chance on an unknown writer, and then gather the gumption to send your work to them.

Luckily, there are many tools to help you out.

Thank you, Wikimedia Commons

Thank you, Wikimedia Commons

This article, from Media Bistro, gives you the schtick in five easy steps: follow agents on Twitter, look in the back of your favorite books, Google your favorite authors, ask your friends, and subscribe to Publishers Lunch. I was pleased to see this article this morning because, minus Twitter, I have done all of the above. Whenever I read a book I like, I look to see who the agent is. I Google authors I like (sadly, Cheryl Strayed’s agent does not accept unsolicited submissions). I’ve also talked to friends. Lisa Rosenman, over on Lisa the Word Nerd, has been very generous in sharing her own experiences with me.

And then there’s Publishers Lunch, or rather, Publishers Marketplace (the lunch is a specific email they send you weekly when you sign up), which is a huge database of agents and deals. You pay $20/month, but once you have a subscription you can, if the urge hits you, camp out twelve hours a day looking at the “daily deals” and researching every agent in the Biz by name, by genre, by recent deals, etc.

I decided the $20/month was worth it, but if you’re cash poor, there’s the almost-as-awesome Agent Query, where you will also find a fantastic, comprehensive database with tons of links and also, helpful tips. The disadvantage of Agent Query is I don’t think you can see recent deals.

With either site, once you’ve researched an agent, you should of course double-check everything by Googling said agent and finding his or her Website. I do this also to get a sense of the place. You might get to see a photo of your agent, or notice that the agency is bi-coastal, large, and impersonal. Or maybe it’s boutiquey, actively seeking new writers, and warm.

But what, exactly, are you looking for?

As far as I can tell, here are the basic questions you should start with when looking for an agent:

1. Does the agent represent my genre? (No point sending memoir to someone who solely represents fiction.)

2. Is the agent accepting new clients/submissions? (Again. Don’t waste your energy!)

3. Have they sold any books recently?

After that, it’s anyone’s guess who’s a good fit. I like to read an agent’s blurb and get a feel for the person. I must admit I have a bias toward agents who respond to every query; nothing like radio silence to make you feel terrible. I also try to get a vibe for an agency or agent–a difficult thing to do over the Internet. This might mean that even if the agent has sold very little memoir, but has sold some interesting fiction and likes memoir, and grew up in Boston or lives in the Bay Area–who knows–I’ll put her on my list. I find myself attracted to agents who don’t vociferously specialize. Some say they “like a great story” or similar, and then I think, put them on the list.

Amazingly–or not–this all takes a ton of time. Searching friends have told me they routinely send to ten agents a week, but since starting this several weeks ago (and half-heartedly researching agents all along) I’ve only identified eight people who seem promising, and sent out to three (three more coming this week).

Why so selective? Can’t you just query everyone?

A friend asked me this this week, and I wasn’t sure how to answer. My optimistic answer was “what if they all wanted it?” That would obviously be a great problem to have, but I still don’t feel comfortable blanketing the world with queries. I think it’s best to choose carefully, because if you’re just farming out the queries, agents will likely figure that out. Several, in their guidelines, ask about the number of agents you’re sending to. Best to be a little exclusive—and respectful of an agent’s time. After all, you’re hoping to develop a relationship with this person. My two cents.

So then what?

Once you have your query letter template, and your list, you need to personalize, because everyone wants something slightly different. Some agency Websites have elaborate forms to fill out. Some have forms that are so sparse you want to tear your hair out; how, in two sentences, are you supposed to land an agent? Others are laid back: query letter via email, twenty pages, done. Some ardently declare they don’t want any excerpts. One agent said she would accept a query only over snail mail, but if you sent it via email you could send up to 50 pages as an attachment (50 pages of what, she didn’t say). You’re constantly making choices (snail mail or email? Which excerpt?), tweaking your letter, noting any connections to the agent you might have, rewriting the letter.

Which makes me realize I’ve left out something important: start with who you know. I’m sad to report that the few agents I had connections to are no longer on my list, because I sent to them during my first round, a couple years ago, when the book wasn’t strong enough. So now, I’m in the “cold call” phase. Not ideal, but it’s what I have to work with. If you have a family member who has a friend who’s an agent, or a friend who has an agent and is willing to share, by all means respectfully approach that person!

Last step: Deep Breath, Prayer

I find I can research all day, tweak all day, but then I have to wait a day before sending out the query. This may just be me, but I agonize over what might be the best day of the week to send the letter, and whether I might need to proofread it again. Everyone has her neuroses.

So when you’re good and ready, take a deep breath, say a prayer, and hit send.