When I was recovering from covid, I would retreat to my bed with my laptop. I was on a mission to tell how we made it to Italy and back during the Omicron storm, using dramatic techniques I was learning from a used paperback. If I could get it done in a timely way, an editor might want to publish it, so I pushed myself to map, sketch, revise, and revise again. Nine drafts later, it was ready to send.
I sent it to an online nonfiction journal for women, and I was sure they’d write back immediately to tell me it was the perfect fit and they loved me.
After 6 days of silence, I dusted off my list of potential publications and sent it to 5 other places. The silence continued as February tapered down, Omicron dissipated, and our Christmas story felt staler and staler. My sparkly rainbow face, once bright with the hope of being published, dulled into a cardboard gray.
Meanwhile I had lost the desire to work on my memoir. One night laying in bed, I had an insight: the whole reason I was writing it was to be accepted and loved. But what if an agent never signed it, what if a publisher never bought it, what if it only sold 200 copies? Aren’t these the more likely scenarios, instead of the New York Times bestseller I dreamed of? My whole book idea was a childish fantasy, and its imaginary cover shrank in my mind from the size of a billboard to a rained-on candy wrapper.
Two weeks later I heard back from the place I had paid $25 to read my Italy piece. They declined but were generous enough to give me feedback. “Though well written with engaging moments,” the editors said, “we never get a strong sense of the narrator's emotions.”
Is my desire to get published killing my writing? Standing before the Gatekeepers, I am terrified of criticism, erecting a shell to protect myself, hiding my feelings, and trying to be cool. My writing becomes stilted, bringing about the very thing I am most afraid of: rejection.
I haven’t worked on the memoir in almost 2 months. What does it feel like to let go of the dream of being popular or traditionally published? When the outer layers are peeled away, what remains?
I still want to bring the darkness into light. I still want to transform the chaos of my life into something beautiful. To make meaning out of confusion. To be seen and known.
But is this enough to fuel reworking outline after outline, getting up early every morning, getting lost in avalanches of research, and wrestling sentences for months and probably years?
To create in this self-directed way requires a total transformation. From a child to an adult. From needing to get, to wanting to give. From idolizing others, to believing in your own strength.
I keep picturing a lonely process, but maybe creating for yourself is not like building a fire to warm your own hands. Maybe it’s more like building a fire for a circle of friends, to share the warmth and light of the story you need to tell.