Isn’t it wonderful that I’m back in the querying process so I have no end of material for you all?!
Last week, I came down from the high of the Saturday night full manuscript request rather quickly. I got one form rejection Thursday night, and another Friday morning. And as I munched on my second rejection chocolate, I reflected, with some exasperation, on the fact that my life has become such an emotional roller coaster since I started querying again. Saturday night and Sunday I felt so confident; this is by far the most enthusiastic response I’ve received from the agent world on any manuscript, and I knew I have a better chance than ever before at getting an agent for this one.
By Friday morning, however, I had completely sobered up, remembering that a better chance than 0.0000000001% is really not that much to celebrate.
But I felt more than sober. I felt discouraged and impatient. Sad, even. A mixture of longing and despair. Over the course of the next few days I found myself wishing I could just roll it all back, withdraw all my submissions, and forget this whole agent thing forever. The feeling got worse and worse. “Hello?” said the self-doubt demons. “Rejection survivalist?! Isn’t this supposed to be your area of expertise? You’ve received a grand total of 5 rejections and you’re already spiraling into full-blown crisis?! What happened to your creative resilience?! Are you a hypocrite? Can you not practice what you preach?! Or maybe you’re just completely wrong about all this rejection stuff and it’s just not possible to survive the submission process while remaining vulnerable like this and not numbing your feelings?!” (Somehow conversations with self-doubt demons always end up at “WHAT IF EVERYTHING YOU’VE EVER BELIEVED TO BE TRUE WAS A LIE?!?!”)
I found myself unable to respond to all these allegations. Because my despair really didn’t make any sense. Heck, I still have two agents reading the full manuscript! And if I was okay with staying small, if I was totally fine with publishing with a small press, if I had mixed feelings about “making it big,” if my situation and my attitude had changed so much–why did I feel so awful about the concept of not having an agent? What was it about re-accessing the desire for an agent specifically that opened this Pandora’s Box of despair?!
Maybe my demons had a point. Maybe I am a hypocrite, or just a clueless starry-eyed idealist who doesn’t have enough life experience to know what the hell she’s talking about.
And when I find myself thinking that way–when the self-doubt demons start making too much sense–I know something must be very wrong.
For the first time in a very long time, I asked myself whether I needed my therapist (who I stopped seeing last September) to help me work through this.
As I talked it out with a friend, though, I realized that the very fact that I’d thought about taking this to my therapist was telling me something. It was telling me exactly what my therapist would lead me to: that this feeling of despair isn’t actually about the querying process at all.
It’s much deeper.
Some Soul Archaeology
Over the six years’ worth of hours per week I spent in that chair in my therapist’s office, I learned a lot of things. One of the most important things I learned is that there was a pattern in my life, in all the relationships that troubled me and in all the things that ever gave me a deep sense of longing, that always led me back to the same point. It’s not just me, either. There is a universal human desire every human being carries from infancy into adulthood to have a sort of “perfect parent” figure in their lives. Someone who will respond to your needs without your needing to voice them, who will love you and support you and take care of you unconditionally, wrapping you in their love completely and utterly. We seek this parent figure first in our parents–who may be wonderful parents, but can never actually fill our every need no matter how hard they try–and then in our friends, and then in a romantic partner. Some of us seek it in God.
I was aware of this yearning to some degree from a very young age. I remember telling my parents about feeling “homesick” even though I was already home, and I remember them teaching me the term “existential loneliness.” When my 11th grade Jewish philosophy teacher covered Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik’s work The Lonely Man of Faith, I sat there in class with tears streaming down my face. But back then I didn’t know that all the things that gave me the greatest sense of despair in those years–troubled friendships, my longing to find my “soulmate,” my deep obsessions with fictional worlds–all stemmed from that same loneliness, which I experienced so strongly and painfully since childhood.
What I didn’t understand until much later in life is that you will never actually find this parent figure you are seeking in another human being. (God is a unique, if not less challenging case, but let’s focus on humans for the sake of this post, since this isn’t Letters to Josep here. 😉 ) There is only one person in the world who will always be there for you, and that is you. Over those six years of therapy I learned how to become that parent figure for myself. Instead of relying on other people to fill my needs and suffering when they didn’t, I took responsibility for my own needs.
Fairy Godmothers and Lack Thereof
I have joked that I used to think of an agent as a sort of fairy godmother figure who would swoop in, transform my manuscript into a magic carriage, and sweep me away to Authorland.
What is a fairy godmother if not a “perfect parent” figure?
This is what I wrote last week about what I’m looking for in an agent: “I want an agent who is hands-on and helps me brainstorm and develop my ideas, who gives me sharp and insightful editorial advice, who is responsive and who I feel I can turn to with any question or issue, who is supportive and fun and doesn’t take herself too seriously and knows how to tolerate and calm down my self-doubt demons.”
What is that if not the writing-career equivalent of the perfect friend, perfect life partner, perfect whatever, who will take me by the hand and guide me through the next steps in my life journey?
It occurred to me that all this agent drama coincided with a number of seemingly unrelated stressful life situations. My husband–who is a tour guide–was on tour for a week and a half; not a big deal, as he was home most nights and for the Sabbath, but it did leave me largely to my own devices, shuttling kids back and forth from school and the dentist and karate class and God knows what else, doing all the shopping, etc., while shouldering my usual work-from-home responsibilities, meeting deadlines, etc., and managing the household dramas and social lives of my 6-, 7.5-, and 9-year-olds. Millennials (a generation I am fervently in denial that I belong to) call this “Adulting” in a kind of self-deprecating acknowledgement that “functioning adult” is something we have to do, in the absence of our ability to just be one. In my case, I have always struggled with low energy levels and the fact that I can manage these things without totally breaking down is a relatively recent development. (Three cheers for Wellbutrin!)
All this on the backdrop of increased political tensions and security threats (the border with Gaza, Iran, a few nights of Hamas rockets landing not far from where my brother lives, etc. etc.)… and some troubling results on a blood test of my husband’s that had me thinking through worst-case scenarios. (It’s probably nothing serious, but we have to wait until he sees a specialist in a few weeks to get any answers.)
No wonder I was having a particularly urgent need to feel taken care of.
My therapist would have been proud. 😉
Unraveling the Angst
Reaching this insight was like pulling out the thread that held together the entire knot of angst, causing it to completely unravel.
I realized that part of the angst was a growing sense of worry that I was intentionally choosing to do something that was harmful to myself. Since I’ve started querying, I’ve been less happy, more on edge, more impatient, and my relationship with God had been suffering from a renewed sense of distance. Why am I doing this to myself? I wanted to know. It made me feel that I couldn’t trust myself.
My new insight helped me understand that starting querying again was not, in fact, a kind of emotional self-sabotage. It’s forcing me to face some old demons, yes, but demons, as you probably know, never just disappear when you ignore them.
This helped me regain a sense of control. I decided to stop sending more queries for now and wait until I’ve had some more responses before deciding whether to continue. I still want to give myself the chance to get an agent if possible, but I’m not going to put myself through the 100-query marathon I did for my last book unless I truly feel ready for that.
So I made a couple submissions to literary magazines instead. Just for funsies. 😛
Resilience doesn’t mean you never feel hopelessness or despair. It means you have the courage to face everything you’re feeling and dive head-on into the muck, trusting yourself that no matter what, you will be there for yourself, doing what you can to protect yourself from pain but not shying away from facing your demons.