“I’m not disappearing from your life.” The voice on the other end of the phone was kind, even, and infused with regret. “You can still get in touch with me anytime.”
I’d curled myself into an oversized armchair in preparation for this conversation, feet tucked beneath my body like a child’s. I’d known this call was coming, but now that the conversation was actually happening, I could feel tears starting to form and a hot flush spreading across my cheeks.
My agent is breaking up with me. Immediately I felt embarrassed at the thought. This was business. My literary agent and I weren’t friends; we’d met in person only once. Emotionally, however, this moment echoed the wrenching break-ups I’d endured in my twenties, in the years before I met my husband: I’m not good enough. I’ll never find what I’m looking for. At the same time, I recognized an absurdity to my reaction that seemed almost funny. Almost.
Outside my bedroom window, the August sun blazed as brightly as it had that afternoon two years before when this agent called to offer representation, laying out a trajectory for my memoir far more glistening and ambitious than my own: a major deal, foreign rights, maybe a movie option. I’d struggled not to cry during that conversation too. To have someone with decades of publishing experience and dozens of New York Times best sellers to her credit believe in me and my story had rendered me both vulnerable and deeply grateful. After years of writing marked by false starts, rejection, and unfinished manuscripts, followed by almost a decade of labor poured into this book, here was the proof that I’d turned a corner. At last I had an agent. A good one.
Like so many writers in this social media age, I shared the news on Facebook. Next, I wrote a blog post about my long road to securing representation that earned a mention in a literary magazine with a history of rejecting my essays – still more proof that things were looking up! Buoyant, I felt driven to encourage other writers to persevere, to avoid the trap of “try/fail/give up for months or years” that had long been my self-defeating pattern. And, of course, I fantasized about the day when I’d finally announce news of a book deal: Writers, I just sold my first book at age fifty-two! Don’t give up! Meanwhile, another little voice inside me cautioned that the book might not sell, but I smothered it. The new me – the one with a great agent – intended to stay positive.
And then, my memoir – the story of the long years my husband and I spent trying, and sadly, failing, to adopt a little girl from India – went out on submission to the major publishers, known as The Big 5. My agent anticipated a quick sale, and we did get an immediate bite, but the interested editor wasn’t able to rally support from her colleagues. No deal. My agent heard, “This is beautiful, but we’re not sure how to bring it out in a big way,” and, “We’re not acquiring memoir right now,” over and over. A few editors never bothered to respond at all. My agent launched a second round of submissions, then a third, bringing small and indie presses into the mix. The responses trickled in, offering more of the same, including more editors who didn’t bother to reply.
“The publishing industry has become so discourteous,” my agent lamented. “This never used to happen.”
I don’t think I can adequately describe the agony of those months. Submission, especially the kind that lurches and stumbles along without clear resolution, constitutes a unique form of torture for even the most self-possessed creative. And when the book that no editor wants is a memoir, it’s even easier to lose perspective – about the work, and about the self. Where do I end and where does my rejected story begin? In short: What’s wrong with me?
My agent hadn’t expected this. She’d tried really hard, ultimately submitting the book to almost 50 editors. Ostensibly, we’d been partners in the path to publication, but only she had the power to walk away. This unwanted book chronicled the most painful and transformative episode of my life, a story I could never put down.
And so, I hung up the phone. I cried a little and stared out the window. I called my husband, then texted a writer friend. I didn’t tell anyone else for a few days, and even then, reached out only to a couple of trusted mentors. Getting dumped by your agent isn’t news anyone wants to blast on Facebook. Whenever someone asked if my book had sold yet, I cringed. I felt ashamed.
I allowed myself a few morose weeks, then I checked myself into a small cottage on Bainbridge Island for a solo writing retreat. I needed to decide my next steps. I cried some more, meditated, and ate chocolate. Then, I started researching small and independent presses. Before the weekend was over, I’d submitted my memoir to more than a dozen editors. No agent this time. Just me and my faith in myself. I will write another book eventually, but the story of the little girl who was almost ours and the impact she had on my life is one I can’t forsake.
Here’s what all of us writers know but tend to forget: success doesn’t come from the anointing. Success lies only in our courage to write, in our commitment to the work, in our willingness to trust ourselves enough to release our words into the world, risking rejection again and again. Signing with a literary agent turned out not to be the golden ticket I expected. The real measure of how far I’ve come as a writer revealed itself only after my agent said goodbye. Success lies in what we do after failure. I’m still here.
Sharon Van Epps has published essays in The New York Times, The Washington Post, Good Housekeeping, Huffington Post, UpWorthy and more. She lives in Seattle, and recently signed with a literary agent.