The Path to Here

It’s hard to believe this is the end of my year as a Writers’ Room of Boston fellow. I’d like to take space in this final blog post to thank the Writers’ Room of Boston Program Director Debka Colson, the Board of Directors, and WROB members for selecting me for such a generous and rewarding opportunity, and for welcoming me into such a friendly and supportive community of writers.

Life doesn’t always go the way we plan, and neither did my fellowship. I thought my time at the Room would bring me only the most sublime fruits of productivity. While it did bring me some of that, I also faced one of the most difficult times I’ve ever had as a writer: a long dry spell.

I never believed in writer’s block: I thought there could be no writer’s block if you simply kept writing (quality of writing was a different matter). Four years ago, the week after my mother died, I found myself sitting at a table at the local café, opening my laptop, and staring at a blank screen, unable to utter a word. But that, I told myself, was understandable.

In the middle of my fellowship, I found myself inexcusably barren of words. It was a year since I’d terminated my contract with my agent over professional differences, and I’d just spent months seeking representation for a new memoir I was writing. Out of over a hundred queries, about half the agents I approached requested materials. Five of them called me on the phone after reading my proposal and sample chapters. My published author friends told me that agents don’t call unless they want to offer representation.

But things don’t always go the way we expect.

One agent called to inform me why my book would never sell. She spent a half hour enumerating the reasons, sounding angry, saying she was doing me a favor. I wondered, what was the point? Another agent asked me a question about plot: was I still dating one of the men I’d written about? No. “Then I’m going to have to pass,” the agent said and hung up the phone. My life hadn’t happened the way she wanted. A month later, she called me again, asking, “Has anything changed?” When I told her no, she told me she was declining representation, again.

The other three agents sounded enthusiastically ready, one spending forty-five minutes in conversation with me, stating we were “on the same page,” another calling me twice to discuss her interest in my work, and the third (from a top agency) talking for an hour about his excitement over my book and the reasons I should choose his agency over another to represent me. Days later, all three declined to represent me, one citing my lack of a New York Times byline (“No editor will take you on without that,” the agent said, despite my many other legitimate publications), another my lack of celebrity status, and the third, my lack of ability to sell to a publisher because, in her opinion, my story, as it read, didn’t articulate “enough exquisite takeaways.”

I took in all the things I was lacking, and lost my hold on writing.

For a few months, I went to the Writers’ Room with my laptop, sat at a desk, and stared at my blank screen, feeling ashamed and empty. I didn’t want anyone to know that my passion for writing was gone. I didn’t want anyone to think I was wasting my fellowship.

I sat in the Room, mourning my failures, taking in the sound of successful writers at work, their hearts beating on the page. I sat in the Room, looking at members’ published books on the shelves, at the Webster’s dictionary and the Roget’s thesaurus—my mother, a writer and copy editor, had monogramed copies of both, which I’d held onto as talismans after her death. I sat in the Room, bathing in the air of creativity supplied by others.

For months, I sat in the Room, engulfed by silence, listening deeply.

One day an agent contacted me. He’d read my book proposal and sample chapters. In an email, he praised my writing but declined representation. He felt there was much more of a story than what I’d put on paper. He said he wanted to read more about my struggles over a greater period of time, the full scope of how I’d gotten from way back there to here. When I saw the email in my inbox, I knew it was a rejection and I couldn’t bear to read it. I gave it to my friend to read for me. My friend, who isn’t a writer, said he thought this agent was on to something.

My struggles were key.

Over the course of a decade, I’d written four books—three memoirs and a novel—none of which had sold. I’d been writing around my story, presenting what packaged slivers of myself I thought the business, and the world, would accept.

Soon after this rejection, my self-censorship lifted and I began to write again, more than I ever had before. I wrote four to six hours a day during the week while teaching full-time, and on average eight hours a day on weekends. I wrote during the fifteen minutes I had between faculty meetings, the ten minutes I had my students doing in-class writing exercises, the half hour I commuted on the train. I was up in the middle of the night, my mind lacing together sentences and paragraphs and chapters. I couldn’t stop. I couldn’t turn my writing mojo off.

Two months later, I finished a 330-paged manuscript that I felt was “the” book, the one I hadn’t been ready, until that point, to unfurl. Everything crystalized. I understood that nothing I’d done or hadn’t done had been a waste: it had all been part of my path to here.

During my fellowship, writing came alive for me in a way it never had before. Thank you, Writers’ Room, for giving me the space to transform, to access that quiet inner room where words are reborn.

by Tracy Strauss, 2015 WROB Nonfiction Fellow  

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