What Scares You?

A friend of mine declared, regarding the recent IT remake, that murderous clown Pennywise would never be able to prey on adults. I think this may have even been a plot point in the original story: that children’s fears, tangible and rooted in nightmares and twisted fairy tales, provide a more concrete jumping ground for a monster that feeds on terror. The protagonists of IT fear germs, creepy paintings, and appropriately, clowns. Could Pennywise really embody losing your job, or leaving the stove on, or your awareness of your own mortality?

(Well, he embodies that last one pretty well, at least.)

Thankfully I don’t have much in common with Pennywise – I hope – but writing horror means working with a a similar problem: how to externalize what’s very internal, how to embody something so personal and specific as fear. After all, at its best, the genre can distill complex and pervasive personal and societal horrors into a demon, or a ghost, or a guy with an axe. The Babadook made a storybook monster out of grief, depression, and its effects on a widow’s relationship with her son. Get Out delves into the violent, dehumanizing consequences of white liberal racism to devastating effect.

And while we’re on the subject of IT, Stephen King based the first scene of the novel on a violent, and ultimately fatal, homophobic attack on 23-year-old Charlie Howard, just down the street from King’s own home in Bangor, Maine. The murder, King later wrote, ‘shocked him out of his complacency.’ It makes sense, then, that a byproduct of Pennywise’s thrall on the town is indifference. It isn’t that the people of fictional Derry don’t notice what’s happening. It’s that they look the other way.

Of course, not all horror thinks so seriously about its goals. And at its worst and most sloppily done, the genre can perpetuate harm rather than examine it. But as both a frequent writer and consumer all things creepy, I am a believer in the cathartic power of horror. And as a person with chronic anxiety, I spend a lot of time thinking about fear.

The fears of our childhood, I think, never really fade. I’m still afraid of needles, and moths, and weirdly enough, popping balloons. But in my adulthood, these fears live alongside larger and more abstract ones, fears harder to pin down under my fingers. Large scale and small. Outside and in. Fear of others, and more often than I’d like, fear of myself.

But when you’ve witnessed something terrible, or been through it yourself, people can make you feel, intentionally or not, like you’re a monster by extension. Like they don’t want to look at you too closely, lest they catch your misfortune. In those times, a good horror story can make you feel seen. It can turn that feeling in the pit of your stomach into something tangible, offer it in small doses like an inoculation.

Some fears can be conquered. Some you have to undo slowly, and some are beyond one person’s power to address alone. But the best horror stories reassure us: we can live alongside fear. And sometimes, we can even win.

Rebecca Mahoney, 2017 WROB Fellow

The Bad Literary Citizen

This week, I turned down a request to serve as a juror for a foundation that awards grants to artists who pair creative work with civic engagement, and, despite the genuine understanding of the inviting grant manager, I came away feeling like a bad literary citizen. Having served as a judge for fellowships and writing programs in the past, I know how much work goes into doing a good job. Deciding who gets awarded money or program entrance, which will have a significant impact on their careers/ lives, can be grueling. Even in the case of small applicant pools, a few dozen writing samples (not to mention CV’s, Personal Statements, Statements of Need, etc.) in the range of 10-25 pages takes a toll that goes beyond the time it takes to read, re-read, note-take, systematize decision-making, travel to and from the granting institution, and argue on behalf of your favorite applicants. There’s an emotional impact. There’s a significant loss of headspace.

I didn’t ask whether this particular foundation offered anything in the way of compensation for their jurors’ time (most that I’ve been involved with don’t), because I knew that, in the unlikely circumstance that I was offered a token payment, there was no reasonable amount of money that was worth the time I’d be losing on my manuscript.

So, why the guilt?

I, like most writers interested in participating in the literary industry, have benefited from the selflessness of writers who serve on juries and editorial boards, in both times of fortune and times of rejection. These jurors have their own creative projects and time limitations, and without their volunteer work (since most work for little to no compensation) the industry as we know it would grind to a halt.

But then again, aren’t writers asked to give away too much of themselves for free?

This is just really bad timing, I’d said over the phone, meaning, I’m finally gaining traction with this draft, and I can’t afford to lose another month trying to get back here. Yeah, it’s really bad timing for the last few people I’ve asked, unfortunately, she’d responded. Please keep me in mind for next round, I said.

I believe wholeheartedly that someone who hopes to gain (publications, fellowships, paid appointments) from a system should contribute to it (it’s good karma), and I’ve tried to do my part, but how do we know when we’ve given too little or too much?

There may be no right answer, but I like to think of that airline demonstration, where you’re told to secure your oxygen mask before helping others. I like to think that by prioritizing your creative work and energy, in the long run, you’ll be able to contribute that much more.

Jonathan Escoffery, 2017 WROB Fellow

On Black Literary Influences and Documentary Poetics

I first encountered documentary poetics at a workshop during my low res MFA program. A portion of the description read, “Participants [will] use pre-existing documents, such as  newspaper articles, public testimony, and family artifacts to produce poetry that  blurs the line between facts and fiction, the personal and the political. We will be led by the question: How does my work need to be arranged and written so that it can make powerful statement—a gesture outwards?”  These days I’m asked to talk about TESTIFY’s origin story often. I always return to this workshop, and the poets I discovered because of it.  When I’m asked about my influences, or which works of documentary poetry I’d recommend, two writers come to mind.

I found a type of literary kinship with cotemporary black poet A. Van Jordan. In MacNolia, Jordan writes about native Ohioan MacNolia Cox. In her youth, MacNolia participated in the 1936 National Spelling Bee—the first black person to do so. It is rumored that a southern judge sabotaged her winning streak by giving her a word that wasn’t on the official list. Ironically, that word was nemesis. The collection consisted solely of persona poems. The poems offer an eclectic range of perspectives: MacNolia and people in her life, black icons of the era (for example, Josephine Baker). One poem is even written in the voice of the word “nemesis,” in which the word sympathizes with MacNolia and regrets being involved in MacNolia’s loss. In the text Jordan created a form that involved structuring the poem around particular word’s dictionary definitions. The resulting poems are block-like and dense with information. The form suits the subject matter impeccably—dictionary definitions in a book about a spelling bee champion.

Frank X. Walker, another modern black poet, also writes unique persona poetry. Turn Me Loose is Frank X. Walker’s poetry collection about the circumstances surrounding the murder of Medgar Evers. Medgar Evers was a civil rights activist who was murdered by a Klansman in 1963. Though the identity of the murderer was known, he was acquitted after two trials in 1964. He was later found guilty in 1994. Turn Me Loose is largely comprised of persona poems. Walker uses voices of people close to the case: Byron De La Beckwith, Evers’s murderer; Thelma and Willie De La Beckwith, Byron’s wives; Charles, Evers’s brother; and Myrlie, Evers’s wife. In the foreword Spelman College’s Michelle S. Hite identifies a “sixth voice that works like a Greek chorus.” Throughout the book this “chorus” accounts for approximately a fifth of the poems. Because these poems were not attributed to any character or persona, they were able to serve various unique functions in the collection.

Walker’s deft use of haiku and his “Greek chorus” poems gave me tactics to bring back to my own work. Though people are often introduced to haiku in the context of nature/ natural imagery, Walker used them in a way that was contemporary and relevant. Haiku provide enough structure to demand some restraint, while being flexible enough to let the poet render subject matter organically. The chorus poems allowed Walker to be almost omnipotent, which remedied the occasional conflicting tones . In Testify, I occasionally combine these techniques to insert my own perspective in the form of haiku.

These poets influenced my work in many ways, and it’s threaded throughout TESTIFY. A. Van Jordan and Frank X. Walker are both black poets writing explicitly about racism, employing and inventing forms to do so. Rather than thinking about race in the abstract, these poems are anchored by moments in history that illustrate the poet’s themes. I’m grateful to have come in contact with these texts-turned-teachers in the process of creating TESTIFY.

Simone John, 2017 WROB Fellow

Not Everything Has To Be Work

As a teenager, taking writing workshops as part of my arts school concentration, I remember submitting to a contest with a group of classmates and getting the news that all of them had placed except me. Sometime later that day, in the haze of rejection-crying and ice cream, I decided that it didn’t matter if I was mediocre– I just needed to want it more than they did.

Looking back at the rejections that followed, I can trace where that became a cycle, to match disappointment with self-discipline. The first step to being taken seriously as a writer and to ensure that writing had a foothold in my limited free time had to be treating my writing like a job. I don’t think that was wrong— it got me this far, even when that ambition could be an unwieldy thing to carry.

I’m also a person with anxiety, which means being careful about what I tell myself that I ‘have’ to do. And the problem with treating ‘wanting it’ like a job is that ‘want to’ slowly becomes ‘have to.’ You end up wanting it just about as much as you want to do any job. Which is to say, not that much.

Coming to The Writers’ Room was a big part of reframing my creativity as something fun and vital again, not a benchmark I had to meet or a fight I had to win. And for the most part, it’s been really successful. My drafting sessions are the most loose and productive they’ve been in years. I’ve started more easily questioning some of the conventional wisdom I’d internalized: that I needed to write every day to be serious, or that sometimes it was going to feel like pulling teeth but I had to push through it. I decided that whether I was daydreaming up a scene or just letting my brain go offline after an exhausting day, everything was important work in the end.

Here’s the fun thing about undoing a bad habit, though: you’re never quite as done with it as you think you are.

As I write this, I’m planning the move to a new place tomorrow, so for the past few weeks, the part of my brain that would normally be dedicated to thinking through a scene has been running through where my desk is going to fit in the new room, or where my hairdryer is. There’s not a lot of space left for my work-in-progress, currently stopped just before the climax, and I find myself worrying about its lack of real estate in my brain, or putting pressure on my rest nights to be as restful as possible. In trying to be kinder to myself, I think I was a little too successful at making everything, even relaxation, into a job.

So maybe the thing to tell myself isn’t that everything is work. Maybe it’s not everything has to be work. 

Easier said than done, I know. But I like the sound of it.

-Rebecca Mahoney, 2017 WROB Fellow

On Seeing the Fruits of Your Labor

I’ve spent the last six weeks tucked away in a hamlet in the hills of Western Massachusetts, just off a highway that has hosted moose in the past, and very many black bears recently, and which boasts two bars, a library, a hardware store, and a gas station that rents DVDs. This, for a person who has only ever lived in major cities, has been an epic transition.

I came to this tiny village to slow down. The manuscript edits I needed to complete had stalled, and my agent’s check-in emails assuring me she would give me as much time and space as I needed, appeared to have tapered off. The three or so jobs I worked to afford a room in a four-bedroom Somerville apartment had ground me down to a state in which I second guessed whether I was using even the simplest words correctly. I’d burnt out. My brain felt fried.

At just the moment I needed a change, I was awarded a fellowship that provided free room at an artist retreat. In exchange, I would give part-time help running the place. When I arrived, I expected the bulk of my duties to revolve around my experience in program management and arts administration, but was surprised to learn that much of the work would take me away from a computer screen, and would involve power tools and trips to nurseries and lumber mills.

I was nervous. I’ve got a bad back and no evidence of a green thumb, and I was tasked with moving hay bales, hauling mulch, and keeping roses and rhododendrons alive. What I’ve discovered in this work is the satisfaction of interacting with the earth, with seeing the results of my labor manifest in the physical. You plant a rose-bush with ground-up compost and compacted soil, and water it consistently to either see it die in spite of your efforts, or, hopefully, open up in a gorgeous burst of color.

Working in a garden comes with obvious benefits to a writer: Not spending forty hours a week staring at a computer screen, to then have to go home and attempt to create art on that same device; being able to think through characters and themes and plot lines while doing physical labor. But the psychological benefit goes beyond that.

When your day job involves shooting off hundreds of emails per week into the void, or lecturing to blank faces in a classroom, or marking up a client’s manuscript with what you hope are helpful comments, the results of your work can at times feel nebulous.

Completing a full-length manuscript can feel similar. It’s difficult to see the whole of a novel or story collection, and copious rounds of editing can feel like endlessly pushing words around. Yes—I delight in crafting what seems to me a beautiful sentence. But a change in characterization, or setting, or plot a hundred pages earlier in the book may necessitate deleting that sentence, and a second look might illuminate that the sentence wasn’t that great to begin with. The same might go for any proportion of the project.

When your day job and your art both feel like endeavors involving long stretches with intangible results, this can lead you to believe that all of your time is spent getting not a whole lot done, which can be discouraging. With writing, you have to allow time for discovery, which might mean pushing words or ideas around with no end in sight.  Balancing your art with work that provides tangible results can help you to delight in the joys of wading through the unknown. And keep you from drowning in it.

-Jonathan Escoffery, 2017 Ivan Gold Fellow

Emerging Author Dispatches: Five Things I Wish I Knew About the Publishing Process Before Starting Out

Full disclosure: This blog post should’ve been up two three weeks ago.* Lately I’ve been negligent in my WROB fellowship duties (and many duties, if I’m being real). For the past few months my schedule has gotten more and more crazy as the pub date for my first poetry collection gets nearer. Now that some semblance of sanity is starting to appear on the horizon, I’ve identified five things I wish I’d known about the publishing process before starting out. None of these learnings are novel, but there’s nothing like being humbled by the act of doing something new to make each lesson land sharply.

  1. PUBLISHING TAKES FOREVER

The gears of publishing machinery move v e r y   s l o w l y. So much of the process boils down to an unglamorous, unending waiting. Waiting for it to be “your turn” in your publisher’s roster, waiting for your edits to come back, for galleys, for a more inspired ending of a poem to surface. I tried to create new work during that time but I quickly realized…

  1. IT’S DIFFICULT TO WORK ON NEW CREATIVE PROJECTS WHILE LAUNCHING A BOOK

When TESTIFY’s pub process (re)gained traction I was six months into working on a new book-length project— this close to turning a corner in understanding the story’s structure. I was unprepared for (and, occasionally, resentful of) the onslaught of admin that landed in my lap. The e-mails alone are a part-time job: pitching tie-in essays; planning book launches and readings; being in communication with publicists, editors, and graphic designers… Week after week new work was repeatedly pushed to the bottom of my task list in favor of practical (or paying) responsibilities. When I’m not writing poems or answering e-mails, I’m juggling a full-time job and running a small business. There’s no advance to float authors between books in the poetry world, so carving out time to create new work while launching a book continues to be an ongoing challenge. (If you’ve got tips or suggestions, I’m all ears.)

  1. EVEN IF THE PROCESS SEEMS OPAQUE AND MYSTERIOUS, IT’S ALL JUST PEOPLE

When I was submitting my manuscript the pub process seemed scary and impenetrable, especially as a young poet with a newly minted MFA and no clue what to do next. As everything moves forward I’m regularly reminded that each limb of the publishing apparatus is made up of people. People who know each other and people who don’t. People who are friends in real life and people who have only met on the internet. People who have jobs and lives and responsibilities (so no, their delay in responding to my submission wasn’t personal). Case in point: a colleague I connected with through my publisher asked me to be a contributing editor at a new press he was starting. A year and a half later, I’m plugged into the “people side” of the poetry world in a whole new way. In grad school it felt like the words “publication” and “press” warranted capitalization, faceless institutions built of books and words. Now I know a press is just a group of people, and none of them bite.

  1. YOU REALLY SHOULD BE ON TWITTER.

If this industry is made up of people, most of those people are probably on Twitter. In my non-writing life I’m social media averse. I have a laundry list of reasons why, and I was quick to rattle them off—until a publicist told me in no uncertain words that I needed to be on Twitter. (Verbatim: “You needed to be on Twitter yesterday.”)

At first I was stressed about having to think up witty tweets, as if each post needed to be a pithy 140 character poem. Then I realized I could follow intelligent-sounding people I already like and share their tweets, adding my own comment when necessary.

Since joining I realized that literary/writing Twitter is actually a landscape where opportunities can happen. Editors tweet out topics they’re looking for pitches on, or have their contact info in their bios. Grant opportunities, submission deadlines, contests, and potential collaborators—all on Twitter. Angie Thomas, YA author whose debut novel “The Hate U Give” has been on the New York Times bestseller list for twenty weeks, is an excellent example of how Twitter can help launch a career. In June of 2015 Thomas turned to Twitter to ask literary agent Brooks Sherman if he considered a YA novel inspired by the Black Lives Matter movement acceptable to publishers. One year later, Sherman was representing Thomas in a thirteen house publishing auction that resulted in six figure deal. Sure, it’s a Twitter fairy tale, but it’s also a reminder that social media is more than a way to stay on top of the trends.

  1. YOU WILL FEEL LIKE YOU’RE FAKING IT ALL THE TIME

Writerly imposter syndrome is real. I spent so much time in the early stages of this process second-guessing myself and others who praised my work. It felt like everyone I encountered had access to some rulebook I hadn’t read, or a scorecard I couldn’t see. Even though I’d succeeded at getting picked up for publication, I spent a fair amount of time entertaining self-doubt. Should I have cc’d my publisher on that e-mail? Is that something I should do, or something my publicist should do? Should I run this idea by someone before I send this pitch?

Eventually, I found my way back to a powerful quote from my mother-poet Audre Lorde: “I am deliberate and afraid of nothing.” Thought I might not have been in this exact situation before, I’m generally a diligent person. My instincts led me to write TESTIFY, and they got me this far so they can’t be all wrong. Now I know there’s no rulebook.

If I could go back in time I’d give myself the following advice: do the best you can now, take notes for next time, and know there will be a next time—whether it’s five years from now or fifteen years from now, there will be another book. And whenever that happens, whatever curveballs that experience throws your way, you’ll know more than you did the first time around.

*Thanks to my WROB writer colleagues for their patience and understanding.

Simone John, 2017 WROB Gish Jen Fellow

 

 

Trading Headspaces

Recently, a writing friend and I were trading tips on juggling multiple projects, which is a tricky endeavor at the best of creative times. For the past year I’ve had two concurrent projects: a young adult manuscript, and co-writing work on a podcast drama. It’s exciting, invigorating work that nevertheless, sometimes, ends with me inspired to work on one project, feeling guilty for not working on another, and then getting no writing done at all.

But since I joined the Writers’ Room crew, I’ve had a great system going. I usually work on the podcast when I’m at home, or on my lunch break at work, and then when I go into the Room, I focus on my manuscript. Even if I do sneak some podcast work in there, I don’t leave the Room without adding at least a page to the YA.

It’s a system that’s worked wonderfully for me these past few months, and it’s a system that would not have been available to me prior to this fellowship. The quest for writing space has been an ongoing one for me, based on necessity and opportunity rather than any kind of creative fit. I live in a college neighborhood, in a second-floor apartment I’ve written tens of thousands of words in… but when our downstairs neighbors turn on their sound system, I tend to abandon all hope of productivity.

Concentration isn’t always easy for me. My startle reflex can be, in a word, enthusiastic. Since that tends to preclude coffee shops and the like as workspaces, I’ve spent a lot of time auditioning alternative places to write. Sometimes they work. And sometimes it feels like the universe is trying to ensure that I never write another word.

Here is an unranked, incomplete list of places I have written:

Various classrooms at work: As university staff, I have dozens of rooms to choose from, at least. Pros include a studious atmosphere and the occasional comfy armchair. Cons include nervous pacers, cell phone talkers, and those days when everywhere you look has a meeting or event in session and you end up wandering campus with your laptop like the ancient mariner.

The library: On its face, this looked perfect for me. The aggressive silence of libraries is a trope for a reason, right? Turns out that a room full of about twenty people trying to be quiet is not that quiet. And about halfway through a tricky chapter, a very nice woman started asking me why, exactly, young people worked so hard these days.

(She was really sweet, but eventually I had to pretend I was leaving so I could hide up in the stacks and finish.)

On planes: Once or twice a year, this will work out great. No distractions and no shortage of white noise. But these are the one or two magical times a year that there’s an empty seat next to me and I don’t have to watch my elbows quite so closely. Of course, there are always variables to watch out for. I had a row to myself on a recent flight, and just as I was ready to dive in… the entire row in front of me reclined far back enough to snap my laptop shut.

On the train platform: I’ve only tried this one twice, and not with any sort of forethought – there’s at least an hour between trains on my commute line, so if I miss it, writing is theoretically a great option. It was also, in both cases, a magical bat signal for street harassment. Not very successful, in the end, but I’m an optimist. I’d try again.

As writers, we have to work with what – and where – we have. And make no mistake, we always do. But to have a dedicated writing space is a tremendous privilege, and for me, it’s been like nothing else: I have never been that great at scheduling creativity, but when I come here, I know I’m going to leave with at least a few more words in my manuscript file. I hope to see more spaces like the Room in the broader writing community, and more fellowships like mine to make these spaces accessible to as many writers as possible.
Rebecca Mahoney, 2017 WROB Fellow

On Community

When I arrived in Boston three years ago, it was my second cross-country move as an adult. The first took me from my native Miami to Minneapolis, to enter into the University of Minnesota’s MFA program. When I left Miami, I left with conviction; I can’t say I was certain about what I would gain from my program or my new city, but I knew I was investing in my writing career, and that was more than enough reason to go.

To an extent, I left to find community, to find my tribe.

In the years prior to my departure, I had cobbled together a loose network of novice writers in Miami with whom I shared work—some of whom remain my closest friends. Despite the dozens of workshops we’d attended between us, though, information about how to get our writing out into the world seemed elusive.

We met weekly to stitch together insight we’d acquired through research and the few relationships we’d formed with more advanced writers. I recall one friend handing me a binder with details on MFA programs, while another showed me the first proper CV I’d ever seen.

I recall, too, that this information sharing seemed precious and rare, somehow unattainable even through our college tuition. One writing professor—particularly generous with his time, in most cases—responded to our request for guidance on submitting to literary magazines, “Do you really think you’re ready for that?” I recognized in that moment that I’d met my first information hoarder, my first gatekeeper. It’s also possible that this professor was simply too far removed from the practice—one argument for why writing programs need younger faculty members.

My writing group—comprised of first-generation college graduates—did the job of lifting each other up from ignorance, and into our respective graduate programs, but the battle was hard-won.

After earning my MFA, I came to Boston by accident, and with the vague idea that it was a city where writers thrive. My experience has shown this to be true. While rents and the cost of living are astronomical—a huge obstacle for most artists—Boston writers are rich with community. And what’s perhaps most astounding about Boston is how easily information is handed to me now that I’ve plugged into the writing community here. What stands out is the willingness with which established authors and literary professionals share what they know. I wouldn’t have applied for any of the four fellowships I received this year if I hadn’t learned about them from my writer friends. If my partner, Sarah, didn’t show me how to write a query, I likely wouldn’t have found my agent when I did, and without my community, I’d never have found her.

Perhaps the most valuable information I’ve learned since leaving Miami is that when it comes to getting your writing out into the world, it’s not just about who you know, but about who’s willing to share what they know with you.

-Jonathan Escoffery, 2017 Ivan Gold Fellow

What Gets Lost

Several years ago, I bought an unbelievably gorgeous ring at a department store in Toronto. I have no idea how much it cost me. I have no idea the name of the store. No idea how to describe it. At Dave & Buster’s a year or so later, the ring did a thing–slid off, it flew, it shot in the same direction of the basketball I aimed at the net. The ball came back to me. The ring didn’t.

I’ve been reading Cape Verde’s first (and only) Creole-English dictionary. It’s a very nostalgic experience. All the words I know, the words I don’t. How the definitions surprise me. Sadden me. How I’m sure, the published definitions mean something different to someone else. The power of interpretation leads me to riff off the English definitions, aware that in the process, images facts ideas values and beliefs are sliding off, flying, landing here, elsewhere, and nowhere. I cannot stop writing This Won’t Make Sense in English definition poems:

From the dictionary:

Pasada [pasu] n step; ~ di ómi, grasa-l mudjer, short visit; badja ~, dance the pasada dance

From what I’ve lost:

dancing the pasada dance is a message: consumption is not something you do with your mouth

I’m not sure I know what I’m getting at but think I’m having a moment. Appreciating the ways in which words mean things, the ways in which all words, in every language, mean, to feel. It’s fascinating, this idea of culture and how we are because of it, in spite of it.

The loss of my ring went from clumsy

to there are worse things to lose.

Went from

is this making sense in English

to how are we making sense

of the words we use

to say what it is

we cannot.

-Shauna Barbosa, 2017 Writers’ Room of Boston Fellow

What Happens on Submission Stays on Submission

When I was querying literary agents for the first (and second, and third) time, I kept a moderately active Blogspot. Nothing too formal, but enough to connect me to a community I’m still lucky enough to know today. I had their posts as a guidebook. Whenever I wasn’t sure if I’d been waiting too long, or if I said the wrong thing, I read their experiences, held them up to mine to make sure I was on the right track. Whenever there was a question I wasn’t sure if I could ask, the answer existed somewhere already.

When I signed with my then-agent at the end of 2012, I posted about how excited I was to go on submission to editors. And then, following the conventional wisdom I’d read about, I kept my mouth shut. It has, for the most part, stayed shut since.

The rationale behind the Submission Cone of Silence is as follows: it keeps you from saying anything you’ll regret, and it preserves the illusion that you’re a fresh talent rolling into an editor’s inbox just minutes after signing with your agent. And all those What to Expect When You’re Expecting to Sell a Book guides told me the same thing. That it’s hard, of course it’s hard, but you can tell everyone all about that after you sell.

And then I kept not-selling.

This is the point where I’d look for someone else’s story to reassure me that I was normal. This is also the point where it became clear that everyone else got the same advice I did. The blog posts were self-selecting. Submission was the longest month of my life, I must have read about a dozen times. And then I’d look at my submission list, time-stamped about a year prior, and wonder if one day archaeologists were going to find me half-crumbled into dust and still clutching my laptop.

(“Extraordinary,” they’d whisper. “She was refreshing her inbox all those years.”)

I asked my friends, published and almost-published, when they sold. On the second round. On my second book. On the second round of my second book. By the time my third book went out on submission, I’d stopped asking.

I did a lot of backspacing, both in writing and in tweeting. Everything I tried to say sounded ungrateful, or impatient, or dismissive of the luck and privilege that got me this far. When my agent parted ways with me, I did a lot of acknowledging it without acknowledging it. It was easy enough to figure out if you read between the lines, but if I didn’t say as much in public, maybe no one would figure out what an Undesirable I was.

And after a while, I just wanted to own it. I’m competitive. If I was going to be an Undesirable, I wanted to be the Least Desirable Person in Publishing.

I didn’t own it. I cultivated an even better poker face. I got really good at keeping my excitement in the forefront at events and book launches, and saving the bucketsful of conflicting feelings until I walked home. I gently brushed off questions about when my book was coming out, and I said a lot of No, that’s okay. I didn’t want anyone to feel like they’d asked anything wrong. It would hurt more if they stopped asking.

This is, I know, a lot of talking about not-talking. I started this post thinking I’d talk about the times spent scribbling on the margins of my day job, the manuscripts shelved, the foothold into the writing world that I worried I’d lost until the Writers’ Room and its wonderful community helped me reshape it. These are still things I want to talk about. But then I started to wonder what about these stories was so damaging that I felt the need to sit on them for over four years.

After all, writers tend to lose perspective, stuck in their own heads. When I called my grandmother the night I received the WROB fellowship, I laughed that I finally had good news for her.

She firmly informed me that I had good news for her all the time.

Rebecca Mahoney, 2017 WROB Fellow