Today, I was kindly and undramatically shot down by a literary agent while attending a writing conference in Boston. Surrounded by literally hundreds of teachers and writers from around the world in the swanky Park Plaza hotel ballroom, I momentarily felt a “what the hell am I doing here” kind of moment, the one where you sweat, hope the organic deodorant you’ve switched over to is strong enough, and search the room for the nearest exit. To be in the presence of writers who have succeeded in publishing along with the countless others like me, still in the middle of the struggle, reinforced my confidence and the belief I am in the right place at the right time.
Keynote speakers, workshops, and conversations with teacher writers were phenomenal, and I’m grateful to my district for supporting this kind of professional development for teachers, especially when my other option this weekend would have been to build an ark given the 40 days and 40 nights of hard rain. About 20 minutes before my interview, the fire alarm when off in the hotel sending many of us into crowded hallways. I did not think terrorist attack; I did not think actual fire; instead, I thought: This is NOT what I need right before I meet with Rachel Crawford from the Wolf Literary Agency.
But I did meet with her because, fortunately for all of us, the Park Plaza was not under terrorist attack nor on fire; Rachel Crawford was a smart, perceptive, articulate woman who gave me excellent feedback on the first 20 pages of my second novel draft. Her constructive criticism was insightful and encouraging, reinforcing that the idea is one worth finishing and pitching elsewhere. She could tell my work was a long way from being a completed manuscript. And those were the gifts she provided me, well, they were gifts I paid a great deal of money for– but the manner in which she delivered them was worth every cent. Earlier in the day, I eavesdropped (as we do) on two men discussing their meetings with agents who complained, “I doubt he even read my manuscript” and the other fellow, “The rejection doesn’t bother me–what bothers me is that I paid good money for good feedback and received none.”
So, thank you, Ms. Crawford, for showing evidence of reading and reflecting on my manuscript and sending me packing with printed comments I can use for revision purposes–even if you did not sign me on the spot. The rejection piece is important; it’s what makes us go back to the laptop or drawing board or whatever it is we need to face again. Coincidentally, I’m reading Rebecca Brown’s book for this year’s Girls of Summer Women on High: Pioneers in Mountaineering. These women from the late 1800’s who wanted to climb these giant 12 and 16 and 24,000 feet mountains in Europe and South America many times had to abandon their attempts due to bad weather or ill- prepared hiking companions. The conditions were not right for lift off. So they returned as many times as necessary–or they died trying, but they did not give up. Rejection teaches us that too.
Then I was able to meet and listen to keynote speaker Isabel Wilkerson, the first black woman to receive a Pulitzer Prize for Journalism and author of the nonfiction book about the Great Migration called The Warmth of Other Suns. Her narrative nonfiction book took 15 years to research and write and she is in her 7th year of touring with it because new audiences are reading it every day. Fifteen years! She joked the novel was actually a teenager when it was finally published. This makes me think that being rejected today just means I have more time to make this next book even better. And if does take 15 years, I’ll still only be a young 57. Of course, being a teacher who develops writers is my first love, second only to my family; but writing is my mountain.
So I will find my way home and back to my classroom on Monday, my own safe space and base camp on Everest, feeling a combination of disappointment and inspiration as all explorers must. Here, we re-pack our supplies and, perhaps, try a different route or another voice, and when the day is clear (and this rain finally ends), we climb again.