(Originally posted April 2013.)
I’m looking for a prom date.
I’m also 44 years old.
I’m not having a mid-life crisis. I don’t cruise local pizzerias to ogle teenage boys. My situation is dire. I’m a writer with a finished manuscript and hopes of publication. The query process to agents and publishers gives me flashbacks of high school and prom season. My husband B is not a writer and still can’t understand my anxiety. I explained it to him like this:
The pool of potential publishers and agents is my extreme nightmare version of a high school cafeteria: There are 2,000 seats and all the occupants are popular. I stand in the doorway, brace-faced, frizzy haired, wearing windshield-sized glasses and Velcro sandals with tube socks. In this nightmare scenario, I have gastrointestinal issues that result in highly audible rumblings and toxic odors. I must approach every male in the room and present him with my pitch: I’m the girl of his dreams and we’ll be prom royalty if he takes the chance to be my date. And because this extreme nightmare is a product of my high-anxiety mind, there is great urgency to my mission: if I do not secure a prom date, I’m doomed to spend eternity in the cafeteria, scraping gum from the table undersides with my fingernails.
B just rolls his eyes.
“You’re so overdramatic about everything. It can’t be that bad.”
“You’re right. It’s worse.”
B doesn’t understand about the query letter. Officially, it’s a three-paragraph pitch that includes why I’ve selected agent or publisher X, a synopsis of my book, and biographical information. What it feels like is my date-seeking-dork fantasy self’s pathetic plea that she struggles to make heard over the snickers of table occupants and her uncontrolled farting.
“Uh, hi. I’m Nancy. You’ve smelled me in Algebra class. Maybe you’d like to be my prom date? I made a dress out of old quilted potholders that I could wear. I think you’d think it’s really cool. In the fourth grade, I was the student who got the most gold stars. And in sophomore year, I founded the Tube Sock Club and Maria Soldre, the head cheerleader, walked into a meeting one day because she was texting and not looking where she was going. She left when she realized, but she was in there at least a full minute.”
My nightmare-scenario self tries to keep her voice steady when she gives each dream boy her phone number and email address. Desperation turns off teenage boys, as well as publishers and agents. I end my query letters with a restrained “I would be happy to share my complete manuscript” and a sincere “Thank you for considering me”. Meanwhile, both versions of me just want to drop to my knees and plead, “Please pick me! Please, oh please, pick me!”
It’s been two years. I’ve sent more than one hundred queries. So far, no takers. Zero. Response is not guaranteed, not always received, and often generic and automated. The rules for follow-up are strict: wait at least three months and if no response, fuhgedabboudit. The only certainty in this whole process is that I must wait.
“Try not to think about it. Just be patient,” B offered.
B means to be helpful, but my manuscript waits on my hard drive (and flash drive and external back-up drive and hard copy in fire-proof file storage) and my queries are out in the world. Sometimes, they are the only thoughts in my mind. At those moments, there is no brain space for patience. There is only room for fear, something I’ve come to know well on my life as an official, quote-unquote “Writer” with a capital W.
Writing makes me feel stripped and exposed. I put everything I’d rather hide right on the page for the world to see. It horrifies me, but I’m accepting that the “uglies” that make me vulnerable are also uniquely mine. Only I can contribute these weirdo perspectives and thoughts to the world. I used to be ashamed of the things that made me different. Difference was a liability. It was a reason for people to laugh at me or reject me. However, one thing I see clearly even during my high-anxiety frenzies is this: I reject myself more, and more harshly, than anyone else ever could.
I remember my true-life, geeky teenage self and how I tore myself down more viciously than the popular kids ever could – if they even thought of me. I think about everything I missed because I was afraid: of being too different, being too unappealing, and being rejected. Fear kept me silent but my silence said, “Yeah, my differences are too weird to put out there in the world. I should be ashamed of all that. Better keep that hidden.” I had a lot to offer but denied myself a lot of chances because I rejected myself before anybody else could.
When it feels impossible to be patient, I remember what Doctor Berger taught me: Breathe. Identify what is making me anxious. Examine it rationally. I’m afraid of rejection. However, would a literary agency really close its office for the afternoon so everyone could gather in the conference room and laugh at my query letter? Rational Nancy knows that is crazy. Those moments of clarity allow me to click send, or put my envelope into the mail slot. I take a deep breath when I’m tempted to refresh my email inbox page every sixty seconds or yell at the mailman for not delivering any news, positive or negative. This technique doesn’t make me more patient, but it makes the waiting more tolerable. And right now, waiting is all I can do.
There’s no guarantee that an agent or publisher will make me the literary prom queen of my dreams. One thing I know for sure is that no one will take me to the prom if I don’t put myself out there and ask. The wait sucks, but not taking the risk is worse.
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