Although a writer should most concern herself with words, I’ve developed a sensitivity to numbers, too.
My manuscript recently made it to the semifinal round of a well-regarded novel competition. In this case, semifinalist meant 15 plucked from a pool of 585. Though I didn’t advance further, the ratio seemed respectable. I posted the news on Facebook then pathetically lingered to watch the update garner “likes” (71), each new notification making my heart beat faster. But my Pavlovian response to the red Facebook flag could mute an internal debate for only so long: one inner voice cheered “Great! Press on!” while another chided “Aw, why don’t you pack it in already?”
It’s not so much the novel contest that did the real number on me. It’s the year I’ve spent seeking a literary agent that’s allowed self-doubt to blossom.
Armed with others’ tales of lengthy searches and disappointments, I thought I was prepared for the process. I am going to be so good at getting rejected, I promised myself. I would not confuse publishing decisions with my personal worth. I would be patient. I would be Zen.
No surprise, that’s not exactly how it’s worked out.
Anxiety and sadness set in quickly after the initial queries and deepened after the first dozen rejections. The long periods of silence served as special tests of sanity (record wait time: 8 months and counting). I wasted days, then weeks, then, yes, even months, unable to write anything more than a blog post, even as I knew writing was the best course. But how could I write while my baby had no home?
At times, the positives punctured my fog of anxiety. The responses, though slow, were personalized and encouraging. “You’re a beautiful writer,” many said, and I think they meant it. Three even asked if I had another book to send. (How I wish I had a spare!) Should I see these responses as signs that my work stood out? Or simply that it fell short?
Robert Vivian told me that novels find their way into the world in very mysterious ways. Cheryl Strayed says that our books will have birthdays; we just don’t know the date yet.
Now that it’s my birthday, I’m giving myself the gift of writing. I don’t know yet if this novel is a “practice novel” that I will put away, or if it will find its way to publication. But I’ve regained some perspective: I’m only a writer if I write.
I feel better now that I’m no longer counting the number of queries I’ve sent or the number of months waiting. I’m sitting at my desk again, immersed in that painful but hopeful process that has always characterized writing for me. Exploring, searching for meaning, trying to capture some insight, even a small sliver, of what it means to be alive.
Numbers don’t tell a story. Words do.
Sion Dayson is an American writer living in Paris, France. Her novel placed as a semifinalist in the James Jones First Novel Contest and was on the short list for finalists in the William Faulkner – William Wisdom Competition. Her work has appeared in Utne Reader, Numero Cinq, Smokelong Quarterly (contest winner) and the anthologies Strangers in Paris (Tightrope Books) and Seek It: Writers and Artists Do Sleep (Red Claw Press), among other venues. She holds an MFA from Vermont College and blogs about the quirkier side of the City of Light at paris (im)perfect Her birthday is November 4.