I had two big goals for the week of the 4th of July. The first was to buy and install a new scanner, and the second was to land a life-changing, preferably-six-figure-but-I’d-settle-for-five book deal.
My dream for a new scanner was born sometime around mid-June, when I stood by my old trusty scanner’s side for the last time as it took off for that big open warehouse in the sky.
My dream for a book deal was born sometime in the early 90’s, when I spent my afternoons lying face-down in the hallway outside the upstairs bathroom (I loved the smell of carpeting) and imagined overly dramatic plots for my future bestsellers.
More recently, it was re-born last summer while I was working furiously on what I hoped to be the final draft of the book I’d been working on for years. I was so determined that summer. I had a critique partner, a professional editor, and enough gumption to email my girlfriends to say I had to sit out on that season’s episode of The Bachelorette so I could write. (I even read the spoilers, which I never do, so I wouldn’t be tempted.) I had momentum. It felt like my book could go places, fast.
On the 4th of July last summer I sat under the fireworks with friends in LA and thought, “I wonder where my book will be by the next 4th of July.”
Between January and June I sent letters to many literary agents. And I got five of them to request to read my manuscript! By late June, it was starting to seem quite feasible that I could get news by the 4th. (Once an agent requests your manuscript, the average time span for them to get back to you is between one day and never. That’s one of the worst things about this process: you often don’t even know when you’ve been eliminated from the game. It’s the worst. Even Bachelorette rejects get an awkward ceremony and a limo ride to the airport.)
So I’ve continued life and work as usual.
A few weeks ago I bought and installed a new all-in-one scanner/copier/printer. I was feeling quite pleased and surprised by my success at installing it myself. Until I realized the scan function wasn’t working. (That’s the only function I actually need. How else am I going to u
pload supplementary documentation for my patient assessments share my pornographic self-portraits with the world wide web?)
So I called HP support, where I screen-shared/phone chatted with a Filipina woman named Faith who tried to fix my problems. For three freaking hours.
We progressed through the three typical conversation phases of screen-sharing/phone chatting with a HP support professional as they try to fix your problems from the Philippines.
Phase 1: Friendly banter about the weather patterns in your respective countries as you ride off your excitement at the prospect of your problem being easily fixed.
Phase 2: Conversation becomes significantly more forced now that you have run out of obvious discussion topics and are coming to grips with the reality that this process might take a long while. (“My friends say in your country there is… Bigfoot?” Faith asked as we waited for a painfully slow re-install progress bar to make its way across my screen at roughly the speed of elderly buffalo with cinderblocks tied to their ankles.)
Phase 3: Frustration so palpable you can taste it as you both sigh heavily into the receiver until Faith suggests she just call you back after the software finishes re-installing for the fifth time.
Now I’m no computer science major, but I couldn’t help but notice that all Faith was doing was uninstalling and reinstalling the software over and over again. Which leads to my theory that HP support people aren’t allowed to just throw their hands up and say, “Screw it! This thing is just a broken, effed-up piece of shit!” but are instead required to go through the motions repeatedly until you, the customer, have to eventually proclaim that you have to pee or eat or return to life on planet Earth. (Or maybe, true to her name, she really was just that hopeful.)
It was surprisingly difficult to cut Faith off between installations/uninstallations, and when I did she was very insistent that I speak to her supervisor so he could send me a new scanner, which I did not want to do because I’d already decided I’d just return it to Walmart and get a Canon PIXMA. But I didn’t have the heart to tell her that, so I just said I’d just call back if I decided I wanted to pursue that. But she wouldn’t let me get off the phone until I at least gave her a time that her supervisor could call me, so I said 5:00 on Tuesday. (Because I would have just gotten off work but not yet headed over to my friend’s house to watch The Bachelorette, leaving just enough time to quickly tell her supervisor thanks but no thanks.)
He didn’t call 5:00 on Tuesday. He called 2:00 on Monday. And 12:00 on Tuesday. And 9:00 on Wednesday. And 1:00 on Thursday. I never answered because I was always working. The calls always came up as UNKNOWN, and he always left a message. It was the week before the 4th of July.
When you’re a writer trying to find an agent, you read a lot of stories about how writers got their agents. Partly because you have to keep reminding yourself it is something that actually happens despite all evidence to the contrary, and partly because you have become a professional fantasizer— always dreaming of the day your writing ship will come in. Stories of writers landing agents are random and spectacular. Writers get that call when they least expect it. At the grocery store. At the bus stop. In the dentist’s chair. That’s how life changes.
When you are a writer whose manuscript is supposedly being read by five agents, you become hyper aware of your phone activity. Any call from an unfamiliar or unidentified number, and you instantly leap into OMG-I’M-QUITTING-MY-JOB-AND-GOING-ON-BOOK-TOUR mode.
That’s how it was all week before this 4th of July. Each time I saw that missed call and Voicemail from UNKNOWN, I became elated with hope all over again. Even though I knew it was almost definitely Hewlett Packard—there was always still that chance. I am a professional fantasizer, after all.
I’d even wait two hours before listening to each message just so I could live briefly in the possibility, semi-believing my ship had come in. There’s something beautiful to be enjoyed about those moments when something could still go either way. It’s the closest we ever get to some dreams.
This 4th of July I sat with a friend under the fireworks in Nashville and thought of the eager hopefulness I’d had last year. I wasn’t depressed or torn up about it—I was genuinely having a good night—but my book was not where I’d hoped it would be, and I had to say that to myself.
There are things I could say here for the positive spin. At least I completed a major revision! At least I got multiple agent requests! At least the 4th of July always finds me traveling with good friends!
Yes, yes, and yes. But that’s not the point. There has been a loss here, and it deserves to be felt. It needs to be acknowledged so I can figure out where to go from here.
I haven’t given up, per say. I’m quite aware that it takes most writers years and years to get published and that most never publish their first book. It’s just so hard to tell in this business when your big break is right around the corner, and when you’re essentially just installing and uninstalling the same scanner software over and over again.
Over the course of writing and attempting publication of my book, I have gradually done all the things I didn’t want to do but that all the writing sites told me I must do:
I built a following.
I found a critique partner.
I executed major revisions.
I got on Twitter (this one was the most painful for me).
I followed each of these steps one by one, as I gradually accepted that I wasn’t going to be the exception to the rules.
I followed all of them except for one. Except for the last step that all the writers say you must do after you have done all the others:
Move on. Write the second book.
I’ve resisted this. I’ve been afraid of giving up and of plunging in. I’ve made several half-hearted attempts.
But I can’t even tell you how hard I’ve been running from writing this next book. Every few days or so for the past year, I’ve gotten this feeling like something is missing from my life. So I tell myself that I need to make more friends. Or volunteer. Or take up that new version of surfing where machines blast you fifty feet into the air.
But it’s none of those things, and I know it. What’s missing is that I need to be writing a book again. It’s my thing. It’s my only thing.
So why do I resist it?
Writing a book is a lot like being in love. It’s nice to be in love, but it’s also nice not to be in love.
The pros are that it’s exciting and all-consuming and dangerous and teaches you things about the world and yourself.
The cons are that it’s exciting and all-consuming and dangerous and teaches you things about the world and yourself.
Last week, just for fun, I wrote out the query letter for this hypothetical second book. Then I sat back in my chair and thought, “Whoa. Now that’s a book agents would want.”
I know there’s something big there, waiting for me, if I can just make myself reach for it.
This week, I started my next book. For real this time.
I also asked Hewlett Packard to stop calling, and I bought a new scanner.