Writing a book is a big deal. I wrote a book. It took a long time – about five years from the first time I was happy with a chapter to the fiftieth draft of the whole manuscript. I worked Monday to Friday as a teacher and wrote chapters at my desk before or after classes. I started writing the book when I was 29 and, during the process, a number of events happened that ended up in it.
You see, I wrote a memoir.
It has been rejected.
It won’t be published.
This is not a sour grapes post. This is not a sob story. This is an honest account of the process before and after the disappointment. I’ve always been honest with the ‘failure’ in my life online because it happens to everyone. What rises to the top of our feeds, however, is either the great successes (staged or actual) or the sympathy-inducing tragedies.
So you didn’t get that book deal. Why not?
I don’t know and never will, presumably. The feedback my agent shared with me sometimes included the addendum that they could see other publishers taking it. Otherwise, I wasn’t their cup of tea. That’s okay.
Here’s why I wrote the book:
Besides the chronic narcissism, a person younger than forty has little reason to write a memoir. In my case, I wanted to write my story because growing up gay I struggled to find mainstream representation in the genre. David Sedaris was a revelation, but it seemed that he filled the entire space of contemporary gay memoir. He has a voice unburdened by queer politics and sexual exploration – a wit perfectly digestible for mainstream readers who like a bit of spice when they’re not criticised for preferring other things. I wanted to write from the perspective of a young gay man maturing, dealing with body dysmorphia, dealing with loneliness and isolation, criticising internal homophobia and misogyny, failing at dating for over a decade after ‘coming out’, and getting to know who he was as a ‘man’.
I also wanted to write a book devoid of tragedy: my parents loved me, religion and conversion therapy played no role in my childhood, I never developed a substance addiction. The queer memoirs that have come out since I started writing my own have covered these topics and have even been made into films. They might have been revelatory for mainstream readers, but they’re the stories I’ve known firsthand from friends and the community for a long time. The point is, I’m not proud of my good fortune – quite the reverse. My luck is radical because it’s not typical. But gay luck that has hit the mainstream in recent years, like ‘Simon vs The Homosapiens Agenda’ (and subsequent film, ‘Love, Simon’), is aspirational, sexless and ‘not too gay’, and in this case, written by a straight woman. The recent Pulitzer prize-winning ‘Less’ by Andrew Sean Greer makes a point of the protagonist, a gay writer, not succumbing to a tragic retelling of his own life, but both these works are fiction. The motivation to share my rocky youth of depression and anxiety – in spite of my relatively stable upbringing – is to highlight the ongoing issues for gay men like me and give others hope that it’s not all bad. Plus, when I read the blurbs of other memoirs with “grew up/lives in San Francisco/New York”, I want to scream. This is not normal. There are many more queer stories to tell.
To compensate for the fact I’ve only led a third of my life, I decided to frame my memoir with my passion for geography and make the book straddle three genres: memoir, creative non-fiction and travel. Throughout the chapters I tried to show how I escape from my anxious brain by being curious about the world. It’s not the same world that someone like Bill Bryson, or even Geoff Dyer, get to experience, however. These authors have influenced me but the more I followed their wanderlust over the years, the less I saw my own stories occupying the ‘straight’forward travel writing shelves. I can’t not write my queerness into my experiences. It’s up for debate how successful I was mixing the genres, but I still believe in the decision.
My luck even extends to the fact I got a literary agent at the beginning of this year. She has been ridiculously helpful in the process – not only with structural edits of the manuscript, but, of course, with the horrific task of selling me to the world of publishing. For some writers reading this, I realise how lucky it is to be represented at all. I can already sense the diminishing ‘relatability’ of this post, but another reason I’m writing it is to show that an agent does not necessarily a book deal make.
So you didn’t get that book deal. Now what?
Well, you keep writing, that’s what. You start writing again after allowing yourself to feel sad. A sadness like you’ve just broken up with someone – you try not to think about what could’ve been and try to avoid feeling hopeful because it’s more bitter than sweet. After these feelings, you take all the compliments you got from your agent and publishers – some of the most incredible compliments you got were from publishers who rejected the manuscript – and you run with them. You think of all the excited and expectant loved ones, work colleagues and students who can’t wait to read a book of yours and let their unwavering belief in your ability help support your own. You combat not feeling good enough with continuing to better your writing. You keep writing because even writing this post is easing your doubts and the impulse to quit it altogether. This is the part you love. Creation and communication.
You manage paranoia. Why didn’t they sign me? Do all publishers know my name and hate my work now? Should I be a more established writer by now? Should I have studied journalism? Should I have moved to Melbourne when I was 21? Should I like drinking alcohol? Should I have come from money so I could dedicate all my time to this? Should I have elbowed my way into being a media celebrity by now? Should I take my shirt off in photos? Should I have gone on a season of Masterchef and developed a following that way?
So you didn’t get that book deal. So what?
You come up with more book proposals. You free up time to do more freelance pitching. You don’t give up on yourself. You know a lot more now about structuring a story and the process of publishing than you did when you started that first chapter. It won’t take another five years this time.
I promise you.