The Race No One’s Running

I used to be in a race. With every writer I knew. With writers who had no idea who I even was. With you. With myself.

I thought I was running toward something and that I had to get there, or else. And I thought how long it took actually determined my worth as a writer.

I used to tell myself that if I didn’t “make it” by such-and-such age, then that would mean I’d failed. That age came and went without a published book from me. So I upped the age. Then that age came and went. I upped the age again and told myself all I needed to not be a failure was to have an agent by a particular age. Just an agent. Just the one thing. Guess what? The day I turned thirty was the day I didn’t make it.

I spent a lot of time comparing myself—unfavorably—to other writers I knew. Many people I knew from the graduate-school workshops I took part in during my early twenties had already published their short-story collections and their novels—quite a few of which I remembered critiquing in class. I was happy for them, I was. But I was very disappointed for myself. I thought I’d never reach the place they did. I thought it was over for me, all because I’d crossed over that arbitrary line in the sand.

I cringed when other authors called out their young ages in their bios, like it made them more worthy because it took them less time to publish. Like they were bragging. Like how long it took them meant anything at all in comparison to how long it was taking me.

And, yes, a lot of this comes from jealousy. It’s hard not to compare yourself to other writers, isn’t it? It’s hard, when you’re treading water and whispering in your own ear that you’re such a failure, to innocently walk into a bookstore and see all your former classmates’ books on display. That sounds childish. But, yes, it’s hard.

I once got what I thought was The Phone Call, while I was at one of my day jobs, from an agent who had been considering my full manuscript submission. This was the second novel I wrote since graduate school; I’d already given up on the first one.

When I got this phone call, my heart was in my throat. I thought, THIS IS IT! I thought it was “happening.” A dump truck of fantasies poured itself out onto me as I closed the door to my office and took the phone call.

But, really, the phone call was only to tell me that my novel (one I have since trashed) had potential and could use some revision and she’d take a look again if I did so.

Then this agent asked me how old I was. I told her. “You’re young still,” she told me. “You have time.”

Time? I thought. How much time? I felt like a ticking clock. I felt like I’d expire soon and never get this shot again. I felt like I could have said the wrong number and she would have replied, “Oh, well, you tried. Too bad you didn’t query me a few years ago.”

This agent—generous enough with her own time over the years to read that manuscript and give feedback not once, not twice, but three times—did not turn out to be my agent. That manuscript did not turn into a book I got published. I stopped revising it. I stopped considering myself “young.”

I also stopped writing my own novels.

And querying agents.

And trying to publish a novel at all.

Yet the clock kept ticking. And so I thought I had to keep running.

The race I was running all alone took me through a detour I didn’t expect, where I did a whole lot of work-for-hire writing under pseudonyms, and where I lost the will and energy to keep trying at my own books, and then the race swept me on another detour, where I got the chance to write Dani Noir, a book I never expected to write, and what a wonderful detour that was, and then suddenly when I thought I’d never get the chance again I was leaping hurdles with the pages of Imaginary Girls and getting the perfect agent and getting the book deal I dreamed of and then I looked around and realized NO ONE WAS TIMING ME.

There is no stopwatch.

There isn’t even any finish line.

Guess what? This wasn’t ever a race.

It didn’t matter how long it took. And want to know how long, if you’re curious?

  • First-ever agent query, for a now-deceased novel 4/16/02
  • “The” phone call mentioned above 10/30/03
  • First agent offer, for Imaginary Girls 4/29/09

It’s taken me many years to learn that life lesson, the one about how we all have our own timetable; we live life at our own pace. The one where it doesn’t matter what other people do or how fast they do it.

So I’ve stopped running the race-that-isn’t-a-race. Dani Noir came out, and I got the agent I always wanted, and Imaginary Girls will be out in about six months or so. Maybe it’ll be successful—I sure hope people like it—but I’m not going to hold it up to other books and compare my experience to anyone else’s.

It took me as long as it took me.

I’m standing still now and just enjoying the moment. I worked really hard and I wrote a book and, soon (SOON, as in next month when ARCs are ready), people will get to read it. That’s where I am. That’s today. “Be Here Now,” my sister and my mom both always say.

I am.

Here.

Right now.

And I don’t care anymore how long it took me.

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