What NOT to Say When You Get “The Call”

As writers, we expect rejection. We are told we should embrace it, that we aren’t really writers until someone slams a door in our face. Rejection seasons us, toughens our skin. I think I may have internalized this advice a little too much.

Ever since I submitted my first poem to a magazine when I was eleven, I have conditioned myself to assume everything will end in rejection. If I’m prepared, it won’t hurt as much, right?

Writers have plenty of strategies for deflecting the sting of rejection. That query rejection? I wrote that agent off weeks ago. No big deal. I didn’t get a fellowship? I forgot I even applied for it.

After years of practice, I’ve steeled myself to the point that I’m unable to process good news when I hear it. That resistance to accepting positive news has crept into other parts of my life as well.

Years ago, my roommate dragged me out to a bar to meet some friends. At the time, I was working two jobs, and I was exhausted. All I wanted was to go to bed. After much prodding, I grumpily agreed to walk to the bar down the street. I knew the bartender, the wait staff, and most of the customers. When we walked into the tiny bar, the room fell silent and everyone stared at me. My friends all stepped away from me, leaving me alone in the middle of the room.

My boyfriend, who lived two states away at the time, appeared unexpectedly at the bar. Fortified with a shot or two, he dropped down on one knee in front of everyone and asked me to marry him.

Time stopped.

We had been together for three years and had talked about getting married. I loved him. Of course I wanted to marry him! But in that moment my brain could not accept that he was actually proposing. This amazing man who I wanted to spend the rest of my life with, wanted to marry me? What if I was misreading the situation?

Instead of saying something tender or romantic, I blurted out “Are you serious?” I had to protect myself, make sure I was reading the situation accurately before I allowed myself to feel happy. We got married and now have four kids together, so I’m pretty sure he was serious. But why did I question that something good was happening instead of just being happy? It’s a pattern I’ve noticed throughout my life. I always assume positive news is a mistake, especially when it comes to my writing.

This past summer, I entered my novel manuscript in the William Faulkner Literary Competition. I figured, what the heck. Just enter and forget about it. Months later I got a phone call telling me I won.

Without thinking, I assumed my defensive posture and said, “Are you serious?”

“Yes.” The woman sounded confused.

“Who are you trying to call?” She must have dialed the wrong number, I thought.

I made her confirm my name, the name of the winning book, and the name of the contest, just to make sure it wasn’t an error.

“I won?”

“You won!” The woman on the phone was bursting with enthusiasm. I felt like I was disappointing her by not being excited. But I’m a writer. I’m only conditioned to hear rejection. I wish I had been spontaneous and excited. I wish I had screamed with joy in the middle of that bookstore.

But I didn’t, and I’m apparently doomed to repeat this same mistake over and over without learning from it. (Wait, isn’t that the definition of insanity?) After months of querying that same novel and sending manuscripts out to agents, I recently got another unexpected phone call. The caller ID said Stacy Testa, a literary agent from Writers House. My dream agency. My dream agent.

I let the phone ring second time.

She was probably calling to let me down easy. Maybe she would say something vaguely encouraging like, “Writing is so subjective. I’m sure another agent will like your book.”

I hesitantly answered the phone.

She told me she loved my book and wanted to represent me. Second to marrying my husband, signing with a literary agent could potentially be the most important partnership in my life. I detected good news, my defenses shot up, and autopilot took over.

Clearly, it must be a mistake.

I wish I could edit time and go back and say something meaningful or intelligent, or at least show some gratitude.

Instead, I did it again.

“Are you serious?” I said.

My dream agent called me and offered to possibly make all my dreams come true—and I didn’t believe her.

Luckily for me, Stacy has a good sense of humor. She started laughing. “I would never joke about that,” she said.

It took about half an hour before I let myself feel happy. Really happy. Jump-up-and-down, scream-in-the-kitchen joy.

I used to wake up every morning thinking, What can I do today that will help me find an agent? I blogged, entered contests, and published short fiction. I networked, took classes, attended writer’s conferences, and studied books about craft. I revised without mercy.

Now that I found an agent, I wake up every morning thinking about a new question. What can I do today that will help me land a book deal? I’m developing a new set of strategies to position myself to sell my book. But I also worry about how I will respond if someone does offer me a contract someday.

I want to be ready this time. Maybe I will shout with untempered joy. I will thank Stacy profusely for believing in me and helping me revise my book. I could memorize my exuberant, heartfelt response and practice it in front of a mirror a thousand times, but I don’t think it would matter.

If that call ever comes, we all know exactly what I’ll say. I’m already mortified.


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