Rejecting the Gratitude Challenge

The Gratitude Challenge has been making the rounds on Facebook, and several people have invited me to participate. The object of the game is to list three things you are grateful for every day for a week, then challenge others to do the same.

I hear it can change your life.

But I overthink and overfeel everything, they tell me, and something about the Gratitude Challenge feels wrong every time I try to construct a simple list of the things in my life for which I’m thankful.

Today, I finally figured out why:

1) The subtext of many of the items on my gratitude list is: “Isn’t it lucky I was born to parents who weren’t poor in a stable Western democracy near the end of the twentieth century? Being raised a few miles outside of New York City didn’t hurt, either.”

2) The constant messages about gratitude, particularly directed at women, but not exclusively, contain an implied threat: Don’t complain. Things could worse. How dare you want things? You don’t deserve what you have. Be grateful for that gruel, Oliver Twist! And no, you can’t have some more.

3) I don’t want to express gratitude for something that my friends don’t have. I don’t want anyone to feel hurt or excluded by what I may have that they don’t. Regardless of intention, that can sound like nothing more than boasting. “I am so, so grateful for my five houses, luxury yacht, and round-the-clock domestic staff! I just feel SO lucky, you guys!”

4) Gratitude is both an emotion and a practice. Counting one’s blessings can be great for mental health. Directing attention to what is going right in your life for a moment, instead of what’s going wrong, counters our natural negativity bias. But gratitude is also an emotion, and since it is one of my core principles never to tell anyone else what to feel (since I hate being told what to feel myself), I don’t want to challenge anyone else to feel something. Few people have ever been commanded into feeling something other than what they feel.

Julie Goldberg’s Relationship Status With Gratitude: It’s complicated.

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“Mom, What’s the Right Age to Start Having Sex?”

“Mom, what’s the right age to start having sex?”

That was exactly the question I wasn’t expecting, sitting with my 13-year-old son and my husband in a restaurant overlooking the Hudson, sipping a cocktail, waiting for our food to arrive. I didn’t have a statement prepared. But the boy wanted an answer, and he wanted it in numerical form. Immediately.

The lapsed Catholic deep within me yelled, “When you’re married!”

The Jewish mother closer to the surface had a more practical idea. “When you finish medical school!”

“What do you think?” I asked him.

He said his girlfriend thought 17 was the right age, but that one of the neighborhood boys had done it at 14. I cringed. “That’s too young!” I said. He agreed.

“But why is it too young? And what is the right age?”

I looked to my husband for help, but he was as caught off guard as I was.

A response was expected. Now.

“There is no right age,” I told him. “It’s not a question of age. It’s about being ready.”

Did I really think I was going to get away with that? Maybe for three seconds.

“So how are you supposed to know when you’re ready?”

“I have no idea” was honest, but unsatisfying. “Let me think about it” would have sounded suspicious in this case, as if I needed time to invent some arbitrary, adult reasons why fourteen-year-olds were too young for sex. I took a long drink and a deep breath, and by the grace of God, or maybe the cocktail, the answer came to me fully formed, in three parts, all at once.

“You’re ready to have sex when you can do the three following things,” I pronounced.

Three? Did I have three? Was three enough? Maybe I could only think of two? Never say no in an improv. Go with three.

“One. You’re ready to have sex when you can look your girlfriend straight in the eye and have an honest conversation about birth control. Ummm…you know what that is right?”

Eyeroll. Yes, he knew.

“Two,” I continued. “You’re ready to have sex when you understand that consent doesn’t mean your girlfriend saying, ‘Well, I guess so…’ or ‘If you really want to…’ or ‘I don’t care…’ or ‘Whatever.’ Consent means you’re not having sex until your girlfriend says, ‘Oh, HELL yes!’” Here, I banged both fists on the table. My husband cringed and glanced apologetically at nearby diners.

“Mom!” the boy whispered. “Keep it down!”

(To the best of my knowledge, no one asked to have what I was having.)

when harry met sally 300x159 Ill Have What Shes Having (but only if shes good looking)

“Three,” I concluded, when Item #3 sauntered into my brain at the last possible second. “You’re ready to have sex when you’re willing to learn everything you can to make the experience as good for her as it for you.” The horrified lapsed Catholic began tabulating the number of mortal sins contained in this one impromptu speech. “And that’s why fourteen is too young and why you’ll still be too young for many years. Because most teenage boys are so interested in their own pleasure that they don’t even consider the pleasure of the girl. They have no idea how to make it good for her. All they want is to get off.  And as long as that’s why someone wants to have sex, he’s still too young.”

I finished my drink, spent and terrified. What had I said? Was I right? Was he too young for all that? What had I forgotten? Too late, I realized that I had said nothing about love or commitment. Those are fuzzy terms for a 13-year-old, and if I wasn’t going to give him an age, I had to be as concrete as possible. Still, how could I have failed to mention love?



By the time dinner arrived, I was unsure whether I had just won “Most Embarrassing Parent in History,” “Least Appropriate Hudson Valley Restaurant Guest, Spring of 2014,” or just, and not for the first time, “Worst Mother Ever.”


But I’ve had a few months to think about it, and now I believe I said, miraculously, all the right things. When I told this story to a few friends at work, a long-married father of two said, “Damn! Does that mean I’m still not ready for sex?” That made me wonder, and not just about his wife. Maybe a lot of men hadn’t heard the right messages when they were young.

What made me sure, though, is thinking about my daughter. If I knew that every boy and man she will ever date had an embarrassing parent who taught him that responsibility for birth control is not just for girls, that consent must be enthusiastic or it isn’t consent, and that mutual pleasure, not just his, is the aim of any intimate encounter, then I would worry a lot less about her and her friends than I do.

It was rough question. I hope I’m ready for the next one.

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Don’t Pray for Peace

Lately, we’ve all been hearing many prayers for peace, but it’s not prayer or the lack of it that is our problem.

There are limited resources in this world–land, water, oil, food, money, power. People fight over them, as they always have, and refuse to recognize that another group’s claim to those resources might be every bit as valid as theirs.

Political peace, unlike inner peace, doesn’t come from prayer. It comes from excruciating compromise, the kind that forces one group or another to let go of something they’re sure they need to survive. Ironically, that kind of compromise is the only way anyone will survive.

If a liturgy includes prayers for peace, but the leaders speak as if only one side of a conflict has legitimate claims, legitimate desires, legitimate suffering–in essence, as if only one side is legitimately human–then you may as well spare Heaven and everyone else your prayers for “peace.”

Peace isn’t manna. Peace isn’t grace. Peace is what’s left after human beings do the hard, sacrificial, painful work of real compromise. The alternative is war, and we already know how that ends. It never does.

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Alligators and Flash Fiction

Flash fiction is a strange beast, isn’t it? It’s compressed like a poem or a joke. It tries to do many things in a tight space: create a tiny narrative arc, suggest fully-formed characters in a gesture or two, allude to vast underground currents of backstory and theme.

But because it’s short and goes down easy, I think readers don’t give it the attention they would another form, if they read it at all, which the site stats indicate they don’t. Good flash fiction, like any literature worthy of the name, rewards deep reading. But the name and the length invite people just to flash their eyes over it.

If no one reads it, or if they read it carelessly, what’s the point? Well, it’s a great exercise. I’ve learned something from every flash fiction Neil has wrestled me to the floor and forced me to write. And I was thinking this morning that maybe it is a fundamentally religious exercise anyway, a private devotion, shared with few, if any. A small sacrifice of time, craft, and imagination to the Mad Novelist.

To that end, then, here is today’s offering: The Interpretation of an Alligator

I wasn’t as surprised as I should have been when I read that Bobbie Baker had come home from work one afternoon to find a five-foot alligator on her doorstep. I should have been as shocked as she was when she poked it with a broomstick, and it flicked one ancient eye open to glare at her. Bobbie’s doorstep is in New Jersey, a thousand miles north of alligator territory.

“I bet I know who did this,” I said…

(Read the rest!)

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What Are We Preparing Our Students For?

Today on Perfect Whole we have a guest post by my colleague, Richard Smith. A longer version of this essay was published in our school newspaper.

Rich and I work in an extremely high-achieving school district in which nearly all the students go on to four-year colleges. We have seen many of our students and graduates achieve extraordinary success, but we have also seen the terrible toll competition and pressure take on some students. While no one can say for certain why anyone commits suicide, this year we lost two Class of 2013 graduates to suicide, and we have lost several graduates to drug addiction over the past few years.

All of us are engaged in a conversation now about how to reduce stress on our students and help them cope with the stress they experience. We don’t all agree about how best to proceed, and we know that the admissions process for the most exclusive colleges is not going to get easier or kinder, nor is the job market. But we all sense that a line has been crossed–there is a difference between encouraging students to do their best and requiring students to do the impossible.

Here is Rich’s wise, thoughtful take on the problem.


What Are We Preparing Our Students For?

“Every kid starts out as a natural-born scientist, and then we beat it out of them. A few trickle through the system with their wonder and enthusiasm for science intact.”― Carl Sagan

I consider myself incredibly lucky. I teach math in a school with great colleagues, hardworking students, and a community that supports what I do wholeheartedly. My school creates successful people, no matter how one defines success, including some very influential and prosperous citizens. But often over the past few years, I’ve wondered about the costs of this success. I read the quotation above from Carl Sagan recently, and it reminded me how much our shared values about education are producing students with an unrealistic view of how the world works.

Over the nineteen years I’ve taught high school, I’ve seen competition in all areas of student life intensify, and  I’m increasingly angry about it lately because it isn’t fair to our kids. Competition raises the bar for success, and the hurdles students are expected to jump become more and more unrealistic by the year. The adolescent mind is not equipped to deal with the stress of having to succeed on so many fronts.

I have seen students over-enrolling in AP and honors classes, hoping to make a positive impression on the colleges they are applying to. In athletics, many kids play on club teams or get private lessons so that they can be the best in their sport. In the performing arts, students work for hours and hours on their musical prowess or their acting ability. All of these pursuits come at the expense of socializing with friends, family time, or the exploration of a hobby. Very little time is given for the brain (or the child) to relax. The mantra of work, work, work is rewarded and heeded as if its payoff were unquestionable.

Many adults perpetuate the idea that extreme competition and pressure are beneficial. The implicit message is that by outworking everyone ad absurdum, you can achieve your goals. When that becomes the unspoken mission for a school of 1350 students, it creates a huge bottleneck for competition at the top. Kids try to do more and more to stand out to prospective colleges. The enormous effort of these endeavors makes living a normal life nearly impossible. And the scope of this competition is getting wider by the year.

I routinely see students in my class who have been up until 2 AM studying, or even all night. They can barely keep their eyes open or their heads up. I have seen stacks upon stacks of index cards, lined with terms, facts, dates, and definitions, all made in the hope of retaining information. It makes me anxious. While I’m trying to teach math, my students are often poring over PowerPoint slides, notes, or essay questions for other classes. It takes them completely out of the discussion, out of whatever is going on in the present. I observe students coming into my classroom on the day of a quiz buzzing with nervousness, a fever pitch overcoming the room at the prospect that the students haven’t memorized everything that they were supposed to for the day. The hours of homework, the summer assignments, the AP packets given over the vacation break—how much information can we expect to cram into the teenage brain? It’s turning our kids into zombies.  They learn to absorb facts in the short term, but they don’t develop enough reasoning or knowledge to be educated for the long term.

This unprecedented level of stress is becoming the norm, and overloading is perceived as desirable. Students are led to believe that the more they do, the better chance they will have to get into their dream college, which will inevitably lead to the best possible career and life.  It is all done with the best of intentions, but look at our economy–a college degree is no longer a guarantee of skilled work after graduation.  Of course, a college education is valuable, but students should not need to go to such extreme lengths to get one. There is a college for everyone. We may just have to adjust our sights a bit to determine what is realistic for each student.

As educators, counselors, administrators, and coaches, we should not be standing idly by and witnessing what is happening to our kids. We are not preparing them for the life that they will eventually lead. And we are certainly not educating them to love learning.

Life is not about constant pressure. Other than for the few who want enter professional sports or entertainment, or those aiming for a career that will pay tens of millions of dollars over a lifetime, life is not a competition in which the stakes get higher and higher. We don’t need to expose all kids to so much pressure so early in their lives, leaving them no time to be teenagers anymore. Adults who care about kids should not rob them of their youth.

Of course, it is rewarding to compete to be the best at something. But it is a fool’s errand to try to be the best at everything. The insane competition is causing many students in high-achieving schools to believe that they must be experts not only in the finer points of integral calculus, but also in the underlying causes of the Peloponnesian War, the gross domestic product of Zaire, the conjugation of irregular verbs, the atomic weight of Cesium, Erikson’s seventh stage of development, and what Hamlet was thinking in Act II, Scene ii. All are noble pursuits on their own, but I submit that it is impossible to develop mastery of all of these subjects in the 1000 or so instructional hours of a school year. Yet, unbelievably, excellence in every pursuit is becoming the basic expectation for all our students.

I believe that two changes are necessary: first, curricula must be weeded to promote greater depth and less breadth; and second, students need to be realistic about what courses they want to take. Are they choosing classes that interest them, or are they just trying to impress a college? A cultural shift in the way we approach education and success needs to happen, and it needs to happen soon.

If you are an adult reading this, think about the people you know who are successful and well-balanced. Chances are that they are hard workers who set and achieve goals, and that they are experts at one thing, not everything. They have good people skills. They have hobbies, or  interests in the arts, athletics, other pursuits. Our kids need reassurance that life will be accommodative for the vast majority of them. They are not growing up into a world in which  only the strong survive. Few positions that our kids will endeavor to pursue will ever involve the type of cutthroat competition that is presently encouraged by many of the adults in their lives.

As parents, teachers, and coaches, we need to get our priorities in order. Kids are not equipped to deal with so much pressure on their young brains. The constant need to do better than they did last time, outwork everyone else, or, worst of all, struggle to be perfect, creates an impossible situation. Kids stoically cast aside their mental anguish to deal with the challenge at hand. Many don’t know how to cope with failure, or even the prospect of not doing as well as they hoped.  But failure is one of our best teachers, and many of our kids are terrified of the very idea of it, leaving them ill-prepared for the life we believe we are preparing them to lead.

We need to understand that kids are kids. They need time to be social. We should not be inundating them with copious work outside of school. Give kids less to do outside the classroom and they will give you more inside the classroom. High school is meant to give kids a sampling of all of the subjects that are available for study and pursuit once they reach college, should they decide to go. As adults charged with their care, we should encourage an appropriate balance of competition and appreciation of the pursuits that make life worth living.

Richard Smith is a mathematics teacher at Northern Highlands Regional High School in Allendale, NJ, where has has taught since 2002. Mr. Smith began his career in 1995 at Westwood Regional High School. He has also been a successful coach of high school athletes in multiple sports. He received his Master of Education in Instruction at The College of New Jersey and is presently a graduate student as Montclair State University pursuing a Master’s Degree in Mathematics Education. An avid technologist and information junkie, Mr. Smith loves to read when time allows. You can follow him on Twitter @SmithNHRHS.




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Please check out my flash fiction, “Unconvincing,” on Neil Fein’s Magnificent Nose, part of “Flash Fiction Week VI: Fathers, Mothers, Others.”

Next on Perfect Whole, look for a guest post by Rich Smith about the intense pressure placed on students in high-achieving high schools and the damage it does.



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The People’s MFA

I have a new essay on Neil Fein’s Magnificent Nose today about the People’s MFA, and about a particular session taught by Professor Michael Chabon. I’ve been thinking for some time about the process by which writers consciously and unconsciously model, imitate, steal, and adapt elements from the authors we love, and I think it is evolving into a sort of irregular series.  Enjoy!

I have deep respect for people who have completed a Master of Fine Arts in Creative Writing. Devoting two years of full-time study to producing acres of drafts and absorbing what can be painful critique, knowing all the while that there will be no “Help Wanted: MFA-Accredited Novelist” ad to answer at its conclusion, is a glorious achievement. The MFA attests not only to a writer’s profound commitment to the craft, but to an enviable faith in her own talent.

For those of us, however, who lack the money or time, or maybe even the faith, the People’s MFA is an inexpensive, time-tested alternative. Admission is free and open to all, and the professors are the finest in history. Some of them are even still alive.

If you’ve read like a starving beast ever since you worked out how the alphabet adds up to pictures and people, then you’ve already completed the prerequisites. The coursework begins when you read the authors you admire, and even those you don’t, in search of writing lessons. When, instead of losing yourself in a story, you deliberately step out of it to raise your hand and ask the professor some questions.

  • “I get a sense that this character is in despair, even though you’ve shown him interacting with people cheerfully over what seem to be ordinary events in a happy life. Where and how did you create my unease?”
  • “You made these people up, and I don’t know anyone remotely like them, yet I cried over a moment of unwarranted mercy and forgiveness between them. How did you make me care?”
  • “I finished reading your book a week ago, and lines from it are still bouncing around my consciousness, coloring my interactions, forcing me to reassess my assumptions. What techniques allowed you to take up residence in my mind, even after I closed the book?”
  • “It’s three o’clock in the morning and my alarm will go off at 6:15. And yet, you just made me turn the page again! What sorcery is this? Teach it to me!”

“Go back to the text,” the professor always replies, without a trace of impatience. “All the answers are there.”

Read the rest here.

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“The Goldfinch”

Now that Donna Tartt has won the Pulitzer for The Goldfinch, I should probably link to my review of her beautiful novel on Neil Fein’s Magnificent Nose.

A time-honored axiom among screenwriters and novelists is “Chase your character up a tree and throw rocks at him.” Get your character in a lot of trouble. Complicate and multiply his problems. Don’t grant him an easy way down.”

In The Goldfinch, Donna Tartt’s hefty, Dickensian bildungsroman, the Tartt Corollary to the Trees and Rocks Axiom might be “Chase your character up a tree, throw rocks at him, then vaporize the ground beneath the entire forest.” It makes for painful, but compelling reading.

The target of Tartt’s sadism is thirteen-year-old Theo Decker who, in the first chapter, experiences the worst loss a child can suffer: His adored, artistic mother is killed in a terrorist attack on the Metropolitan Museum. Theo, badly injured himself, tries to help an older man in the rubble, a man he had observed before the explosion exploring the gallery with a girl about Theo’s age. The man gives Theo a ring and an address, and, delirious and dying, instructs Theo to rescue a certain painting from the ruins. Severely concussed, the boy flees the disaster scene with the priceless painting, unwittingly becoming an art thief.

Read the rest here.

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I was in the A&P late this afternoon, around 5:30, when I noticed that I was in a surly mood, almost itching for a fight with the woman behind the bakery counter who didn’t want to answer my question about the difference between two seemingly identical kinds of chocolate cake. I started to wonder what the hell was wrong with me, when I remembered that I hadn’t eaten since lunch, a good five hours earlier.

As my family can attest, I get cranky when I’m hungry. Really, really cranky.

I forced myself to be polite to the bakery person, and started thinking about food stamps and the Federal school breakfast and lunch program.

I’m a grownup, and when my blood sugar drops, I can barely compel myself to behave.

But what if I were eight years old?

What if the government officials who are supposed to represent me decided that hunger is really the best motivator for poor children? What if they decided that making sure I had enough to eat was far less important than making America a nicer place to be a billionaire?

What if I were sitting in class trying to learn to read or do long division, but I couldn’t concentrate because I was hungry, with no breakfast before school and no lunch to look forward to?

What if that crankiness led me to act up and get labeled a problem child, maybe emotionally disturbed, or just a stubborn, ornery kid who wasn’t worth her teachers’ emotional investment? What if, when my blood sugar dropped, I felt so exhausted that I lay my head down on the desk, and my teachers concluded that I didn’t care?

What if they also cut my family’s food stamps, so there wasn’t going to be much to eat when I got home, either?

It wouldn’t matter what set of standards my teachers were working from, nor how many high-stakes tests they gave me, nor whether I was learning from an iPad or a textbook or a stone tablet.

I wouldn’t have a chance.

Once this occurred to me, I decided not to solve the problem immediately by going to the Starbucks at the front of the store and buying a snack to eat on the spot.

I decided instead to finish shopping and interacting with humans and paying and loading and unloading groceries, and just sit with that feeling for a while–trying to hold it together, trying to understand what it would feel like to be a hungry child in school, knowing all the while, of course, that I could make that terrible feeling go away any time I chose.

In other words, I can’t possibly know what it would feel like to be a hungry child in school.

Still, I wish Paul Ryan would skip a few meals and use his imagination.

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Querying is Like Hell, Except Your Friends Aren’t There, Part I

In February of 2013, I rejoiced to type “The End” on the manuscript I’d been writing on and off for over twenty years. I spent the next two months editing, proofreading, and preparing the manuscript for the querying ordeal.

Querying, the initial step in the traditional publishing process, is the method by which a writer seeks a literary agent to represent her work to publishers in the hopes of securing a book deal.

It’s a brutal process.

Agents receive hundreds of queries per week, but each agent can only take on a limited number of new clients each year. The query letter is a writer’s one shot at piquing an agent’s interest. The letter must begin with an irresistible one-sentence hook. It must introduce the plot, characters, conflict, and potential market for the book without giving away the ending. It must seduce the most jaded agent scanning her fiftieth query of the day with its wit and charm, while hewing precisely to the submissions guidelines on the agent’s website. It must communicate absolute confidence in the work without boasting. And it must do all this in no more than one page.

Every agent has different requirements. Some want a query letter, synopsis, and sample pages ranging from ten to fifty pages, or three to ten chapters. Some want only a query letter and will ask for samples if they’re interested. Some prefer not to see a synopsis before they read the manuscript. And many make it clear that failure to follow these instructions will result in instant rejection.

Increasingly, rejection itself is a privilege, as a growing number of  agents advise writers to assume rejection if they receive no answer within a certain period, usually six weeks. I can’t understand this. If the agent or intern has enough time to read the emailed query, synopsis, and sample chapters in enough depth to determine that the agency isn’t interested, then why can’t she take twenty seconds to bounce back a form rejection email? It’s a small courtesy. When an agency does not use automated email receipts for submissions AND does not send rejections, you have no way of knowing whether the agent received your manuscript and hated it, failed to rescue it from the spam filter, or simply dropped dead without prejudice.

If an agent likes your query letter, she may ask for more sample chapters–a “partial”– and a synopsis. If she likes your partial, she may request the full manuscript. If she likes the full, but not quite enough, she may ask that you revise and resubmit the manuscript in the future. If she likes the full or revised manuscript, she may call to offer representation.

All of these have happened to me, except that last crucial one. I’ve received form rejections and personalized, encouraging ones, and the long silence of rejection by default. I’ve gotten requests for partials and fulls, and a revise and resubmit request. But I’m still waiting for the phone call that every single writing and publishing book and blog assures me will definitely not change my life.

I spent hours reading books and websites, trying to learn as much as I could about the process before sending my first query. I didn’t want to come across as an amateur. Clearly, not everyone does this. Agents periodically tweet tragically funny excerpts from terrible queries, and one has a Tumblr on which he posts queries so patently delusional, ungrammatical, and nonsensical that I don’t know whether to feel more guilt, revulsion, or relief when I read them. I shouldn’t laugh at people this clueless and/or mentally ill. But their queries make my protocol-following, grammatical one look stellar, particularly given its lack of declarations that I am God’s most beloved and potentially top-earning prophet.

By most standards, my query was successful because it inspired several agents to want to read more. After the revise and resubmit request from a lady I’ll just call Dream Agent, I decided to stop querying and focus on revision. I felt her criticisms were valid and her advice excellent, and I no longer wanted to query a manuscript I knew I could improve. I worked on it for eight months. Two weeks ago, certain I could not compress, edit, delete, or invigorate one more word (and uncertain whether or not the novel was still in English), I resubmitted to Dream Agent. Now, I check my email two hundred times a day and contemplate the possibility that I have written the world’s most hideous debut novel, and that my friends, bless them, have been too polite to mention it.

I’ve always been terrible at meditation, but I wish I’d learned, because never would the ability to observe my thoughts like bubbles floating across my consciousness be more useful than it would be now. “Oh, look,” I would comment serenely. “There’s another ‘I am one of the greatest novelists of my generation, but I’m not cool, and I don’t live in Brooklyn, and I didn’t go to NYU or Iowa, and I’m an overeducated suburban librarian mom with wire-rimmed glasses instead of those chunky black plastic ones and ALL THE WRONG CLOTHES, and agents catch the stink of all that on my query, so no one will ever know, and I will die in obscurity, with some rent-a-rabbi reciting the Valiant Woman verses over my corpse instead getting one of those witty, wistful tributes in the Talk of the Town.’ again.”

Or, “Ah, yes. There’s another variation on, ‘I am a talentless fraud.’ There it goes again into the void of all weightless thoughts, lighter than air and far less vital.”



I’m making a point of writing and posting this now, while I’m still desperate and hopeful, still composing unsendable letters to Dream Agent in my journal, still fantasizing about the email, the phone call, the contract, the book deal, the book tour, and everything– all of which, even if it earns me no money at all (and I don’t see how it could ever work out to more than 17¢ an hour over twenty-odd years), would mark the world’s opinion that writing this book instead of becoming an outstanding knitter or a devoted fan of all the terrific HBO series I’ve missed out on was a good decision. I’m telling you all this now, when I don’t know if my querying will achieve its goal, because so much of what I read about this process when I was trying to learn how to do it was written in a fortunate author’s post-book deal glow. The chirpy tone of the recently-signed assures aspiring novelists that if their writing is good enough, if they work hard, and if they truly believe in themselves, then they, too, will live to see their publication date.

This is an attribution error, of course. E.L. James and Stephenie Meyer are terrible writers by any standard. Many gifted writers work extremely hard, but never publish a word. And my belief in myself (or lack thereof) has no power to influence an agent’s or publisher’s business decisions. They will take on projects they believe will earn money, and pass on those, no matter how good, that they don’t think have a chance of returning the investment. That is how people in the publishing industry put food in the mouths of their children.

I may never see this book in print, or my next one, or the one after that. Or maybe I will. I’m going to keep writing, and if Dream Agent rejects my revised manuscript, I will query others. And I would encourage you to do the same.


Next week, Part II of Querying is Hell, Except Your Friends Aren’t There.

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