Living in Post-Manuscript Limbo
October 10, 2018 § 11 Comments
By Chelsey Drysdale
A year ago, I finished an overhaul of my manuscript. Since then, I’ve existed in that anticipatory space between first completed memoir and accepting agent, when all literary momentum has stalled.
I write about love, sex, and relationships. As a 45-year-old who has forgotten how to date, I’ve already covered (almost) all the noteworthy, sordid details in the book. Waving sayonara to a trail of men that could fill a hockey roster, my romantic future is murky, so now what?
I have an essay on submission that started as a 4,000-word piece I whittled in workshop until my first mentor said it was ready for the “done pile.” When I removed it from my original manuscript, I renovated it into a 900-word essay about how I’ve always loved emotionally unavailable men, but no longer pursue them. I did research. I included outside sources. A haunted house figures prominently, and as it was early October last year when I sent it to publication number one; it was timely for Halloween.
Early rejections were promising. I was told, “This is a lovely read, but not quite the right fit for us.” One publication said, “We’re super full,” but “pitch this all over.” The “Halloween peg” was a plus. Halloween came and went, so did Christmas, Valentine’s Day, and Easter. Positive feedback turned to silence after an editor I once worked with at The Washington Post said, “Oh boy, can I relate to this one!” But, unfortunately, “relatable isn’t enough to make something stand out on the Internet anymore.” In addition to personal, it also had to be newsworthy.
Then, six years after I first began the essay, I sent it to a friend who provides keen feedback. She advised I ditch the quotations because they distracted from the flow of the piece. She was right. They were an attempt to please an imaginary online editor. My eagerness to press ‘send’ was revitalized.
But now Halloween is upon us again, and I’m on submission number 17, wondering if I should give up after 20. Because of the brush-offs, I doubt the essay’s merit and wonder if the other 11 essays I’ve published since 2014 were flukes. You had a good run, I tell myself. Maybe it’s over. The stillness in my self-created purgatory has conjured the tiny, mean voice in my head that once successfully urged me to quit writing for two years. It’s pestering me again, but this time, I can’t quit. I have a well-earned manuscript that’s not too shabby. So, I must thwart my brain’s wishes and push forward.
That’s why I continue to query agents and revise my book proposal. To date, I’ve queried 49 agents, including one in person and one referred. Five are pending. I considered that excessive until I saw a suggestion on Facebook to make a list of 40 agents, query 10 at a time, and do that three times before reevaluating the angle. Do 120 agents who accept smutty memoirs without happy endings even exist?
Submitting and querying are both excellent ways to avoid writing and still feel like I’m accomplishing something while I summon new topics. I could set up another Bumble profile and leave it up for more than three days at a time, but then I’d have to talk to dubious strangers and maybe even meet them in person. To gather fresh material for my writing, I have to be open to new love, right?
When the #metoo movement began, my first thought was thankfully, I don’t have any stories like that. Then an overlooked incident from the late ‘90s immediately revealed itself, and I turned to the blank page and filled it. I considered capitalizing on that “newsworthy” angle. But, staring at new content about an old incident, I wasn’t sure what the point was. It needed to steep. It’s still steeping. After an important realization later, I put the incomplete piece in the same Word document with an unpublished essay I began more than 10 years ago, another casualty of my revised manuscript. I puzzled out how they relate, and then something scary happened. I thought this needs to be fiction, and I can’t unthink it. But I don’t write fiction.
I’ve often undervalued myself—in relationships and writing. Fiction requires an imagination I’m not sure I possess. I wrote a short story during my teaching credential program 19 years ago and read it in class, sobbing. I haven’t tackled fiction since. So, instead of writing a short story, I’m reading about how to write a short story, pulling old craft texts off my shelf, including a stellar one written by someone who lost his job for sexual misconduct.
My literary career and love life hover in the balance, and I’m perpetuating this indeterminate state. If I don’t write, I can’t fail. If I don’t date, I won’t be rejected again. Both are defense mechanisms that stem from the same unfounded fears. I may be an anxious person, but I’m also adept at eventually running into the eye of the storm with my eyes closed. So, I signed up for a fiction writing workshop. I will leap into the great unknown, scared as usual, but willing nonetheless.
Maybe by next Halloween I’ll publish that pesky essay or receive an email from an agent who’s intrigued. By then, my nebulous short story, crying out to be told, may have taken shape.
Until then, I’ll deal with the silence. I’m a pro at limbo. I can wait.
Chelsey Drysdale’s essays have appeared in The Washington Post, The Manifest-Station, Bustle, Brevity, Ravishly, Black Fox Literary Magazine, Luna Luna Magazine, Reservoir Journal, Book Lovers: Sexy Stories from Under the Covers, and other international publications. She is a Best of the Net Anthology nominee and has been twice nominated for the Pushcart Prize.