A few months ago, I almost gave up on my dream of becoming a New York Times Best Selling author. But, in coming so close to giving up, I realized that I will never truly give up on my dream because, when I want something so badly, I just can’t let it go.
Acknowledging this dream, saying it out loud or even writing about it in this post, feels as if I am going to jinx it. Like a birthday wish or wishing upon a shooting star, I fear that if I say it out loud, it won’t come true.
Of course, I’m not actually that superstitious. But I am still reluctant to discuss my dream, perhaps because I’m afraid of the embarrassment of announcing my goal and then never achieving it. But that’s silly, right?
There have been lots of dreams that I haven’t achieved and don’t feel any embarrassment about. My aspirations of being a professional baseball player and a celebrity fitness instructor have disappeared with aging and illness. But unlike those dreams, I can still write books.
I began writing my first book in 2011–a self-help fitness book full of corny, new-age wisdom, such as: “Focus on everything positive about yourself. Think about how far you’ve come on your journey—this is the time to be selfish.”
Cringey, I know!
I thought it would appeal to the masses, or at least a literary agent who would help me get the book published. It didn’t. I struck out with literary agents and eventually moved on to writing a memoir. This was before I became bedridden, when I had more energy to query literary agents, many of whom told me that I needed a strong author platform—tens of thousands of social media followers—before a publisher would consider buying my memoir. They told me that I needed to write for The New York Times or have some sort of prestigious bylines.
So I built my author platform, got my writing credits, and I landed my first agent. I was naive, but I wasn’t naive enough to think that building a robust author platform and signing with a literary agent would automatically get me on the NYT Best Sellers list. I did, however, think that it essentially guaranteed that my memoir would be published.
I was wrong.
I soon learned that landing a literary agent doesn’t guarantee anything except a chance at getting a book deal, which is still something. Unfortunately that something didn’t pan out for me. My agent took my memoir on submission twice, and it got rejected both times.
It was hard for me to accept that my memoir, the story that I had spent the better part of a decade working on, was not going to be a NYT Bestseller. Part of me still hoped that it had a chance. Maybe I could self-publish it and hire a publicist to give it enough exposure to get on the coveted list. I decided to give it a shot, even if it was a long shot, because I needed to get the weight of the book off my shoulders. I wanted people to read what I wrote and relate to my experiences.
I wasn’t surprised when my memoir didn’t make the New York Times Best Sellers list, but I was surprised to learn that, really, I never had a chance. Because the list is more of a curated group of books than a list of the best selling books at any given time, indie books almost never make it on the list. In other words, even if my book had sold a million copies in the first week, it probably still wouldn’t have made the list because it wasn’t published by one of the “Big 5” publishers.
I’ll admit that this realization was quite soul-crushing. I was essentially playing a rigged game, trying to achieve a goal that very well could have required more luck than skill.
And yet, I kept trying.
I wrote a young adult novel about two teens struggling to live with their disabilities, finding love and solace in each other. My agent submitted the manuscript to editors at publishing houses. One of my favorite young adult authors, David Levithan, who is also an editor at a big publisher, agreed to read my manuscript. I was sure that meant I was in. Finally, I was going to get my foot in the door of the book world and then onto the NYT Best Sellers list.
Unfortunately we never heard back from many of the editors, and the others rejected the manuscript. I struck out again. I was, and still am, devastated.
In the year since I last went on submission to publishers, I have not stopped trying to write my best seller. I’ve often prioritized this dream of mine over my health. I’ve spent countless nights writing instead of sleeping, crafting outlines instead of relaxing and watching a movie. I did this because I love writing, but I also did it because I’m obsessed with achieving things. Just as I was obsessed with exercising before I got sick, I am now obsessed with writing. I don’t mean to sound like the typical suffering artist, who needs to bleed to make good art. Because I’m not that delusional (or masochistic). I know when my priorities are out of order. I just have a difficult time changing them.
On the verge of giving up on my dream, I pitched an essay about it to Catapult’s “I Give Up” column. I did, after all, think I was in fact giving up. I planned to write a depressing essay about how my dream was crushed, how I would never achieve my goal of becoming a best selling author. In writing the pitch, I realized that perhaps I could just put my dream aside. I could focus more on my health and self-care, more on my life than the lives of my fictional characters.
And so, for the last several months, that’s what I’ve been doing. I still write. In fact, I probably write more than I did when I was looking for a publisher, likely because I’m not sending out a million query emails every day.
For a while, I wondered if I made the right decision. Maybe I should’ve given up on my dream. Maybe I’m not a good enough writer. Maybe I’m just wasting my time. Why keep torturing myself with all of the rejections from agents and publishers?
While I was pondering this, I received an email from the editor of the “I Give Up” column, rejecting my pitch. And there it was—if my pitch for giving up on my dream of becoming a best selling author wasn’t good enough for a column about writers giving up, then I had to keep going. As much as I wanted to quit, giving up just wasn’t meant to be.
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