A ‘breakthrough publication’ blog: Holding on and letting go

Write Despite, a fun and inspiring blog committed to the idea of writing every day for 20 minutes come hell or high water, featured me as a guest author for its “breakthrough publication” series. It was fitting that blog co-host Karen Guzman – who has a debut novelHoming Instincts, coming out this fall with Fiction Attic Press – found me right as The Four Words for Home was about to launch. Karen and I were co-workers 15 years ago at The Hartford Courant, where we were part of a small writer’s group of reporters with literary aspirations.

Thanks, Karen, for giving me the opportunity to reflect on the ups and downs of writing and publication.

We writers endure so much rejection that every publication, every “yes,” feels like a breakthrough. I remember well my first-ever literary-journal publication, my first paid publication, my first anthology publication, and my first publication in what I regarded as a well-known journal. Each of these felt like stair steps – often with very long plateaus in between – toward the ultimate goal of someday publishing a book.

Starting in late 2004, after I returned from a life-changing reporting trip to Afghanistan, I spent a year in denial that I was writing a book based on that experience (“Essays! I am writing a series of essays!”); four years drafting what I begrudgingly admitted really was a book; one year drastically revising the mess of a “book” I came up with (evident in agent responses akin to, “Love the idea, love the writing, but it’s just not ready yet”); nearly one more year in an even more drastic revision based on the detailed notes of an agent who left her job before I finished. Granted, I had worked full-time as a journalist and then a tenure-track university professor during this time, so all this writing, revising, agent-querying was happening amid a whole lot of reporting, career-changing, teaching, and scholarly research.

But suffice to say that by 2012, the start of year eight of working on my book The Four Words for Home and seeking an agent or publisher for it, I was beginning to wonder if I should shelve it. My book’s focus had shifted from Afghanistan to an interwoven memoir about two immigrant families, the Afghan-American family that had brought me to their homeland and my own. Even so, I knew the reading public’s interest in Afghanistan had faded – the market for my book had shrunk with every year I had spent on it. I loved and believed in the story I had obsessed over for so long. But I was tired.

I promised myself I would send the manuscript out to one more round of small-press contests, casting a wider net to include more independent publishers. Early in 2013, I learned I was a finalist for the Willow Books Literature Awards and was invited to a festival and awards ceremony, where the winners of cash prizes and two book contracts (poetry and prose) would be announced.

When my name was announced as the prose winner, I was so ready to weather another near miss, I thought another finalist’s name had been read. I finally made it up to the stage, but months passed before reality sunk in and I started talking about a book and not a book manuscript. Since then, I have ridden the roller coaster of panic (that I had to stop revisingand submit a final version), euphoria (I’m actually going to have a book!), fear (Everyone can actually read it!), and realism (I’ll be lucky if 0.0000001 percent of “everyone” reads it).

As I write this, I’m a couple days from holding the very first copies in my hand, and about to fly across the country for my first book appearances (not a bankrolled “book tour,” mind you, something about as quaint and rare in today’s literary publishing world as a free, real meal in domestic coach class). I know intellectually this publication represents a breakthrough, but I don’t quite feel it in my heart yet. Other authors tell me it takes some time to sink in and really enjoy it, to get past the “cringe,” as one put it, of other people reading and reacting to something you’ve worked on in isolation for so long.

So my advice to those who are in the long and murky middle between committing to writing a book and getting said book published: Don’t give up – and enjoy it.

Not giving up is obvious. Only your mule-headed, obsessive belief in your story will see you past the fatigue, the rejections, the self-doubt, the doubt from others, the 2,000th stupid question like, “Oh, are you still working on that book?”

Enjoying it may be less so. But I already miss a time when the story was mine and only mine, and we were engaged in a dialogue, and often an epic-seeming battle, over what it would become. The countless hours I spent alone with my manuscript – creating, changing, and wrestling with it – gave me enough belief in the story to release it into the world.

The Four Words for Home is available for order via Willow Books or Amazon.

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