Dealing with a professional setback

by Jessie K on October 2, 2013


The other week at my book club, we were all sitting around our host’s lovely home enjoying our drinks and cheese and discussing the month’s pick (Sweet Tooth by Ian McEwan) when one of the club members asked , “So Jessie, what’s going on with your latest book?”

I could feel my face turn beet red and my initial split second impulse was to outright lie and say, “Great! It’s going  great! Really…great!”

Instead, what came out was the cold, hard truth. “Actually….it’s not….going….very…..well….Are there anymore cookies?” I could feel everyone’s eyes on me, my cue I was expected to elaborate when what I really wanted to do was slither under the chair and get fetal with the cookies.

I’ve been avoiding the question publicly for months and haven’t really said much about it beyond to a few family members and friends.

The truth is, my latest book, the one about Jake’s adventures in Afghanistan and his rescue of our wily dog Solha — the one I’ve spent a year working on off-and-on — hasn’t sold. Nor is it likely to. The manuscript has been making the rounds with publishers since June (June!) and hasn’t captured the attention of editors. It’s either been rejected by the houses or I’ve received zero response, which is almost worse, since it indicates the manuscript didn’t  make it beyond some junior editor’s slush pile.

This is agonizing to admit as it makes me confront the usual soul sucking ruminations guaranteed to kill a writer’s confidence (do I have any talent? Do I even know how to write? What is wrong with me? Are they still hiring down at Hardees?) but it’s been eating away at me for the past several months. I was almost waiting to break the news on the blog until I had something new and exciting and hopeful to replace it with, an attempt to cancel out any suggestion I might be a failure. (“So I didn’t sell my third book, BUT I was just featured on page 197 of Cat Fancy! How u like me now?”) Alas, not even Cat Fancy wants anything to do with me.

On the one hand, I fully accept and understand that rejection is part of being a writer; it’s wound into the job description (unless you’re Danielle Steel). Dealing with and moving on from failure is a component of any successful life, creative or otherwise. I’m trying to look closely and critically at what happened to evaluate my own role in my manuscript’s demise. I’ve come up with plenty of reasons, which I won’t bore you with here, but the biggest one is that I think I was writing too far outside my own milieu. By writing about a soldier’s deployment to Afghanistan — and even though that soldier is my husband — I was trying to be someone I’m not, trying too hard to place myself in a world I never actually inhabited or can intimately comprehend. The voice was second hand. Editors sensed the inauthenticity  to my tone, and passed. I’m also probably not the world’s greatest “dog writer.”

As for how to move forward, it seems to me I have 4 choices:

1) I can either rework the manuscript from top to bottom, make it more compelling, dramatic, funny, more organically me and try submitting again (even though I highly suspect a second submission will be perceived as damaged goods)

2) I can finish the damn thing (it’s almost done) and self publish it through Amazon or through the blog and probably earn $5. This is probably the most prudent option but the number one downside to rejection is that it has this way of sucking any and all motivation I had for the project. I don’t even want to look at the Solha manuscript.

3) I can stick it in a drawer somewhere (done!) and begin a brand new project I’ve been mulling for a few years that is authentically me (it’s a black comedy and involves something that happened to me when I was 17). I’ve started outlining the tale but that’s about as far as I’ve gotten.

4) I can twiddle my thumbs for five months and essentially do nothing.

Guess which option I have chosen? Yeah, I’ve basically been sitting on my thumbs since June waiting for inspiration to strike.

That’s the worst thing about setbacks — it’s left me feeling rudderless, without direction and motivation. Perhaps the pregnancy and thoughts of moving are partially to blame, but this professional blow has in a very real way set me back and I’ve been having a hard time figuring out the next move. But I’d better figure it out soon because time waits for no one…especially with a newborn in the picture.

Anyway, I tried to explain all this to my book club members — smart, polished ladies, all — and the day after the book club, I found a reprint of this letter to Agnes De Mille waiting for me outside my office door:

There is a vitality,

a life force, 

a quickening

that is translated through you into action,

and because there is only one of you in all time,

this expression is unique.


And if you block it, it will never exist through any other medium and be lost.

The world will not have it. It is not your business to determine 

how good it is

nor how valuable it is

nor how it compares with other expressions. 


It is your business to keep it yours clearly and directly

to keep the channel open.

You do not even have to believe in yourself or your work.

You have to keep open and aware directly to the urges that motivate you.


Keep the channel open…

No artist is pleased…


There is no satisfaction whatever at anytime

There is only a queer, divine dissatisfaction

a blessed unrest that keeps us marching

and makes “us” more alive than the others.

— Martha Graham

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