what we carry and what we let go

“This is a nice sized class this evening, seven plus me,” the instructor began brightly. “Can you let me know what you’re writing? Who’d like to start?”

No one answered, our mics muted, our faces flattening within our computer screens, as if willing ourselves to fade into the backgrounds of our ordinary worlds. I have to admit, I was just trying to manage my irritation, which can be made to appear like hiding if you hold really, really still.

The only man in the group, grey-bearded hd7fal03, who hadn’t figured out how to enter his name to caption his Zoom screen, spoke up. “I’m writing a book about a young girl I met in Afghanistan, when I lived there.” Behind him, a small shrine sat just within the framed screen, the Buddha statue perched atop a flowing tapestry setting a forced scene of mindfulness, round stones staged artistically on a descending pyramid of meditation and philosophy books.

I squinted, frowning, then remembered we were all on camera and quickly relaxed my face, impassive as the blank white walls of the library study room where I sat. But I was too late. Or maybe just first alphabetically.

“Bo, how about you? What do you write?”

I tried to smile as I looked down at the screen to unmute myself. I’m sure that looked great. “I write feature stories for National Parks Traveler,” I began, “but I have a book — it’s a journal of my time trying to be a caregiver — quite unsuccessfully — for my mother when she was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s.”

“My mother just died,” the instructor noted wistfully, blinking rapidly. “But cancer is easier than Alzheimer’s,” she added. “It goes … so much faster.”

“Oh, I don’t know, cancer is really hard,” I fumbled. “I mean, we just weren’t qualified — we weren’t caregivers — the book is about facing this caregiving work when you have no idea what you’re doing — we didn’t even love this person! We clearly needed professionals.”

She smiled wanly. “Yes, I learned so much — so much — about hospice.” She cleared her throat. “Emily? What are you writing?”

Damn. Well, that’s the end of querying this agent, I thought, hitting the Mute button. Again.

Apparently, everyone’s mother just died. I kept stumbling across advisors, mentors, and publishing gatekeepers who’d just lost their mothers. Their beloved mothers. Saying I didn’t love mine tossed salt right in their wounds. Well COVID, you idiot. I sighed. Then I remembered the camera again and redirected my gaze to my note pad beside my laptop, jotting, “just lost her mother to cancer — didn’t enjoy info on not loving mother.” I’d add her to my list of agent fails later.

Only she wasn’t an agent. “I read query letters and transfer projects to the agents,” she clarified. “I read lots and lots of query letters.” She rolled her eyes.

Great, I thought.

“Editors no longer edit!” she continued. “Your project must be ready to go. And it must be complete. Don’t query if you haven’t finished it yet.”

I finished my book a year ago. Sent it to a developmental editor. Twice. It’s been ready to go since March. Now it’s nearly October. In between, I’ve kept my list of the agents who have ignored my queries.

“What about this online class?” my sister had suggested, emailing me the link to the respected writer’s workshop. She’s a writer, too, working hard to finish her own book, dive into this godawful process herself. I keep trying to warn her, but I think she will actually be more successful in this arena. She’s got a marketing degree. She knows how this game works. She can play it.

I freaking hate it.

I turned my attention back to my laptop screen. “Your query letter is a one-page, professional business letter,” the instructor pronounced. “Like a cover letter for a resume when you apply for a job. Be professional and you’ll be okay.”

I had already created a full-length book proposal. It contained my pitch, a synopsis of the book, comparable titles, potential market. I had a foreword written by a gerontologist who found the book powerful and moving or whatever. It didn’t matter. I had sent the book proposal to an agent who only accepted book proposals for nonfiction, not queries. Then I sent the three-page hybrid query/proposal preferred by the next agent. Then a one-page query to the next agent. Then just a few brief paragraphs the next one demanded. Then a short-and-sweet email to the next agent’s specifications. Weeks went by. Months. The format didn’t matter. No one answered back.

“Because, we know — writers like to be in that liminal space,” the instructor was saying in an incredibly condescending tone. “But we want to know you’re not a person just sitting alone in your attic, writing and sending off queries. We want you to be in conversation….”

I’m supposed to be in a writer’s group, so I joined one. I have talked about my book with another published author, my editor, my sister, my daughter who works in publishing, the gerontologist. I’ve had beta-readers give me feedback. I’ve been following the rules, but in the end, they’re other people’s rules, and the constant bending over is making my back hurt, among other things. My pride, too. My dignity, self-respect. And my sense of fair play.

Know your jargon, but never, ever use any of it in the query letter. “Show” your jargon, don’t “tell.”

“You need to declutter your query! All the writing terminology. But do include the GMCS,” the instructor smiled — weirdly, waiting just a beat too long before sharing, “that’s Goal, Motivation, Conflict, and Stakes.” She beamed like a doting mother, incredibly triggering for me. I felt the distrustful squint resurfacing, even as I made notes.

Editors don’t edit. And agents don’t market. You, Little Red Hen of Literature, you write the book, you proofread the copy, you write your pitch to be the back cover “sell copy,” you get someone to write the foreword, you build the marketing platform.

“The goal is revenue,” the instructor said, bold as brass. “No one cares what your motivation is for writing this book,” noting offhandedly, “we’re not talking about literary fiction.” She then immediately shifted to warning against inflating your credentials, even as she knew she was addressing multiple first-time writers, grinning slyly as she recounted a story — in great detail — about how she caught someone in a lie, a desperate writer saying they had an offer of agent representation. Her triumphant tone, relishing each fateful misstep, was punctuated by the lifting of an eyebrow and a near wink.

But two cannot play at her game. “Never be aggressive,” she directed. “This is an industry that’s mostly women. We keep a whole file on these, like the guy who said, ‘I hope you all die of cancer, you fat cows!'” Her eyes widened in shock. I’d written an exhausted, frustrated pseudo-query, venting my annoyance. I intended to send it to my daughter.

The instructor was still talking. “Don’t talk about your book’s page count. If you use ‘page count’ instead of ‘word count,’ that tells me, ohh, you’re not ready….” She pouted her lips, mocking the imaginary newbie. It felt like I was watching an insecure high school girl auditioning for the popular crowd. I glanced at my image in the small screen in the Zoom corner; my distaste was obvious. I didn’t bother to shift my expression.

She referred us to QueryShark on Blogspot, where an anonymous agent mercilessly tore into writers’ query letters. Our instructor’s advice? “Your query should be easily digestible. Read a few hundred of these. You’ll see how they should be written.”

Our time was up, and several students thanked the instructor for her words of wisdom. A couple of us smiled and quickly clicked Leave Meeting.

Reading on the QueryShark site after the class, I found the same self-satisfied, taciturn guidance, shifting on a whim. One person needed to add detail, another nearly identical pitch needed less. Tell me where the story goes. Don’t give it all away. The stories were desperate for attention, all of them, especially one that involved an old woman, a fatherless man, and the sentient octopus in charge. Aliens who pulled out their own teeth and sawed off their horns, disguising themselves as humans to survive on Earth. What are people reading?

Clearly, not my book.

Fiction sells. No one wants to hear the truth, it seems. That we are unpublished writers, not marketing gurus and online influencers. That we do sit alone in attics, writing and sending off queries. That we do not love our mothers. That in mad frustration, we let this system goad us, egg us on, sending our inappropriate query to an actual agent, as if it were a clever turning of the tables instead of just another sad act of desperation, just another pitiful attempt to join the popular crowd.

Enough is fucking enough, apparently,” I had written. “No one wants to read my book, Enough, the journal I kept during my time as an Alzheimer’s caregiver, and who could blame them.”

In exasperation with the publishing world, I outlined why I was quitting this game:

“Welcome to a memoir about what we carry, and what we decide to let go — I, for one, am sick of carrying this goddamn manuscript around, begging agents to read it, just to consider the idea of reading it. But no one is even curious to see what happens if you take the dysfunctional family from The Liar’s Club and toss them into the deep end of Still Alice.

“I thought I wanted an agent for my completed manuscript. But now I really don’t think so. And you know why? Because during the search for an agent, I have come to hate this fucking book. No, I mean it, I do, I hate the book, even though carrying its 300 pages around has given me great biceps. The truth is I’ve decided to put it on eBay and sell the manuscript to some other sucker, pounding away on their laptop, writing their own Great-American-Novel bullshit.

“Whatever. The publishing industry is some sort of unholy union of Manhattan Elites and Fight Club, which I’m sure is a novel being turned into a screenplay as we speak. I don’t get your world. And I can’t market this manuscript’s dead weight to save my life. BECAUSE I AM NOT A MARKETER. I thought YOU were the marketer. That’s why I thought I needed a fucking agent. QueryTrack my ass. But that’s just my Gen-X cynicism showing, right? Right.

“(Okay, deep breath … I’m better than this … but this process is just so … sigh, it’s just like the goddamn Alzheimer’s caregiver system, just dumping the bullshit on unsuspecting people …). Sorry, it’s not your fault, I know.

“Thanks for letting me talk this through on paper and get to some kind of resolution. Cheaper than therapy. Or whiskey.”

“That’s so … YOU!” my sister had said adamantly. But it wasn’t. It isn’t. I felt ashamed of actually sending that childish letter out into the world. Because I’m not in high school. I’m not that angry kid anymore. And I was never concerned with popularity then — why would I be now? I’m a grown adult, with better things to do, to say.

I looked the QueryShark right in the cold eye. “The goal is not revenue, Shark,” I said to the dark sky outside the library, walking down the sidewalk. “Go feast on somebody else, poor little chickens.” My footsteps sounded solid as I crossed the street, watching for traffic that never came, the night settling in around me.

“I wrote it because I lived it. My motivation for writing this book was to move on. To learn. To be free. I wrote my book to write it, not to publish it. To explain the whole crazy experience to myself.” I unlocked the door of my car.

“Publishers say ‘you must be ready to go’?” I held the door open. Looking up, I saw the shimmering of clouds passing over the full moon. Its light was glowing past their edges; they could not contain it, the moon reflecting beyond their limited reach.

“So be it,” I replied, dropping my gaze to the stars twinkling at the horizon. “I’m ready to go.” I put my key in the ignition, tossing my laptop onto the passenger seat as I pulled my door shut. The engine roared to life.

I looked in the rearview mirror, at the moonlight shining on my dusty hiking boots and full pack in the back seat. The tools I used to live my life now, free to explore and learn. No more wasted weeks or months. They only become wasted years.

“Getting the hell out of here, that’s for sure,” I commented to the stars, and shifted into gear.