By Susan De Freitas
The world is full of people who want to publish a book—many of whom have spent very little time on the actual craft of writing.
But there are many others who have worked hard, perhaps even put in their ten thousand hours, and submitted to literary journals, contests, and agents diligently for years without breaking through with their first book deal.
We live in an era in which self-publishing has increasingly lost its taboo. But for many of these writers, self-publishing does not provide the experience they’re looking for, and in some cases have been looking for much of their lives.
Which is the validation of being welcomed into the conversation that is publishing with a champion behind them—with the love and enthusiasm (and of course, the marketing muscle) of individuals who have dedicated their lives to the business of books.
Being published traditionally is an experience that offers the sense of being seen and heard in its own right, regardless of how the published book is received. It’s also an experience that many excellent writers despair of ever having.
I know about this limbo zone between apprenticeship and authorship because I spent many years there myself, and I know how heart breaking it can be. It’s an uncertain territory, plagued by night terrors and haunted by regrets (If only I’d gone back to school! If only I’d gone to a better school! If only I focused on a more marketable genre!), with no clear steps for or promise of advancement after what feels like a lifetime of effort.
While this passage can be difficult for anyone, I believe it’s especially so for women.
First, because women are socialized to feel embarrassed about bringing attention to themselves and their ambitions. One my favorite authors, Monica Drake, notes this in her post for Longreads about having her comic novel Clown Girl optioned for film; bestselling mystery novelist Jessica Knoll notes it too, in her recent op-ed for the New York Times.
In that op-ed, Knoll discusses the blowback she has faced for being really good at what she does, fully aware of it, and ambitious as hell. Though she’s made it big, she’s had it hard, in a way that few, if any, of her male peers have experienced.
But Knoll secured a book deal with her first shot, which is far from the norm. Add to that the fact that many women don’t even take that first shot until middle age—whether because they lacked the confidence as young women or because they were busy raising kids—and the road to establishing a career as an author can be difficult indeed for a woman.
I started my study of creative writing in high school, when I attended a boarding school for the arts. I’d been writing fiction since I was a child, so I thought I’d have my first novel published by the time I was 20.
Despite the fact that I did not have kids, it took me until I was nearly 40.
In my twenties, I had to find a way to make a living in a way that supported my fiction-writing habit. A full-time job never seemed to fit the bill, so I spent years establishing a career as a freelance copywriter. Even so, there were many times I still faced either implicit or explicit criticism from a significant other that I was being selfish by taking the time to work on my novel. Would it ever be done?
In fact, that novel never was. And by the time I finally decided to go back to school to get my MFA, at 32, I found myself between Scylla and Charybdis, thanks to what Leni Zumas might term my “red clock.” Because by then I had finally found the (awesome, supportive, and equally ambitious) man I’d been looking for, the one who would become my spouse, and we knew we wanted to have a family.
Which meant by the time I graduated from my MFA program, I was in a race to get my first book published before I had a child. Even so, it took another year or two of revising my MFA thesis before I finally felt like I had a manuscript that was ready for the world.
I shopped that manuscript around but did not find any takers; I sent out my short stories, to deafening silence. I continued to publish poetry and essays, as I had for years, in the “little magazines,” and sometimes bigger magazines too, but fiction was my first love, and at that point, it was beginning to feel unrequited.
My family had been one hundred percent supportive of my literary ambitions for virtually my whole life. But in this limbo zone in my late thirties, I began to sense that even they had become concerned about my long-term financial prospects. Was it time for me to bite the bullet and find a full-time gig—while I still could? Was it maybe time to “try something different,” as my mother went so far as to suggest?
If I had been a different person, maybe I wouldn’t have persevered. And maybe if my body had proven capable of having children, my first book would not have been published when it was—because if I had gotten pregnant in my mid- to late thirties, what choice would I have had but to have that child, while I still could?
It’s been a relief, in some ways, to turn to adoption, because it’s given me the time, at a critical point in my career, to keep running full-steam, writing and publishing and reviewing, teaching and presenting and editing and coaching.
In other ways, it’s been another kind of heartbreak. Because I will not have the opportunity to carry on the genes of my ancestral line, which is full of bad-ass women—farmers and shopkeepers and schoolteachers and nurses and sailors and feminists before feminism was a thing.
But when I look back at how hard it has proven to achieve my dream of establishing a career as an author, with all the advantages I’ve had—a supportive family, good schools, and even an advanced degree—I can only imagine how hard it has been, and continues to be, for women who have not had those advantages.
Women with a voice burning hot in their throats when they read books by the authors they love, and by the ones they hate—when they scroll through the news on their phones.
Women beset by the voices of their ancestors, asking them to carry their stories. Women of ambition, driven to speak out against the atrocities of the world, to take a stand for life, love, beauty, and empathy—for all the things that make our days here on earth feel worthwhile. Which of course is what good books do.
I have only the small power of the place in the world where I stand today, as an author, editor, and educator. But as someone who has been on both sides of the slush pile, I know how incredible it can be to have your work published, talked about, and, by some, really and truly heard, and I know what it’s like to be the one, at times, who has the privilege of publishing another.
And you can be damned sure I will use that power to help other women get where I am now, and to surpass me on every front. Not only because I know what it feels like to despair of knowing whether you’ll ever have a place in publishing, but because all those women’s voices out there waiting to be heard are going to change the fucking world.
Susan DeFreitas is the author of the novel Hot Season, which won a Gold IPPY Award, and an instructor for Litreactor.com. Her online class for emerging authors, Final Draft, begins May 22. An author, editor, and educator, DeFreitas’s work has appeared in The Writer’s Chronicle, The Utne Reader, Story Magazine, Weber-The Contemporary West, and High Desert Journal, along with more than 20 other journals and anthologies.