A shameful moment and what it taught me about competition – Andrea Dunlop

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By Andrea Dunlop

The year I was twenty-six, I did something really bad. No one was hurt by it, but still I feel a little shocked when I remember it. Allow me to explain. ♥

After finally rallying myself to finish my first novel, I had landed a great agent (not my current one); she was part of a venerable agency and was passionate about my work. I was convinced that this was it. My journey through the first part of the process had been harrowing. I cried every time I got a rejection letter. I took the comments on a deeply personal level and felt exposed and vulnerable in a way I hadn’t ever before. So when I got my first “yes” from my agent, I was elated. I went out drinking with my roommate, drunk dialed my ex-boyfriend to tell him, the whole nine yards.

When the no’s started to roll in from publishers, each one was like a punch to the gut. They were nice no’s by and large, often thoughtful in their feedback and complimentary about my writing. They came from names I recognized, and sometimes even from people I knew personally. I was working for Random House at the time and was right in the belly of the beast. It felt like they weren’t just rejecting my work, but rejecting me. I got a letter from one of the most respected editors in the business saying she thought I was very talented but that maybe I should put this novel in the drawer and write another one. Oh God, I thought, did I jump the gun? Am I blowing it?

I told my friend, Felicia that I wasn’t doing so well with the submission process. “Oh honey,” she told me, “if you’re not curled up on the bathroom floor with a liter of vodka, you’re doing just fine.”

It was the close call that just about did me in. An editor from a house I would have loved to be with sent my agent an enthusiastic note. She loved the book! She was going to get second reads on it in-house! My agent passed the note along, with the appropriate contingencies that we in no way had a deal in hand yet, but she wanted to share because she knew I was pretty down about the other rejections. I was over the moon. Surely this was it. When that “no” came rolling in, it was the death knell. We sent the book to a few smaller publishers, and then it was just … over.

I suppose I could have handled the death of my first novel worse, all things considered. I could have gone on a bender, destroyed property, or run through the streets naked. I didn’t do those things. I did gain ten pounds and drink too much — not in any kind of remarkable or debauched way, just in a frequent hangovers and regrettable phone calls kind of way. But I did do something really, really embarrassing.

Given the nature of my job , I got invited to a lot of book parties, which were a particular kind of torture back then. One night I went to a book launch at a Lower East Side bar for a friend of a friend who was being published by one of the houses that had shot me down. I remember her being about my age, and blonde, and very cute. She’d written some kind of girl-lives-and-loves-in-the-big-city kind of novel that I left the party with a copy of.

I started reading the book on the train the next day on my way home from work. I didn’t like it. I didn’t like it at all. By the time I’d arrived home, I was boiling over. This book had gotten published while my book had been rejected? Why God why? How could the gatekeepers have turned me away and waved this girl through? What did she have that I didn’t have?

I held the book in my hands. I flipped through the pages, spot-checking sentences at random to see if the writing improved as the book marched along. Reader, I tell you it did not. I kept asking myself, how could they do this to me?

Before I knew it, I had ripped the paperback cover right off the book. At first I was shocked by what I’d done. Yet, I was compelled. It felt good. I ripped another page off and then another until the entire book was nothing more than a pile of paper in my wastebasket. The relief I felt defiling the book didn’t last very long, and the shame of it lingers still.

If I knew wherever that cute blonde writer is today (I don’t remember her name, and if I did, I wouldn’t share it), I’d send her some anonymous flowers; maybe a fruit basket. I hope she’s doing well. I hope she found her audience — it wasn’t me, but that doesn’t mean it wasn’t out there. She worked hard to write the book I tore to pieces, I’m sure of it. And who knows how many times she’d tried before? Or how many rejections she’d cried over? Even if it wasn’t my personal taste, her book deserved better than my trash can.

I’ve always been a fan of competitive sports. I grew up playing tennis; I love to win. But writing is not a competitive sport, and if it were, it would be a shitty one: like ice skating except with no actual rules. When you compete as a writer, you always lose. It was just as painful (perhaps more so) to read debut novels by young writers that I felt were better than mine than as it was to read those I perceived to be less worthy. When I read those especially talented young writers during this time, my self-doubt enabled the pernicious thought that I’d been rejected because I wasn’t good enough and maybe never would be.

I was rejected because I wasn’t ready. Oh God, how I wasn’t ready. I was too immature to put my writing in perspective; getting published still felt life or death — as though this alone would determine my worth as a human being. I envision the universe gazing upon my furiously shredding that book over my trash can and thinking, “Yeah, we thought as much. You need to go chill for a few years, sister.”

Now I look at other writers differently. It doesn’t hurt that I’ve had some measure of success (my novel, Losing the Light, just came out from Atria), but that would not have done the trick before. No matter how successful you are, there will always be writers who appear to have it better. Contemporaries who receive bigger advances or splashier quotes, more and better reviews, film options and reprints. The list of ways you can succeed (and fail) as a writer are legion. But it’s only you who carries your jealousies, and they will always end up as your burden, the mighty obstacle blocking your path.

These days, I read about a book a week. If I read something I don’t like I quietly tuck it in the Goodwill bin and move along. If I read something I do like — which happens more frequently, because I get lots of wonderful recommendations — then I shout it from the rooftops. I rate it on Goodreads, I tweet about it; sometimes I send an email and offer to buy the author drink.

Readers — at least the readers most writers want — don’t read one book and call it a day. They do precisely the opposite. They read voraciously. They plow through books looking for their next fix, that next book that will give them the euphoria of love.

We’re all in this together. Writing can be a lonely art if you let it: the only way to enjoy it is to spread the love.

Andrea Dunlop is a Seattle-based writer and the social media and marketing director of Girl Friday Productions. Her first novel, Losing the Light, was released in February 2016 from Atria Books.


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