A Writer's World

A Column by Molly Moynahan

The Agony and Whatever

I’m starting this column—waiting to hear whether a good publisher, a dream editor, actually, wants my new novel tentatively titled The Heart Wants What It Wants. The title is inspired by Emily Dickinson and, as it turns out, Selena Gomez. I feel like killing myself. I can’t write; I can’t focus; I’m angry, sad and certain that I’m going to get my own heart broken.

Again. I keep choosing parts of the book to reread, and then I think, “Jesus, I suck,” or “Hey, I’m brilliant,” but neither is true, and I’m tired. My husband tries to be supportive but he has no idea what it means to write books and wait and wait and then discover whatever it was you thought you’d managed to accomplish could be dismissed in a sentence: “Not what we’re looking for.” “Ultimately, I remain unmoved.” “Molly has such a unique voice but our list is full.” Yadda, yadda, yadda.

I worked in publishing before I got my MFA, got married, had a baby, moved to London, Dallas, Chicago, got divorced, taught high school, published a novel that garnered lots of attention, made New York Times Notable Book, and then, and then, nothing.

When editors don’t buy your book they are usually telling the truth in their response—“missed the mark, unconvincing, failed to engage,” but, the confusing part is all the positive feedback I received followed the “no.” No, we don’t care that you’ve rewritten this story four times. No.

And yes, it is, no. This morning I received e-mail from the editor telling me the publisher won’t go for it, and so, no. I am slightly stunned, choked with fear, doubt and rage. This diminishes, and I am left with that oh-so-familiar feeling: I don’t think I should write anymore. What’s the point? I will never publish again. I lost the password. I’m fucked. Yes, I know that I had success of a sort, but isn’t that worse, isn’t it worse to have been loved and left and then never loved again?

There’s the rub: it isn’t love, and some would argue, it’s barely art, it’s business. But it doesn’t feel like business. It feels personal.

I don’t want anyone to know, I don’t want to talk to anyone, I feel fat and stupid and old. None of this has anything to do with whether a certain publisher wants my book, but this is how it feels. Immediately, the careers of other writers I know fill my brain, and I am beset with envy, jealousy and hate.

I am Pandora and have removed the lid from that box and there are furies everywhere. I hear of a terrible accident in India, more about a recent terrorist attack, and I feel numb with self-pity. I look around my beautiful home and think about my nice husband, my wonderful son, my good friends, and there is a voice that deafens, “You are a mediocre writer who will never publish again.”

I recall my father’s voice as he spoke to me of this novel, “Do better.” He didn’t like it, I rewrote, reworked, transformed and still it isn’t good enough. He was so harsh and so helpful and completely unaware of the pain we writers suffer. His scholarly work on D.H. Lawrence, Nabokov, James Joyce and his brilliant book reviews for the New York Times and the Times Literary Supplement were eclipsed by the relative lack of success of his novels. A full professor at Rutgers University, he always had that to fall back on.

I left high school English teaching after 12 years, loving my students but finding the administrative treachery unbearable. I left and started my own business, coaching writers, working with teenagers on essays, working with adult writers, editing and rewriting business stories. But, mainly, I write my books. My stupid, bad books. I miss my daddy.

This novel’s history? A conversation on a bike inspires one story that leads to another focus that morphs a third time. Then I rewrite the entire thing in the viewpoint of the fifteen-year-old daughter. It felt right, and I don’t regret the decision to take this novel to its final resting place. Yes, it’s dead. But, I am not. She told me to try again.  And that is exactly what I will do. Try again.

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