Guest blogger: Nichole Bernier
I was not in the best of moods the other morning. It was gray and sleeting, and the to-do list for my book launch seemed overwhelming. As I leaned over the two-year-old to change his diaper, in my worn black cabled sweater, he reached up and grabbed a knit bobble. “Booberries,” he said. “Iss pretty.”
Anyone who spends time with children knows the little bits of gold that come out of their mouths. They can also spew mercury and bile like Linda Blair, and show you just what they think of your stinking rules with every cubic inch of air in their lungs. But sometimes there’s a gem that makes you smile, something they say that makes you see things in a way you never have before. And for one shining moment you realize it’s not true that there’s nothing new under the sun, not as long as there are two-year-olds who can see blueberries in yarn.
Hope, like happiness, can come in the most unexpected ways. It’s true of raising children, and it’s true of the writing life. I’ve had my entire evening turned around by a stranger in a restaurant, usually an older woman, who after suffering at the table beside us for an hour says something out of the blue like, Your children are so lovely. It doesn’t matter how the kids treated me that morning or will again once we get home. She saw that I was trying, and that they were trying, and the result was something worth the tip of a hat.
Public reaction to your writing is not all that different. You can choose which comments to take to heart, and which to let wash over you and away. There is also such a thing as a compliment in the rough, good news in a neutral package — a thoughtful observation from an insightful reader who sees potential in your work. It’s possible to be blindsided by random bits of optimism if you recognize them. The key is to give them more weight than the sleet and the bile.
This has been on my mind since I wrote the Acknowledgements for my novel not long ago. It’s a fascinating exercise, creating a little word-bouquet of gratitude. How often do we sit down and make an accounting of the people who made a thing possible, who participated in the confluence of events that led to achieving a goal? And yet I was aware of one person I wanted to thank, but didn’t. To thank her would have been strange since we’d never met, never even spoken.
When I finished the first draft of my novel I was enormously pregnant with my fourth child, and filled with an urgency to progress in every way. This was my first time trying to write or publish fiction, so my mental timeline was that of a magazine freelancer: a) finish, b) publish, c) paycheck. I was not accustomed to improving something slowly at no fee or guarantee. So in my rush to cross “Get Agent” off my to-do list before the baby came, I sent off a handful of queries immediately.
The baby came, and so did the agents’ responses — some passes, but also partials and fulls, all leading to rejections in the end.
It’s easy to lick your wounds when you have a beautiful new infant. I put aside my manuscript and became absorbed with the ambiguous divide between day and night, much as I had after each of the previous three births, consumed with feedings and laundry, exhaustion and love. Months passed. What are you going to do with the novel, my husband would ask gently, because it wasn’t like me to leave something unfinished. But I couldn’t find a point of reentry, or a reason.
One day a letter came from the last of the agents I’d queried who’d asked for a full manuscript. I’d given up long ago, because she was a well-known agent who represented several authors I admired, and you often never heard back from important people. But when I pulled the letter from the envelope, it was three pages long. Three pages of thoughtful reflection on what she saw I had envisioned and nearly achieved, but not quite.
I read each paragraph with words like insightful and compelling, along with suggestions of where it fell short, and I kept waiting for the “but” that would really hurt. The turn-down came, but it came like this: “This was a near miss for me.” I could feel the reluctance in her words, and it was almost as meaningful as an acceptance. I was a rookie in the business of publishing fiction, but I already knew from peers that a pass like this was not really a rejection at all, it was a blessing. Agents are too busy to take the time to write long letters of rejection just to be nice. She was not my mother, my friend, or my writing instructor. She didn’t have to take the time to encourage me, or let me down gently. The only way this stranger would say it was a near miss and take three pages to say so was if it were true.
I dove into revisions with an energy I hadn’t felt since my second trimester. Someone had looked open-mindedly to see the promise of something real in my terrible first draft, had seen blueberry in the bobble, and taken the time to say so. In the low times I would think, This was a near miss for me. And it was enough to recharge my faith that someday, for someone, it would not be.
Nichole Bernier is author of the novel The Unfinished Work of Elizabeth D. (Crown/Random House, June 5, 2012). She has written for magazines including Conde Nast Traveler, ELLE, Health, Men’s Journal, and Child, and is a founder of the literary blog Beyond the Margins (www.beyondthemargins.com). She lives outside of Boston with husband and five children, and is at work on her second novel. She can be found at http://www.nicholebernier.com, and on Twitter @nicholebernier.