PERSONAL

THE TEMPLE OF WORDS

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Malibu, September 2019.

When I was a child, the only thing I did not have to work at was writing. I did, of course, struggle with letters like all the other children, writing every ‘e’ backwards until I trained my muscles to do it properly. But the one thing I knew, the thing I had somehow known since birth, was how to tell and love a story.

Books and writing are the ultimate companion to the lonely and melancholic child, and I was both. Every teacher I had was impressed by my writing ability, and those that had traveled to Abu Dhabi from the UK to teach English made sure to tell my parents just what they thought of me. They floated words like ‘exceptional,’ and ‘phenomenal,’ and ‘natural.’ Sometimes they said those words to my face, and I would take the compliments home to offer to my parents.

My father, every time without fail, would respond with a sage, “Do not believe everything people tell you.”

He did not mean for those words to be hurtful or dismissive. Arab parents try to raise humble, hardworking, overachieving children. Since I am humble, hardworking, and overachieving, I suppose they did their job.

But they also made me feel like an imposter in the circles that called to me. I became extraordinarily shy about sharing my writing with people. If I had had the choice, I don’t think I would have even submitted essays to my teachers. If I had had the choice, I would have kept every word secret. All the praise seemed embarrassing and pointless, and my mind warped my father’s advice until I was convinced that people were just being nice or polite.

Writing this blog sometimes gives me anxiety, because I worry about the kind of person my writing makes me out to be. Do you all think I am snobby? Stubborn, maybe? A little girl playing dress-up in the dusty corners of an abandoned theater? Or worse: does my straightforward and sure way of stating my opinion make me seem bratty or mean-spirited? I want my writing to be full of love and respect and excitement, but do I even know how to do that?

At the end of 2018, I went through a bit of a crisis. Because teenagers always go for the lowest hanging fruit, I was bullied quite a bit for my appearance in high school. I now have what I call ‘good face days,’ and ‘bad face days.’ Overall, I don’t know what I look like, and I mean that in the most literal sense possible. It’s a sort of dysmorphia, but the kind that only rarely impacts my day-to-day life and, luckily, has not lead to any sort of self-destructive behaviors. But I digress. I was going through a particularly long streak of bad face days, and I decided to tackle it with writing because I really don’t know how else to stop carrying things with me. I love historical romance, so I thought I would try to describe someone – not myself, but someone – who looks like me, but using the same sort of language I’d find in a historical romance. That someone, that character, eventually found a personality. A setting followed, then a family, a hero, and the skeleton of a plot.

And so The Temple of Persephone was born, a love letter to the bruised, lonely, and melancholic teenager inside of me. I wrote a book she would want to read. I don’t know that I’ll ever outgrow the melancholy, but it was a soothing exercise. Soothing, but also exciting. Whenever I wrote something particularly good, I’d get this wonderful burst of adrenaline. I wrote and wrote and wrote, pushing my way through writer’s block until one day I saw that Avon had opened submissions for unagented manuscripts. It seemed like fate, so I pushed until I was done and had written something that, for the first time in my life, I believed in. My imposter syndrome was at an all-time low, and I finally felt like the scales would begin to tip in my favor.

But, being ever anxious, I still sought out a freelance editor to help me with my query letter, synopsis, and author biography. I felt sick sending her those first drafts because, well, even after writing a 300 page novel, I couldn’t let go of the feeling that my story was stupid. Three people read it before I sent it in: my mother, my little sister, and my best friend from high school. I cannot describe the excitement I felt the night my best friend read it – and she read it in one night. She has never minced words with me, and although she is always kind, she says what she thinks.

And she loved it.

We talked all night, dissecting every character, every plot point. My heart was beating wildly in my chest the whole time. I was so happy. I’d switch out my day-to-day melancholy for that feeling any day.

My editor eventually got back to me, and it took me a good fifteen minutes to open up her message. “You’re a very strong writer,” she said, “and your story sounds fantastic!”

And all the things my teachers had said to me came flooding back, and I thought that there was the possibility that I should have believed them. Maybe people don’t have to be nice, and maybe they say what they mean. With a lot of terror in my chest, I submitted my packet to Avon. My editor kindly suggested two other publishers to me, so I submitted to them too.

That was eleven days ago now.

Yesterday was a disaster. I woke up at six AM and saw that my phone was riddled with texts, voice mails, and e-mails. Work had needed me to approve a document for the process I had authored, but I’d gone to bed by ten. I RAN out of my apartment, driving to Pasadena as the sun was just beginning to peek over the horizon. I was so early that I had to disable the alarm in our office. I approved the documents and spent a good ten minutes at my desk trying to wake myself up. I checked my e-mail, and saw that a publisher had gotten back to me.

I’ve never received such a thrashing in my life. Interesting premise, but we couldn’t connect with the narrative. Work on deepening the POV, because your characters aren’t dynamic in the slightest. I would quote the actual e-mail, but I deleted it last night for my own sake.

Do not believe everything people tell you.

Everything I had overcome in the eight months it took me to write this novel came rushing back in a millisecond. What is worse than telling a writer that they weren’t able to execute their own good idea? And characters – characters are what I’m supposed to be good at. I’ve always been told that, but you know what my father would say.

What might not be good for us, they said, might be perfect for another publisher! An odd thing to say, when you’ve just told me that I submitted unrelatable, flat prose. What publisher would want that?

I carried the criticism with me all day, eventually writing to my editor. She was baffled, and ultimately told me that I should let it roll off my back. After eating a pity pastry, I decided she was right. Because, well, what do I do with that? How do I return to my novel with such nonspecific criticism?

A lack of specificity, my editor said, pointed to this being nothing more than a form letter, copy pasted for the purpose of kicking me to the curb.

I wonder, though, was the harshness so necessary? I can sometimes be harsh at book club or here on my blog, but I would never be harsh to an author’s face. It isn’t constructive, and every time I have spoken to an author who has written something I’ve disliked (this has actually happened more times than you’d imagine) I’ve always been incredibly tactful about it.

Because writing is scary. A simple, ‘We are not interested at this time,’ would have sufficed.

I’m not really here for pity or sympathy. I just felt that I couldn’t carry this with me anymore and, like someone who will never learn her lesson, decided to write about it.

Believe me, the irony does not escape me.

I’ll grow thicker skin and move on.

2 thoughts on “THE TEMPLE OF WORDS

  1. I read this a while ago, and didn’t know how to respond. That was wrong of me. I should have just said, “I’m sorry, my friend.” So I’ll say it now. I’m so sorry.

    You’ve heard all the cliches, but sometimes things become cliches because they’re true. If your editor thinks it was a form letter, it probably was. I’ve received some doozies.

    Here’s a good one: your goal isn’t to minimize rejection, it’s to maximize publication. Cliched, but still true. Don’t give up. Don’t ever give up.

    And one more, that’s not a cliche, but my own story. When my book was published (a non-fiction children’s science book, so not the same thing at all), no one bought it. The publisher lost a lot of money. When I went to that publisher with a new book idea, they rejected it because my first book had been such a financial failure. So now I’m less likely to be published than before. Oh, well.

    (There’s a happy ending, though, because I discovered that I’m not a writer, I’m a teacher. I use my writing to teach, and now that I’m teaching middle school science – best job in the world! – I’m using my book in my curriculum. Anyway . . .)

    I won’t try to pump you up with any more cliches. I’ll just tell you that I enjoy reading your words. Your description of “love, respect, and excitement” is EXACTLY what I get from your written pieces. I hope you keep them coming!

    1. It’s okay! I’ve also received some doozies in the three months since I wrote this. Some were very polite, and one even outright called itself a form letter. I had an agent tell me she hated the central theme of the entire novel – and all she’d asked for was twenty pages! I’ve learned a lot in the five minutes I’ve been exploring publication. Despite that, I’ve been in a writing frenzy for the past two weeks after finally receiving some good, constructive feedback. It feels good!

      I am very sorry that nobody bought your book, but I will say that it speaks more to the publisher’s inability to advertise. Traditional publication is supposed to come with marketing rolled into it, or at least that is what I understand. But I’m glad it helped you realize just how much you love teaching!

      As always, thank you for your kind words. I’m my own worst critic, so it’s nice to know that my writing means something!

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