(First two photos by me, third is a Bruce Nauman drawing)
In March, an agent read a query and five pages of my memoir, HOW I LEARNED TO SWEAR. She liked the 5 pages and sent me a list of questions: why does my book matter; what are the comps (comparative titles that show the potential audience for my book); how does my book fit into the current conversation; what am I working on now; what’s my platform (how many people I might be able to get word of its existence to, which for me is about 250,000 unique views), and more. I took two days to answer her questions and wrote her back.
Meanwhile, a friend met a fantastic producer for JOYVILLE, the speculative feature I wrote that got me into the Writers Lab. The script is about a scientist who’s devoted her life to making sure humanity survives, and when she makes a spectacular discovery in the woods she now has to decide if we’re worth it. The producer was perfect, so my friend got wheels moving to get the script to them.
This year I finished a play, POLITE, a tragedy disguised as a comedy about the value of women’s work. I did a partial reading with the Inkwell Theater in LA, and after, I gave it to my auntie. My auntie worked on the business side of Broadway musicals and is mostly retired. She read POLITE, loved it and asked how she could help. I gave her a list of readings in NYC. She didn’t know anyone on the list (musicals and straight plays often occupy different worlds), but put out feelers out to someone who might.
Someone else knew someone who knew Mary Kay Place, who was perfect for the lead in POLITE. Did I want them to try to get the script to her? Definitely.
Another person knew a producer at my dream theater. They offered to pass it to him.
Two months passed, and the agent reached out. She had Covid, hence the long silence, but she liked my responses and requested the full manuscript. Two weeks later she got in touch. She loved the book. She loved the story, the pacing, the subject, she could connect with it, and thought it was unique enough to sell. And then she passed. In the two months since I first contacted her she had taken two other memoirs out on sub and not a single editor made an offer. She couldn’t take the disappointment, and didn’t want to cause any for me. She decided to take a break from repping memoir, and wasn’t going to take me or my book on.
Right after, my friend who met the producer who was right for JOYVILLE came back to say that the producer wasn’t going to produce scripted anymore and was only interested in docs.
The contact to Mary Kay Place left the job they had and that contact dried up.
The producer at my dream theater got ill. Terminally ill. I wanted to leave him in peace so didn’t send him my play.
Another agent found my book riveting - she read it in less than two days - and passed since she was also taking a break from repping memoir.
My auntie couldn’t find a contact to anyone on the list except one person, and he is awol.
I was still querying, getting people to read the book, read a script, read a play. I was submitting to fellowships, labs, becoming a finalist but not getting the workshop, getting nominated for things and waiting, waiting, sitting with a lot of silence, getting rejections - great rejections, everyone kept telling me. It’s just a matter of time. Then, I got an email from the head of a major festival who loved my play and said that even though it didn’t win, they considered it for the top prize. And right after that I had a crisis of faith.
I mean, WTF you know? I know that this is how it goes, because I have a great community of fellow writers, directors, filmmakers, playwrights. Rejection comes with the job. And, whether I like it or not, luck plays a huge role in getting work seen and made. Not as much as connections - the right school, the right family, the right stuff will catapult work to the top of the pile. But luck matters. Some great rock bands formed because 4 idiots happened to get on the same elevator at the same time, or were in the same store or on the same bus.
With luck, though, you have to be prepared. I got my first big show because I was at a baby shower in the loft above mine and met a curator. He was putting a show together and wanted to see work right then. I had the work, had enough experience with studio visits to be able to talk about it, knew how to present it in what order, and — this is key — my work fit into the theme of his show.
But this crisis of faith — it was brutal. I’ve worked so hard, steadily, I’ve shoved my work out there, I don’t cut corners, I bust my ass, I’m a good collaborator, people seem to love what I do, I’ve gotten things, I get emails, still, about the book from people who read it months ago - I’m confident in my work. Cracking through to that next level, however, no matter how I’ve come at it I couldn’t crack that ceiling. When I reread the email from the head of that festival I realized it wasn’t a crisis of faith, but a crisis of fear. Would I get my work into the world, get my voice into the conversation before I die?
Right after that I stepped back. The only way for me to work through that fear, to neuter it, to find satisfaction in what I was doing and have that be enough was to stop what was making me miserable. The hustle comes with the job, but it had become so emotionally unsatisfying, spiritually unsatisfying, that I knew I had to figure out how to do it in a way that felt more like … me. I didn’t know what that meant, or what that would look like. So I took a leap of faith and stopped querying, stopped hustling and started enjoying the smaller moments that make up my life. I cooked. I pet the dog. I walked around the city. I walked in the woods.
I also started meditating with a little more regularity. What kept coming up when I meditated was ‘waiting.’ I waited through the summer, I waited into the fall and oddly, I felt better. I didn’t know what was next, but it was okay. I felt ripe to start a new project and knew it would be a horror movie. Why, I didn’t know and didn’t care.
I started going out a lot, socializing, seeing friends, meeting new people. Walking home one night, it hit me that I don’t have to be great for you to like me. My shit had gotten so tangled up in getting a yes and getting the star that comes with it that it triggered some loop of need that didn’t serve me at all. I looked around and realized I have a great community, we’re making work, sharing work, doing it our own way. Now, I may still want that yes, but it’s not so precious. It’s not the end all.
Somehow, some way, all of this put me into a new kind of flow. Whatever fear was lurking has mostly quieted. It’s still there, but I don’t give it much screen time anymore. Things are happening organically - I’ll be talking about a project and the person I’m speaking with says hey, I know a producer for you to reach out to. This has happened repeatedly over the last month. Recently, a friend, Stephanie, said an acquaintance of hers, an artist named Joyce was new to the NY area and would I meet with her? I did, we talked for hours, and then she asked me if I knew the book ‘Group.’ Not only do I know it, it’s one of my comps. Funny enough, Joyce is close with the author, and two days later I had a zoom meeting with the author. I asked f I could use her name and reach out to her agent, she said absolutely, and I got the fastest rejection I’ve ever gotten for a query letter. I laughed, then thought, okay, next.
I just finished that horror movie, btw - fastest project I’ve written yet. That’s the other great side effect, that it feels so right to be writing about what I’m writing about. This year was about fear and acceptance in a way that was new, deep and potent. Fear doesn’t go away, but there’s nothing like coming out of a fire to really know what confidence feels like. It adds up to knowing in my bones that this path I’m on is the path I’m supposed to be on.
There was also an incident with birds. I shared about it in this podcast. The creator of the podcast is an artist and writer like me, Juliana Roth Juliana Roth, and our episode is here.
Someone asked me what word I want to bring into the new year with me, and funny enough we both had the same word: trust. But I had a second word, too: autonomy. I’m bringing both words with me.
Leaving behind? Fear is too broad and it isn’t something I can leave behind or even want to. Last January, a close friend, Jennifer, bought me a reading for my birthday. The woman who did the reading said I have to look at what I take for granted about myself. That resonated. It’s what I want to leave behind.
I have a really good feeling about 2023. May we all see the brilliance that is our life.