This week, we’re talking about regrets. My definition of a regret would be an instance in which things are not working out in my life due to decisions I’ve made in the past. For example, some big challenges in my life are due to sexism, but I don’t regret being born female, and I don’t think sexism would have less of an impact if I had done something differently. It’s a massive, societal force that affects me as a woman. It was going on long before I got here, and while I would like to see it end in my lifetime, it may outlive me.
I have a few regrets outside my writing life: I wish I’d danced more, flossed more and eaten less junk food. As a young woman, I wish I’d spent less time worrying about my body’s appearance, and more time moving it in ways that brought me joy. My back is wonky. I should probably have done more abdominal work.
As a writer, I don’t have any regrets these days, but I have had big ones, only a few years ago.
In 2011, I queried fifteen agents and they all rejected me. I had a baby under the age of two, and I despaired that I would never publish a novel. I recalled all the years that I had held the dream of being a novelist, but was certain that I could get around to writing long fiction once I had settled down. In that moment of fear, I regretted the years I’d spent doing spoken word and hip hop theater. The years I’d spent working on literary fiction that I couldn’t sell. As a young writer in the 90s and 00s, I had assumed that the literary establishment would remain static, and that when I was finally ready to put in the work, it would all be there for me.
In 2008, the industry had profoundly contracted. The difficulty of getting an agent and a publisher had increased in proportion. Literary urban legend has it that in the 90s Dorothy Allison walked into Dutton publishers with a half-written version of Bastard Out of Carolina, and they saw the genius in it, helping her create the book that the New York Book Review would call “close to flawless.”
I had missed the boat. Or at least, I had missed the motorboat. Instead, I would have to swim out to a rickety, leaky rowboat, and row my way to an ocean liner that didn’t have any staff members looking for me in the water. I would have to shoot off a big shiny flare to get their attention, and only if it was bright enough, would I get pulled aboard. A friend of mine who had gotten a deal before the big changes had put a down payment on a lovely house. I would be lucky to afford a publicist to supplement the efforts of the publishing house which would only do a fraction of what houses had historically done to help launch my book.
The picture was bleak. I thought I had really missed my chance. It didn’t help that every year someone was declaring books to be utterly dead. Thus, I feared that if my novel finally did get published, there would be no actual book to hold in my hand. No bookstore to see it in. No public reading with an audience. Only an ebook and an internet to have virtual readers.
But that apocalyptic vision has failed to materialize. I seem to have managed the swim, the rowboat, and the folks at my publisher are awesome (although I did use my advance to pay a publicist, and that’s worked out well, also). I didn’t get a hardcover of my book–it’s a trade original.
That was one of the details in a huge change from my original vision. For years, I had imagined myself publishing literary fiction. My undergraduate education and MFA steered me in that direction. At a certain point, I realized I was writing commercial fiction, and felt a certain sort of grief. I had been conditioned to aim to become the next Toni Morrison. But I found myself headed on a very different path. And then everything turned around. “Scandal” and “Orange Is the New Black” and “Empire” hit television, and suddenly I had comp titles that editors could understand. Years before, I had pitched a book with an African American social justice/action/sexy/political mix to an agent at a conference. She looked at me completely befuddled. “Who would read this?” she asked, genuinely curious. But in the wake of the changes in TV, I didn’t have to explain that these stories in my head could have an audience. I got an agent. I got a book deal. I’ve held the galley copy of my book in my hand.
I can’t regret anything now. It’s been this twisty path, and it has led me to this spot of incredible excitement and possibility. And I wish I had healthier gums and a stronger core. But as far as the writing goes, I don’t regret a thing.