Ghosted: How an Agent Helped Me Write About My Disability—Then Disappeared

Jennifer Dickinson
From the March/April 2024 issue of
Poets & Writers Magazine

In October 2020, I received an e-mail from a literary agent named A. who I believed would transform my life as a writer. Her message arrived after I’d spent two months querying literary agents regarding an autobiographical middle-grade novel about a twelve-year-old named Maggie. She wrote:

I am so glad to have had the chance to read this story. I instantly fell in love with Maggie, and watching her grow into her voice was a treat. The bones of the story are here, but there are ways to tighten up the pacing and plot, strengthen character development, and implement the ‘show, don’t tell’ rule. By playing up these elements, you’ll bring this story to a whole new level, and I could see this book being at the top of every middle-grade reader’s TBR pile. Should these notes make sense to you, I would absolutely love to reconsider the novel.

I read and reread A.’s words until my vision blurred. I couldn’t believe this was happening. At age forty-three I’d been querying agents off and on for eight years. I was lucky to have gotten many full requests for my different manuscripts, but I hadn’t yet landed an agent. As the years passed and I received rejection after rejection, I began to question if I had the mettle to continue the pursuit of publication. When A.’s e-mail showed up in my inbox, it felt like proof that I shouldn’t give up. I believed my hard work was about to finally pay off.

I started writing when I was eight. As a little girl I had a stutter so severe that I struggled to say my own name. When asked, I’d often give names that were easier to say. My imagination was my refuge; the stories I created were my escape. I wrote about supermodels in Malibu, talking cats, and triplets who were Russian spies, giving them dramatic speeches peppered with three-syllable words I’d never be able to get out. I lived with severe anxiety at school, where I was relentlessly teased. All of that sorrow disappeared when I became immersed in my characters’ worlds, and I dreamed of one day sharing my stories with the world.

But being in a creative writing class setting meant there was always the danger of being asked to share my stories aloud. For this reason I steered clear of the creative writing department at my college, Hollins University, even though it had arguably one of the best programs in the country. I finally worked up the nerve in my junior year to take a class. When it became apparent that I had a stutter, my teacher hugged me and said: “Your stutter is your wound. Write from it.” Though on some level I was grateful for her support and suspected her advice might put me on the path to telling my most important stories, I always said I wasn’t ready. The childhood memories of being teased still felt skin-close. Having a stutter embarrassed me. On my bad days I hated myself.

In my late thirties, after years of sending out novels and having them rejected, I entered a months-long depression and didn’t write anything except journal entries. During this time my friend Lise invited me to one of her weekend writing retreats in the woods outside Montreal as a way to get unstuck. The focus of the weekend was not on critique. We would be responding to poetry prompts and sharing. I was skeptical: How would the time be of good use to me if no one was pointing out the flaws in my work? Plus, I didn’t know any of the people who would be attending.

But I deeply trusted Lise. In the mid-2000s I had shared writing and broken bread with her for two weeks around the communal table during a transformative Hedgebrook residency. So I went to her retreat, and by the time the weekend concluded, I’d had major breakthroughs with my novel and made new friends. I returned to my home in Los Angeles with a plan. I would start a business as a writing coach for one simple reason: I wanted to fall in love with the craft of writing again, and after the experience in Montreal, I believed working with women writers would be my ticket to reclaiming this love. I quickly learned I was correct.

For nearly a decade I’ve led countless workshops and worked one-on-one with women writing memoirs and personal essays. My favorite part of the job is midwifing a book, encouraging a writer to write honestly, holding her hand and reminding her that her courage in being vulnerable is how she will connect with the reader. I’ve witnessed over and over the healing effect of putting words on paper, and I’ve relished helping women fine-tune the pitches that have landed them agents and book deals—at the same time waiting for those things to happen to me.

So, after years of watching vulnerability transform my clients’ lives, I worked up the courage to write from my wound too. I sat down in 2019 and wrote the first draft of an autobiographical middle-grade story about a twelve-year-old girl with a severe stutter who overcomes the fear and shame surrounding her disability by performing in the school play.

When I say it wasn’t easy, I mean it. Yes, by the time I finished the novel, I felt a catharsis. But the act of writing it was terrifying. I began having nightmares that I was in front of my sixth grade class again, shaking while I tried to deliver my report on Sandra Day O’Connor, getting teased until I cried and left the room. I returned to weekly therapy. My stutter, which is no longer chronic thanks to copious amounts of psychotherapy and medication to deal with my anxieties, returned.

But I also felt triumphant telling Maggie’s story. At the end of the novel, she accepts her stutter and no longer sees it as a source of devastation. I loved giving her a hopeful ending, which I dreamed would inspire kids to embrace their differences rather than see them as punishments.

I began querying in August 2020. I felt naked every time I hit Send. I’d opened a vein and poured blood on the page, and when I began to receive rejections, it felt even worse than with my previous projects. I revised my query letter again and again and started to wonder whether anyone would want to read about a kid with a stutter. I’d tried to hide my disability for most of my life—what made me think anyone would want to learn about it now?

Eight weeks later I received the life-changing e-mail from A. Along with her praise, she sent four pages of detailed, insightful notes and suggested we talk by phone about them. We scheduled a call.

The morning of the call, I put on my job-interview red lipstick and favorite striped shirt. I played Sia’s “Unstoppable” on repeat. I wrote in my journal: “Today I am talking on the phone with an agent about my book. It’s finally happening!” I couldn’t believe we were going to discuss a novel chronicling my deepest shame, something I swore I’d never write about. I couldn’t stop thinking about the little girl I had been, how this was my big chance to finally share one of her stories.

A. put me at ease immediately. She was warm and really seemed to love and believe in Maggie’s story. My heart pounded when she said she had many publishers in mind who would be interested in taking a look when I finished. I felt so comfortable with her that I talked about my own stutter, something I knew I’d have to do if the book were ever successful. She did not offer to represent me on the call, but I felt strongly that if I nailed the notes she would.

Over the course of the next seven months, I went through two extensive rounds of edits with her. Her notes were all wonderful, but the root of them was to dig deeper into the pain. She echoed what my writing teacher had said all those years ago. At first I found that I’d have to take breaks throughout the day while I was working—to take a walk, call a friend, or journal. Diving deeper into the story meant unearthing even more trauma, remembering things about my life that I’d always imagined would stay buried forever. As difficult as the process was, it seemed worth it to mine the past so deeply. Inspired by A.’s notes, I took it as my mission to make Maggie’s transformation to accept her stutter even more powerful than in earlier drafts of the story.

To do this I would need to write even more about my painful history. I wrote about my character’s relationship with her mom, remembering how my parents wanted a cure for my stutter and how I always felt something was inherently broken in me because speech therapy didn’t work. I am close to my parents today, but writing about my disability so frankly meant I’d have to explore a hard part of our relationship. I had to remember my relationship with my first best friend in elementary school, how she always used to interrupt me when I couldn’t get a word out, how lonely it made me feel, and how I never stood up for myself. But in my book, Maggie does the terrifying thing and stands up to her best friend. She does what I couldn’t as a child, and in my book, her best friend listens and apologizes.

While I worked I continually reminded myself I was writing an important story that would help children, especially those who had never seen their stories represented in fiction. A. and I would get the book in the hands of kids, and that was most important to me.

During this time I felt so encouraged that I did a public reading of a section of the book for a class of neurodivergent students and led them through a writing exercise. The kids wrote about difficult relationships with their families and embarrassing moments. The teacher said they opened up to me in ways they never had before. When I ended my presentation, a few asked me where they could buy my book. Their support cemented that I was on the right path.

I sent the final revision to A. six weeks later, in April 2021. She wrote back within the hour to say she couldn’t wait to read it and would be in touch.

But then months passed. I told myself she was busy and tried to be patient. Agents tweet regularly about how full their plates are and to cut them a break when waiting for responses, and so I began another book, confident that A. would love what I’d done. In August, four months after I sent her the draft, I gave her a nudge over e-mail. She said she couldn’t wait until the book was ready to send out and she’d be reading it over the weekend. But then I faced silence again. Meanwhile, I obsessed over the fact that I’d shared such personal experiences. Maybe I shouldn’t have. Maybe A. had in fact read my revision and decided the experiences I’d written about were embarrassing. I started to second-guess the value of my story, and old feelings of shame resurfaced.

As weeks of waiting dragged on, I sank into misery, wishing that A. would just tell me no if she didn’t want to pursue the project. I wondered if she’d left the business. I even Googled obituaries to see if she’d died. In March 2022, nearly a year after I sent her the last draft, I reached out again. This time she was apologetic, citing a difficult 2021. She assured me she would get back to me in six weeks.

At the time of this writing, she still hasn’t.

I don’t want to drag A. I know from Twitter that agents are constantly battling overflowing inboxes and that many editors in children’s publishing have left their positions recently because of low salaries, which means there are fewer people for agents to submit to. But I’m stuck with a conundrum. As hard as I’ve tried I can’t divorce A. from the act of writing about what has shamed me for most of my life. I would be wrong if I didn’t give her the credit for helping me get the story to where it is today. She is an excellent editor, and she’ll always be connected to the journey of my book, and this fact is hard for me to reconcile with how she has treated me. Her silence, which I feel no choice but to recognize as rejection, has the same bite of being rejected by peers as a child when I stuttered. I’m ashamed to admit that, but it’s true.

In the time since I last contacted her, I’ve struggled with self-confidence and motivation. I hesitated to relive the experience by even writing about it. A. was witness to some of my most private feelings and stories about my stutter, and she ran away. Being ghosted, especially by someone who showed so much enthusiasm, leaves you with nothing to do but think of reasons you are the problem.

I’ve always believed I would feel some sense of security once I landed an agent, at the very least I would never be ghosted again. But I’ve realized the author-agent relationship is not always a safe haven. Last spring, when news broke on Twitter that the New Leaf Literary & Media agency had abruptly dropped many clients, many authors began tweeting about their own experiences. I was shocked that these authors, whose successes I’ve admired, have stories of being ghosted by their own agents, even with contracts and books being shopped by publishers. It’s been sobering to realize none of us is safe.

All of this affects me not only as a writer, but also as a teacher and book coach. How do I encourage others to dedicate their lives to writing when my experience with A. has left me so defeated? If you’re an artist and you struggle with depression, as so many of us do, the anxiety and fear surrounding publication—and the rejections that come with it—can become debilitating. The answer for me has been found in my writing community.

In the midst of waiting for a reply from A., I began organizing a once-a-week online writing session that reminds me of the fun writing can be: I send each participant a different poem. Each person responds to the poem in twenty minutes, in whatever form she chooses, and then returns to the Zoom room to share her piece. Women from all over the world attend, and the time is filled with conversation, laughter, and the pleasure of creating. In fact, the reason I wrote this essay is because one of the participants, who is now a dear friend, suggested I might find healing by doing it.

In addition to my writing community, I seek solace in reading interviews with fellow writers who have learned to flourish in spite of publishing’s disappointments, who print out their rejections and use them to wallpaper their offices. I tell myself book writing is a business, a cutthroat one, and that I need to grow a thicker skin. I know that racking up rejections is a badge of honor in the profession I’ve chosen.

A few months ago I dusted off my novel and revised it again. I believe it will find a good home. And I’ve learned this much: I have no control over what will happen with agents and publishers, but I have control over whether or not I give up on the story. If I walk away from Maggie, then I’m ghosting her the way A. ghosted me, and I won’t do that.

She deserves a better ending.


Jennifer Dickinson is a graduate of Hollins University. Her writing has appeared in the Florida Review, Isele Magazine, JMWW, Blackbird, Beloit Fiction Journal, and elsewhere. The recipient of a Hedgebrook residency and a grant from the Barbara Deming Memorial Fund, she works as a writing teacher and book coach in Los Angeles. Connect with her at

Photo credit: Andy Reaser