They tell you to write the book you’re afraid to write. But let’s be honest: It’s scary to write any book. There’s the fear you won’t be able to write it. The fear you’ll write it and won’t be able to sell it. The fear you’ll sell it and it will flop. There’s even the fear your book will be a huge success, which would lead to pressure to be a public figure and write a follow-up just as popular.
But that’s not what the experts mean. What they mean is you should write from the depth of your soul, make yourself vulnerable, uncover hidden truths and express them in interesting ways. That book you wish you could devour as a reader? The one that makes you feel seen and understood and forever changed by the experience? That’s the book they’re telling you to write.
And that’s terrifying.
I was a traditionally published children’s book author with three middle-grade novels and a picture book under my belt, but none of the books I’d written so far had terrified me. I’d mined my childhood and my loved ones’ childhoods to craft stories filled with humor and heart. It all felt relatively safe.
I had other stories I was itching to tell, but I wasn’t sure I wanted to bare my soul in that way. I didn’t think I had the guts. But then my adult daughter, Faith, pushed me to try. Faith is a licensed social worker therapist, sexual assault survivor, and activist. She’s fearless, passionate—an open book. But she almost didn’t make it out of high school alive. So when she asked me to write a memoir about how we survived her adolescence, I knew that was the book I was afraid to write.
I had dreamed of being a mom my whole life, but nothing about motherhood was what I’d expected. I had three kids in nineteen months—a motherhood sprint, you could say. Three typical kids a year apart in school would have been challenging enough, but add mental illness to the picture, and it’s off the charts. Faith has mental illness. As a young teen she excelled in academics, sports, and friendships, all while sending nude pictures of herself to anyone who asked, slicing up her arms to dull her emotional pain, and fighting the urge to kill herself. By the time she was seventeen, depression had bulldozed her into believing suicide was her only option.
As I helped Faith navigate her mental illness, I battled feelings of failure, embarrassment, anger, and shame. I had naively believed that good parenting resulted in good kids. Therefore when my daughter acted out, it felt like a reflection on me as a mom. I had to learn to let go of that assumption. I had to let go of the stigma against mental illness. I had to let go of my idea of who my daughter should be and embrace who my daughter was.
Eventually I did all that, and it helped Faith save herself. By the time she asked me to tell our story in a memoir, she was a college student, managing her mental health, and living a beautiful life. So I balked. We had come so far. Why revisit those years of struggle and put it out there in a book for the world to judge? We’d already received enough criticism from the moms in our hometown.
Also, what did I know about memoir writing?
Faith had planted a seed, though. Sharing our journey might help fight the stigma against mental illness. It could be a light for other parents in similar situations. And I had to admit, it was a spellbinding tale. Plus, even though I’d been lucky enough to succeed as a children’s book author, I hadn’t sold anything new to a major publisher in years. After an auspicious start to my career that included starred reviews, awards, royalties, and fan mail, I had come to a time in my life when I was an unagented, midlist author you’ve probably never heard of. My career was petering out.
In other words, it was the perfect time to write the book that terrified me.
I learned everything I could about memoir writing and dug in. For seven years I wrote, revised, and queried agents. The manuscript changed dramatically from dual points of view, with both my voice and Faith’s, to a more marketable single point of view. When I felt guilty cutting Faith’s voice out of the story, I rewrote the memoir in the form of a love letter to her. That was a good exercise, but it definitely wasn’t saleable. Finally I landed on a single point of view, first person, the way the story was meant to be told.
As the memoir found its shape, I realized I’d created something powerful and meaningful. My hopes and dreams began to grow. I was sure agents would clamor for it. Publishers too. It would be a best-seller; it would be a Netflix limited series. Faith and I would do TED talks and be keynote speakers at all kinds of events. We would play a role in ending the stigma surrounding mental illness. We would make a difference.
Meanwhile, our three kids had left the nest, and my husband and I had moved to southern Florida. My new friends didn’t know me as a mother, and they had no idea I was an author. To them I was just a tennis-playing, theater-loving, outspoken liberal. The parts of my identity that had dominated my life for two decades had become invisible. Some days I questioned if I even was a writer anymore. My hopes for the memoir were now combined with the belief that selling it would restore my identity.
Unfortunately agents were most definitely not clamoring for my manuscript. After seven years of writing, workshopping, revising, and paying for critiques on the manuscript, the query, and the proposal, I’d collected over seventy rejections from agents. (I’m not even counting the children’s book literary agents who rejected me for other work during this same time frame.) Turns out, to sell a memoir it helps if you’re a celebrity or if you have a huge social media following. Two strikes against me.
Then last summer I realized I was depressed. There is something devastating about writing the kind of story publishers say they want—high-stakes, page-turning, well-written, meaningful—and not being able to conquer the very first hurdle: landing an agent.
For me, writing has always been about understanding life and connecting with readers. The second part of that sentence is vital. Without the promise—indeed, the premise—of readers, the effort it takes to craft sentences, paragraphs, chapters, and books seems pointless. Worse than pointless. It’s heartbreaking and exhausting.
No wonder I was depressed. All signs were pointing in the same direction: There was no audience for the stories I wanted to tell.
So I quit.
Or rather, I gave myself permission to quit. But I decided I’d go out with a bang.
The general rule of querying is to submit to five to ten agents at a time, wait several months for their replies, then revise or query new agents depending on the feedback. That’s what I’d been doing for years. But last summer I queried ninety agents in two months. I had nothing to lose. If I received ninety rejections, that would allow me to walk away from the madness of publishing once and for all.
Rejections flooded my e-mail inbox. I didn’t care. I had quit, so what did it matter?
I was also meeting with a therapist to help me process the emotions that accompanied quitting or, as she more gently put it, retiring. The truth is, I’m not good at accepting things I can’t control, and I’m even worse at letting go of dreams. It makes me question my purpose in life. It makes me feel like a failure. In fact, that’s how writers often tweet about writing. You know the message: Keep going. The only way to fail is to quit. Really? What if quitting gives you the time and energy to do something else? Maybe that’s not failure. Maybe that’s growth, or development, or maturity—maybe it’s wisdom.
One day my therapist asked me if I’d ever had to let go of dreams and accept things I couldn’t control in the past. “Yes, of course,” I told her. “That’s basically what my whole memoir is about.”
She smiled as the light bulb went on for me.
Raising Faith had been a lesson in letting go. I never let go of effort, but I let go of results. I did everything I could to become the best mother I could be for my children. And I learned to let go of what was out of my control. I couldn’t parent Faith’s mental illness away. I couldn’t love it away. It was part of her, like her silky brown hair, warm hugs, and joyful smile. What I could do was learn about her mental illness. I could accept, validate, and empathize with her. That included coming to the heartbreaking acceptance that if Faith ultimately decided to end her life, that, too, would be out of my control.
Was it possible to take what I’d learned from motherhood and apply it to my writing career? It would mean putting in the effort—which I always did—while letting go of the results. In other words, write the best manuscript and query letter I was capable of writing. Put it out there. Then let go.
Easier said than done. I felt caught in a tug-of-war between wanting to make my dreams come true and wanting to feel at peace with whatever would happen. The writer Carolyn Crimi once told me she thinks of hope like holding a small bird in your hands. If you squeeze too tightly, you’ll kill the bird. You need to hold lightly to that bird, that hope. Let the good feelings fuel you, not paralyze you. I had hoped Faith would learn to manage her mental illness and make it out of high school alive. But for years I’d squeezed that hope too tightly because of my fear that she wouldn’t be able to do it and that I’d lose her. Similarly my hope for the memoir was too big, too much. It was going to fix everything: my identity in my new community, my career, my purpose. That’s an awful lot for eighty thousand words to accomplish. So I tried to tamp it down, to visualize that delicate bird, to remember I’d quit writing: What happened with the memoir did not matter.
Of the ninety agents I queried, nine asked to read the full manuscript. Nine was a lot! I felt that bird fluttering in my hands.
And then those nine agents started to make their decisions.
Most of the e-mails sounded like this: “I couldn’t put your memoir down. It was brave and raw and important. Unfortunately I don’t think I’m the agent to sell this for you, but I’m sure the right one will come along soon. I can’t wait to buy this book when it comes out.”
I suppose I should have felt good about those rejections. As rejections go, they were A-plus. But they frustrated me. If they’d told me what was wrong with the manuscript, I’d have fixed it. Instead they told me they loved it and simply didn’t know how to sell it. Were they being polite? Or would the manuscript truly be that difficult to sell? And was that because of my lack of celebrity? It all seemed so unfair and impossible. As each rejection arrived, though, I took another step toward letting go and moving on.
I gave myself until December to get an agent or quit for good. By mid-December, when publishing shut down for the holidays, there were two agents left reading my manuscript. One wasn’t right for me. The other one, I thought, would surely reject me. She just hadn’t gotten around to it yet.
I had to admit, it was over. I quit. For good this time.
Happy New Year.
I decided the word to guide me in the new year would be enjoy. I would play tennis and golf, read interesting books, watch groundbreaking TV and films and theater. Travel. Bake. Play with my dogs. See my friends and family. Goodbye, querying. Goodbye, publishing. Goodbye to the book that was the best thing I’d ever written.
I was proud of myself for having written the memoir. I was satisfied that I’d made sense of my motherhood journey. Before querying agents, I’d given the manuscript to my family to read. I told them that if they didn’t want me to pursue publication, I wouldn’t. After all, it wasn’t only my life I was exposing; it was our whole family’s story. They all gave me the green light. Most important, Faith came away from reading it feeling so much love from me. I had done what I’d set out to do.
But I still didn’t have that wider reader connection, the one I craved to have with unknown readers. I kept asking my therapist, “How do I get closure?”
My husband gently asked me, “How will you get over the disappointment?” He’d always been my biggest supporter, and he knew how much the memoir meant to me. He’d seen me tiptoe around quitting more than once throughout the years, but this time was different. This time was personal because the story was so personal.
“I won’t get over the disappointment,” I told him. “But I’ll learn to live with it.”
I once saw a graphic image of grief that resonated with me. It shows grief as a big red circle outlined in black. As life goes on and time marches forward after loss, the red ball of grief stays the same size, but the outline grows bigger and bigger. The idea, as explained by Lois Tonkin in 1996, is that grief and loss never feel smaller, but life slowly feels bigger. My loss, the dream of my memoir becoming the best-seller I wanted it to be, would remain a loss. But with time, my life would expand, making the loss feel smaller and smaller.
One day in mid-January, I was standing in line at my favorite deli when I noticed that the last agent had e-mailed me. “Well, here it is,” I thought, “the final nail in the coffin.”
Her e-mail started the way the others had, with glowing praise. I skimmed forward, looking for the alas or the but or the however.
It wasn’t there. Instead, she wanted to schedule “the Call.”
All I can say is thank goodness for masks and sunglasses because I started sobbing in the middle of the deli, and I promise you that nobody wants to see my ugly cry face while they’re waiting for their turkey sub.
We had a video call the following week, and she made me an offer, which I, of course, accepted. I can now say that I’m represented by Paige Sisley, an agent at CookeMcDermid Literary Management who is passionately enthralled with my memoir.
This is where other writers who have traveled this same path will say something like, “See? Don’t give up! If it happened for me, it will happen for you!”
But I’m not going to say that. It may happen for you, and it may not. That’s the awful truth. In fact, Paige may never sell my memoir. I’m holding on to the clarity I had at the beginning of January. I’m enjoying life. I’m hopeful Paige will sell the memoir and it will find an appreciative audience, but I’m holding that hope like a tiny bird. Gently, and with gratitude. I have put in all the effort, and finally I’ve let go of the outcome.
That’s what I wish for you. The power to let go.
Put in the effort. Work on your craft. Keep querying if it feels right to you. But if it no longer serves you, it’s okay to quit. It’s also okay to write without pursuing publication. If you’re called to write, and it brings you joy, and finding unknown readers isn’t integral to that calling, you, my friend, are still a writer. However, if your writing is inextricably tied to readers, as is mine, and there don’t seem to be readers for your work, then know that you are more than your identity as a writer. You can let go and create a bigger life around the loss of your writerly dream.
But if you are staying on this journey, don’t go it alone. You deserve support. You deserve empathy. You deserve respect. Find friends and critique partners and experts who will lift you up when you’re down and gently push you to do better. Focus on what you can control. Do the work, and let go of the rest. Let go, let go, let go.
And know this: Whether you quit or stick with it, I am rooting for you.
Brenda Ferber is the author of the picture book The Yuckiest, Stinkiest, Best Valentine Ever (Dial Books, 2012) as well as three novels for children: Julia’s Kitchen (2006) and Jemma Hartman, Camper Extraordinaire (2009), both published by Farrar, Straus and Giroux Books for Young Readers, and Sing Something True (Regal House Publishing, 2021). She is also a counselor for Crisis Text Line. When she’s not writing or crisis counseling, she’s likely playing tennis or golf, sobbing for joy at a Broadway theater, or working to end the stigma against mental illness at tiktok.com/@stigmasmashers. Her website is brendaferber.com.