by Christine Kalafus
In 2016, I wrote an essay about not publishing. It appeared here. I’m sure you didn’t read it. “What Happens When Nothing Happens” posted the day after the United States presidential election so, you were—elsewhere. Oh, the triple-entendre.
The heart of the essay was about how I let editors’ decisions to either accept or reject my writing determine my self-worth. In the essay, I don’t mention the content of the work I sent out. Let me correct that here. I write about my life, I write about writing about my life, and now, with this essay, I write about writing about writing about my life.
While at Goddard, I wrote a memoir that included my husband’s affair, an event that happened fifteen years earlier when my oldest son was in pre-school. Just before graduation, I told this son, then twenty, about his father’s affair. I didn’t want him to find out about it in Vermont, where I would be reading from my manuscript in public. A public I assumed would include him.
The late Nora Ephron said “Everything is copy,” a permissive writing moto that doubles as a shield. It’s a quote almost as kick-ass as Anne Lamott’s “If people wanted you to write warmly about them, they should have behaved better.”
As kick-ass as their quotes are, both supply cold comfort when you tell your son about his father’s affair and that you wrote about it, which results in him yelling that you cannot be trusted and refusing to speak to you.
My son did not attend my graduation. In the aftermath of revealing the truth to him, I kept writing. I compiled notes of everything I said to him, what he said to me, all that we didn’t say, and all that I wished I had. I did this because I knew one day I would write about this, too. Then I threw the notes from our fight into a huge box for discarded essay ideas, polished the memoir, and began to blind-query agents.
Blind-querying was like a demoralizing, isolating, full-time job. A job you do for free. Two months into querying, I read at the University of Connecticut’s bookstore. Usually, I would read something funny. But that night, tired and annoyed, I read a somber scene. Who’s listening anyway? I thought.
Afterward, one of the other readers approached me. “My partner is an agent,” she said. “I think she’d really love your work.” Someone had been listening. I probably should have washed my hair. That was how I got my agent. But when I sent her the manuscript, she said, “I love it, but it isn’t finished.” So, I spent the next eleven months making it longer and stronger. Then, my agent sent it out. The manuscript received “lovely” rejections.” (My agent’s words.)
Devastation was avoided by continuing to write and submit. Participating in anything literary that could give me endorphins, I emceed spoken word events locally and travelled to The Moth stage at Laugh Boston for no-notes storytelling competitions where the judges were picked from the two-hundred or so mostly drunk attendees. I did this twice a month for over a year. Once, I lost by a tenth of a point. Indeed, I never won. But the producers liked one of my stories about cake and put it on the podcast, pairing my story with one by a previous Executive Pastry Chef at the White House. I felt rich and powerful just from the proximity, even if it was only radio.
Around this time, a friend recommended my blog to an editor of a small magazine. This resulted in her publishing an essay where I confess my addiction to makeup. Publisher’s Weekly read it and gave it a mention. Meanwhile, I made plans to visit my agent. We’d never met in person and I was a panicked mess.
The building that houses her office must have been L. Frank Baum’s inspiration for the Emerald City. Despite wearing my grandmother’s silver Starlings brooch for confidence, I felt immediately that I did not belong. Rising slowly up an elevator that had studded leather doors, I was grateful that I’d placed tissues inside my blouse at the armpits.
Sitting in front of my agent for the first time, a warm, diminutive woman with wildly curly hair, I tried to act like a person who deserved to be there. When I asked about her ongoing efforts with the memoir, she said, “You seem to be having luck with the poetry.”
She was talking about the only prose poem I’d ever written recently winning a poetry contest judged by Mark Doty and then being nominated for a Pushcart prize.
What I was thinking: The poem was prose and I’ve only written one and winning was probably a fluke.
What I said: “Yes.”
When she suggested in a casual way, “Maybe we publish something else first,” my brain split in half and the two parts began communicating.
The novel. Tell her about your novel.
The one you are writing.
But I’m not writing a novel.
Yes, you are—you wrote some of it in a workshop. . .
That’s not a novel, that’s a paragraph!
My agent was looking at me with a little smile. “Um, I have a novel I’ve been working on.”
“Oh? Tell me about it.”
Shit. “It’s about an artist who has been wronged. She wants revenge so she persuades her best friend, who is a witch, to help her. . . put a hex. . .on her ex.” What the hell had I just said?
My agent wrote something down in a small notebook. “OK, after Christmas, send me some pages.”
Relieved that I hadn’t been fired, I told her about the tissues in my blouse. Her laugh was what I needed. Who cared that I’d just pitched a novel for which I’d written eleven sentences and that I’d never written a novel in my life? I was saved. If being saved was synonymous with being completely out of your depth.
Last summer, I sent one hundred pages of the novel to my agent. While I waited to hear from her, I re-visited the notes from the fight with my son, three years in the rear-view, and thought I might craft something decent out of it. I crossed my fingers and sent the resulting essay out, not telling my son.
Soon afterward, I visited him in Rhode Island. We spoke about his plans for the future and he asked about mine. I decided to come clean. I told him about the essay, and that I was sorry for how I’d misjudged his feelings. Then, he hugged me and said “I hope you get the essay published, I want to read it.”
Having our writing rejected does not nullify our magic as writers and acceptance doesn’t anoint us with belonging and worth. The agent, The Moth, the shelved memoir, the Publisher’s Weekly mention, the Mark Doty Prize, being nominated for a Pushcart, none of these prevent me from angry-crying at my desk chair or throwing my novel in progress across the room and yelling “What do you want from me?” as it lies there, sticky notes once precisely affixed protruding awkwardly like broken limbs.
The good news is, the essay about the fight with my son was, in fact, accepted and they paid me, which did feel a little bit like magic. But even so, I believe that it only existed in the first place because through the writing of it, I realized that I owed my son an apology.
What happens when nothing happens is not that we are erased, but that other people don’t get to see us. But what happens when we write is that we get to see ourselves.
Christine Kalafus has recently been published in Longreads, Connecticut’s Emerging Writers, The New Guard, and the hard news site CT By the Numbers. Presently writing a novel about an artist, a witch, portrait painting, and bad juju, she is also an instructor at Westport Writers’ Workshop. Her website is: http://christinekalafus.com/. She can also be found at: https://www.instagram.com/christinekalafus/ and read at: https://longreads.com/2019/12/27/renovating-a-family/.