***Please note that some names and details have been changed to protect confidentiality.
I often complain about my time in school, but parts of it were glorious. At its best, school climbs inside your mind and expands it — deepens it, even — simply because it’s good and right to boost a mind if you can.
My fourth-grade teacher, Mrs. Rockett, was a mind-booster, at least for me. She seemed middle-aged and kind of prim, with neat, no nonsense clothing and grammatically perfect speech. And yet, in essence, she wasn’t prim at all: she was an explorer who got me to explore along with her.
Mrs. Rockett was all about writing, and not just to practice vocabulary, grammar, and punctuation. We crafted haikus and explored the feelings art inspired in us. One fall day, she taught us about Picasso’s “blue period,” and I found it amazing that an artist could sink into depression and express his misery through color and subject matter.
We wrote about some “blue period” paintings: whether we liked them, how they made us feel. I couldn’t decide whether I liked them or not. They reminded me of sadness, but I often was sad, and it was fantastic that an artist could reflect those feelings in his work. I’d never heard of such a thing before, and it opened up a world in my brain: a world where you worked because you wanted to express your struggling self.
There might not be a grade involved, or money. In fact, Picasso’s fans didn’t usually like his blue period paintings and he had trouble selling them, but he continued to create them, just because they fit his mood and the particular kind of creativity he was feeling. I explored all of this in my assignments, and Mrs. Rockett would call me over to her desk so we could discuss the issues involved.
Once, she asked us for a few pages sharing our lives outside of school. I described my love for chicken with cornflakes; going to the mall with my grandmother and picking out any shirt I wanted, even if it came from the boys department; and spinning myself around outside until I felt the dizzy thrill of a new sensation. Mrs. Rockett loved it and told me she kept thinking about some of my descriptions. I was floored that something I wrote could influence another mind, get someone else thinking in ways that incorporated my own thoughts.
That summer, Mrs. Rockett sent me a letter, thanking me for the flowerpot I had given her (actually, my mother had bought the flowerpot; I had nothing to do with it) and telling me she hoped I would continue to write. “You have a natural gift. Use it. Enjoy it,” she advised in that flawless, angular penmanship.
I was far from her strongest student that year. Another vivid memory involves getting a zero on a math test because I had no clue how to perform the long multiplication she’d been teaching us for over a month. (She worked with me after school for weeks afterwards, casual but firm, and I finally figured it out.)
I only had one small, specific talent, but Mrs. Rockett noticed it and encouraged me to appreciate it. Actually, she suggested I enjoy it. Enjoy it! What a wonderful thought. It could be a source of pleasure and growth. Nothing could top that in importance… right?
Adult writer: oy vey
Fast forward to the summer after I finished graduate school. Unlike many graduate students, I’d loved my dissertation: living in the Hasidic community where I’d done my fieldwork and, later, compiling it all into a book-length manuscript. From the beginning, I saw the project as a book, not just a dissertation. After considerable drama and angst, I’d found advisers who loved my project and were extremely pleased with the final result. They thought it could become a popular book, interesting to people far beyond the academic world. I was thrilled, and plunged happily into the business of finding a literary agent.
It happened quickly, largely because I had no idea what was at stake. My cousin knew a lawyer who knew an agent: an older woman named Deborah who didn’t have many recent book sales but did have an illustrious family history (her father was a well-known New York financier) and I figured she must know a lot of people. She took me to lunch at a swank Manhattan restaurant and told me she thought we “really had something” with my manuscript. What more could I want? Why even approach anyone else when this charming woman was on my side? What could be bad?
Much was good. The two of us became close, to the point where she called me almost every morning. She had a lot of free time, and I think I might have been her only client. We’d chat and chat: I knew about her grandchildren, her new boyfriend and his artistic pursuits, her love of music… and so much more that I’d never want to repeat.
It could have been bliss. But it wasn’t.
Deborah did send my manuscript to editors all over New York, but she didn’t have email: everything needed to happen over the phone. I know how I am and I’m quite certain publishing people are the same way: email is so much easier and less threatening; you don’t have to face people in real time and buck your mood up like you do with the phone. Very often, she never heard a thing from editors. I’m sure some of them looked at my manuscript and decided against it, but I’m also sure many put my stuff aside when they realized Deborah couldn’t be contacted in the usual way. Publishing is all about the quick communication, the fast deal, and Deborah wasn’t equipped to handle it.
Let’s face it: if my manuscript had been a super-hot commodity, some would have jumped at it and called her, even if they found her modus operandi outmoded. Between her antiquated style and my lack of hot-commodity-ness, years went by and nothing happened. Well, that’s not quite right. Things happened, occasionally, but while they began in joyful anticipation, they ended in the dark abyss of infinite emptiness.
There was Anna, the big shot publishing executive who had worked with many well-known academics before switching to more popular writers. Over a year after Deborah had begun sending my work out, Anna called me, beginning our conversation with “Here I am,” which, I kid you not, felt like a reference to God and the Torah. That’s how desperate I was to find meaning in all this, and success that was filled with purpose.
Anna told me my dissertation was the best one she had ever read, and she had read many during her time at a highly prestigious university press. “I think it will be a classic,” she said. Pathetic as it sounds now, I wondered whether that moment was the happiest I had ever experienced. I’d spent over a year futzing around, waiting for The Big Call: maybe it was here. It took a while, but maybe I had a classic on my hands. Anna suggested I apply for a Guggenheim, and said: “Every once in a while, you find someone with just the right mind, just the right heart.”
It seemed like a splendid end to a rocky start, but it fact it was… nothing. Much worse than nothing, actually, since nothing after all of that was devastating. Her colleagues didn’t want the book, so she couldn’t buy it. I found her email and contacted her, to see if she might have any advice for me moving forward, and she ignored me. Years afterwards, I emailed her again to see if she might have suggestions for my writing career at that point, and… no response. One moment, I had just the right mind and just the right heart; the next, I was a pest to be brushed aside.
In the end, Deborah sent my manuscript to a few university presses without seeking my advice. For all our chattiness, she never discussed her submissions until after they had happened. I knew something about university presses since I’d just spent years getting a Ph.D. among academic types. If I had known she would go that route (and it certainly was right to try it eventually) I would have steered her towards other presses, which I had heard were strong with more popular books.
But, by the time I knew what was happening, two university presses wanted the book. Great as far as it went, but the press Deborah thought I should choose reneged on their original offer to publish a hardcover, followed by a paperback the following year. They wanted to do just a paperback, which would have meant less money for me and, I was told, many fewer reviews in non-academic outlets — extremely important for me as I considered my long-term writing career. I called Deborah and asked if she thought I could switch to the other press at that point; they were bigger, better funded, and better known, and I had only turned them down because they weren’t willing to do the hardcover followed by paperback plan we were hoping for.
That request deeply upset Deborah, and she dropped me as a client right then. I was stunned — I’d asked in a perfectly friendly tone. In theory, this was excellent: I never had to pay her a thing, and I certainly needed the pittance she would have received more than she did. In practice, it was a quiet trauma. We’d worked together for years. We were friends. In a strange way, I’d even say we were very close buddies. Deborah clearly wanted little to do with me after we dropped professional ties, and she died a few years later.
Ultimately, I convinced the press Deborah had chosen to do a hardcover followed by a paperback, and a book did come out. All did not go well. This press created a faulty barcode, and my book rang up at $90 in many stores, surely killing many sales (the hardcover was actually $26.95). Friends and relatives from all over the country were calling me to ask why my book was $90, and I was mystified until I figured out what was happening. The problem never got resolved.
But I did have a published book: Mystics, Mavericks, and Merrymakers: An Intimate Journey Among Hasidic Girls. I hired an outside publicist, spent considerable time spreading word about the book, and landed some fantastic speaking experiences on television, on the radio, and in person. The book even won an award: nothing huge, but I was beginning to realize that any success in this area was worth savoring.
Shortly after my book came out, an editor at a publisher for young adult books emailed me, wondering if I would be interested in writing a novel set in the Hasidic community I had researched. I was, and she treated me to a lovely Manhattan lunch so we could brainstorm.
I loved the idea of writing a novel. I’d never had the confidence to try before, but an editor was contacting me, telling me she adored my writing and thought I could create wonderful fiction! Truthfully, I sort of hated her actual thoughts, which would have led to a shallow, upbeat relationship between two Jewish girls: one from a somewhat secular Jewish background, the other one Hasidic. I wanted something deep, rich, complex, and sometimes dark. But her confidence inspired me, and I got to work on a novel, thinking I’d probably try to find someone else who communed with my vision for it.
I relished writing in this way — creating lives, thoughts, worlds, disasters, and triumphs. Soon after I had a complete draft, I went to a local novelist’s reading here in Boston. I found myself chatting with a friendly, lively woman who had recently published a novel drawing from her Orthodox Jewish life. We exchanged contact information. I read her novel and really enjoyed it; she read my manuscript and liked it so much she contacted her literary agent, suggesting she read my work. Her agent was very well known, at an agency that anyone with ties to the field would recognize as super-selective and elite.
After an agonizing wait of about 6 weeks, this agent let me know that her younger colleague was very interested in representing my book. I was slightly shocked since I didn’t know this could happen: I thought I was applying only to work with Ms. Big Shot. But this was the only place I had approached: I had no other options at that point. Jessica, the younger colleague, was also at this agency that makes writers swoon with dreams of soaring success.
Jessica called me, and I was hooked. She loved my book. She thought about it when she woke up, when she lathered up in the shower, when she sipped her evening tea, before she fell asleep. My main character spoke to her so intimately, she felt like a version of Jessica herself. What a fascinating world I had created, what engrossing drama, in words that spoke to her poetry-loving soul.
She did have suggestions for changes, though she said the novel was my baby and it was all my decision in the end. I rewrote a bit, taking her suggestions seriously. Jessica loved my changes, was so impressed with how I embraced her ideas while staying true to my own thoughts and vision.
Then she sent the book around to editors. And… nothing. Much as I was used to this, I was stunned. I thought this time would be different. This agent knew from technology. She could be contacted in all the usual ways. And editors did contact her, just not with any tidings I was hoping for. Jessica had sent the book to a mix of editors: some focusing on adult fiction, others on young adult. The adult fiction people often thought it would be a fabulous young adult book since my main characters were in their late teens and early 20s. The young adult editors typically felt it was too complex, too cerebral, just too, in general, to work as young adult fiction.
One of the young adult editors liked it enough to invite Jessica and me for lunch, anticipating that I’d revise according to her wishes. I had hoped we’d wind up with an “adult” publisher who would market the book to both teens and adults, but, at this point, I was thrilled to have any interest. We met at an Italian place in Manhattan and had a wonderful time. We laughed. We wondered whether the lasagna on our plates was as good as the lasagna I’d described in my book. Jessica kept praising me, saying how amazing it was that this novel was my very first attempt at fiction. (I figured I wouldn’t share that I had written one or two colossally unimpressive stories during high school and college: why ruin a rare good thing?)
Jessica decided to do a second round of submissions, after I incorporated suggestions from this editor and others who had taken the time to critique. I got back to work. I was bruised, but I was excited to improve my book, and Jessica was on my side. She continued to send me little articles and notes, signing them “xoxo.” I told her I thought all this failure might stem from bad karma from a previous life, and she said: “No bad karma! This will turn out well.”
Well, let’s just say my bad karma theory is still a possibility. The second round of submissions turned up… nothing. I suppose I could be a tad more optimistic and use the Zen Buddhist concept of zero, which is not nothing, but the thing that allows all things to exist. A breathtakingly nuanced concept that includes “everything” and “nothing” all at once. My soaringly optimistic grandfather probably would have seen it that way. But I was too hurt for breathtaking nuance — and still am.
Jessica began to sour. Her emails became curt, with nary an “xoxo” in sight. We met for lunch again, just the two of us, and she seemed annoyed the whole time. At one point, she said, “I used to think you and I had so much in common because your novel spoke so deeply to me, but we’re soooooo different.”
She and I had always been quite different — I realized that from the start — but this comment seemed symbolic of a deep, searing truth. And, honestly, it made sense: she’d invested boatloads of time into me and received nothing in response — and not in the Zen Buddhist sense. Business does not operate according to Zen Buddhist principles.
If I had been interested in simplifying the book to please the young adult editors, Jessica would have continued working with me, but A) I thought that would make the book worse, not better and B) I wasn’t optimistic about working with her anymore, given her shift in mood towards me. So we parted ways. Déjà vu.
Guided by many of the editors’ comments, I gave the novel a radical re-envisioning, and, amazingly, found a new agent without too much trouble. Wilson was with a smaller firm than Jessica, but they represented some seriously successful clients, and he was one of the founding partners. We had high tea at the Four Seasons to celebrate our upcoming work together, and, at one point, I felt a wave of pessimism, almost like I was seeing into some future point when failure had come yet again.
Maybe I’m psychic. Maybe past experience had given me predictive insight. Regardless… yup. Nothing. After reworking the book yet again based on suggestions from Wilson and his colleagues, and waiting out Wilson’s leisurely submission pace. Several years passed before we formally severed ties.
Adult writer finds publisher: oy vey times infinity
For better or worse, I am not one to give up. This past summer, I sent my novel to a small publishing house that doesn’t require literary agents. Supposedly they focused on just the sort of book I had written, so I had to try. They got back sooner than I had imagined, saying they thought the project had a lot of potential but needed a major overhaul to fit with their vision.
They wanted to know: was I willing to rewrite? I was! Of course I was! I’d done it at least seven times previously; what was one more go-around? On the whole, I liked their vision for the book. I could feel my mind moving around their ideas.
I spoke to their editor, who told me that the company’s head honcho, Rick, thought my book could be big. They sent me a contract. Yes! A contract! It may have taken a decade, but I had arrived.
Except… the plane never landed. It turned right around and flung me back into nothingness, and not the Zen Buddhist kind.
I hired a lawyer to go over the contract. This is typical with writers who don’t have agents. She thought I could ask for more money, a higher advance, especially since I’d heard through the grapevine that other writers had gotten more. I would have taken their offer. The main thing was to get the book published. But I wanted to try for a better deal, just in case. So I requested a bit more, which, believe me, was still in the very modest range. The lawyer said it didn’t hurt to ask: worst case scenario, they’d say their initial offer was final.
The contract didn’t specify a deadline, and I was told to discuss that with the editor. It was September, and the upcoming months were my busiest teaching period. I requested a March deadline, which the lawyer said was absolutely reasonable.
They asked if I could finish by December. I said that would be tough; I’d need some time after the semester ended. I wanted some breathing room to play with ideas, brainstorm, and produce my best work. But I was flexible: could we discuss other options?
No other options were ever considered. Before that could happen, Rick called me and said they were revoking the contract because I’d sent them too many “curveballs.” He had been super-friendly when I told him I was hiring a lawyer to examine the contract and said I should put any changes she recommended right into the document so he could consider them. When I did just that, he bristled, rather than negotiating like most people in publishing; usually publishers simply express what they can change and what they can’t. Believe me, I wasn’t asking for anything astronomical.
He did say he’d reconsider the deadline question and possibly reactivate the contract if I sent him some revised chapters. I was shocked and angry, but I continued working on the chapters, putting everything else aside. I’d been revising intensely ever since I’d received the contract, and I kept it up. Rick told me he was excited to see my new work, and I wondered if the contract revocation was just a formality, to emphasize who was in charge and who had no bargaining power whatsoever; she’d be lucky to have a contract at all. That was fine by me. I had no pride at this point; I just wanted a published book.
I finished the chapters and sent them off. The editor and Rick had liked the previous version up to the point in the manuscript where I’d finished revising; their larger critiques had come later in the book. But I incorporated the suggestions they did have, and I revised and shared a few more chapters than they had asked for at that stage. Rick said he’d talk to me after he read my work. He gave the distinct impression that the contract would be back in play soon.
But our conversation never happened. Instead, Rick sent me an email explaining that the book no longer “resonated” with him and his colleagues. This seemed outrageous given that all the changes were geared towards their suggestions, and they had liked the chapters before I revised. I asked what he meant and was sent a generic description of his company’s publishing goals.
So I was back to zero. Actually, since we’re talking in business terms, I was at negative one thousand. I had paid that lawyer $1000 to examine the contract. Since I began revising as soon as the publisher sent the contract and the suggestions, I’d subtract another 10,000 or so. I gave up many beautiful experiences and poured concentrated thought and effort into my novel during my relationship with that publisher, all for people who wound up disregarding my efforts and my time. If I’m calculating losses, I will take my own time seriously, in a business sense and on the deepest level of soul.
Looking ahead with cynicism, optimism, and a quest for meaning
When I ask myself what I might have learned from all this, I wind up, at first, with pure negativity. “Don’t trust anyone,” my father has warned me since my early childhood. I used to laugh at him; now I’m like: why in 30 hells would I trust any human who isn’t a close family member or a friend from years back?
Worse, I have the sense that it’s average, normal, and understandable to hurt people in the name of business: to lure them in with friendliness and warmth when they fit a certain need, then drop them cold when they don’t bring in the expected payoff. Adulthood is nothing like school, where teachers could support you just because you were passionate, they enjoyed your work, and it was fun and even wondrous to help a mind grow.
Indeed, I put the agents in a very different category from the publisher that reneged on my contract. Jessica, for instance, was friendly and (virtually) kissy-kissy when that worked to boost my mood and my confidence. When she decided that I wasn’t a good investment, mood and confidence notwithstanding, she withdrew. But at least she gave me a chance, a long one.
The publisher dropped me before they even started with me — which would have been par for the course if they hadn’t sent me a contract. I remember an episode of the old TV show The Paper Chase, about Harvard Law School. I don’t remember who was involved or the particulars of the situation, but I do recall that someone brought up a fascinating concept: breach of an implied contract. Certain things are implicitly understood; you don’t need a physical document for them to be binding. Ironically, in the case of me and the publisher, the contract itself carried an implied contract. The mere act of sending a contract implies that the document is valid and won’t be revoked impetuously, even though there’s no additional note that says: “Just for the record, this contract is real.” It felt real enough to me that I spent good money and time going over it. I doubt this would stand up in a court of law. But it stands up in my mind’s court, and places the publisher in a different category from the agents, who were simply following protocol for their jobs and ditching clients when they no longer felt profitable.
In the midst of all this disaster, I’ve been working on a nonfiction book about my spiritual quest. If I can’t have worldly success, maybe I’ll at least find enlightenment, or mystical beauty, or God… or some other small consolation. But I haven’t given up on worldly success just yet. We’ll see what happens.
So I miss fourth grade. I miss Mrs. Rockett. I miss writing a haiku, showing it to her, and feeling thrilled just because it made her smile. The thing about a fourth-grade writer: that’s all you can really hope for. If you can make someone you respect smile, think, feel, or laugh because of something you wrote, bingo. You won. You reached the pinnacle.
Now, in adulthood, you can publish a book. You can attract public acclaim. You can find supporters who aren’t just teachers: they have the power make your career, your future, and your legacy. The most maddening part: you can know people who have all of these things. The possibility of more makes simple, intimate success feel like much, much less.
Though I love to complain, I have a lot of this simple success. I’ve been publishing short pieces on themes that arouse my passions, and making wonderful connections as a result. Through my writing, I’ve had mind-blowing conversations. I’ve helped open minds about spiritual questions, educational issues, and the odd souls who tend to get shunned and ignored.
Maybe I should recreate my own fourth grade, tell myself that’s all there is. But I’m too jaded now; it won’t work. So maybe I should have a two-tiered approach. There’s the kind of success I’ve achieved, and seem poised to keep achieving. And then there’s, you know, the agent who actually works out, the books that reach around the world, the acclaim, the legacy, and all that. I should appreciate the first, even as I strive for the second.
One is real and in the moment. The other is a dream that might be real someday, if only I can figure out how to find it. Kind of like spiritual truth, mystical bliss, and the immortality of our glorious souls. But, ultimately, not like them at all. In the end, I know I’d choose spiritual insight and peace over worldly success, if I had to pick. And maybe that should be my cue. My quest is a search for what matters most. The thought that this could mean some agent who gets me a fabulous book deal and the chance to receive a prize at a crowded awards dinner makes me want to sob. I want the upper limit of possibility to be more, so much more.
Perhaps I just need to remember that. And keep going, eyes on the prize but feet savoring the cool grass that’s always around, ready to be enjoyed.
Stephanie Wellen Levine is the author of Mystics, Mavericks, And Merrymakers: An Intimate Journey Among Hasidic Girls: winner of Moment Magazine’s 2004 Emerging Writer Book Award. Currently, Stephanie is on a spiritual quest as she completes a second book and teaches at Tufts University.