My Year of Nothing
One year ago I left my full-time job to pursue a lifelong dream: I was going to publish my novel. I’d begun writing it in late 2018, shelved it for a year, and then picked it back up in January 2020, just in time for the pandemic to light a fire under my creative ass. Quite frankly, I didn't want to die before I’d ever realized this dream. My subsequent drafts progressed in fits and starts, thanks in part to a calamitous cross-country move and six separate attempts to move my 2020 wedding to a COVID-safe date. So when the end of 2022 rolled around, and this dream still felt just out of reach, I decided I would give it my all. At least, I said this was the reason, and for the most part, it was true. But I was also extremely burnt out. Time and again, in work and in life, I’d been betraying my own boundaries, and something needed to break.
I playfully called my voluntary unemployment my "Sambatical" (which still makes me chuckle, if I’m honest). I considered it a brief opportunity to step away from my career that would last three, maybe four months at most. Twelve months later, and I’m feeling decidedly less playful.
At the beginning, my Sambatical was exactly what I needed. I established my online author presence, joined various writing associations, and attended every webinar I could about improving my craft. I read more than I have in years, often in genres I used to ignore, like horror, memoir, and short story. After each book, I took notes on what worked or what didn’t, distilling each story into an essence I might bottle for myself.
I started telling people I'm a writer, something I’d previously avoided because I felt I hadn’t achieved enough to earn the title. Whether I adopted this moniker as the result of self-confidence rather than self-preservation is still up for debate. It turns out that saying you’re a writer is a convenient way to avoid admitting you’re unemployed – because it can still be true, even if no one is paying you for it.
I combed through the pages of Publisher’s Marketplace for hours, making my list of literary agents to query for representation. I spent even more time perfecting and personalizing my query letter to each one, triple-checking that I hadn’t accidentally spelled “Michele” with two Ls instead of one, thereby ruining my chances entirely. Eventually, sixty queries and almost as many rejections later, I landed my agent. This process – the first real step toward getting published – took five months.
After signing with my agent, she read my manuscript again and sent it to an editor for initial feedback. This editor sent what is possibly the nicest rejection letter I’ve ever received, and encouraged me to make the mystery within my novel stronger. This step took another two months.
Summer in New England came and went, partly because it seemed to rain every weekend, but mostly because I spent day and night mining the depths of my soul to rewrite my book. In the end, I was proud of it, although I prefer not to think about it for too long or else I start to have doubts. My manuscript went out on submission in late October, which means editors are reading it now and deciding if they want to buy it. I’ve already gotten one “no,” and I only have five more chances for a “yes.” All the while, I’ve tried to balance the knowledge that most writers never publish their first book (or their second, or sometimes even their sixth), with the enduring hope I might be an exception.
Every bit of writing advice online tries to warn aspiring authors that the publishing industry moves at a snail’s pace, but it’s hard to fully comprehend just how slow this is until you are in it, feverishly refreshing email and praying for anything – even a rejection – because eventually, bad news becomes better than, well, nothing.
In between all the nothing, I’ve tried to be productive.
Eager not to overstep my boundaries again, I've prioritized my wellbeing. I stopped setting an alarm and started waking up naturally. I can estimate what time it is based on the morning light in my bedroom, and it fascinates me, this internal clock I’ve ignored most of my life. As part of my effort to read more, I deleted all my social media apps from my phone, and now I check them from my browser, just like my husband's ninety-four-year-old grandmother. I’ve walked more than 1,400 miles this year, because walking is when I do some of my best writing. I walk, and I finally find the right thing to say. I walk, and I realize something true that I have known all along. I am walking as I type this.
When money has allowed, I’ve gotten out of my comfort zone. I started voice lessons in attempt to overcome the debilitating performance anxiety that has long silenced my love of singing. No one knows this except my husband, because again, I refuse to call myself a singer until I’ve “earned” it, and for a perfectionist Millennial like myself, this likely means winning American Idol first. I taught forty-some hours of yoga, a hobby I stubbornly continue despite said anxiety. I took a pole dancing class, inspired by Jennifer Lopez's mind-blowing physique in Hustlers. My shins bruised and my arms hurt for a week straight, but I never felt silly. In fact, I was surprised by how willing I was to let myself free fall.
I turned down an offer to work with some lovely people because it meant taking a big pay cut, and I was suddenly reminded about my pesky boundaries again. I interviewed for another job I didn’t get, and I applied for dozens I never heard back from.
I started writing a new novel in late May, and then promptly abandoned it to work on my first novel’s revisions. In the last couple months, I haven’t done much creative writing at all. I loosely committed to two days of NaNoWriMo before setting my pen back down again. My work in progress just feels stuck, like the characters are chess pieces and I don’t know where to move them. I am a person who likes to tick each item off my to-do list before I move on to the next – but there is no list-ticking when you're trapped in literary limbo.
I cried. A lot. About how foolish I’ve been for putting myself in this situation and how proud I am for taking the risk. About how far I've come and how scared I am that it will all be for “nothing.” This inescapable sense of nothing. How will I explain a career break that hasn't produced anything tangible?
I know the fact I’ve been able to take my Sambatical at all is an enormous privilege. Despite the tightness in my chest whenever I check my dwindling bank account, I recognize time is a luxury so many others can’t afford. But when I’m struggling to write, attempting to create anything to show for this year, it’s hard not to feel like I have wasted it. The balance between making art and making a living seems precarious at best. I often worry that I have overcorrected.
Because more often than not, writing is like shouting into the void. For all the pieces that see the light of day, there are far more lurking in the shadows, still muttering under their breaths. There was the children’s book I penned in my early twenties under the green lamps of the Boston Public Library – and then quietly shelved. And the second children’s book I belabored in my mid-twenties, which, at the gentle recommendation of a family friend in publishing, was also shelved. There was the weekly travel newsletter a friend and I created as a labor of love, before new (paying) jobs commanded our attention. I've lost count of all the travel articles and personal essays I’ve submitted to no avail. Some have found a second home on my blog, but most have taken their rightful places on the shelf next to the other drafts.
This is the truth about pursuing a dream. In a culture that measures success by our external results, it often looks – and feels – like you’ve accomplished absolutely nothing.
I thought about writing this post if and when I had failed to sell my book. I thought it might be a good way to explain away all the nothingness. Then I realized I needed to write it regardless of the outcome. Because as much as the road to success is paved with hard work, it is also marked by periods of complete inertia. And while you are waiting, the doubt creeps in. When you are still, the fear takes root. The real success, then, is in outlasting them.
I don’t know what the future holds for my writing career. I don’t know who to become if it turns out I can’t be a published author – at least not right now. In a culture that prefers our lives read like perfect narrative arcs, abrupt changes to the plot tend to be discouraged.
But after a long year spent together, there is something I've come to appreciate about nothing. Nothing is the blank page before the words, the breath before the song you've held in for far too long. It is the place from which we all create, and it is always waiting for us to begin.
So, I do the only thing I know to do, the one thing I seem to return to: I write down my thoughts, and I hope that, someday, someone else might read them.