In the vernacular of writers on social media, a book is “born”—conferred with legitimacy and a life separate from its creator—on the day that it is published. The metaphors of gestation, labor, birth come easily, and everyone seems to agree that the big day arrives not after the first sentence has been written, or the last, but on the day a book becomes widely available to the public. What then of the manuscripts that never make it into print? What do we call a book that’s never been born?
I won’t pretend the question is abstract for me. After over a hundred queries, thirty-five requests for full manuscripts, and a steady stream of variously personal rejection letters, I am searching for a metaphor to appropriately describe my book. More to the point: I’m looking for closure. The language of birth offers an easy inverse, but I refuse to call my book dead. Fiction is never dead, and there are too many examples of authors publishing books long after they were written for me to cremate my manuscript and honor its ashes in a decorative urn.
Neither is the book still gestating—a verb that suggests the quiet growth of cells joining cells to build something remarkable. My book is—for now and the foreseeable future—static, a finished product that continues to exist on the page while at the same time claiming for itself valuable territory in my brain. I’m done with it, but haven’t yet found a way to move on.
The birth metaphor is holding me back, unwilling as I am to conceive of my book as either stillborn or in utero. It would help, maybe to describe those newly published books not as babies but as marriages—partnerships between writers and manuscripts that have been taken public. My book, then, the unpublished (and perhaps unpublishable?) manuscript must be a lover who has moved from the bedroom to the couch.
I don’t know exactly when it happened. At some point the rejections started to seem more like a foregone conclusion than a disappointment; I already knew what they were going to say. I’d experienced this a few years ago, and had eagerly revised and begun the submission process anew, happy to have improved my manuscript. This time, though, I gradually realized that I didn’t want to revise anymore, both because I had already given so much to this book, and because I didn’t agree with the notes I was getting. The book may not be sellable in the eyes of literary agents, but it’s the book I want it to be. I could go on submitting forever, I suppose, ever searching for the one agent or small publisher who will see in the manuscript what I do. But there’s no joy in it for me anymore. I don’t want to be a submitter; I want to be a writer, and I have found I can’t do both.
Writers—or at least the writers I know—don’t talk about the breakups. Rejection, sure. Rejection is the dues we pay to belong the club. But a breakup, which to me feels either like complete failure, or a kind of surrender, is embarrassing, pathetic. I wish I heard more about the manuscripts left sitting inside desk drawers, or languishing on hard drives, the books shared only with close friends and family via e-mail, the ones the agents loved but couldn’t sell, the ones no one but the author ever wanted to read. The ones that have been left behind.
If I heard about the other books, maybe it wouldn’t be so hard to say goodbye to my own. “I loved you, book,” I’d like to say. “For nearly ten years I gave you my heart, my brain. I thought about you in the shower and in the middle of the night, dreamed of you and heard your music in my brain, smelled you on my skin. But now it’s time for me to go.”
I will go. I will pack up the detritus of my failed relationship: the maps of Shanghai, the index cards with Mandarin phrases spelled out in pinyin, the character descriptions and nonsensical notes to myself—love letters from a different time. Relegated to a box these reminders of a life I’m no longer living, a book I’m no longer writing, will hopefully lose their power over me.
I’m a different person now, a different writer. I had a ten-year relationship with a book, but it didn’t work out. Some days I blame myself, other days the book. Either way, I’m not embarrassed that I tried.