You’re a Writer Now

August 10, 2017 | 1 book mentioned 37 8 min read

Like most writers, I spent a lot of time wondering how it would feel to hold my first book in my hands. I imagined I’d caress the cover gently, open the book carefully to inhale my pages. Maybe a few tears would come, but they’d be happy tears. As my book crept closer and closer to its publication, I began anticipating the inevitable moment with increased intensity—I imagined I’d take pictures, then call my mother. I’d hold up my work—seven years, 30-plus revisions, and 108,352 words—while my husband marveled.

In the end, he did not see the box of advanced review copies—ARCs—in our driveway as he was getting home from work the night they arrived, and he drove over them with his car. The books were hardly damaged, just a few scuffs to the box, a couple dinged covers—it was more that the long-imagined moment was marred and thus made real. The car-running-over-my-books is an apt metaphor for my expectations about getting published: no moment, however awaited, looked the way I’d thought.

The hardest part about getting my book made wasn’t writing or revising or cutting—it was actually selling the thing. They don’t tell you this in college, or at the community writers’ workshop, or even in your MFA program. My grad-school friends and I already knew how lonely writing could be, but I wasn’t prepared for how wretched querying made me feel—how simultaneously tedious, exhausting, and demeaning the whole process became.

For several years, my book’s failure was my biggest fear. I’d easily devoted 10,000 hours to writing it, and when one agent told me to expect 30 rounds of revision to make it publishable, I cringed. In the end, of course, she’d been right. But making my own memoir was how I learned what it takes to create a book, outline to ARC, and a lot of that process involves trying to sell a perception of yourself, a certain version of your story that people will buy. The act of sending my memoir out, I discovered, is actually the process of sending yourself, time after time, to a stranger.

Usually, I never got any response at all.

The agents who did take the time to write from their Manhattan offices sometimes tapped out snippy replies—I just don’t see how I could sell this. Others were sweeter—You write beautifully….but I just don’t see how I could sell this. The kindest ones explained that although I wrote nice descriptions, my travel memoir didn’t have enough of a hook. There wasn’t much of an arc—nothing at stake, one said, and although she was trying to be constructive, the words cut deep. I’m certain that the gray hairs I have, I acquired during those desperate years—the years I tried to convince those New York agents my book mattered.

The querying process also taught me a few lessons about mercy, and I’ll always be grateful for the people “in the biz” who took the time to help me out. Through my undergraduate alumnae network, I located two agents who read my pages and wrote back lengthy, thoughtful responses. They taught me to take rejection less personally; so many agents talked like their hands were tied—they appreciated my work, maybe, but they knew the market wouldn’t. I was starting to see myself not just as a writer but as a floundering saleswoman, a flailing entrepreneur. Still, despite the heavy press of impending failure, I kept on writing, kept editing and polishing my book, tightening the focus—the version of myself I’d chosen to portray—with each revision. It occurred to me to quit, to back off or start over, but despite what the agents had said, there was actually too much at stake. All the early mornings, the late nights, the going-on-30 revisions; I just didn’t have the heart to give up on myself.

I started querying small presses that didn’t require agent referrals, and the months ticked by. I was teaching as an adjunct professor at the community college in town, and while the economy tanked and funding got withdrawn from my institution, I remembered my book—unpublished, yes, but written in full. I was more than just my job; I was a writer, however fragile the title felt.

But I was starting to lose hope. I was drinking too much wine as a way to temper the barrage of rejections cluttering my inbox, and as a result, I’d wake every morning at two or three or four and lie there, hungover and heart pounding, despairing that no one would ever love what I’d made.

“Nothing is ever anything,” my colleague explained when I bemoaned the possibility that my memoir wouldn’t get published. My colleague, an author of more than 30 (published) titles, repeated herself, looking deep into my eyes. “Kate, remember these words: Nothing is ever anything. Whatever you think you want, it never lasts. It won’t be what you think. Nothing is ever anything; it never is.”

Like every other step of the process, the good news didn’t arrive the way I’d always dreamed it would—there wasn’t any fuss, not even a letter, just an email from a man at an independent press I’d queried almost a year earlier. Took me long enough to reply, eh? But…I love this manuscript!

I read the email and started to weep. I knew next to nothing about this man, very little about his press, but his words were a key in a lock.

The next week, he sent over a contract, and a lawyer friend of mine graciously reviewed the entire thing with me over the phone. She stands out singularly in my mind as one of the ones who got it—who understood my goals, took my book seriously, and stood by me. Lots of people gently suggested that I not get my hopes up, and one friend told me searingly that she wished I’d waited for a “better press.” For weeks I wondered what that could have meant, because in the end, my book ­performed well, maybe as well as if one of those agents had taken a bite. Plus, it came out looking beautiful, with reviews from notable trade publications gracing the covers. My royalty checks are the sweetest money I’ve ever tasted, and I credit a quality publisher and his global distributor for those monthly payments. Anyway, this lawyer friend looked at the contract for my first book like it was Beyoncé’s contract for her first solo album; she spent hours explaining every term and clause, and then assured me, without irony or sarcasm, that she’d be there to review my next one, too.

On the day I signed the contract, I was in my mom’s kitchen in upstate New York, home for a few days’ vacation. I signed first, and then my mom, as a witness. Afterwards, we folded the heavy paper, tucked it into an envelope, and brought it down to the mailbox, where so much news, good and bad both, had gone and come before. We put the contract inside, but before we did, we both kissed the envelope for luck. Then we pulled the little door shut, listening for the old, familiar creak.

“Well,” my mom finally said, “that’s that.”

Authors must be beggars, especially at first. We voluntarily put ourselves in a position we haven’t occupied since high school, clamoring for popularity in the form of readership, agent representation, editorial approval, good reviews and glowing blurbs, promotions, giveaways, and endorsements—anything that remotely equates to sales. I used to shun social media—a time-waster, a confidence-killer—but I’ve joined Twitter and Instagram since publishing my book, and I troll those sites for followers like a kid paying for friends. I hashtag like it’s my job, because in a way, it is—this work of selling myself, this version of Kate, this particular story I’ve chosen to tell.

And when I find myself taking my social media accounts too seriously, I remind myself of my former colleague’s words: Nothing is ever anything.

Still, it’s hard not to get caught up in the excitement. When, I shit you not, Donald J. Trump followed me on Twitter and, aghast, I blocked him as soon as I saw, my publisher teased me, mock-scolding. “You’re a writer now!” he said: Be merciless. Be brutal. Be the sales, not the person. Do whatever it takes.

When my book was finally released, the community college where I work hosted a reception in the library. I was really nervous—and really excited. It was the biggest literary event I’d ever had, and it was my first reading of my book. I dressed carefully, changing my outfit half a dozen times, and I coached my husband on what to wear, what to bring, what to say and not say. He was to be my salesman, my marketing rep, my PR.

People from all over the community came to the reading—most of whom I hadn’t ever met. Folks from payroll and the cashier’s office came over, introduced themselves, and told me how excited they were. Students from years ago stopped by to gush, and one told me she’d just been paid, so she was buying a book first thing. I wanted to give her a copy for free, but my husband shushed me. “You’re a writer now,” he muttered, something everyone seemed to realize but me.

My husband and I sold 10 books that night, and only a few to friends. When I stood to read the passage I’d selected, I looked out at the cluster of faces and felt an acute sense of gratitude. I saw my husband in the back, sitting tall. A few faculty members from the English department had shown up, a couple old friends from the community, but it was all the faces I didn’t know that left me breathless. Here they were, sitting before me, waiting to see what I had made. Tonight, the plain old library was transformed, not by decorations or music or lights but by me. I was the one who was different now; just like that, the audience made me an author, and I held my book in my hands.

After that, I received reviews from several national literary organizations, which helped us to sell hundreds of copies before the book even officially went on sale—and which will, my publisher assures me, help us to sell copies forever. I travelled to Washington D.C. for a lavish party where, along with four other authors, I proudly launched my first book. A professional photographer took my picture, and people I’d never met clapped me on the back, shook my hand, and bought my book. A few thousand copies sold in the months following the book’s release, and if an astronaut in the International Space Station wishes to download a copy, she can. I have more credibility in the publishing world now, and I’m hoping this will equate, at some point, to more clout at my college teaching post.

My colleague wasn’t exactly right—some things are actually something in the end. I will always treasure the review blurbs my publisher helped me to solicit from grad school professors, writer friends, and even famous strangers I dared myself to query. I love when someone reads my words and sees me anew—as a resource, perhaps. And it’s thrilling to sense little shots of fame—mentions from high-profile writers, shout-outs from friends on social media, and a copy of my book on display in the local library.

With lots of things, it’s true: Nothing is ever anything. For me, those nothings are the Twitter and Instagram accounts, the towering stack of query letters, and those despairing, wine-drenched nights. Little changed at work—my students remained unfamiliar with my writer self, and I suspect most of my colleagues won’t ever read the book.

But I can still remember the February night my dad finished his review copy. “It’s beautiful!” he declared unabashed—praise I can still feel in a sensory way. Last week, he told me he’s reading the book a second time, and I like to picture him at the kitchen table at home, turning the pages, reading my words. My folks drove 12 hours to get to my D.C. launch, and I’ll never forget seeing them enter the party, my dad first, dressed in nice slacks and a suit jacket, his hair combed back.

In the end, it all returns to where it began.

The book event in my hometown was a roadside signing outside the main bookstore. There was no reading, no fanfare, just a table and a stack of books and a chair.

From that store, I made my first book purchase using birthday money from my grandmother. For decades, I purchased Christmas gifts, birthday gifts, wedding gifts, and baby gifts from there. I’ve walked those narrow aisles so many times, and now I was sitting outside, signing my book. My parents came, too. They didn’t sit by me, didn’t interfere as people came and went, chatting and snapping pictures. An old friend sat by my side, a woman I’ve known since I was five or six, and my parents stood a few feet away, talking with people they knew. We sold all the books. At the end of the sale, we packed up our things, folded up the chairs, and then I said goodbye to my friend, and my dad drove my mom and me home.

Image Credit: Pexels/Suzy Hazelwood.

lives in Santa Fe, New Mexico, where she is a member of the English faculty at the Santa Fe Community College. She serves as Editor-in-Chief of the Santa Fe Literary Review and holds an MFA from the Vermont College of Fine Arts. Her first book, Patagonian Road: A Year Alone in Latin America (SFWP), was published in 2017. McCahill’s essays and stories have appeared in Vox, The Millions, The Adirondack Review, and elsewhere. Learn more


  1. Kate, you have been a writer for a very long time. What you’ve become is an author. Anybody who writes is a writer; but authors have their writing published. Congratulations! I love this book of yours.

  2. Oy vey, virtue-signalling and self-pity from start to finish. 90% of the people who bought the book are people she knows personally and it’ll be out of print in five years’ time.
    That’s the negative pragmatist in me. Sorry if it seems ungenerous, but I remember when writers had real talent and ambition. The chances that a woman with this worldview becomes Joan Didion or Susan Sontag are next to nil.
    Give me a reason to pick up your book, something resembling wit or intellect or insight into something other than your own navel.
    Not surprising, either, that she wound up in Santa Fe. A tourist trap for people who believe in the healing power of crystals. Go hack it in ABQ. Being published is all but meaningless. Simple. Keeping your books in print and in the public imagination, that’s the real challenge.
    Sorry again if I sound malicious or misanthropic, but somebody had to be the adult here.

  3. “What you’ve become is an author. Anybody who writes is a writer; but authors have their writing published.”

    There are more fine ways than are dreamt of, in the paper-based realm, to be a published writer: I’ve had more than 80,000 readers (and, even, scholarly attention) for the over 1,000 pages of short stories, novels and novellas I’ve published, on my sites, over the years. In the previous two weeks alone I’ve had two different readers, from different countries, read through a few dozen stories each, in solid days of reading. Sure, there’s no money in it, but there’s no real money in paper-publishing, any more, either (unless you’re… shudder… an S. King type). Time to get over these 19th century prejudices! The Word is the Word, irrespective of the medium it stains!

    Having said that: congratulations to *anyone* who completes a solid piece of Writing and finds an audience! There’s nothing quite like it! So: Congratz Ms. MCCAHIL!

  4. It’s refreshing to hear a non fairy-tale version of a struggling writer daring to present a perspective which varies from the approved context.

  5. For every essay where someone struggles to publish a book and ultimately succeeds, how many should there be about one who ultimately fails?

  6. Kate, I’m on the same journey as you, trying to finish a memoir and get it published. I’m a published poet, and I know how hard it can be to promote yourself and get rejected over and over, but your story gives me hope. And don’t listen to commenters like “Henry”; truly happy, successful people don’t need to tear others down. Publishing a book, no matter who reads it, no matter if it stays in print for decades, is an accomplishment to be celebrated. You have translated yourself into words, which is more than the vast majority of people have done or will ever do.

  7. Henry,

    How miserable of a person, exactly, do you have to be to read a nice little essay about someone’s struggle to publish something, and post what you did? Also, cute “apologizing” for sounding malicious and misanthropic. How about just not being malicious and misanthropic?

    Also, does it seem, in this essay, like the author thinks she’s Joan Didion or Susan Sontag? I found the whole thing imbued with humility, personally. She’s talking about small book readings, a small press, the personal pleasure of getting something into the world. It’s about sticking it out during what is, every step of the way, a humbling process. So your comment is not only supremely assholish and unnecessary, it’s also a misreading of the essay.

    If I were you, I would find this to be an occasion for some introspection about the kind of person you are and want to be in the world.

  8. Swog!

    I don’t even think Henry’s Phatic Yelp is worth getting angry at; it doesn’t once engage with the Writer’s book. So: whatever! It could be aimed at anyone at any time for whatever reason… it’s a geologic feature of the Internet, like a tiny virtual sink-hole or micro-geyser…

    I like Ms McCahill’s conceit of following Theroux’ route in his Patagonia book; I have all the early travel books of his and one or two of the later ones (the later fiction I find to be weak) and the notion of an updated perspective grabs me. Theroux can be a curmudgeon, so I’m wondering if Ms. McCahill’s people approached him for a blurb and, if so, how he responded?

  9. Steven,

    On the one hand, I know, “Forget it, Jake, it’s the internet.” On the other, do people really have to be *such* complete douches? So tiresome.

  10. I think the book sounds fascinating, I have it on order. Now don’t piss too much on Henry: I too am anonymous, for very good reason, and something I disdained in others before online harassment happened to me. I don’t think it is the most brilliant essay I’ve read, but Kate is clearly not plugging her book, which is super modest, rather she is describing the arduous process of getting published. Henry (I think) sensed some self pity where others got an illustration of the hard work going into writing a book. It is all perception.

  11. I can’t engage with the book, Steven, because it’s so obviously not worth reading. You guys really think you have to watch a movie or TV show or read a book to guess at its worth? Just the tone and tenor of her writing in this piece made it clear that we were not dealing with a genius. If the writer isn’t a genius, why I am wasting time reading them? I read literature to find a Joyce, a Proust, a Faulkner.

    The writer has humility, Swog, and for good reason. To be the next Didion or Sontag you have to strive to be like them in the first place, you have to aspire to a really, really high level of excellence. I don’t think people read Pynchon or Gaddis or Hemingway or Proust or Flannery O’Connor and go “What a lovely young person, and such humility.” No, those writers were writing to change the world!

    I wasn’t trolling or just “being mean.” There was a great article about this a few years back. Something about how too much contemporary fiction is merely “good,” when what we should be aspiring to is mind-blowing “Holy sh–!” fiction. That’s all I’m saying, that mediocre writing is worse than bad writing in a lot of ways, and this woman’s writing sure sounds mediocre.

  12. Henry,

    1) You must be a fantastic, almost psychic reader to divine from this essay the quality of OP’s novel. Just a guess that she didn’t toil for years over these 1000 words.

    2) Ah yes, the good old days, when all novels and essays were works of genius, or at least attempts at it.

    3) I agree we should, as writers, aspire to write mind-blowing fiction. I question whether the means to that end is to insult aspiring authors on message boards with super-assholish comments.

    4) You may have mistaken the Millions comments section for the NY Times Review of Books. I would suggest getting a job as a critic there, and then taking your kid gloves off for the good of the larger culture.

    5) As such a committed superbist why are you even wasting time on internet personal essays when you could be hip deep in The Guermantes Way?

  13. As somehow who is pro-misanthropy, and who has tangled with Swog and Steven before, I half want to defend Henry here. I think his argument is a bit spiteful and mean-spirited, but I also think McCahill does that really annoying millennial “desperate need for external approbation thing.”

    I assume the Slate essay referred to is this one:

    And in his love of “holy crap fiction,” Beha is of course right that the Jennifer Weiners of the world are insipid mainstream chick lit authors who have nothing in common with the highbrow writers of enduring art cited by Henry.

    But Steven is right that plenty of worthwhile books are not high art. Libraries are filled with them.

    Museums, on the other hands, should be putting out 95% masterworks, no?

    And I have to disagree with Swog’s statement that The Millions isn’t the NY Times Review page. And regarding McCahill: “Just a guess that she didn’t toil for years over these 1000 words.”

    Hey, she’s PUBLISHING it! The Millions is a pretty big publication in the current industry. She’s a grown adult. You publish your writing, it’s open to criticism, and you damn well better toil over it.

    I agree with Steven that a few examples of just exactly WHERE McCahill came up short would have been nice. Also, I would say to McCahill: why would you block the president from following you on Twitter no matter what party you are! Bill Clinton being photographed just carrying a copy of Mystic River went a long way to making Dennis Lehane’s CAREER! If you’re an artist of any kind, you want your work to get seen, no? I don’t care if it’s Nixon, Putin, Hugo Chavez, Castro — if a world leader gives you attention, take it.

  14. Sean writes: “but I also think McCahill does that really annoying millennial “desperate need for external approbation thing.”

    Sean, Dude: a Writer presented an essay, about getting her book published, on a literary site. This doesn’t strike me as a particularly needy… or threatening… or counter-intuitive… thing to have done. To the extent that Writers prefer to be read, one might say that *all* Writers… but, wait.

    Why are we bothering with this silly “debate”?

    The Writer wrote:

    “My folks drove 12 hours to get to my D.C. launch, and I’ll never forget seeing them enter the party, my dad first, dressed in nice slacks and a suit jacket, his hair combed back.”

    This sort of thing is worthy of attack? Erm… I think it’s rather pleasant.

    PS You think late-phase Picassos are “masterworks”? I think they’re largely talismanically death-fearing doodles… but I’m glad they exist.

  15. Slow down folks. Kate’s article stands on its own. One fellow disagrees or dislikes her essay and explains why – support Kate and leave the man who disagrees alone. Buy her book. Done.

  16. (PS Surely, the longer we discuss McCahill’s book, and keep that book in the spotlight here, the better….? It’s just a matter of keeping the discussion from going bloody or nutty; I think it’s a mistake to start thinking that decorum demands that the discussion be held to a few comments and then be done with it…)

  17. Hey Steve, have at it. For my part, in my experience, you can’t change someone’s mind or ideas, pride would never allow someone to say “yeah, good point, I take back my harsh criticism”. All the best with this thread.

  18. Sean,

    “And I have to disagree with Swog’s statement that The Millions isn’t the NY Times Review page. And regarding McCahill: “Just a guess that she didn’t toil for years over these 1000 words.”
    Hey, she’s PUBLISHING it! The Millions is a pretty big publication in the current industry. She’s a grown adult. You publish your writing, it’s open to criticism, and you damn well better toil over it.”

    Right, but his comments are not really about her essay, which by my lights is a modest and non-whiny account of her effort to get a book published (don’t really see what’s millennial or needy about it but w/e). Having not read her book, he decides her book is trash, tells her it will go out of print in 5 years, says she is not Joan Didion and never will be, and that the place she lives is a shithole.

    My point stands: none of this is necessary, reasonable, productive, or anything other than a hostile tantrum. Perhaps it’s the current poisonous political atmosphere, but it would be really nice if we could all do better than this, on a website where everyone can at least agree that books are good.

  19. The Great Railway Bazaar is the classic (I think I have a first edition of it) but it was his The Old Patagonian Express that Mccahill’s book shares some DNA with; she traces Theroux’s “steps”? Theroux was treasured for his snark and the literary allusions he tossed in his wake but he was always famously evasive about himself. It appears that Mccahill’s book both traces Theroux’s journey and inverts his method.

  20. Steve, I’ve read Dark Star Safari which I could barely put down. Also re travel writers there is Bruce Chatwin. I have not read Chatwin’s travel books but his novel On the Black Hill broke my heart.

  21. H!

    Dark Star was one of Theroux’s last good books (imo); re: Chatwin: I wonder if Chatwin’s work on Patagonia inspired his ambitiously competitive friend, Theroux? My interest in the Theroux tie-in, with McCahill’s book, is that when a Writer cites another Writer in the making of his/her book, it’s usually in the nature of an homage. But McCahill’s book (from what I can gather) seems almost to be a rebuke of Theroux and even that style of mid-20th century, Anglophone travel-writing, which was sort of triumphalist and often saw the Writer punching down on the “quaint,” “weird” or “horrific” in the Old or Third Worlds. Theroux was a stylistic master of making the (Yankee or Brit) reader feel smug about the armchair he/she was reading in.

    So I was wondering if McCahill sees herself as an intentionally New Breed of Conscious Travel-Writer with her first book? Which is why I asked if Theroux had been approached to blurb it… (laugh)

  22. Actually, to go into detail a little…

    Theroux writes, in the introduction of The Old Patagonian Express (1979),

    “My friend Bruce Chatwin had told me that he wrote In Patagonia after he read The Great Railway Bazaar. In my copy of his book he wrote, “For Paul Theroux, who unwillingly triggered this off.” I had told him that I had always wondered how he had traveled to Patagonia -he had left that out. He had written about being there, but I wanted to write about getting there. This thought was always in my
    mind, and it made me meticulous about my own trip. I knew that as soon as I got to Patagonia I would simply look around and then go home. Mine was to be the ultimate book about getting there.”

    And in the introduction to McCahill’s book (which I have accessed via Amazon), she writes (in this edited excerpt):

    “In the winter of 1978, travel writer Paul Theroux boarded a train at Boston’s South Station and rode for four months, travelling through Mexico, Central America, and South America. He rode trains through Guatemala and Panama, Columbia and Ecuador, Peru and Bolivia, all the way to Argentina. He wrote The Old Patagonian Express, an account of his journey by train, and thirty years later, I read it.

    Theroux was a man travelling in a man’s world. He spoke decent Spanish, had adequate funding, and enjoyed the privilege and respect that his race and status garnered. Yet what stood out to me most about Theroux’s journey was that he never stopped to take in any place, for the trains were his real destinations […] I couldn’t imagine traveling like that, not stopping to savor a beach, a neighborhood, a friendship, or a trail in the woods. Theroux never stayed anywhere long enough to fall in love with it.”

    So we have four connected books, the latter two of which are each a Writer’s effort to address or improve, in some way, a perceived flaw or idiosyncrasy of the thematically-similar book preceding it… a kind of Literary bloodline. Evolution and one-up(wo)manship across three decades and genders…

  23. I think the main criticism of Theroux is the sense of empire which lingers, and hence his views and impressions are coloured by that giving out a sense of superiority. The man does not have low self-esteem! For female writers, I read a book many years ago by Mary Kingsley about her travels in Africa, written in 1897. Yes, colonialist but stands out for her fight against her wealthy family and getting her butt out of the drawing room. And that she wrote extensvely about her experiences makes her an early woman travel writer. Which brings me to Rebecca West – crap I can’t remember the name of the book about the Balkans. Door stopper of a book. I have read many of West’s novels (The Return of the Soldier is outstanding) but am unable to penetrate her travel book. Finally for fun, I recommend Deb Olin Unwerth’s “Revolution” for the sheer wackiness of her youthful experiences in Central America.

  24. I dropped out of this for a while but I felt like defending my side a little more. To Philip or anyone else who’s actually read this – WHAT specifically is good about it as prose? What makes the sentences sing? Why should I spend my time reading this author as opposed to one more canonical or even a “new memoirist” like a David Shields or a Brian Blanchfield or a Yiyun Li?

  25. Thirty-four comments and counting. I couldn’t be prouder. I had no idea something I wrote would inspire this much debate. Whether you like the book or hate it, appreciate my position or despise it, it means the world that you’ve taken the time to read and comment here. Write on!

    PS- I did contact Theroux for a blurb. We’re still waiting on a response.

  26. Thank you Kate! Your honesty and perspective are real, earthy and encouraging. Maybe…just maybe… there is hope for me too as someone growing into the idea of becoming an author.

Add Your Comment:

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.