As a woman and survivor of sexual violence, speaking my truth has always felt important. But when it came to publishing my first book, a work of narrative nonfiction that deals in part with overcoming the effects of sexual abuse, assault, and harassment, I found myself on a long journey with many roadblocks.
Mine is a story I was told not to tell—by my family, by the publishing industry, and by society itself. While writing, revising, and submitting my book to literary agents and editors, I had to fight against my fears and the beliefs I’d acquired growing up in an abusive home: that the world was going to shun me; that I was going to be silenced or disliked or otherwise rejected because of my truth. And yet, for a long time, that is what happened. Sexual violence is prevalent in our lives, but there has been, and continues to be, a culturally conditioned fear around acknowledging it, speaking about it, hearing about it, dealing with it, and doing something about it. The #MeToo movement has started to create receptivity, an openness for such stories, but change is slow.
During many years of workshopping my manuscript, I received a wide range of reactions to the content, including fear, anger (toward the survivor for speaking, not the perpetrator for perpetrating), and denial, reactions that were unrelated to the writing itself. I knew I needed to disarm these conditioned responses to sexual violence through my approach to the content on the page, by utilizing writing techniques including pacing, reflection, language choice, and description, to ground and educate my readers. I’ve gone through my traumatic experiences, but my audience has not. I’m not writing for therapy or myself; my job as a writer is to guide my readers and help them navigate difficult terrain. I knew I needed to find a way, through my style of storytelling, to deal with my audience’s conditioned responses to sexual violence. Otherwise my manuscript would remain buried in a drawer or be tossed in the trash—something many agents and editors, who praised my writing, told me to do with the book.
I was urged to wipe my book clean of what one famous author and teacher deemed “the ick” factor, which I was told would be a major roadblock—if not a complete dead end—to finding an agent or publisher. A prominent editor on a Boston Book Festival panel told the audience that nonfiction manuscripts about sexual abuse should not be pitched to her or anyone. A story about murder, however, was acceptable. Other publishing professionals said they wouldn’t acquire abuse stories because the market was flooded with them. Or they said the opposite: there was no readership. These were paradoxical statements that I soon realized were deflections—they weren’t factually true; they were, in my opinion, excuses that reflected the stigmas society places on disclosing #MeToo stories. Fictional accounts, such as those in The Lovely Bones or The Perks of Being a Wallflower, were welcome, but there was a problem if the story was real.
I didn’t know whether to call myself masochistic or determined, but I didn’t listen to those agents and editors. I just kept writing and trying to put my work out there. I knew my story was much greater than “the ick” factor. Yes, sexual abuse was a part of the obstacles I’d faced and overcome in my life, but it wasn’t the whole story. I had faith I’d find industry people who would understand that.
For a decade, I queried more than 300 agents. I was asked by about half to submit my manuscript or proposal for consideration. More than two dozen asked to chat by phone after they’d read my materials—most declined to represent me after phone calls for a variety of reasons, some related to the risk of trying to publish material about sexual trauma—and I signed with three (not simultaneously and with different manuscripts),and received much editorial praise for my writing. But publishers declined to acquire my book.
I could see there was interest, but fear seemed to dictate publishing decisions. I got so used to rejection that I anticipated it with every submission. In late January of 2018, when my then agent decided to stop submitting my latest book to publishers after 11 rejections, I considered giving up. I fell into a very serious depression for many weeks. A writer friend encouraged me to write an essay about my experience in the publishing world. I didn’t think it would change anything, but writing always gives me a sense of purpose, so I wrote the thing as a way of climbing out of my depression. To my surprise, Publishers Weekly accepted and published the piece, and Ms. Magazine reprinted it. That’s when the editorial director at Skyhorse Publishing reached out to me—he’d read the essay and was interested in reading my manuscript. Two weeks later, I was offered a book deal.
My self-help book-cum-memoir, I Just Haven’t Met You Yet: Finding Empowerment in Dating, Love, and Life, is a story of persistence—in dating, in life, and in publishing. One of the many big lessons I learned was not to let the naysayers—in writing or in life—ever define my worth or my potential for success.
Now that my book is out, I’ve been surprised by how welcoming the world has been (my old fears of rejection are still a bit reflexive). I hear frequently from readers when they are just a couple chapters in, telling me they can’t stop reading. I get protective of these readers and recommend they slow down because there are some pretty intense parts to this story. They don’t listen to me, and the next day or so I’ll hear from them again; they’ve finished the book, they stayed up all night reading and couldn’t put the book down. And they tell me all the ways they related to my story and share their stories of overcoming hardships. To have readers feel so invested and connected continues to remind me just how much writing is about being in community and empowering ourselves and each other.
Image credit: Unsplash/ Patrick Fore.
Tis the season for yearly book round-ups! Oh, how I love them. These columns grow my Amazon Wish List, along with my classroom library. As a high school teacher, it’s wonderful just to have the lists, even if I can’t get my hands on all the books. I can point my students towards these stand-out titles and know that they come highly recommended. I like to note the repeats and the unknowns — each compilation informed by different tastes and purposes.
I do wonder, as I read these “Best of 2013s,” how some of the titles would actually play with the young people in my classroom. Some books I can tell are immediately accessible, but others perhaps not so much. I would like to lend my voice to these discussions of newly published YA titles, but I didn’t read widely enough in YA lit in 2013 to form a comprehensive list. I did, however, watch my students run through a whole lot of books. Here are three published in 2013 that won the hearts of some young adults I know, recommended in their own words. Pick one up for a young adult in your life: satisfaction guaranteed.
Period 8 by Chris Crutcher
Chris Crutcher didn’t disappoint in 2013 with his Period 8. The latest in a long list of captivating and high-interest titles for young adults, Period 8 inserts fantastic scandal into the everyday world teens recognize so well. My student Joe noted that any one of his classmates would be able to relate to the story. He was amazed too by the scope of the content. “One chapter can be about swimming, the next about relationships, and then the next about a manhunt and the possibility of death.” Perhaps this is what makes the title such a page-turner. Joe finished the book in less than a week, and told me he was on the edge of his seat. “With the plot of this book, Chapter 5 and beyond feels like the climax all the time.”
Allegiant by Veronica Roth
Allegiant is the third and last book in Veronica Roth’s acclaimed Divergent series. Divergent fans have been knocking on my door and harassing our librarian for copies since October. Divergent revolves around one compelling idea: that one choice can change everything. This final installment swirls with romance, secrets, and sacrifice. Student and reader Alexis stresses: “If you have a passion or appetite for daydreaming about living in dystopian society that still seems better than your reality, Allegiant is for you.” He also notes that fans of The Hunger Games trilogy “will fall in love with the way the Divergent trilogy projects a strong heroine.” Alexis writes, “I relish the fact that Tris never wanted to just be different; she wanted to be her own self. In that, I can relate to her. In our society, you’re labeled so many things that aren’t who you are.” Indeed, Tris is as relatable and rich a character as Katniss, and drives the action of the plot through twists and turns to its ultimate shocking conclusion. Fans relate Divergent to the Maze Runner series as well, another action-packed dystopian tale with a strong and sympathetic protagonist. These series truly captivate: engrossing the reader in worlds that manage to be at once strange and familiar. They are worlds that swallow the reader and erase reality. Alexis warns, “For a few paragraphs, I had to stop and actually hug my book tightly.” But the plot marches on, and readers note that with that plot come lessons transferable to their real lives. “A quote from another bestselling book, The Perks of Being a Wallflower, fits the lesson of Allegiant,” Alexis writes. “Things change and friends leave and life doesn’t stop for anybody.”
Eleanor and Park by Rainbow Rowell
“I never thought a book could teach me how pure a heartbreak could feel; how indescribable falling so hard for someone could be. Eleanor and Park by Rainbow Rowell was love at first sight for me. I have never fallen so deeply in love with anything, let alone a book before. I’ve never felt like I could connect so purely to anyone or anything before I read this book.” Eleanor and Park is a title high on lots of 2013 lists, and my student Melissa is not alone in holding the book so dear. If there is any Young Adult book that reaches beyond the YA label in 2013 it is Eleanor and Park: a book about being a teenager and falling in love. The love between these two misfit teens is the most innocent part of their lives. Melissa explains that their love is built upon “music, comic books, and the simple spark of him touching her hand.” But life is not that simple, and the two must navigate the heartbreaking dysfunction of Eleanor’s family life. Eleanor bears the scars of this environment, but loving Park lets her dare to hope for a happy future. Eleanor is a lovely character who could walk right off the page. Melissa saw herself reflected in Eleanor, as so many do. “Like Eleanor, I never felt like anyone could ever love me the way I needed them to…until we both met a silly, half Asian misfit. I felt I could resonate so much with Eleanor, right off the bat. We’ve both always been that girl who isn’t stick thin; the girl with the big curly mop hair; girls that felt they weren’t deserving of love or care or hope. This book not only teaches you how blissful love can be, but how painful a heartbreak is.”
“You would know more than we do.”
“He speaks up in class? That’s good because he doesn’t talk much at home.”
“I ask him if he has work for class but he always just says ‘no.’”
It makes me think that this is why The Catcher in the Rye is a classic. People are just so thrilled to hear a teenage boy’s thoughts.
Then maybe they’re sorry they asked.
There’s no getting around it: 15-year-old boys talk to their friends more than they talk to their parents. They probably talk to their dogs more than they talk to their parents. In class, they can’t stop talking for five minutes to work independently on a writing project, but when they get home, apparently, they’re mute.
When they’re talking in class, it isn’t about their thoughts and feelings. But my informal qualitative research suggests that young men today are growing up with the same basic longings and tribulations that Holden did. How do I know? How do I have any idea what these walking enigmas feel inside? By what they read, of course. Teenage boys might be closed books, but the ones that they open are those in which the author manages to capture the honest-to-god truth about coming age. Here are three books the teenage boys in my class have been reading:
The Perks of Being a Wallflower by Stephen Chbosky: I’m so excited that this novel has been made in to a movie; originally published in 1999, Perks might not be enjoying the readership it is today without the film publicity and modern cover art. The book merits its evolution from cult classic to mainstream movie fame — in turns heartbreaking and hilarious, Stephen Chbosky’s novel gets the coming-of-age motif just right. His character Charlie is the wallflower that the title references, and Charlie’s journey, told through letters to an anonymous recipient, is ultimately one of moving out onto that dance floor and of refusing to play bystander to his own life.
A freshman in high school, Charlie navigates friendship, bullying, crushes, sex, drugs, and loss. He is an earnest, shy kid who struggles against depression and seclusion, hanging on to moments of joy and human connection. The novel is just angsty enough to feel honest, without being cringeworthy, and the voice is real and raw. I haven’t met a student yet who didn’t relate to Charlie’s story.
Ball Don’t Lie by Matt de la Pena: One of my favorites this year, Ball Don’t Lie tells the story of Travis Reichard, or as his mom used to call him: Sticky Boy. Matt de la Pena’s character portrayal is incredibly rich — not only when it comes to Sticky, with his compulsive tics and subconscious motivations, but with the entire cast: Sticky’s addict mom, his girlfriend, Anh-thu, and all the boys who go head-to-head on the basketball court and the streets.
We first meet Sticky on the gym floor of Lincoln Rec: “the best place in L.A. to ball.” De la Pena’s description of the game and the boys who play it is so vivid you can hear the squeak of sneakers on the court and the thud of the ball on the bent and battered rim. Initially, all but the outcome of each play is a mystery, and it takes a while to get to know Sticky, a foster kid whose only dream is to play in the NBA. Sticky is slow to show himself, as his past has left him broken, and the uncertainty of his future leaves him guarded. But, chapter-by-chapter, piece-by-piece, greater depths are revealed, and the book opens up to an emotional and riveting account of an urban basketball community, and a boy looking for a home.
Will Grayson, Will Grayson by John Green and David Levithan: Yet another delight from John Green, and this time with the added bonus of Levithan, Will Grayson, Will Grayson tells the story of two Will Graysons: a pair of teenage boys who meet serendipitously, at a time when a small miracle of coincidence is just what each one needs.
The two male protagonists, one gay, one straight, navigate platonic and romantic relationships with varying degrees of success and failure, with all the modern day complications of texting and online messaging. The story builds to an epic climax, complete with a high school musical and passionate declarations of love. The writing is funny, the characters relatable, the circumstances engaging, the themes meaningful and poignant. I haven’t seen my copy of the novel since September: as soon as one student signs it in, another signs it out.