For as long as I’ve been a writer, the comparison that I’ve heard the most frequently used by artists of my ilk is that writing a book is like having a baby. As someone who has never had a baby, I imagine the truth of this likeness is that both take time and that both, once completed, are sent out into the world with little control over what happens next.
But what the comparison between writing a book and having a baby gets wrong is the assumption that the person writing the book or birthing that baby is in a position to both publish a book and procreate. Maybe this is why I’ve spent the last few months feeling unconvinced by the truth of this likeness. Is writing a book like having a baby? Sure, if you can get an agent and can get pregnant.
I, unfortunately, haven’t been able to do either.
My plan was to time it perfectly. I’d heard plenty about how hard it is to have children and write a book, so I figured I was being smart by finishing up the revisions on my book in the first few months of trying to conceive. The manic energy of the creative process in its final stages would distract me from my procreative efforts. I’d think through character arcs and revise sentences in my head as my husband I engaged in sex timed to my cycle, and then—just like that—I’d be pregnant and my book would be done. In my head I pictured myself sleeping off my first trimester exhaustion in my office while the offers of representations from agents arrived in my inbox, the bell of each email alert echoing off the bare walls beside my sleeping head.
But after a year of trying and failing to get pregnant, my book—or at least the first few chapters of it—has been languishing in the inboxes of thirty-one agents. If you ask me, if there is any comparison to be made between these two disparate things, it is in the trying.
The common saying when it comes to getting pregnant and getting an agent is that it only takes one. It only takes one agent who loves your book to sell it, and it only takes one egg to make a baby. This saying is meant to give hope to people like me who haven’t been able to do either. Even though I am nearing forty, online fertility forums assure me it’s still possible that, one month, my ovaries will produce a viable egg and my husband’s sperm will successfully fertilize it. Forget all the eggs that won’t make it, the people on these forums encourage. Try to focus on the one that will.Is writing a book like having a baby? Sure, if you can get an agent and can get pregnant. I, unfortunately, haven’t been able to do either.
This is where the comparison feels the truest to me. The way I picture both getting pregnant and getting an agent is similar. When I am lying in bed with my hips raised after sex, I imagine an egg hooking my husband’s sperm like a piece of Velcro. After another agent contacts me to request my full manuscript, I lose entire afternoons imagining what part of my story will be the thing to hook them. Will it be the voice? Will it be the vulnerability? Will it be the love triangle simmering at its center?
I thought trying for a baby would be fun, and for the first month it was. My then-fiancé and I had sex every day for weeks. I was having unprotected sex for the first time in our lives, and it reminded me of the day after I first lost my virginity. I was seventeen and doing laundry at the laundromat like I did every Sunday, but this Sunday felt different. I imagined pirouetting down the row of dryers and yelling, “I had sex last night! I am a sexually active person!”
It felt the same the morning after my first night of trying to get pregnant.
“I tried to get pregnant last night!” I imagined saying to the people in front of me in line at the donut shop. “I could be pregnant right now!”
What I would discover in the coming months was that it takes a long time to make a baby. In all of my high school health classes, no one had talked about the fact that there are only a few days in a month a person can actually get pregnant. No one had talked about how it takes seven to ten days for an embryo to travel down a fallopian tube and embed itself into a uterine lining. All the women in my life who had children had told me that they knew right away when they were pregnant. They had felt it in their bodies immediately. So, standing in line for a chocolate frosted the next morning, I was sure that’s what I was feeling too. A mother’s intuition. When you know, you know.
It was the same when I sent my query to the first five agents on my list. I imagined my pitch landing like a gift in their inboxes. A potential six-figure book deal, delivered to them free of charge.
I hovered my finger above the mousepad. “You’re welcome,” I said and then hit send.
I didn’t get pregnant that first month. I didn’t get pregnant the second or third or fourth month either. It’s been a year of trying, and we’ve tried everything we can without medical intervention: having sex every day, having sex every other day, peeing on ovulation strips ordered off of Amazon, not getting up for ten minutes after sex, not getting up for fifteen minutes after sex, peeing before sex so I wouldn’t have to get up at all, I could just lie in bed for the afternoon like some bird nesting on her eggs.
One month we tried positioning my hips on so many pillows that my body was nearly vertical. I took a picture of myself in that position just to see what it was like to be my husband, holding himself above my circus-shaped body and trying to reach climax. My boobs were where my neck usually was, and my chin had turned into four.
After sending my manuscript off to agents and getting a few requests for the full manuscript, I read the first ten pages—no, twenty—no, seventy-five—over and over again, trying to see them as the agent would see them. The pace lags too much in the second chapter, I was convinced. I should get to the sexy stuff sooner. You know what, I really should just forget about starting my opening chapter with the inciting incident and start it instead with the scene where I meet the man in an open marriage.
Everything that happens before that could be backstory, couldn’t it? If that’s what it would take—if that’s what would make the book sell—then I would do it. But none of the agents with my full manuscript wrote back. None of them had even responded with a rejection. Instead, I was forced to wait and wonder, Will it be this month? Will it be next? Will it take writing another book entirely?
Three months after first sending my book out into the world, I stop thinking about how it will happen and start wondering if it will. What if it doesn’t happen? The question feels existential to me. This is what I’ve wanted for my entire adult life. I want to write. I want to mother. What would I have—who would I be—if I didn’t do either?
The next steps are all expensive ones: ART, IUI, ICSI, and IVF. My friend tells me over Bud Lights that he and his husband have already looked into it, and adoption costs close to $40,000. Surrogacy costs over $100,000. My husband and I watch a video that a reproductive endocrinologist instructs us to watch before we take any next steps. We learn about things like estradiol measurements, sonohysterograms, and blastocysts.
“Our lab as an embryo success rate of 75 percent,” the voice over in the video says, and all I can think about is the one in four chance that we might not make any embryos at all.
The odds for finding an agent are even slimmer. One website I find when I can’t sleep at night says that, because agents receive up to 1,500 queries a month and most only sign six new authors a year, your chances of getting an offer of representation is one in three thousand.
On my computer, my web browser history switches from names of agents and their various submission guidelines to names of writing conferences whose tuition includes a meeting with an agent. For years I have avoided applying to conferences. As someone who grew up working class in an affluent town, I hate anything with a whiff of pay-to-play, but I also know a lot of people who met their agents this way.
I start to wonder what a fifteen-minute meeting with an agent is worth to me. If I got into Bread Loaf, would I be willing to pay $4000 just to get my foot in the door? When I start to think about what I would choose if I blow through my insurance’s IVF limit and have to choose between paying to attend conferences and paying for fertility treatments, I slam my laptop shut.
When I was thirty-three, I read an excerpt from Ariel Levy’s memoir The Rules Do Not Apply. In it, Levy described miscarrying her nineteen-week pregnancy in a hotel bathroom in Mongolia. I remember reading it at my desk in a dark one-bedroom apartment I was renting by myself in New Jersey, my entire body still except for the flick of my index finger across the mouse pad. The argument the book and all the media coverage it garnered seemed to be making was that women can’t have it all. If you want to have a baby, Levy warned in interviews, you better start now.
At the time I was newly single, newly alone, and utterly terrified. When I read the memoir, I dogeared only one page in its 207. On it I have underlined, “I asked her if she’d ever wanted children. She told me, ‘Everybody doesn’t get everything.’ It sounded depressing to me at the time, a statement of defeat. Now admitting it seems like the obvious and essential work of growing up. Everybody doesn’t get everything.”
I think about this almost every day. Maybe she’s right. Maybe giving up is the essential work of growing up.
But then I think about a fiction workshop I took in college with Rob Cohen. There were twelve of us in the class, all of us sitting around long conferences tables that someone had arranged in a square. Rob sat at the table at the back of the class, the two seats on either side of him empty. That first class, he laced his fingers behind his head and leaned back, his elbows pointing in opposite directions.
He had published three novels by then and a collection of short stories, and he talked to us for three hours about the creative process, about writing in general and writing short fiction in particular. I don’t remember most of what he said, but I remember one thing clearly. “I wasn’t the best writer in my MFA program,” he said, “but I was one of the few who kept writing.”
My aunt, before she died, was an actress. The story in our family goes that, after short stints in New York City and Los Angeles, she “didn’t make it.” She only had bit parts in movies that went straight to VHS to show for it. For a while in high school, I wanted to be an actress, too, and I remember sitting with my aunt in my grandmother’s living room, running lines with her from The Importance of Being Earnest. She gave me small notes about character motivation and allowing enough time for laughter.
After she failed to make it, my aunt had moved to Minneapolis where she started doing commercials for national restaurant chains. From there, she became a regular on A Prairie Home Companion. Those episodes are in mother’s home, too, recorded from our family radio onto cassettes while we listened to the live broadcast. A few years before she died—of breast cancer, at an age when no one should die—she became a theater critic for the Star Tribune and then started publishing essays about her experience with cancer. They are beautiful essays, bright and brilliant. Her sentences, even now, seem luminescent.
I’m sure my opinion of my aunt’s career wouldn’t matter as much to her as the opinion of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences would, but, to me, she had everything: a life doing what she loved, a daughter she adopted, the dearest of friends, and a home in Minneapolis that she filled with such warmth, none of us wanted to leave it, even after she had.
When she knew she was dying, my aunt gave a speech at her church that a friend of hers filmed. In the days after her death, we all huddled around her VCR in the basement of her Minneapolis home and watched her talk about cancer—her cancer—and about faith. In the speech, she tells the story about how, when she was in remission for the first time, she met a man whose wife had just died from cancer and was now raising a little girl on his own.
The three of them became a fast family: the man, his daughter, and my aunt. She adopted the little girl and loved her harder than anyone I had ever seen love anyone. So, she said at the lectern, when her cancer came back, she was convinced that she would be okay. God wouldn’t do that to her daughter. God wouldn’t take two mothers away from one little girl.Bad things happen all the time. People die. People are never born. Sometimes there is no reason behind it.
Lately, I’ve found myself holding onto a similar sort of magical thinking. When we hit the one-year mark of trying to conceive, I became convinced that this badness could be banked, tucked away in some sort of karmic account that eventually would yield enormous dividends. If I couldn’t have a baby, then that must mean my book would be huge. It would be scooped up within days, fought over like prized ham at the holidays, agents tugging at the corners of it like starving animals.
Yesterday, I thought about that recording of my aunt in that church. I thought about her magical thinking and her faith, about her belief that believed no god would make one person go through so much. But her god did. She died a few months after she gave that speech, in the spare bedroom right above where we watched.
I’m not saying that my aunt dying, that my cousin losing two mothers, is anything equivalent to my not getting pregnant or not getting an agent. What I’m saying is this thing that is so difficult for so many of us to accept—so difficult that we will twist our bodies into alternate shapes just to believe something better—which is that bad things happen. Bad things happen all the time. People die. People are never born. Sometimes there is no reason behind it. Sometimes there is no meaning to be made from any of it.
The only thing that makes me feel okay in the months of trying and sending and testing and waiting is a conversation that I have with an artist friend. “You’ll have the family you’re supposed to have,” she says. “And your book will be the thing it’s supposed to be.”
I write this down on a post-it and stick it to my office wall. I make sure to put it on the wall opposite from where I’ve started mapping out the plot of my next book. The pieces are coming together easily, the entire plot taking shape before I’ve had a chance to consider perspective or voice.
Maybe the book I’m currently trying to sell isn’t the one I’m meant to sell, I begin to allow myself to think. Maybe, if I don’t sell this one, the next will be even better.
The day I ran lines for my Importance of Being Earnest audition with my aunt, she told me about how hard it was to be an artist. Of her own career trajectory, she said, “It might not look how you want it to look, but you can always find a way to do what you love.”
Ten months after we first started trying to get pregnant, my husband are on the Cape for the weekend. My period is two days late, and we are both trying not to think about the pregnancy test I slid into my suitcase, just in case.Maybe the book I’m currently trying to sell isn’t the one I’m meant to sell, I begin to allow myself to think. Maybe, if I don’t sell this one, the next will be even better.
I think that’s the hardest part about trying to get pregnant and trying to get an agent: the just in cases, the maybes, the who knows it could be nows.
I take a long sip of our shared wine and put the sweating bottle down in the sand. “I could be,” I say.
I’m not. Three days later, when my period still hasn’t come, I take a pregnancy test and wait for a second line to appear. It doesn’t. I throw the test in the trash and sit down heavily at the table where I’ve placed my computer. “Negative,” I say to my husband.
He is stretched across the bed, reading a book. He looks at me over the top of the spine and asks if I’m okay.
“I’m fine,” I say and send five more queries out into the world. A few hours later, two of them write back with requests to read my full manuscript.
Maybe this will be the month, I think. If I don’t get everything, maybe I’ll at least get something.
I don’t. The two agents who requested my full never write back. It isn’t until a few weeks later, when my husband and I are back home and have an official appointment set up with our reproductive endocrinologist to go over a treatment plan for IVF that I get an email from an agent. It’s not one of the agents who requested my full manuscript. Instead, it’s an agent who works with someone who did. I open it without expecting anything.
My assistant and I both read your memoir and are completely obsessed with it, it says. Can we talk tomorrow afternoon?