The day my agent said we were going out on submission, I was completely taken aback. I’ve always heard publishing is sloth-slow, but exactly four weeks after becoming Joan’s client, we were sending the manuscript to editors! I didn’t feel at all ready. Although with Joan’s notes I had completed a full revision, although I had worked with two critique partners and felt ready to submit to Joan, although I had been working on this novel on and off for four years, the moment it became real that editors were going to read my work all I could think was “the novel isn’t ready! I’m not a real writer.”
But I didn’t say that out loud to Joan. What I emailed back to her was, “Wow. It’s happening! How exciting is this moment when anything is possible?” And that moment right before feedback, before any rejections, when the publishing world is your editorial oyster really is exciting. And then Joan sent me the words every fiction writer dreams about as they pick away at their keyboards late at night: the champagne and caviar dreams of unpublished writers who sustain themselves with whimsical fantasies: the words that I’d read about but never believed would be said to me: “We are going to auction, Liz.”
It was real. Not just one, but several editors were taken by this world I had penned. The auction? Was real. The interest level? Was real. The squeal I let loose at the restaurant in Kosovo where I was participating in a poetry festival? A whole real squeal. The day of the auctioned dawned with seven editors outbidding one another in an attempt to acquire my book. It should have been one of the most joyous days of my life. And it was glorious, don’t get me wrong. But it was still shadowed with the question: “What if this is all a hoax? I’m still not a real writer, am I?”
The question of “realness” is one I’ve carried for a long time. I found my way to creative writing through music (I really wanted to be a rap star in my teens) and slowly transitioned into poetry. Even while getting my Masters in Creative Writing, I questioned whether or not I should be in the program. Even while competing for—and eventually winning—a National Poetry Slam championship, I questioned if I was good enough to be on stage. So, it’s not surprising that the auction and book sale that should have been an incredibly validating experience was a mental exercise of pacing up and down the halls of self-doubt. When you’ve cloaked yourself in imposter syndrome for as long as I have, it’s not an easy thing to slide off your shoulders and hang up.
I don’t bring up the story of the length of my submission process and auction to brag; I know my process was quick and painless and not the norm. I was so, so lucky and the many years of studying and practicing writing and committing to the craft led me to writing something that resonated with folks. But I was wrong to believe there was a magic moment when something or someone would affirm me enough that I would no long doubt my position as a writer.
That will never be enough external affirmation that I am a real storyteller. There will never be any outside stamp, award, or sticker that will make me believe I deserve to occupy space in the literary world. Even when everything goes right, I question my right to be here, even a member of this EMU Debut blog group.
I grew up never seeing stories about girls like in books. I was the daughter of Dominican Immigrants, growing up in 90s New York City, dreaming of being a rap star or the first woman President and my story was on no bookshelf, in no library. I came from an untraditional path to children’s literature. I have too many scars of being told I don’t have the right to be in certain rooms to not always expect someone to pull the rug from under me. Which is why I know the only person who can determine if I’m a “real” writer has been the same person who had been determining since I was nine years old: me.
Teen Liz on her way to a poetry slam.
It sounds cliché, I know. But the reality is that when I began to actively work at seeing the world as a poet, when I began reading as a writer, when I began to scribble on grocery receipts and fill notebooks full of rhymes; when I wrote for hours and edited for hours more. When I followed ideas down rabbit holes, I never imagined being able to climb out of…that was when I became a real writer. When I was told directly and indirectly that these scribbles would never amount it anything it wasn’t the MFA degree, the book sale, the first collection of poetry winning a contest, not a national championship in slam poetry, it wasn’t any of those credentials that made me believe I was real. It’s been my continuously reminding myself I’m not just playing dress up. That someone isn’t going to magically snatch away what I’ve written.
Every day I think about my novel, The Poet X, being released into the world in a year. I catch myself going down the same path of worry. What if it isn’t any good? What if the world discovers I’m a fraud? What if…
And every day I remind myself to get back to my laptop and my current project and remember that magical moment before pressing send when everything is possible. Although writing means stretching the bounds of imagination, there is a tangible creation that is mine, and every time I make a poem, or a character, or a even something as small as a simple outline, that writing is real. And as its writer, so am I.
ELIZABETH ACEVEDO is the youngest child and only daughter of Dominican immigrants. She holds a BA in Performing Arts from the George Washington University and an MFA in Creative Writing from the University of Maryland. With over fourteen years of performance experience, Acevedo has toured her poetry nationally and internationally. She has two collections of poetry, Beastgirl & Other Origin Myths (YesYes Books, 2016) and winner of the 2016 Berkshire Prize, Medusa Reads La Negra’s Palm (Tupelo Press, forthcoming). The Poet X (HarperCollins, 2018) is her debut novel. She lives with her partner in Washington, DC.