Grief and the Debut Author
What comes to mind when I say the word "grief?"
Probably funerals, right? Death. Loss. Crying. Rending of garments.
And yes. That's definitely a component of grief, and a situation in which it makes sense to experience grief.
The words "grief" and "mourning" are oftentimes used as synonyms. "Bereavement" may be included as another synonym. But these terms are all slightly different.
Grief is the process of psychological, social, and somatic (physical) reactions to the perception of loss. The sadness, depression, anxiety, isolation, and physical ailments that can happen after a loss are considered grief.
Mourning is the cultural response to grief. In the USA, mourning follows certain patterns, which are entirely different from mourning in Brazil, or China, or Saudi Arabia. Every culture, even every subculture down to family units, has a unique mourning process. Burials versus cremations, wearing black versus wearing white, sitting shiva, going to wakes . . . all of these are different ways of mourning.
Bereavement is the state of having suffered a loss. If you have experienced a loss, you are the bereaved, whether you have grief or not.
Grief is one of the most universal experiences of human beings, but it's almost one of the most individualized. No two people experience grief in the same way. Grief is affected by mourning culture, but also by that individual person's relationship to the loss (the more important the person or thing that was lost, the more intense the grief will be), that person's personality, and other current or past stresses.
There are stages of grief, but these stages are somewhat confusing. Grief doesn't move in a straight line. It's more like a tangle of yarn. You wrestled with this tangle a week ago, you got it all untangled and wound up nicely and put away, but now when you came back to it, it's tangled again! So you have to pick at it again, untangle it. And next week, maybe that yarn will be fine. Maybe it will be a little tangled. Maybe it will be a rat's nest again. You never know.
"Sofi," you may be asking yourself right now, "this is all very interesting, but what does this have to do with debuting a novel?"
That's a good question. What the heck does grief have to do with something really good? You got an agent! You got a publisher! Your cover is beautiful! Your book is in stores! People are reading it! You should be happy, happy, H A P P Y !
But you're not.
You're kinda sad.
But you're happy, too.
Your ball of yarn tangles and untangles and tangles again.
You have experienced a loss, after all.
When you're writing your book, it belongs to you and you alone. Maybe you show it to your critique group or a CP or a beta reader. But ultimately, it's yours. You call the shots. You decide everything. This book is entirely, utterly yours.
You start to query it. You hand little pieces off it out to people, trying to entice them to take the whole thing. Sometimes people take the piece, then say they liked it but not enough to take the whole thing. Sometimes people won't even try the piece you gave them. And maybe sometimes, if you're lucky, a person takes that piece and yells that they want more, they want it all, they love it!
The edit letter comes, and you realize this book belongs to someone else now, too. Your agent owns a piece of it. You have lost.
But it's still yours mostly. You make edits you agree with. You hash things out with your agent about things you don't agree with. Give and take.
Then you go on sub. Pieces of your book are sent out, away from you.
You get rejections from editors. You get interest from editors. You find one editor who is the best fit. You sign a contract. You announce. You rejoice. You have sold a book. You are living the dream!
The edit letter comes. It's even bigger than the letter you got from your agent. This book belongs to someone else again. A bigger piece of it. You have lost even more.
You make some edits. You don't make others. Back and forth. Give and take. The book is better, tighter, but it's not all yours. It has become a mosaic of you, your agent, your editor.
The cover comes. It's beautiful. It's not yours. The face of your book does not belong to you.
Or, the cover comes. You hate it. It's not yours. It's slapped on the front of your book, and it does not belong to you.
You have lost.
Your editor hands your book off to a different editor for copyedits. You have lost more.
ARCs come. They are sent to more people. Reviewers. Good reviews, bad reviews--every person who reads the book takes it from you. It belongs to them. You don't own it anymore.
Release. The day you've been waiting for. Your little book has been in your hands at some point, in some way, during this entire process. But now it's gone. It belongs to your readers. It doesn't belong to you anymore.
You have lost.
And when you lose, you are bereaved.
You might even grieve.
I've heard from many of my fellow authors that they're inexplicably sad about their book sale and publication. The sentiment is, "I've achieved this amazing goal! I sold a book! This was my dream! I should be walking on literal sunshine, but I'm not. I'm so sad. I'm anxious. I'm irritable. What's wrong with me?"
The answer is . . . nothing. Nothing is wrong with you. You're grieving a loss. You've lost your book to your agent, your editor, your readers. But you've also lost your dream. Once you achieve a dream, it winks away to make room for more dreams. But you've still lost it. You can feel lost yourself. "What do I do now?"
When I was seven years old, I decided I wanted to publish a book. I wanted a book out there with my name on the cover. I knew nothing about how the book world worked, where books came from, the art of storytelling. Nothing. I just knew I wanted to write a book. And I did. I wrote a lot of books. Most of them were terrible. But as I wrote and dreamed and strove for publication, I got better. So much better that eventually one of those books got picked up by an agent and an editor, and is releasing in September. I did it! I achieved my dream! A dream I'd had for 27 years at that point.
A dream that was gone now.
I got really depressed. For a lot of reasons. One of which was the realization that I had achieved my lifelong dream. And I circled the void where that dream had lived for so long, staring at it, wondering to myself, "What am I supposed to do with all this emptiness?"
Filling it with another dream was daunting. It felt like too much. So I left it empty.
I had lost.
And I grieved.
I still do.
So many things in our lives sweep through and cause us to grieve. Graduating high school, because you've lost that unique time of life, those friends. Moving away to college or work, because you've lost that comfort of home. Getting married, because you've lost your identity as s single person instead of one half of a relationship. Having a child, because you've lost your free time, your ability to do whatever you want to do, your uninterrupted sleep. Sending your kids to school, because you've lost the status of being their entire world.
We lose friends to moves or distance or politics. We lose family members to the same. We lose both to death.
To live is to grieve. We are all bereaved of something.
So what do we do with this permeating grief? How are we supposed to carry on?
I have to tell you something. You might not like it. It might upset you. I'm sorry.
You will never be able to go back to the way things were.
Think of it as an old-school Mario game. The screen only moves in one direction. You can't go back. If you try to, you'll get pushed into lava, or get eaten by a giant flower.
For debut authors, grieving the loss of our book and of our dream, there's only forward. You can't go back. You have to move forward, always. There is a new world at the end of it.
For some of us, that new world is writing more books, forever.
For some of us, that new world is writing no more books, going back to our day jobs, but still checking our Amazon ranking sometimes.
For others, that new world is something else entirely. But you are changed no matter what. You are bereaved no matter what. And if you grieve, you're not wrong. If you're sad, or anxious, or restless, or irritable, you're not wrong. Be kind to yourself, and to your fellow debuts. They're all grieving, too.
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