I have a not-so-secret secret: I am trying to get a book published. It took me about three years to write the manuscript, half a year to get a literary agent who would represent me, and another half a year to rewrite it in preparation of submitting it to publishers.
Here’s my bigger secret: my manuscript, which I have poured my heart and soul into for four years, has now been rejected by nearly twenty publishers.
Image credit: Sharon Drummond
To be honest, pursuing a writing career doesn’t quite fit within my comfort zone. I like things stable, predictable. I like to be safe and minimize my own risk and exposure. But when I burned out and became severely depressed while living in China a few years ago, I felt an unmistakable nudging from God. Write about it, he said. Just write.
So I began, writing and weeping in journals, then formulating my experiences into short essays, then taking the risk to share those essays with other writers and a few publications. Each step was terrifying for me, but I felt the constant confirmation from God that this was exactly what he wanted me to do.
As the months and then years passed, I kept following down that path—writing, writing, writing—until it seemed like I might actually have enough to fill up an entire book. Go for it, I felt God telling me. I was still terrified, but I kept writing. And then I wrote and rewrote some more, because the process of writing a book always takes longer than one thinks it will.
When those publisher rejections first started coming in, I was crushed. I have always put far too much stock in what other people think, and this was the ultimate experience of being burned by my people-pleasing ways: I had written about one of the most vulnerable times in my own life, in my own voice—and important professional book people didn’t like it. They may have liked some things about my book, but they didn’t like it enough to want to publish it. Habitually, my soul wanted to interpret this to mean that they didn’t like me, that I wasn’t even worthy of being liked or loved.
I brought my hurt before God, who very gently reminded me what I had just spent four years writing about. It took me that long to discover why I had become so broken while living in China: I had completely rooted my identity in what other people thought of me. Because of my Chinese ethnicity and American upbringing, I could never please people in China. They would always find something wrong with me. My herculean attempts to win over an unwinnable group of people destroyed the person I used to be.
When it happened, I felt only soul-deep pain. In the years since, I have realized that God had to let my old self die in order to make space for a new creation. He has been rebuilding me—slowly, carefully, piece by piece—into someone whose identity is more rooted in him, into someone who is not so dependent on the fickle affirmations of this world. He has been freeing me from the prison of my people-pleasing habits—and then nudging me to put that newfound freedom into practice.
I find it in turns amusing and a little irritating that God has called me to write. The building blocks of the traditional publishing industry are based on being liked. No one gets published without an editor liking your writing; no books are sold without readers and reviewers liking your work. If you are a new or aspiring author, the only thing you have going for you is how much other people like you and your writing.
But as each additional publisher rejection came in, and I went to God with my tears and my frustration, I felt a strange sense that this was what he wanted for me. You are a new creation, God seemed to be saying. Your value is no longer in what you do or what other people think of you.
By the time rejection number seventeen or so arrived, I felt what could only be a Spirit-infused peace settling over the familiar sting. I had heard far more nos than I wanted, but the only real yes that mattered was one I had received even before I was born, when God named me as his beloved daughter. It was a truth that my head had known for a long time, but my heart was finally beginning to live it.
The future of my writing career and my book remain uncertain. There is a distinct possibility that I will never find the right publisher who will like it well enough to want to publish it.
My old self would have been full of recriminations of all the wasted time and effort I’ve put into a failed project. My new self, the fledgling version of me that’s just starting to take root, is willing to consider that this process—as painful and tedious and scary as it has often been—may well have been the best thing that could have happened to me.
Dorcas Cheng-Tozun is a writer, blogger, and editor who has found healing and hope through words. Previously she worked as a nonprofit and social enterprise professional in the US and Asia. She is the managing editor of Estuaries and serves on The River's Giving Team. She has been married to her best friend, Ned, for almost ten years. They have an adorable two-year-old hapa son. Find her online at www.chengtozun.com or on Twitter @dorcas_ct.