WRITING LIFE: On Envy and Faith by Wendy Fontaine

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Lately, scrolling through Facebook and Twitter makes me feel like a literary loser. Friends share links to their published essays and short stories. They celebrate cover designs for upcoming books, declare contest wins, send personal Goodreads pages, and praise their agents and editors. In one way or another, they’re all getting their work out into the world and into the hands of eager readers.

But me? I’m not sharing anything.

Don’t get me wrong – I’m happy for my friends. Several are out on book tours, reading to audiences in libraries, bars and house parties across the country. One friend is writing furiously to meet deadlines for a book deal she got after her proposal sparked a bidding war among several major publishing houses. Others are at writing residencies, joyfully sequestered in cozy mountainside cabins or beachfront condos as they churn out pages. A few more have bylines in the Washington Post, Best American Essays and the coveted Modern Love column at the New York Times (from which I’ve been rejected four times now).

I’m proud of all of them. But I’m disappointed for me, because I’m not doing any of those things. My residency applications have been denied. My queries have gone unanswered. My contest submissions are falling flat. I’m having no literary luck.

I’ll go one step further and say something writers are never supposed to say about each other: I’m envious. I’m envious, and I hate myself for feeling that way.


Last year, I quit my adjuncting job to write a novel. More than 400 pages in, the story is like an angry octopus: all arms and attitude, and very, very slippery. I also have a finished memoir manuscript, which has been rejected or ignored by nearly 40 literary agents. I have a few personal essays in various stages of completion, my favorite among them having just received its 39th “thanks but no thanks.”

Emotionally, it feels like a big literary slump. Logically, though, I know it’s part of the process.

I’ve been writing since I was in fourth grade, first fiction and then poetry. Later on, as an adult, I wrote newspaper stories of all sorts, from police news to feature stories about people with unusual jobs. My foray into personal essay started when I was 30 years old with a return to elementary school to learn how to play the recorder, a noisy little instrument that eluded me as a child. Then, when my daughter was born, I wrote columns about being a single mother, about juggling jobs, diapers, divorce and dating.

That’s all to say that I’ve been around awhile, and I know writing is a long game. It can be difficult and frustrating, and the rewards are not always immediate. More experienced writers tell me not to worry about my memoir manuscript until I’ve queried at least 100 agents. My 40, they say, is just the beginning. I know their advice is sound, and I trust their expertise, but that doesn’t make the rejections any easier.

Over the years, plenty of accolades have come my way, including a handful of writing awards and a full-time scholarship for graduate school. I’m thankful for those. Proud, too. But it’s been a long time since I won something like that or published anything significant. I need another hit to make me happy.

Writing can be lonely and overwhelming, but this green-eyed-monster feeling is the worst. It steals my spirit, rearranges my sense of self, and turns writing into something it was never supposed to be: a competitive place where my friends’ successes are somehow my failures. The curated quality of social media is partly to blame. After all, no one posts about spending three hours revising the same sentence or feeling heartbroken about scrapping yesterday’s pages. Hey everyone. On Monday, I spent the entire afternoon finding perfect synonyms for “smile” only to change them all back today. #WritingIsAwesome!

A certain measure of jealousy probably also comes from the nature of the craft itself. Writing is a solitary act. For me, it’s done in the quiet cloistered hours of morning or night, when my daughter is asleep or away at school or busy with swim practice, art class or any of the other activities to which I am tasked with driving her. I write on my bed, under the covers. I write in the car, on my yoga mat, in the waiting room at the doctor’s office. I write on the backs of supermarket receipts and bank deposit slips, on envelopes and takeout menus. Every spare moment is a chance to get the words down, no matter how beautiful or terrible they may sound.

When we see another person’s essay or their book, we see the finished product. We don’t see balled-up paper on the office floor or pencils with erasers worn down to the metal band. We don’t see the author fail over and over, only to try again and again. But of course they do. Otherwise, there would be no story to read.


Writing is a struggle. It’s also the closest thing I know to faith. It requires commitment, blind trust and the almost maniacal conviction that if we show up often enough, if we put pen to paper repeatedly enough, if we keep going even when the words are slippery and fickle, then eventually our efforts will result in something tangible and meaningful, something that will live in the world and reach other people. Writing asks us to believe that it’s all possible, that there will one day be agents and editors, book covers and author bios, readers – and yes, maybe even bidding wars.

Sometimes my faith falters and I feel like quitting. That’s when I remind myself: There are years to create the work and years to share the work, and we can’t have one without the other. My friends posting and tweeting good news have already put in their solitary hours. They’ve wrestled sentences and faced rejection. They are on the other side now, and someday I’ll get there too. I will. I have faith.

In the meantime, there are always pages, blank and waiting.


Wendy Fontaine’s writing has appeared in Compose Literary Journal, Hippocampus Magazine, Mud Season Review, Passages North, Readers Digest, River Teeth and elsewhere. In 2015, she won the Tiferet Prize for Creative Nonfiction. She lives in Los Angeles with her daughter and husband and is working on a novel. At HippoCamp 2018, she will lead a pre-conference workshop on how memoirists can use the science of memory to create meaning in their work.

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