Look Ma, I’m Querying!

The time has come.

After three years of writing my memoir, I am now querying agents.

For my non-writer friends, this means that I’m now taking the next step toward publishing my book. So far, I’ve chosen to do it the traditional way: getting an agent, who will represent my book like an actor or athlete, rather than self-publishing.

Essentially, publishing traditionally works kind of like buying a house. You find the right agent, and they help you find the right house at the right price.I was lucky that the DJ at my wedding turned out to be one of the best real estate agents in DC. I’m praying to have such luck with my book.

But the thing with getting an agent is that it’s sometimes not that easy. There are a lot of agents out there, but there are also a lot of writers out there. Like everything in this industry and art in general, much of what we do is subjective. An agent can decide not to represent your work because they’re just not feelin’ it. It doesn’t mean there’s anything wrong with your work, just that they didn’t feel enough to represent it in the world.

When I think about this process, it feels a lot like dating, and many people make that comparison. Perhaps you have to kiss a few frogs before you find the right one, the person who appreciates your being your authentic self and you appreciate them being their authentic self. Dating worked well for me, thank God, so, once again, praying it works that way for agents, too.

There are many ways to find an agent. You can query them, like I’m doing now, which is sending a cover letter describing your book and you and why you’re great, and seeing if they want to read the whole book. You can meet them at conferences, which is really great because you remember that they’re human and that this is actually just their job. And they can reach out to you, which a few agents have done to me. None of them have offered to represent my book, but I’m flattered as all get out that they even sought me out.

Getting an agent can be a long process, and it requires a healthy dose of emotional distance, thick skin, and patience. I’ve sent my query letter to four agents, and one has already requested the whole manuscript, which is amazing! If none of those four turn out to be interested, though, it’s back to the drawing board with four or five more. The reason you do only a few is that you might need to make changes along the way, and any feedback they give you can help make the work attractive to other agents. Is that kind of confusing? Yes. But ‘tis what ‘tis.

So, friends, please pray for me, that the right agent and I will connect, and my book will be born to the world (and even if an agent were to sign me at the same time you finish reading this sentence, my book still wouldn’t be out for another year and a half to two years). I pray for my single friends a lot, the ones who actually don’t want to be single. I believe the Lord answers these prayers and gives us our hearts’ desires.

(For more info on querying, please read this amazing blog post by my friend Vera. My favorite line:

It felt like asking hundreds of people “Will you go to prom with me?” and having most of them completely ignore you as a way of saying no, or (somehow worse) people saying “OMG you’re amazing! but no I will not go to prom with you! I’m sure someone else will!” It felt like sitting at home from the dance while you can see other people walk down the street in their gowns meanwhile your mom is saying, “Well I think you’re very pretty.”)

I’ve been promoted!

Good literary news!

I’ve been promoted to Assistant Editor of the Insight section of the literary magazine, The Offing!

This is the second time in my life I’ve been promoted from one job to another. The first was at my workstudy job at the library at Georgetown, when I was promoted from Access Services Desk Assistant to Supervisory Student Desk Assistant. So, I went from being able to check out books to being able to check out books and collect fines. Pretty important stuff, let me tell you.

I started reading for The Offing about a year ago. I took it on because I’d done a lot of writing—in classes and summer workshops—over the previous two years, but I wanted to round out my DIY MFA by reading a lot of essays and short stories. Writing provides one set of skills, but reading provides so much more. And it’s been a great experience.

Insight is a unique section. I call it a hybrid of personal essay and cultural criticism: investigations of literature, art, or culture, but most important is how this literature, art, or culture impacted you.

Two of my favorite essays are On Spinsterhood and Labored Lying: On language, Translation, and Saying Goodbye. They’re definitely personal essays, but they’re also so closely tied to the subject they’re exploring. Essays in the queue to be published include ones about beauty pageants and about Lifetime movies so many Millennials grew up watching with their [probably divorced] mothers.

This isn’t a type of essay I thought I wrote, until I recently tried working on an essay I wrote almost two years ago, in which I’m trying to figure out why I’m so obsessed with all things preppy. And then, last week, I outlined two essays about growing up Evangelical in the South in the ‘90s that I can’t wait to write, and that sealed it: I do, in fact, write the thing I read.

So, writers, send me your work! We’re keen to get more work from people of color, so send, send, send!

Repping The Writer’s Center!

This weekend, I made my first public appearance as the newest board member of The Writer’s Center!

The Writer’s Center is a literary arts nonprofit located in Bethesda, Maryland. It’s *the* place you think about when you want to take writing classes in the DC area. It’s sort of like Gotham Writers Workshop in NYC or The Loft in Minneapolis. The board is making a concerted effort to bring in new voices, and I’m honored to be one of them. Working with the amazing staff, we’re going to accomplish great things.

But the important thing here is the actual event. It was the latest installment of workshops and a panel called Through a Literary Lens. Renowned writers in all sorts of genres hold an hour-long workshop on a key topic, then they have a panel discussion with the whole group. Last Saturday’s topic was mental illness, something that impacts us all in some way or another. The event sold out, even though it was free. I could sense there were breakthroughs achieved during the workshops and panel, people learning to accept themselves and authentically express their voices. I felt encouraged, and I wasn’t even there to participate.

I was there to introduce the panelists and the moderator, who is a fellow board member. I felt a certain energy come in the room when I said, “I’m Vonetta Young, a writer and The Writer’s Center’s newest board member.” It was almost a gasp (as I am the youngest person on the board and one of few minorities), definitely a sense of excitement.

The organization has been around since the ‘70s, and the new staff is really driving home the need for diversity. I see how it’s been tough: it’s technically located in Chevy Chase, a rather wealthy enclave of suburban DC [but I prefer to say it’s in Bethesda because that’s the name of the closest Metro station, which makes it feel more approachable (literally and figuratively)], and much of the board is older and white, which makes sense given where it’s located.

I value everyone’s voice (within reason), but I’m excited to usher in more voices, including younger and browner ones. I find that the choruses I like best are the ones in which there are many voices that are all in key and on beat, but don’t sound the same. I am thrilled to see the work that will come out of the Center as it truly becomes DC’s literary hub.

Fiction or Nonfiction? How to Decide

This weekend, in a rather circuitous fashion, I opened up to my spouse about my writing process.

This isn’t something that happens super-often, unless I’ve asked him to help me out with something I’m stuck on and need to talk out, or if he’s giving me unsolicited advice [which he’s learned not to do unless I’m basically on fire].

We were talking about the middle-school aged kids at our church, who are so busy with school and also commit themselves to attending youth group. My spouse said he’d never participated in any at his church growing up, and I confessed to it being a huge part of my life at the time, largely because it was what you were supposed to do if you were growing up Evangelical in the 90s. (His growing up Episcopalian gave him other options.)

I regaled him with stories: the True Love Waits rings, the suggestion that girls wear a t-shirt over their bathing suits at pool parties, revival weeks during which one would attend church 6 times in one week (I told my mother I wouldn’t be going on a Friday, because TGIF would be on and there was no way I was missing Family Matters, not even for church).

I told my spouse that I’ve wanted to write about this rather odd upbringing of mine for a while, but I haven’t known where to start. Would I write fiction or nonfiction?

Nonfiction allows me to explore and make meaning of what happened in the past. I can take this set of occurrences and say, “Well, that was weird, what the hell?” and see how it shaped me in some way, such as getting hit by a car coinciding with the role anger played in my life.

Fiction allows me to be a different person. Growing up, I wanted to be an actress, a fact my spouse did not know about me until I told him this weekend. I was drawn in by the idea of trying on someone else’s skin, in a way. What was it like to be someone who’d had a completely different experience and seen that experience waaaay differently than I would?

Ultimately, it comes down to – and I surprised myself with this – choices, a variation of my word for the year.

I use nonfiction to make meaning of the choices I made: something happened, and I reacted to it – why did I have that reaction and not another?

I use fiction when I want to make a choice I would never make. I would never choose to move to a foreign country to be with a man I hardly know, or make my presence known to a douchey kid, or any of the other things my protagonists have done. I’m not judging their choices (unless I am); I just wouldn’t do them. I’m intrigued by them, so I live them out through my characters.

I think this is much healthier than actually putting on different identities. Which I probably wouldn’t be great at, anyway; I’m a terrible liar (hello, grew up Evangelical in the ‘90s!).

Writing, for me, is a version of honesty with myself. With everything I write, I’m saying, “This is who I am…or who I’m not.”

And in the vain of honesty, I have to confess: the choices I would never make are way more fun to write.

How to Live Forever, or what Diana Ross performing at age 75 made me think about

As a Christmas present to my in-laws, I got tickets to see Diana Ross perform at the Kennedy Center. This concert was this past Saturday night, so a bit after Christmas, but it was still quite a treat!

Ms. Ross sang a bunch of her classic songs, and managed to wear five different dresses over the course of an hour and 15 minutes.

My mother-in-law was thrilled during it all, jumping up to stand and clap, while my father in-law was more mutedly entertained, as he tends to be. We were sitting in the first tier of the Concert Hall, where you can look down onto the Orchestra seats, and people were actually running up to the stage to try to touch Ms. Ross’ hand during, “Reach Out and Touch.”

“I’ve never seen people act a monkey like this at the Kennedy Center!” My spouse remarked.

Neither had I, but I felt it worth mentioning, “I bet you’ll do the same thing when we see Beyoncé in concert in 40 years.”

He didn’t say anything. Which means he most definitely will act a monkey.

But all of this got me thinking about longevity. I do basically think of Diana Ross as Beyoncé of 50 years ago. (Or maybe it’s 60? It being 2020 is really playing with my head.) She is still beautiful, and her voice is still amazing. She still has that hair that goes everywhere and she flips back with the flick of a wrist. She said she is 75, the same age as my in-laws.

In the elevator as we were leaving, someone said, “I’m 75, and I don’t look that good!”

To which someone else replied, “Well, if you had that much money, I’m sure you would!”

While wealth most certain can help in terms of health and fitness (assuming one uses it for those purposes), I think there’s something else that keeps us going.

“This isn’t a job to me, being up here,” Ms. Ross said into the microphone as her encore ended. “It is truly a pleasure to perform for you.”

I think longevity comes from love, loving what you do. Sure, money might give one the freedom to pursue a low-paying love, so maybe the woman in the elevator was right.

But I don’t think so. I think loving the people you do it for counts just as much.

My love for writing will allow me a certain immortality. I’ll live forever in the pages of my work, even if they go out of print someday. My love for finance will do the same: the clients I work with will empower others, who will empower others, for generations.

With writing and business coaching, I’m reaching out and touching somebody’s [metaphorical] hand, and making the world a better place, because I can.

CHOOSE: My word for the year

Happy New Year, everyone! I’m always grateful to see a new year, and this one is particularly special. Everyone is doing the cliché 2020 vision thing, and while I think they might be onto something, I’ve decided to put my own spin on it.

Every year for the past few years, I’ve chosen a word for the year (not original, I know, as many people do this). In 2017, it was “obedience,” as I wanted to do whatever it was God was telling me to, which, at the time, was write, write, write. In 2018, it was “trust”: to trust God and myself that things would work out for my good, and they did—it was, by far, my most prolific publishing year, and I joined the board of VONA in what wound up being a huge trust exercise. I’ll be honest that I don’t remember my word for the year of 2019, but it still wound up being a year of growth.

So, drum roll, please.

My word for 2020 is CHOOSE.

It’s a verb rather than a noun (though “trust” went both ways, really) intentionally. The point is that I am able to choose virtually everything that happens to me.

I can’t choose the weather, obviously, or people’s actions. But I can choose to prepare for weather, and I can choose how I respond to people’s actions. The most powerful lesson I learned in 2019 is how to manage—how to choose—my emotions.

I have a touch of PTSD from my NYC finance job, and it would creep up on me in the strangest ways, at church or during a totally unrelated and innocuous conversation with my spouse. But I learned where that fight/flight/freeze response comes from, and how to take control. First, I breathe. I acknowledge that I am not on fire and that a large beast is not, in fact, chasing me. And then I ask, how would like to feel right now? Often, I say, “I want to feel peace.” And so I keep breathing and focus on the truth of my situation—I’m perfectly fine—until the feeling goes away, and at some point, peace takes over my body, and order is restored.

This doesn’t mean that I invalidate whatever emotion I felt. It just means that I calm my body down in order to give my brain a chance to figure out what the hell is happening, as my brain is smarter than the rest of me, and I’m more comfortable with it being in control.

So, this year, I choose peace. I choose joy. I choose to laugh at absurdity rather than let it raise my cortisol levels (this may save my life, or at least add some years to it). I choose to believe that God loves me and wants good for me and has rigged the world in my favor. I choose all of these good vibes and dopamine highs.

We all get to choose. What are you choosing for yourself this year?

2019 and all its surprises

2019 was one for the record books for me. Not in terms of writing — I published all of one thing and received two acceptances at the end of the year – but in terms of my other career and my maturity.

The maturity thing is the most important, I think. With the help of an amazing life coach, I found a new confidence in myself that was there the whole time, I just wasn’t looking for it in the right places. As a result, I learned a lot this year.

I learned to speak well of myself to myself because the universe is a funny place in which what you say really does happen. Negative self-talk comes easily to me because I am American and I am Christian – it’s what we do. So, it’s been a challenge to look at myself and see good when my whole life I’ve subscribed to the belief that I shouldn’t think too highly of myself. But there’s a difference between arrogance and self-respect, and anyone who says they’re the same is lying.

I learned that I had to respect myself and create boundaries in relationships, and even end some relationships. This year, I broke up with a friend I’d had for over a decade. I took some time to think about how I felt around this person (I nearly typed “how this person made me feel,” but the aforementioned life coach would point out that no one can make you feel anything but physical pain). I realized that while we had fun sometimes, I always at some point felt terrible, as if I’d said the wrong thing or that I’d been misunderstood or that I had to explain myself. And I chose to choose not to feel that way anymore. It was hard, ending this, because I do believe this is a good person, and I was afraid of hurting their feelings. But I realized I’d been prioritizing their feelings for over a decade, and I chose to finally put myself first.

Toward the end of the year, I learned that I am smart. Some might say (not tooting my own horn, but looking at my academic transcripts) I should have known this already, and I did, through high school. Going to college threw things off for me—I was no longer the smartest kid there, and then I lived in DC afterwards and there are a ton of smart people here and then I went to business school, where I was still not smart, and then I worked in finance, where everyone is smart, and then I became a writer, an industry full of intelligent people who mostly work in academia.

And then—I went to my first Congressional hearing. And the whole thing came tumbling down.

I’ll just go ahead and say it: if what I saw/heard in that hearing is in any way representative of the intellect of those running the country, we are all doomed. The reasoning was elementary, the questions were at times nonsensical, and the attitudes were juvenile. And it was exactly the self-esteem boost I needed to know that I am completely capable of running my own business and doing it well.

Everyone has made a big deal of this being the end of a decade. I don’t recall this furor in 2009, and maybe that’s because I wasn’t on Twitter back then. But looking at the decade, it was a wild one. I got married, lost one of my best friends, got an MBA, lost my father, turned 30, became a capital W Writer, wrote a book, and started a business. And on Christmas Day 2019, I got shingles. Go fig.

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Me in summer 2009, looking at boats

 

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Me in January 2019, on a boat

So, here’s to next year, and the roaring ‘20s. May they roar like a lion!

 

Peace in the midst of all the things

On Sunday, while waiting for the 11am church service to begin, my spouse and I fell asleep.

We’d already been at church for over three hours, helping set up and volunteering in the 9am service (me as a lead usher and my spouse teaching Sunday School for the preschoolers). We’d woken up before 6am and still managed to arrive late somehow. We hadn’t been out late the night before, but we were both stricken with this exhaustion that led us to rest our eyes before the service began.

I woke myself up quickly, remembering where I was. Even though the service hadn’t started yet, I figured it wasn’t a good look to be sleeping in the auditorium while wearing a shirt that clearly marked me as a church volunteer. I also thought, how are we this exhausted when we don’t even have kids?

In the course of running my business, being Board Treasurer of VONA, and just being a regular adult person, I often find myself slap-silly tired. My life keeps business hours of about 6am to about 7pm, when I can finally have dinner, shower, and aim to be in bed by 9:30pm, and my days are pretty nonstop. Even without writing, I find I miss commitments because I’m promised elsewhere.

My spouse’s schedule is tighter than mine. As a junior partner, he not only has his work to do, but also flies around the country (or trains to NYC) to develop business for his firm. He sometimes sleeps at the office because it’s just easier that way.

After the past week, our lives fell on our eyelids in church.

When they’d opened again, an older white gentleman came up to us and said, “It gets better, I promise. They grow up eventually.”

“We don’t have kids,” I said. “That’s the problem.”

We laughed.

“Oh man, I thought you had two under five and one of them was up sick all night!”

“Nope.”

“Is it work?”

We nodded.

“That gets better, too,” he said, clearly retired. “Just slow it down so you can enjoy it all.”

Once the service began, my spouse and I were perfectly awake and enjoyed the Advent-appropriate sermon about mercy and grace.

The gentleman came back to us again at the end of the service. “Remember: slow down.”

We smiled and felt loved by this man neither of us had ever met, but I had to be honest with myself that something about it bugged me, and it was this: If we slow down, that means we are not doing what we’ve been called to do.

For some reason, God has entrusted my spouse and me with a lot. I like to think it’s because we were faithful with little (say, school) and now we have heaps of responsibility. One day, God will add children to the mix, to challenge us even more.

So, my goal is never to slow down or to rid myself of things, but to have peace in the midst of all the things.