It’s been my experience that when I challenge myself, even if I don’t achieve a particular goal, I’m able to tackle and finish other projects that have kept me stuck or stumped in the past. Why? Each time I put myself out there, I gain courage and renewed confidence.
I was naïve enough, probably a good thing, to believe I could write a book. How hard could it be, I thought. I had a good story idea with an interesting character, one I hadn’t seen in any other book at the time, and I’d always been a strong writer in school. I loved my subject matter—turn of the century Puerto Rico, which happens to be my birth place, and I had the time to write, so I faced the blank page. Once I began writing, I couldn’t stop—the story and dialogue flowed. The story wasn’t perfect, but I’d written a book! While editing the story, I kept learning the craft of writing and storytelling, and for inspiration, I continued reading wonderful books by my favorite authors.
When my writer friend announced it was time to query literary agents to shop my novel-length manuscript, I agreed. How exactly would I go about that , I asked. The next time I saw her, she handed me a copy of the book, Writer’s Digest Guide to Literary Agents. As I perused the thick book, I became overwhelmed and couldn’t see the next concrete step. How would I find one agent amongst the thousands of listed literary agents? It was then I lost the first ounce of self-confidence and self-doubt crept in. Unfortunately for me, I’d listened to the horror stories from my experienced writing group pals about the agony of rejection letters from literary agents. Rejection was a scary thing to me. Who wanted that? Life was difficult enough without receiving myriad rejection letters. But I knew if I didn’t move forward, I would never see my book in print. I had to try, but paralyzing fear was setting in.
I decided to take baby steps. I studied the Writer’s Guide, circling and highlighting the names and addresses of agents in my genre, and sent out the first twenty query letters, which included the first chapter of my novel. A month later, I had twenty rejection letters. Two of the agents were kind enough to include handwritten notes, which I thought was classy, offering a few tips on what I could do to improve the momentum of the story. Newly encouraged, I reworked the story, and sent out another twenty queries. At the end of three months, I had ten polite rejections and ten good ‘bites’. The bites, while encouraging, said the same thing: we love your story and character, but historical fiction is hard to sell. Who needs this, I thought. I felt a bit bruised and more than frustrated. It made perfect sense to go back to my first love–what I knew how to do and do well—painting. That spring, I exhibited in a group art show, knowing full well and hating the fact that I’d turned my back on Ana’s story.
A few months later, a good friend called to invite me to her theater group’s production of ‘The Vagina Monologues’ by Eve Ensler. I’d loved the book and immediately accepted. I invited the eight women who were participating in the creativity group I was hosting in my home, using the seminal book on creativity, The Artist’s Way by Julia Cameron. After the performance, we congratulated our friend and her theater troupe on their marvelous monologues. Later in the evening, my actor friend told me her theater group was holding auditions for a comedy to be performed in the fall, and she urged me to audition for the part of the middle-aged character. Me? I’d performed in middle school and had a bit walk-on part in a college production. No, thanks, I told her, I’m an artist and a writer, not an actor. As soon as the word ‘writer’ left my mouth, I heard what sounded like a chicken squawking, indicating I was too afraid to go for what I wanted. Was I writer? Yes, I was. I loved writing and reminded myself I would never become an author if I failed to send out more queries. But the thought of returning to the frustrating, confusing world of publishing did not appeal to me.
My friend insisted I would enjoy the audition process and added that I had a good chance of nabbing the part of the middle-aged character. “You’re funny, Ellie. Do it.” I was flattered and agreed I’d think about it. At the time, I saw no connection between acting and getting my book published. What connection could there possibly be between making people laugh and finding an agent? Then I remembered I was afraid of public speaking. No, I’d be setting myself up for failure.
Well, I’m a watcher of signs and synchronicity in our lives, so I knew there was a reason this opportunity had fallen into my lap. Like ‘The Vagina Monologues’, my story, A Decent Woman, had similar stories of women’s repression, abuse, and misogyny, but that was all I could glean at that moment. I could see no further than being a fan of the writer and activist, Eve Ensler, but I was curious; curious enough to call the director of the comedy and register to audition. I trusted the Universe, as hokey as that may sound to you. I also trusted Julia Cameron. She’d say, “Go for it.” So I did.
On an unusually hot and muggy August evening in Brussels, I sat on a cold, metal chair in the basement of an old, musty building that had appeared vacant from the street. I listened to the whir of the blades of the standing fan, taking side looks and peeks at the eight strangers sitting around me. The majority appeared to be in their mid-twenties to thirties, most probably graduate students at the university at Leuven, maybe in the theater department. They were interesting and what I’d describe as bohemian; what my parents would have called ‘hippies’, and I would have rolled my eyes at them. As a portrait painter, I was drawn to the dreadlocks, nose rings, visible tattoos, loose and long, printed Indian-style skirts, and woolen, slouchy Greek and Turkish bags. At forty-five years of age, I was clearly the oldest woman in the room. My friend was right, I was a shoe-in for the middle-aged character. Many smiled politely at me and went back to chatting amongst themselves while we waited. The longer we waited, the more I realized this was a mistake. My stomach was in a knot and suddenly, I felt out of place. I’d given talks on subjects dear to my heart in the past, but an audition?
Before I could slink out of the room, a tall, thin man with a scraggly reddish beard approached and clapped for our attention. Our names would be called in alphabetical order and we were to stand and form a circle. The names he called out sounded French and Flemish, and he announced it was mandatory to read and speak English as the play was written by a British playwright. I had a definite advantage in the language department, but I could feel the bile rising in my throat as I took my place between a petite, blonde woman and a husky guy who looked like he gave the best bear hugs. I swallowed hard after my name was called and was told I would read my lines in a raspy Russian voice. I nodded in agreement. I’d always loved accents and I’d heard my daughter, who does an awesome imitation of a Russian accent, so I practiced under my breath, knowing I would sound like a complete fake, which of course I was. I wondered if I could slip away, or better yet, feign a migraine when the first woman read her lines in a thick German accent. She was very convincing. We all clapped for her. With a last name that begins with ‘P’, I had time to watch enjoy the auditions and the antics of each participant.
My hands were a bit clammy as I waited my turn and I could feel my pulse pick up, but when it came to my turn, I pushed through my fear. Well, the audition was an absolute blast. We went around the room several times reading lines in funny voices and different accents, and at the end of evening, my sides hurt from laughing so hard.
My rewards for participating in the audition were renewed self-confidence, pride, and new-found courage. And who doesn’t need a good laugh? Things always appear harder than they are until we actually do them. So say yes to new challenges, you might surprise yourself like I did. The unknown can be scary, but looking back, we might realize that the things we feared the most weren’t all that bad. The next morning, I began querying new agents again. My book wouldn’t be published for four more years, but it did get published! That is another story for another day.
Although I didn’t get the part in the play, I had a great time with a fun group who reminded me how important it is to include play in our lives. I also learned something new about myself—I can do stand-up comedy in a raspy Russian accent if this writing gig doesn’t work out.
About Eleanor Parker Sapia
Puerto Rican-born novelist, Eleanor Parker Sapia, was raised in the United States, Puerto Rico, and Europe. Eleanor’s careers as an artist, counselor, alternative health practitioner, and Spanish language social worker and a refugee case worker, inspire her stories. She is a member of PEN America and the Historical Novel Society. When Eleanor is not writing, she facilitates creativity groups, reads, and is making plans to walk El Camino de Santiago de Compostela a second time.
A Decent Woman, Eleanor’s best selling, debut historical novel, is set in turn of the century Puerto Rico. The book was selected as 2015 July Book of the Month for Las Comadres & Friends Latino Book Club. Eleanor is the mother of two adult children who are doing fun stuff in the world, and she currently lives in West Virginia, where she is writing her second historical novel called The Island of Goats.
A DECENT WOMAN available on Amazon