The fall leaves were at their best stage of orange as I drove north through the misty sunrise. I knew I was supposed to eat a hearty breakfast before I came, so I tried to nibble a muffin, my stomach in knots.
Today was the day. I was going to be on America’s Next Great Author (ANGA), a new reality TV show about writers.
Well, sort of. Right now we were just filming the pilot. (I explained the format in my previous blog posts here and here, if you need to do a quick skim to refresh your memory.)
But I’d never done anything like this before, and as much as I tried to convince myself to calm down, my stomach didn’t listen.
I was wearing a new dress I’d made myself. Shoes I’d mutilated to remove the Adidas label because they’d told us not to wear brand names. A new headcovering I’d clipped from the corner of a thrift store scarf and carefully hemmed. A face cream that was supposed to reduce my rosacea.
I was ready.
Ready, yet inexplicably nervous. I’d been trying not to take the whole thing too seriously because I don’t do the best with stress. But getting up at 6 am for the long drive to Newark didn’t help matters.
Still, Sunday morning may be the only time it’s easy to drive to Newark, NJ. I navigated through the deserted streets until I found the nearly-empty parking lot, and then, with a bit of time to spare, I brushed my teeth and spat in the bushes.
Then, gathering my yellow coat, a very small purse, and the papers I needed, I walked down the street to the library where the filming was taking place.
And there they were—a long line of authors in their Best and Brightest outfits, excitedly chatting in the morning sunshine.
I registered at the little table, handing over my appearance release and showing a photo of the negative Covid test I’d taken that morning. They handed me a name tag in a plastic sleeve. Then I walked to the back of the line and waited.
We really waited for quite a while. An hour, I think. Maybe they were still setting up inside, I don’t know.
But we were all writers, easily entertained by other human beings, so we gabbed contentedly. Sam told me about a book she was reading that explained how to understand and pursue your true desires. Jeremy told stories about people puking in his Uber.
“Do you know most of the people here already?” I asked Sam.
“Yeah, I met most of them at the meet-and-greet yesterday,” she said. All the people who flew in Saturday had a chance to hang out and meet each other, but I’d missed it. One of the drawbacks of driving up.
There were a lot of people involved with this operation, and I tried to figure out where everyone belonged. The people in line with me were all writers. Someone said there were 75 of us—apparently, out of the 100 semi-finalists, 25 were unable to make it, which makes sense considering we were responsible for our own transportation and lodging.
I think the other well-dressed people wandering about were all producers, though it was difficult to tell because their name tags looked exactly like contestant name tags. I recognized David and Arielle. They were our mentors leading up to the show, filming helpful YouTube videos and doing a live Q and A. David also did a one-on-one mentoring session with each of us to help us polish our pitches.
Actually, as I was registering, David greeted me and we took a selfie. The producers, especially David and Arielle, were just like that the whole time—acting like they knew us because they’d watched our submissions so many times they felt like they did. Which was really nice because it lent a bit of familiarity and comfort to a brand-new situation.
There was also an ASL interpreter, immaculately dressed in a chic black outfit. One of the writers was deaf.
And finally, there was a whole group in well-worn black t-shirts who held cameras and microphones and whom I assumed to be the film crew. It was so funny how you could easily tell who expected to be on camera and who didn’t. The latter, of course, was dressed far more comfortably.
Some filming happened that first hour, though the camera was barely on me. David went along the line asking people questions and hyping us up, and that part was filmed.
And then finally, things got moving, and we all gathered in front of the library like we were posing for a giant group picture. Kwame Alexander crossed the street and we all cheered.
Kwame, a Newbery-Medal-winning author, was the host of the show. He hyped us up too. “Repeat after me,” he yelled. “I am the greatest!”
“I am the greatest!” the crowd shouted back.
“Not because I am better than anyone else”
“Not because I am better than anyone else”
“But because no one else is better than me!”
“But because no one else is better than me!”
Well, it’s probably a good thing I was in the back of the crowd because my Mennonite modesty would never allow me to shout a phrase like “I am the greatest.” So I just stood there silently and slightly awkwardly like I do when people recite the pledge of allegiance or sing that song that goes “his blood atones for all our race.”
After that, properly hyped and ready to go, we trooped into the library.
Old libraries are so interesting; a mix of timeless beauty and utilitarian practicality.
The Newark Public Library is such a place. Worn marble steps and stone arches right next to a folding table and stackable chairs. Rows and rows of beautiful hardback books with call numbers taped to their spines. Gorgeous murals. Paper posters advertising current library events.
We went inside, up the stairs to the second floor, through a small-ish room, and into an area full of computers where the film crew hung out.
Then, turning left and walking past the film crew area, we found ourselves in a long room full of chairs. All the writers found seats, while the producers and film crew rushed about. I plonked myself down near the water cooler and watched a crew member hang an “America’s Next Great Author” banner over the fireplace.
“Hey,” said the writer next to me. “I’m Maz.”
“Like Jazz, with an M.”
We talked about our backgrounds and writing projects. Maz told me that his book is a memoir about being a Muslim child in Chicago during the Iranian hostage crisis.
We were indoors instead of outdoors, yet still we waited and waited for things to begin. It was wonderful. I drank water and met writers. Inman, behind me, was a sci-fi writer. Nadia sat at the end of my row. Fascinatingly enough, she’d also attended Oregon State University.
My purse was full of beef jerky and crackers. I should have eaten them, because I was no longer nervous.
But I didn’t.
And Then It Began
Out of the 75 semi-finalists that showed up, only 20 of us were going to be able to pitch our book to the judges.
“Do you really think they’re going to pick the 20 finalists randomly?” Sam had asked me as we’d stood in line.
“I don’t know,” I’d said. “That’s what they said at the live Q and A, but if you’re trying to make this into a TV show, wouldn’t you hand-pick the most interesting people?”
And sure enough, once things got going, David and Arielle told us that they weren’t choosing the finalists randomly after all. They’d hand-picked 20 people to pitch.
I wasn’t upset about this at the time. But later when I told family and friends about it they were confused and indignant. You mean they made everyone else fly out there knowing full well they weren’t going to let them pitch?
I assumed there was an explanation but I didn’t know what it was, so last week I had an email exchange with the producers and they kindly explained the process to me.
Turns out that at the time of the live Q and A, they were planning to choose the finalists randomly. David and Arielle have held many Pitchapaloozas over the years at bookstores and writer’s conferences, and the process has always been the same: Out of a group of writers, 20 people are randomly selected to pitch.
Of course, this is the first time they’ve ever done a Pitchapalooza as part of a TV show.
Other contest-type TV shows, like American Idol, hold open auditions in cities—auditions which are so massive that most people don’t even get to meet producers or judges. Also, some people are selected just so they’ll humiliate themselves on camera.
Wanting to go a different, more wholesome and supportive route, the ANGA production team decided to choose 100 semi-finalists from online submissions. That way there’d be few enough people so they could meet them all, but enough people to ensure that at least 20 would be able to make it.
They assumed that most of the people who ended up coming would be within driving distance of Newark. But when they started getting RSVPs from all over the country, they decided to add things to the event to make it more like a writer’s conference, so that everyone would get help on their book-publishing journey even if they didn’t get to pitch.
So they arranged a number of networking events, added a writer’s conference component for after the Pitchapalooza was over, and gave us free copies of their books on how to write and publish.
But then, between the live Q and A and the filming, they started thinking about the limitations of randomly drawing people to pitch. What if they only drew romance novel writers? Then only romance novel writers would hear useful feedback from the judges, and sci-fi writers wouldn’t get as much out of the experience.
So they hand-picked 20 people to pitch, making sure a wide variety of genres were represented so that everyone could take away something useful even if they didn’t get to pitch. But since the list of who was coming and who wasn’t kept fluctuating, they didn’t finalize the list until everyone was checked in.
The panel of judges sat up front. Some of them were bestselling authors and in general they seemed like Very Important People but since I couldn’t see or hear super well from my position near the back of the room, the only judge I can identify, besides David, was author Jason Reynolds.
Kwame Alexander hosted the show. He would come to the front of the room and say something like, “she’s a small-town mayor who loves to knit and wrestle alligators in her spare time. Give it up for Jessica Whitlock! And we’d all cheer as Jessica Whitlock came forward.
(This is just an example. There was no Jessica Whitlock. I remember very few details about the people he called up, except that he made them all sound like they had Main Character Energy.)
Then “Jessica Whitlock” would stand at the podium and, in one minute, pitch her book.
And when she was done, the judges would offer feedback on what was working and what could be improved.
Then she’d go into a different room to get personally interviewed, and Kwame would call up the next finalist.
I wanted to pitch. I’ve always wanted to pitch, although I’ve tried to be realistic about my chances. You all know how theatrical I can be. I love public speaking. I didn’t expect to win, but I wanted to stand up there and say things.
But one by one, they called people up, and it was never me.
It’s hard to describe how horrible I felt.
Part of this was just Emily Disease. I’d gotten up too early, I hadn’t eaten enough, and I was peopled out. There were crackers and beef jerky in my purse but I didn’t want to start merrily munching on camera. I had to pee, but I didn’t want to be in the bathroom if they called my name. I was thirsty, but there was a camera between me and the water cooler, and I felt weird walking in front of it.
This makes it sound like I was stuck in the Pitchapalooza for ages, but it really wasn’t that long. Maybe an hour and a half or two hours.
But during those two hours I slowly descended into deeper and deeper misery.
There was something really horrible about not getting chosen. Like being a kid when the athletic kids are picking teams, and every time thinking “maybe I’ll get picked next” but you never are.
I thought about Sam’s book. The one about understanding your true desires. At the time it had seemed a bit silly, yet here I was, getting in touch with my true desires after all.
I’d tried not to take it too seriously, but right now, it mattered so much to me. I didn’t want to pitch for the fun of it, I wanted to be chosen. I wanted non-Mennonite people to care about Mennonite stories. I wanted recognition outside the Mennonite world.
But they called number 18, number 19, number 20…and then it was all over.
And I was not picked.
Reflections on Rejection
It took me a while to process all of this. Why I cared so much. Why it hurt so much.
I drove down to Texas in the days after the show, and when I stopped at my cousin Jason’s house in Tennessee, we talked for hours about our lives and our writing projects. Jason is also a writer but, unlike me, he’s been to writer’s conferences.
“It’s the same way at writer’s conferences,” he said. “At home you can be realistic, and tell yourself it doesn’t matter that much…no matter what happens you’ll gain feedback that will make you a better writer. But then you get to the conference and it feels like the only thing that matters is being accepted by an agent. I’ve heard grown men crying in the bathroom.”
Then he pulled out the best analogy: it’s like asking someone out.
You can tell yourself that it’s okay if they say no…the world won’t end. Other romantic prospects exist. But when you’re rejected, in that moment it feels like the only thing that matters.
Crowning a Winner
The one bright spot in my misery was hearing some of my new friends get called up to pitch. Especially when Maz got chosen. I cheered like crazy.
Also, the people who did pitch had amazing, fascinating stories. It was fun to imagine reading their books in the future, and very interesting to hear the professional judges offer feedback.
But when all 20 finalists had pitched, the atmosphere in the room was heavy, somber, sad. 55 of us were utterly dejected. Kwame and the judges started telling stories about how many times they’d been rejected before they’d found success, trying to cheer us up and encourage us to keep on with our writing.
“I didn’t even realize I cared about pitching that much,” Inman told me later.
“Me neither,” I confessed.
The judges bipped off through the stacks to confer with each other and choose a winner, and the film crew started filming some audience shots. Then there was a bit more waiting and chatting time, before the judges came back and Kwame announced that the winner was…Joi Miner!
I hadn’t met Joi yet but I rooted for her anyway. She was exuberant and kind and she radiated, well, pure joy. I went and talked to her after everything was over, and she was lovely.
It was now about 1 pm. The Pitchapalooza was over. “There’s lunch across the hall, and then come back in here for a special surprise!” the producers told us.
“Actually, we’ll just tell you the surprise now. We’re holding a mini writer’s conference.”
Then we were dismissed. I didn’t know what to do first. Eat? Use the bathroom? I sat down at a lunch table with a bunch of finalists and a producer, and they had interesting things to say about the interviews and such but I was mostly focused on my own misery.
I mean, physical misery. I was so hungry it hurt, and the pain didn’t immediately dissipate as I stuffed my face and tried to talk to Autumn through an exhausted brain fog.
9 times out of 10 I can eat a small breakfast and be perfectly fine until mid-afternoon, although I don’t normally do it. But every once in a while I get inexplicably ravenous, and today was one of those days.
I needed some air and space. After eating and using the bathroom I took a walk to my car. And I tried to sort things out in my brain.
I could just leave, except I wasn’t fit to drive. Should I take a nap in my car? Maybe I just needed some tea.
Yes, that was it. I had food in my system and a bit of alone time, now. I’d be fine if I could only get some tea.
So I stuck a tea bag in my purse and went back to the library.
And then, something odd and beautiful happened.
As I walked back into the main room, a woman said to me, “I really liked your pitch.”
I looked at her with the most what the bunnyslipper expression. “But…I didn’t get to pitch,” I said…although I don’t remember if I said it out loud or just with the confused wrinkle between my eyebrows.
“Oh, sorry, I’m one of the producers,” she said. She explained that she and the other producers had watched our submission videos so many times they felt like they knew us. She said that she’d spent a lot of time on a farm growing up, and she really thought I should do something with my story.
A Quick Explanetory Interjection
I’m realizing, as I’m writing this, that I ought to include my pitch in this blog post. Because you guys have no idea what I’m talking about when I mention my pitch/book/project.
But I did something embarrassing and maybe unethical that’s keeping me from sharing it.
See, on the combine last summer I got a random book idea: What if there was a teenage Mennonite combine driver who had to figure out how to bring the harvest in alone when her uncle/boss had an accident similar my dad’s that puts him out of commission?
This was around the time I heard about America’s Next Great Author, so I decided to pitch this book idea.
Unfortunately, I only had a few days to write the pitch, because I wanted to film it in front of my combine and I was about to fly east. I needed a main character name. It had to be Mennonite. It had to be memorable.
So I stole a real person’s name.
I intended to ask her for permission, and I’m going to as soon as I can psyche myself up. If she doesn’t want me to use it I’ll pick something else. But I barely know her and it just feels weird and awkward.
But in the meantime, I don’t want to post my pitch here because I’m sure some of you will recognize the name.
By the time I made my way into the room for the writer’s conference portion, I was so tired the world seemed vague and hazy.
I needed tea.
There was a coffee cart in the little in-between room, but no hot water. So I took a cup and my own tea bag over to the water cooler, but the tab for hot water was broken off.
I tried to fix it with a bobby pin, but it didn’t work.
Welp, so much for that. I sat down. I tried to focus on the speaker’s advice. I began to doze.
This is crazy. I need tea. I will acquire tea by any means necessary.
Thus, I went wandering around the library in search of hot water. And for a while, I found only disappointment. One water cooler was empty. There was a room in the library labeled “cafe,” but it was just vending machines. One of them was a coffee-dispensing machine, and I thought it might give me hot water, but I couldn’t get it to turn on.
But finally, I found a water cooler with functional hot water in a back room in a dark corner where I’m not sure I was supposed to be but there were no “keep out” signs and I promise I just got water and left.
Anyway. I suppose I could have choked down some coffee and acquired caffeine that way. But tea has a psychological effect on me as well as a caffeination effect. When I have tea, I feel like everything is going to be okay now.
And things were much better after that. Revived by tea, I fully enjoyed listening to the Q and A with some of the producers who had lots of writing and publishing experience to dispense.
The End Is Near
That was the end of the planned events at the library, but the producers arranged another networking meetup where everyone who didn’t get to pitch could get together that evening and pitch to each other.
But like the networking events on Saturday, I wasn’t able to go as I had a long drive ahead of me.
So I made the most of the library time. I talked to Inman for a while, and then I introduced myself to Joi and we talked for a bit. But people were leaving, and I saw Kwame coming toward us, looking like he was trying to clear the room.
Now I hadn’t talked to Kwame yet, partly because I always thought he’d be too busy, and partly because I was a little star-struck. Growing up I didn’t know what an Oscar or a Grammy was, but I knew exactly what the Newbery metal was because we always bought books with the gold Newbery winning or silver Newbery honor stickers on the front. That’s how I found all my favorite authors. That’s the award I wanted to win someday.
In some ways, it’s the only award that really impresses me.
So when I saw Kwame coming towards me, and I knew I was going to leave soon, my better sense took over and I decided to talk to him.
I introduced myself and said that it was awesome to meet a Newbery award winner. That it had always been my dream to win that award. And he said it was never his dream, but it changed his life.
And then he started saying nice things about my writing, which completely took me off guard. I did not expect him to know who I was.
I don’t know why…I mean he was a producer as well as the host and had looked over the materials quite a bit in order to choose semi-finalists and finalists. So I guess it makes sense.
But in my head, Newbery Winner=Important Person, and Important Person=Not Knowing Who I Am. This math always adds up to Kwame not knowing me from Adam, and so I was quite startled to realize this was not the case.
So ultimately, while I left the event with the heaviness of not being chosen, I also felt the surreal joy of my work being recognized and appreciated by someone I percive as Very Important.
At the beginning of the day Kwame had told us to yell that “no one else is better than me,” but I don’t think that’s true. The ones who were finalists over me were better than me. But after talking to Kwame I felt like I was close…like I could achieve something if I just kept at it, tried a little harder, put in more effort. Really went for it.
The drive back from Newark took over 4 hours along narrow roads through random small towns. Nothing like the easy breezy drive up. But I didn’t mind so much. I wanted time to think.
Well, I had plenty of time to think. Because after resting on Monday, I spent the next three days driving to Texas to move in with my brother Matt and SIL Phoebe.
That’ of course, is another story for another day.
But after spending so much time thinking, and now writing, about my day, I am left deeply grateful for it, as well as rejuvenated and motivated to keep writing. And that maybe I have a chance to be successful at fiction.
Thank you all for following along on my journey. When I posted on Instagram about not being able to pitch, so many of you sent me messages and reactions of disappointment. And it just made me realize how many people I have supporting me and cheering for me, and I don’t want to take that for granted.
Thank you so much.
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