Yesterday, I turned 32. There’s nothing special about the age itself, but this year my birthday is significant, as I’m still celebrating my recent signing with Jo Unwin Literary Agency. I’m writing a book on the cultural history of sexuality and pleasure.
Knowing that the next couple of years of my life will be focused on this project fills me, simultaneously, with intense panic, nervousness and excitement.
The reader in me can often feel let down by hesitant and ambiguous prose. Yet my writer self is paralysed at the prospect of truly trusting my process and nurturing all the radical ideas I have for the book. It is not lost on me that the difference between what we most desire and what we think we fear, is essentially negligible.
The family dynamics and communication styles at play when I was growing up, have meant that I’ve always measured my self-worth against my ability to strive for unrelenting and impossible high standards.
Constant reminders of falling short chipped at my self-esteem.
Receiving criticism can feel like a violent personal attack, because of the unhealthy modes of communication and conflict loops I grew up with.
This was then compounded in my professional life each time I experienced redundancy. The first one came as soon as I’d entered the Copywriting/Journalism industry in 2012. And then there was another one in 2013. And another in 2014.
But the most recent one, in Spring 2019, was especially triggering. It came at a time when I’d become more vocal and direct in the workplace and was confidently creating stand-out work. To have been let go just as I was becoming a ‘somebody’, erased those last few shreds of belief in my competency as a person.
Dichotomously, I now find myself in a situation where there are lots people who believe in the strength of my writing. But unfortunately, no achievement is ever enough for me to feel secure and accomplished.
Too often, I get stuck in a fixed mindset of internalising unfavourable feedback, rather than choosing a growth mindset where constructive criticism helps to draw out the best in me.
And so, I’m having to work extremely hard on rebuilding my confidence.
I’m breaking my old behavioural patterns of needing to be accepted by cultural gatekeepers to feel vindicated, but this, too, has caused plenty of emotional disturbance.
The foundational ideas for my book showed up in the Spring last year, when I was writing a personal essay for ‘My Morning After’. The editor had pushed me to write of my truth rather than hide behind fictional personas (of which, I have many) or intellectualism. I was then able to write from a more vulnerable place for my British Vogue piece on sex, race and colonialism, and went further still in the one after that on cross-generational desire.
It was two months between writing the first drafts of those Vogue pieces and their publication.
Those weeks were excruciating. I spent the whole time catastrophising about the fallout which would surely come from being seen for who I really am.
Was this not was the greatest tragedy ever to befall me?
The opposite was true.
Those pieces were enough to get noticed, and soon after their publication, I was contacted by Jo Unwin Literary Agency. We had an animated video call in which we chatted at length about my writing and ideas. They emailed me straight after with the representation contract.
And then I spiralled.
By the time the weekend came around, I was wholly incapacitated as wave after wave of heavy, yet nebulous, complex emotions made their way out of my subconscious.
It felt as if my skin had become translucent and semi-permeable, and that the world around me was absorbing the most secret and precious parts of my selfhood, which, by the way, had become almost tangible. I wrapped myself up in my duvet and clutched myself to stop pieces of my soul from messily oozing out of my body. I held myself so tightly that my nails left marks in my upper arms.
I felt cold and physically weak. And then I needed the loo. But I couldn’t stand. I slowly crawled down the stairs to the bathroom, because standing, or any sudden movements, might dislodge those fragments of self and I’d lose them to the outside world, forever.
Honestly, it was terrifying.
I was booked for some work on the Monday, so I had to get myself straightened out.
But there was no way I could sign the contract or get started on the book. If I was already having such extreme experiences so early on in the process, there was no telling what would happen if I actually started writing in earnest.
Three months went by. And then, I decided to have a long conversation with myself in the mirror. I spoke kindly and gently (which is a departure, because I’m usually harsh and impatient with myself) and congratulated myself on managing to work so diligently on my craft, despite such challenging global circumstances.
Readers of my work will already know that I’ve always derided the perceived cultural superiority of monogamy and the nuclear family as the most staggeringly unimaginative frameworks in which we can enjoy sexual intimacy.
My book will call out the marriage model centred in Western Anglo-based cultures as an inherently oppressive institution – and explain how most cultures with different views on sex, relationships and marriage were wilfully suppressed by the imperialist project.
Understanding historical attitudes to gender identities and sexual practices is essential to debunk mono-heteronormativity – and the binary of masculine and feminine – as the unwavering ancestral cultural norm.
Collectively, we need to acknowledge, respect and nurture all the other ways we can physically relate to one another, and accept them as legitimate rather than ‘alternative’.
So yeah, that’s what it’ll be about. And now the real hard work begins…
So, how do you go about getting signed to a literary agency?
Here are a few tips.
Figure out what you offer that no one else is offering.
Create a professional repository of your work. If you don’t have a portfolio website, linktree is a super simple fix.
Make sure that everything that you do is consistent and high quality – logos, typography, photography etc. In other words, look credible.
Have a look to see which agencies represent creatives whose work you love.
Promote your work via social media. We’re currently stuck in a loop where talent scouts appraise creatives based on social clout, and being active on multiple platforms is an expectation. However, I always ask people to engage with my work itself. My praxis is only partially reflected in my social media output, even less so by follower numbers, but rather by my multi-disciplinary creative practice which is uniquely intersectional.
I’d encourage people to create outside the bounds of social media as much as possible, but to use it often to cross-post and promote work.
Until next time, then. This Blog is now running as an email newsletter called ‘She Dares to Say’, where these pieces of writing are released first. Sign-up via almazohene.substack.com and please consider becoming a paid subscriber so that this freelancer can steady her income stream. If you would prefer to make a one-off donation, you can also send a contribution by clicking the button below.