By Ellie Roscher
On Tuesday, August 15, I pulled up to Open Book in Minneapolis to unload my car. I looked up, saw my name was on the marquee, and took a deep breath. After years of work, the launch for Play Like a Girl was finally here. The crowd exceeded our expectations. We pulled chairs out of the closet for folks standing against the back wall. When it was time to begin the program, I stood at the podium, a bit overcome with emotion. Very few in the seats that night had any idea the perseverance it required to arrive at that moment.
Play Like a Girl is the story of a free girls’ secondary school in the slum of Kibera, Kenya. I first heard about the school in 2010. It traveled to Kenya to research the story in 2012. It became my MFA thesis, printed in 2013. My mentor at Sarah Lawrence liked the thesis version of the story, but warned me, “It takes years to write a book.”
She was right. It took me a few years to turn my thesis into a manuscript and another few years to get that manuscript published in 2017. I played my professor’s soundbites over and over again over those long five years:
“Writers write. Keep writing.”
“We are trying to instill in you the psychological rigor necessary to see a project through to the end.”
“Open the document every single day and do something to make it better. Don’t let it sit idle. Engage with your work. Grapple.
“Only 20% of you will end up publishing. The other 80% don’t lack talent, but possibly perseverance.”
Since Play Like a Girl came out, several new writers have reached out to me, wanting to know my trick. There are no tricks. There are no shortcuts. It’s about hard work and seeing it through.
Both writing and publishing require irrational perseverance. From flying to Kenya multiple times, to transcribing hundreds of hours of interviews, to writing and deleting and rewriting the manuscript again and again, my inner belief in the importance of the story drove me forward. I believe in the inherent dignity of education. I believe getting girls more access to education globally is one of the tasks of our generation. And I believed that Play Like a Girl was a helpful part of the conversation. Those beliefs fueled my artistic rigor, pushing me through doubt and loneliness and fatigue to create a great version of a great story.
Then the perseverance required of publishing began. For me, I had to dig even deeper to write queries and proposals and marketing plans, to believe in myself and the pitch the project with passion and accuracy. The book business is tough, and with each rejection, I had to turn inward, to those same beliefs that were driving me. I knew Play Like a Girl was a great story. I knew it had a place in the world. I picked through the rejections for clues, for advice. It only takes one yes. I got that yes from Dawn at Red Sofa Literary, who immediately understood the worth of the story. Sending it out, we kept hearing over and over again that humanitarian stories don’t make money.
I wavered. I asked Dawn if it was time to self publish. I was so tired. She gave me the pep talk I needed to re-engage. I had a partner who also believed in me, who helped me persevere. That accountability was so important I started telling other people about the book. I told people the first names of the seven editors who had my manuscript on their desks. “I want this book in the world. I know it is a great story.” I got vulnerable and claimed what I wanted it. The community lifted me up. One person made a poster with a picture of the girls from the school on it that said, “Let the story be told.” He took a moment every day to send good energy to me and to the editors who were looking over the proposal. Well, one of those seven editors said yes, and she was the right person to work with me.
Perseverance is an essential component to writing and publishing. What I learned about perseverance during the birthing of Play Like a Girl is that yes, you have to believe deeply in your project. You have to be convinced that the story will make the world a better place. But you also don’t have to go at it alone.
Ellie Roscher is the author of Play Like a Girl and How Coffee Saved My Life, and a contributor to several blogs, magazines and compilation books. Ellie is the director of youth and story development at Bethlehem Lutheran Church in Minneapolis, teaches creative writing at the Minnesota Institute for Talented Youth, and previously taught theology at Cretin-Derham Hall High School. Ellie’s work as an educator, writer and speaker has brought her to places like Kenya, El Salvador and Uruguay, but she currently lives in Minneapolis with her spouse and sons. She has a MFA in Writing from Sarah Lawrence College and a MA in Theology from Luther Seminary. Follow her at @ellieroscher.