illustration of lady looking upset and sitting at desk
Ojima Abalaka
Ojima Abalaka
Work & Money

He Wasn’t There for Me. Why Was Leaving So Hard?

Broken promises. Unanswered calls. I found the guts to end a business relationship.

Fear, self-doubt and feelings of inadequacy are a paralyzing yet familiar combination for even the strongest among us. They creep in when you’re faced with a decision that could result in ending up alone. This powerful trinity can be dangerous and identifying the ways it shapes your choices is challenging. As a Black woman who has climbed my way from a tiny blog to writing viral articles for mainstream publications, I battled this trio head-on when I decided to leave my esteemed literary agency.

It took me three months to break up with my agent. There had been glaring signs that our professional relationship was no longer beneficial to my writing goals. Long, passionate talks about the direction of my project turned into one-sided emails. Slowly returned calls became no returned calls. We created deadlines that only one of us honored. His actions screamed, “I’m no longer interested,” but my fear shouted, “Girl, try harder.”

So I tried. And I tried. I wrote more frequently, was published in notable outlets and even got the attention of other agents. But that changed nothing. I expressed my concerns to him and he resumed a level of consistency in his correspondence with me. He even began making plans for our next steps with the project. But consistency is impossible when you’re no longer invested. Within weeks, he once again became unresponsive when I reached out and continued to fall short with honoring deadlines. Without realizing it, I endured this cycle for an entire month.

I shared my concerns with my writing peers. They questioned why I stayed; I questioned where I would go. After all, I was signed to an elite agency. As a freelance writer, creating a respectable name amongst your talented peers is hard enough but managing to earn the attention of a highly regarded literary agency without even having to initiate the relationship was a form of professional validation. Representation from an agent meant I was one step closer to my dream of publishing a book.

Being represented by an agent also meant I’d no longer be navigating this ever-changing world of freelance writing alone. It meant I’d have an invested partner. After years of creating my career with little to no help, that prospect felt like being offered a cup of water at the end of running a marathon. Even a sprinkle feels like a flood when you’re dehydrated and empty. So when the partnership began to offer me drips, I learned to sip slower. For the second month, I sipped as slowly as I could.

I lowered my expectations so much, a seemingly justifiable reason was no longer required. In fact, I didn’t need to hear anything from him because my self-doubt was doing all the talking. I told myself to give it more time and fully strategize my next move. “More time” turned into the start of a third month and as that ended, I started to free write as a form of stress relief. I just opened my laptop and confessed to my keyboard. When I started writing, I wasn’t sure what to expect. But it felt cathartic to type out the words, “I need to leave this agency, but I’m afraid.”

I’ve never knowingly made a decision predicated on fear, so that realization shocked me. It also pushed me. I continued to write and asked myself honest questions: What are you losing by leaving? Where will you land if you leap? The more I wrote, the clearer things became. To paraphrase Nina Simone, I realized that knowing my worth meant leaving a table that was no longer feeding me without being concerned that it would be my last supper. I saw how I’d mistakenly tied the scope of my talent to professional validations. Holding onto that relationship was less about reaching my goals and more about clinging to something that represented my worth as a writer. I was afraid of what letting go of that would mean for me. I was afraid of losing a status symbol I thought affirmed me.

Telling myself the truth was shockingly empowering. It made me remember that it was my talent and skill that opened doors for me and, by default, my misguided attempts to prove myself to him had drastically improved both. Fear and all its deceptive companions had been strong enough to hold me hostage for three months. But the power in that moment of truth invigorated an immediate response in me. On the last day of the third month, I emailed that agent and explained that I was leaving our relationship. The stipulations of our contract indicated I was legally free to take that leap. But the renewed faith in my own ability reassured me I’d be fine no matter where I landed.

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Ojima Abalaka