I had a five book deal. I wrote all five books. I tried hard, hard as I could, to be as awesome as I could, but things wound up dwindling and my publisher didn’t want more. I’m not stupid, I watched the # of reviews and amazon rankings go down each book, the fade in interest was clear and I don’t blame them for making the decision that they did.
What I’m finding hard now is that…for my entire life, I have always wanted to be a writer. Towards that end, I have written, and written, and written, and those books were the best ones I could produce at that time. But the reading public decided that they weren’t enough.
I’ve written some other stuff since then to try to find my sea-legs again, and I’m working on one meaningful project in particular now with all my fervent devotion, but it’s hard. It was one thing to write ten books before one got an agent and sold, I was ‘learning’ then and knew someday my ship would come in. Now that it’s come in and then sailed back off, I’m a little lost.
What’s to stop my next project from suffering the same fate as my prior ones? I’m the same person writing them — a little better a writer, yes, but the heart pouring out words is still the same one I’ve always had. What if what I have to say isn’t big enough or special enough to make the difference I want to make in the world? This new project gives me shivers. Which I used to take as a good sign…but since the ones that sold and then dwindled gave me shivers, too, I just don’t know if I can trust myself anymore.
This may be a bit more than you’re willing to take on for your tumblr, and if so, I understand. I feel better for having at least told it to someone though, so thank you for lending an ear.
To illustrate my own lack of discipline, a story: you emailed me this question at least a week ago. I knew I had to answer it, because it was a rough and sad and incomplete and inspiring and angering story and those are the best kinds to write about, at least in a microblogging space. But I knew it would take me at least an hour to answer, and an uninterrupted one at that; one where I had time and silence enough to assemble the best answer based on my experience, your reality, and my hope for you. I have not started writing that answer until right now. Out of at least seven days, I didn’t find one single hour to write. Not one.
This is bullshit of me. And I bring it up to illustrate how, when you tell me you wrote five books (and plenty more before those), my brain glazes over and my hands go numb because I haven’t even come CLOSE to the discipline and dedication and just straight-up time budgeting it takes to write that much. And I feel the need to say this because my advice to you comes from a foremost place of admiration. I won’t comment on your books because were I to do so I would be compromising your anonymity, but they are available at my favorite local indie so I’ll likely check at least the first one out as soon as I finish writing this embarrassingly late answer.
But while you may be a Megatron of productivity compared to me, I have shared your anxiety that all your talent and love may not equal the preferences of your audience; that when you think you’re spinning gold you’re actually pissing in the wind. You already know how common this is because everybody who is a creative who also has eyes and ears and a brain is confronted with the yottabyte of art that came before them, and the yottabyte of art that’s being created around you right now, and when you’re caught between the two like everyone is, it’s almost impossible not to feel like a tiny fleck of dirt on the surface of a larger ball of dirt that’s covered with monsters and constantly falling through cold empty space. It’s natural, in this situation, to see progress in the form of a climb to the top; you get there, you hoist yourself onto flat solid ground, and your fucked-out muscles and screaming brain can finally rest. The feeling you describe is getting there, looking up, and seeing the next mile of rope.
Of course you’d wonder if you can trust yourself. Of course you’d consider that perhaps you’re just weak and incompatible with the world of letters. Of course you’d feel the desperate pull of gravity in every word you commit to the page, because you’re hamstrung at every decision; did I do that right? Could I have written that better? Could I have networked more? Could I be a better writer if I paid for this or hiked through that or took that pill or read that novel?
It reminds me of one of the most unsettling things I ever heard, which was an offhand comment an old roommate once made about his father. “Yeah, he wanted to be a writer when he was younger, but he just didn’t think anyone cared what he had to say as a white dude growing up in the suburbs.” Granted, there’s plenty of bad writing coming from white dudes in the suburbs, so that wasn’t what caught me off guard. What I remember about that comment was the idea that you’re born, you want to be a writer, and then you don’t become a writer, and life just…goes on. The thing you thought was implacable slips away like dead skin and your identity twists in the breeze like a bad scaffold. This terrified younger me, and it still terrifies less-younger me. And I can tell it terrifies you.
Because life is long. And unless you’re suddenly claimed by an accident or illness, life proceeds at the same yawning, asymmetrical pace that it always will, oblivious to your impatience or alacrity. Your focus can swing from one thing to the other (drugs, kids, literature, work, travel) but it’s in the perfectly condensed knots of character and plot that you whittle out of this experience where you feel clarity and satisfaction. Your lumbar muscles unbuckle and your head quits feeling like a pot of overboiled rice. This still happens when you write, it’s only in what comes after that you’re having trouble, feeling like the ore of your craft isn’t worth the slag and slurry and clinkers it takes to mine it if nobody’s buying.
I worked for two and a half years in a job that constantly made me question if I was worth the money they paid me (which was not that much). The feedback I received from my managers was minimal, as was our interaction. This was worse than if they’d been shitty to me; it let all my worst emotional impulses run roughshod over me, because why not, right You know when you fall asleep on your arm and you wake up and your forearm’s totally numb and you have clench and unclench your fist furiously to restore blood flow, and how at first no matter what you do, if you bite your fingers or smack your palm against the bedpost or backhand the wall, you can’t feel anything? That’s how this job felt. I bit and I clawed and I whacked away at my duties and I tried to improve and do better and impress people and mature and learn because that’s what you’re supposed to do when you reach what you believe is the first step in your career. And I felt nothing, and more nothing, and more nothing, and the more I fucked myself up over that job the less I felt, except for the great lilting sadness of knowing that a huge chunk of my life and happiness was out of my control. I tried to get a new job, and it was just a galaxy of rejections, when I was lucky enough to get a rejection that wasn’t just an automatic “THIS JOB POSTING IS NOW CLOSED” notification.
We humans have a tendency to retcon our troubling times once they pass because we dig narratives, but I’m not lying when I say I had firmly given up on publishing about six months into my job search. They didn’t want me, so I didn’t want them. I started looking for advertising and tech sales jobs; I answered faceless Monster inquiries; I briefly considered a career in selling life insurance. (Like, for about an hour.) I smiled and lied during job interviews in fields I knew nothing about when they asked if I was really interested. Because all I wanted was to finish climbing and just rest, to just finally turn my brain off and quit clocking every possible escape route. I hated that I’d wasted good years in publishing when it was clear that I wasn’t right for the industry.
Suffice to say, I was mostly wrong about that. I’m writing to you from my new publishing job, for all the right reasons.
But the reason I tell you this story is because now that I’m here, I can’t believe how much time I spent agonizing over my choice to work in publishing, feeling like I wandered so deeply into a cave that my glowsticks are all gone and my water’s run out and I wouldn’t have the calories left in my body to crawl back out. That was a very vivid feeling that I simply accepted as the reality of my choices and capabilities. Even when people I loved and trusted told me to keep hopeful, I nodded and inside thought “if only they really knew the truth about me.” I felt awful because I couldn’t believe their well-meaning lies.
But this is the type of feeling that you realize, upon getting through it, was totally illusory. If I’d believed it, really believed it, I would have stopped trying. I would have turned down the job offer. But I didn’t. And I didn’t. And I got lucky, but I got lucky because I’d been told no a zillion times and therefore had a zillion wrong ways to do something. And I finally found a right way.
You feel like an imposter. But you’re not. Whatever good things happen to you will happen because you came through this and kept going. You’re still the same person who wrote until she got a book deal, who writes because the spirit moves her and loves it. You’re the person who took an opportunity and ran with it and it didn’t work out this time. You have thousands of agents and publishers out there who can sell your books better, and you can write the books you want to write without sabotaging yourself. You’re not Troy Duffy, the dude who somehow managed to make an absurdly successful cult movie called The Boondock Saints and then crawled up his own ass and alienated everyone and is the reason he hasn’t made a non-Boondock-Saints-related movie since. You’re not Grace Metalious, who wrote Peyton Place and sold more than 30 million books and drank herself to death at 39 in debt and obscurity. You’re not anyone except you, and only you get to decide when you’re done writing. When the spirit’s got no pulse, you can call time of death, but not now. Not when you’ve got the rejection of your first agent in your quiver; that’s an experience of defeat you’d never be able to write about if it hadn’t happened. Not when you’ve got the chops to write and edit and produce on a schedule, which you wouldn’t have had if you hadn’t had a deadline and a contract to live up to.
It’s not the same heart pouring out those words. It’s bruised now. That’s good. It’s good you’re scared. You should be. All readers are scared. Scared of meaninglessness and ignorance and uncertainty and boredom. That’s why we read, to find the people who can explain being scared. Now you’re one of those people. Good luck.
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