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Yesterday I made the mistake of clicking on the bio of a one-time colleague. Scanning the list of publications in which her work appears, I felt my chest tighten, my temples throb.
Her resume read like my own might if I hadn’t crumpled it up and tossed it once I became a mom.
Sure, I’ve done a few things she hasn’t, like having a novel published and writing a screenplay for a studio. But those accomplishments, along with the bulk of my other professional successes, occurred a long time ago, in the period prior to my greatest creation: my son.
I am aware, of course, that Aidan’s existence and the magnificent work I do as his mom trump any article, book, screenplay or poem I could bring to life. But that fact never seems to help when I’m seething with jealousy.
Yes, this is plain, old-fashioned jealousy I’m feeling and, as always, I am aware that jealousy is an indicator of desire. My desires: I want to write more. I want someone to publish my work. I want, need even, further recognition—and validation—as a writer. Without those things, I end up reading friends’ bios and then spending the first hour of what should be an energizing yoga class feeling grumpy and thinking bitchy thoughts.
It doesn’t help that not so long ago I had a five-star writing week. Within two days, I completed two essays, both of which I’d been working on for a while, and confidently sent them to editors. In both cases, I received promising early responses: “I’d be happy to review it… Nudge me if you don’t hear back in a couple days!” and, even better, “Passing this on to editor in chief…”
That same week, I completed a draft of the first hefty chunk of my book and sent three chapters plus a proposal to my editor.
That week I was simply bouncy with optimism and pride.
Then came the silence. Weeks, in fact, of dead, hear-a-pin-drop-type silence. From both editors and my agent.
“Summer is notoriously slow,” a writer friend said when I called her stressed out. “Nothing happens around the 4th of July.”
Sure, true, but I remained dismayed.
The same friend once told me that she thrives on rejection. It fires her up, inspires her even, so psyched she is to prove the motherfuckers wrong! I tried to harness that energy. In my head I started reworking one of my essays to submit to the New York Times’ Anxiety column, should it be rejected from the national publication where it is currently languishing on an editor’s desk. I enjoyed the exercise actually and started thinking maybe the Anxiety column was where the piece really belongs.
Anyone familiar with the column knows where this is headed.
Just this morning, during breakfast, I was perusing last week’s Sunday Review. At the end of a fascinating piece about anxiety, I came across the following sentence: This is the final installment of Anxiety.
This was a blow I was unprepared to take. It struck me as personal. Almost expected. It seemed like a personal invitation hand-delivered to me to just stop it already with this silly fantasy that I can somehow claw my way back to the land of the working writer.
I was felled. Harlan’s face dropped when I told him. He looked so sad for me. Then he hugged me, comforted me. I was in need of comfort.
Can I return from the blow? Can I channel the energy of my wise friend and get to a place where instead of feeling dejected and sorry for myself, I feel energized, galvanized even to prove the motherfuckers wrong? Can I claw my way back to my writing life? Do I even belong there anymore? Can I get back to a place where I believe that I belong there?
I’m sure as hell going to try.
Stephen King is stressing me out.
I’ve been reading his book On Writing before bed every night. I love the stories he tells about his childhood, like the one about the abusive babysitter he calls Eula-Beulah who farted on his head and got herself fired after feeding him seven eggs, then locking him in a closet where he proceeded to puke all over his mother’s shoes. As most of us know, his writing is vivid, startling and often hilarious.
I also like his advice about writing, like this:
“Put your desk in the corner, and every time you sit down there to write, remind yourself why it isn’t in the middle of the room. Life isn’t a support system for art. It’s the other way around.”
“While it is impossible to make a competent writer out of a bad writer, and while it is equally impossible to make a great writer out of a good one, it is possible, with lots of hard work, dedication, and timely help, to make a good writer out of a merely competent one.”
Then there’s his description of his own personal Muse:
“There is a muse, but he’s not going to come fluttering down into your writing room and scatter creative fairy-dust all over your typewriter or computer station. He lives in the ground. He’s a basement guy. You have to descend to his level, and once you get down there you have to furnish an apartment for him to live in. You have to do all the grunt labor, in other words, while the muse sits and smokes cigars and admires his bowling trophies and pretends to ignore you. Do you think this is fair? I think it’s fair. He may not be much to look at, that muse-guy, and he may not be much of a conversationalist (what I get out of mine is mostly surly grunts, unless he’s on duty), but he’s got the inspiration. It’s right that you should do all the work and burn all the midnight oil, because the guy with the cigar and the little wings has got a bag of magic. There’s stuff in there that can change your life.
Believe me, I know.”
It’s great stuff. So why am I stressing out?
Because he goes on to tell you that to be a writer, you should be reading and writing for 4-6 hours a day. 4-6 hours a day!
He does, after all.
His personal daily word count goal is 2000. In other words, he writes every single day—including his birthday and Christmas—as much as I wrote during National Novel Writing Month, that crazy period last November when I felt like I was on a treadmill.
True, he says not everyone needs to write 2000 words (he says 1000 should suffice). And he says it’s cool to take one day off per week (but more than one, i.e. a whole weekend or three weeks at the holidays, will throw you off your rhythm).
He also says you need a room of your own in which to write. Libraries—like the Cambridge Public one where I write—don’t qualify. Coffee shops—my alternate writing space—don’t work at all. You’ve got to have your own room with a desk in it and where you can close the door and write for 4-6 hours a day.
Those words set my knees a-knockin’.
You have to read a lot, too, and that can cut into the allotted time. King estimates that he reads 80 books a year. 80 books a year! I think I read a pretty good amount, but I doubt if I manage even 20 or 25. The problem might be that I devote some of my reading time to the Times, The New Yorker and Entertainment Weekly. That must count, right?! (Maybe not Entertainment Weekly. But I can’t give that up. It’s a drug. And I swear the writing is good! Hey, wait a second, Stephen King writes for Entertainment Weekly! He can’t fault me for liking to read it!)
I also tend to watch TV at night, a habit he he gets a bit snooty about. What can I say? I’m addicted to True Blood, Mad Men, Breaking Bad, and I’m not the slightest bit ashamed to admit So You Think You Can Dance.
I also watch movies. Hell, movies are my passion! I spent 10 years writing about them! Come on, Mr. King, can you let me off the hook for wanting—no, needing—to watch movies sometimes instead of breaking out my old Charles Dickens and Virginia Woolf novels?
So maybe now you understand why the illustrious and beyond-prolific Mr. King is stressing me out. He’s setting goals for me that I feel unprepared to achieve.
But could I come close?
Could I, for example, write for two hours every day (or five days a week) and read for one? Wouldn’t that be a start? Is that a goal I could set for myself and actually achieve?
There’s one thing I’ve learned: Don’t set impossible goals for yourself.
When you are unable to achieve the goals you have set, you wind up beating yourself up and god knows I don’t need to beat myself up any more than I already do.
Mr. King, what do you think?
One day when I was dropping Aidan off at school, I fell into a conversation with the mother of one of his friends. I was singing my familiar refrain, about wanting to get my writing life back. I told her I could really use a conversation with some of my mentors in New York, writers and teachers who have often provided me with just the right encouraging words—and kick in the pants—that I needed.
“I think you need to go to New York,” she said. “Do it in person.”
Hmm, I thought, not a bad idea. Maybe we could all go for a long weekend.
“Go by yourself!” she said. “Harlan can deal with pickup and drop-off for a few days. You’ll make it work. You need to start taking your career seriously again.”
Her words hit home.
I knew she was right. In my head I began imagining how much fun I could have in New York for four or five days by myself. I started calculating how we could tweak Aidan’s and Harlan’s schedules to make it work. I made a list of teachers, friends, editors, assorted contacts to call.
As luck would have it, a high school friend is throwing a bridal shower for another high school friend on May 19, so I decided to do it then. Even better: Harlan’s semester would be over so he could take care of Aidan with no restrictions. I could even be flexible with my dates.
I started to get really excited. I imagined lunch with my rockin’ teacher and mentor Sue, drinks with my old indieWIRE friends, coffee with my agent, maybe also with some old editors (if I was bold enough to call), mojitos at some great new restaurant with my sister. I could see the Cindy Sherman show at the MoMA! I could do yoga at Jivamukti! I could go to a screening! Or two!
Then last week, on Wednesday night, Harlan got a call from his agent: he was up for a job shooting a movie in New York. He got up early Thursday morning to read the script, had a skype interview with the director at 1:00, and by 5 he had been offered the job. He made a few calls to make sure there weren’t any work conflicts and by the following morning he had booked it.
There are a lot of reasons I’m thrilled for him. But I’m also crushed. He is leaving for New York on May 13, which is the same week that I’d planned my solo excursion.
Now rather than booking coffee dates and preparing to spread out on the train with old issues of the New Yorker, I’m stressing about Cambridge catsitters and New York babysitters and where we can all stay and whether I should drive or take the train and how the hell I’ll lug all our luggage if we take the train, which I’d rather do, but I’ll probably have to chase Aidan up and down the aisles the whole time.
Which has also got me questioning whether the whole trip was a stupid idea in the first place. I mean, what did I expect to get out of it? How can my old mentors motivate me if I can’t motivate myself? Why would my old editors assign me anything anyway? I live in Boston and don’t even get invited to screenings here. I’ve been out of the game for so long, what do I have to offer? Then I learned my former teacher Leslie, whom I wanted to see, is writing at her house upstate and the indieWIRE guys will be in Cannes (probably along with all my other film-biz friends). My friend Sue invited me to a book reading of hers and a book party she’s throwing for a friend, but will I even be able to find a babysitter?
Now I feel like I’m just going to New York for a bridal shower.
I don’t want a pity party, but the way this all played out made me think the universe was trying to tell me to shut the fuck up, shove my delusional dream plans into the laundry basket and embrace being the housewife and stay-at-home mom I was meant to be.
Or at least if I want to start writing for a living again, I’m really going to have to work for it.
When I told my friend Julie, also a mom who struggles with these issues, she laughed, shook her head knowingly and reminded me of one of my favorite quotes of all time from cynic-realist-dad Louis CK:
“You’re not a woman until people come out of your vagina and step on your dreams.”