I’m spending some of my summer re-reading Ordinary People (about a family who lost a son, and how the other son, Conrad, attempted suicide), and I came across the following dialogue:
Conrad (son): “Listen, I am never going to be forgiven for that, never! You can’t get the blood out, you know!”
Berger (shrink): “Give yourself a break, why don’t you? Let yourself off the hook.”
Conrad: “What do you mean?”
Berger: “I mean there’s somebody else you have to forgive.”
Conrad: “You mean, me?”
Let yourself off the hook. This really hit home for me, even though I’ve read it before….because I think we really hang ourselves up for the smallest of transgressions. We try our best, build the master plan in our brain, and set goals that for whatever reason, aren’t attained. Then we tell ourselves we’re not good enough, not smart enough, not fast enough, you name it.
So I figured I’d take a look at some of my recent perceived failures, put it out there in the world (hello dirty laundry) and see if that is in fact what they really are. Here’s my list, this is only the first four that come to mind, trust me, there are others:
1. My book isn’t perfect. I’ve been trucking along here for awhile, working on the book, then suddenly, I got an agent connection. I was so excited that I immediately sent the book out to her when she requested it, only to look back a few weeks later and think, damn, but it’s better now! I talked to other writers and artists about this to find some comfort, and turns out, this is just how it is – the work is always evolving, never really done (many authors still hate parts of their book after it’s published), and this will happen again. In my funk, I turned to the acknowledgement pages of a few authors I respected, and I noticed they all said a version of the same thing: this book wouldn’t be what it is without the help of this agent and that editor and this publisher… And I got to thinking, maybe my dream of my perfect book is just that, a dream, and rather, it’s a team effort. I am on the hook for writing a great book of course, and still want to put my best foot forward, but dammit, maybe absolute perfection is the wrong goal.
2. I ignored my own voice. As a newish author, I’m insecure about my abilities a lot of the time. Can I really write? Do I know what I’m talking about? Or do I just have bad taste? After I wrote my first few drafts, I hired an editor and took her comments verbatim, even though she said, this is only my opinion. I think I took her advice too far, and later, I got feedback from more than one person that has noted this. So, I’m working through the manuscript again, refitting some earlier stuff that I think belongs. Also, I wrote a short story that I kept pure, and I was lucky enough to win an award for it (the first signal that my voice deserves being listened to, maybe just a little). I’m not saying don’t listen to others, but the key is to listen to a lot of folks, but ultimately, figure out how to be the decision-maker. Something I’m still working on myself.
3. I don’t read enough, I don’t write enough, I don’t do anything enough. Oy, is this a tough one. The demands we all face require a thirty-six hour day, yet in the twenty-four hours we are allotted, we have to be relentless with priorities, and frankly, some shit just doesn’t get done. There’s one writer I know who works full time, just finished a book, and blogs every single day. Now, even if I wanted to, and never needed to sleep, I don’t think I could take that on. So my new measure is, as long as I’m working on something, I’m doing ok.
4. My query letter stinks. Well, it used to. The query letter (the one page pitch) that goes out to agents, I read a ton about how to do this, and then spent a lot of time working on mine. Turns out it’s quite difficult to summarize an entire book into three sentences. I used this early version to send to some agents. Looking back, I don’t think it portrayed my book the way I would have liked. I have a new query now that I am okay with, but I’m not sure I will ever love these things. It’s kind of like literary torture, but necessary. So I grin and bear it, and keep working on it, because there is no other choice.
And so, I’m going to try to be a little nicer to myself. I know I am my own worst enemy (friends tell me this all the time). If you have a failure of your own, well, you learn for the next time. Doesn’t make it hurt any less, but it’s still true. I guess the overall lesson here is, we do the best we can with the information we have, and that’s always enough.
PS: check out Rachel Thurston’s blog for a great slide show from the Santa Barbara Writers Conference!