This thought crossed my mind the other day, and it stopped me dead in my tracks with it’s simplicity. It’s a good question – I set out with a goal of finishing a novel, and did it. Great. Then I set out with the goal of getting it published, and, well, um…
What I’ve discovered is, I’m not sure getting published is really the only goal, or if it’s healthy to even think like that. Maybe getting published is partially the result of writing great stories, and so great stories should be my goal instead. But even if I do get published some day, it’s more than likely to take years, and I certainly have to be more like a turtle than a hare to win that race.
So, it’s a long road ahead of me. Fine, okay, I need something to dread to get out of bed in the morning anyway. But then I heard another question, because peace of mind isn’t for me:
How am I going to keep this up?
To that, I didn’t have an answer. I didn’t, and don’t, know if I can keep it up, and there ain’t no guarantees anything will ever come of it anyway. With that thought, it was easy to fall into a funk. Which is exactly what I did.
So off to the coffee shop I went.
And whether you believe in fate or God or serendipity or even if you believe in nothing, the funniest thing happened. I randomly met another writer there, and we ended up talking. I expected to hear how great his life was – he’s got an agent, he’s got a book deal, his first novel is coming out soon. But what I heard instead was something familiar: fear, angst, worry. What if his book doesn’t sell? What if his book DOES sell? Then what?
I related to him how I was feeling, stuck, not sure where to go. He nodded and told me the story of a writer friend who, having run out of money, was forced to move into the basement of his parent’s house. Six months later, he ended up with a book deal. He referred to those moments, those dark hours, as “the belly of the whale,” that all writers (and I would say, all people) go through at one point or another.
A couple hours after this conversation, I couldn’t believe how much better I still felt, even though my situation hadn’t changed. And then I was reading John Gardner’s On Becoming A Novelist, and came across the following:
“[The writer] recognizes that the success he hopes for will take work. What a writer in this gloomy situation needs is a community that values what he values, that believes it is better to be a good writer than a politician or scientist … what keeps the young writer with the potential for success from turning to some more generally approved or easier path is his writing community.”
And I thought, that’s it. That’s what keeps you in it – surrounding yourself with people going through the same thing you are, whether it’s the pursuit of painting, acting, running, an MBA, whatever. So you don’t give in, don’t give up. Because you are going to need their help to make it to the end of that marathon.
John Gardner had one more thing to say about all this, and I would say applicable to all of us: “The truth is, the writing community saves the writer. It is partly made up of fools, young innocents…and party made up of maniacs.”
Ain’t that the truth.
Ah, rejection week! What a sweet thrill. Makes you question, makes you doubt, and if you let it, makes you despair. It’s easy to think – well this person who has more power than I knows something I don’t – that my writing is shit, that I have no business even trying what I’m trying.
More on this in a second.
I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t affected by the passing of Steve Jobs last week. I’ve never been the tech nerd. I’m not an engineer. I don’t look good in black.
But what got to me about Steve Jobs, beyond the awfulness of cancer, beyond the great products, beyond how his success shone a light on the mediocrity of others, was the perspective he had for living life. From my outside point of view, this 2005 commencement speech was where it began. His most famous quote from that speech:
Your time is limited, so don’t waste it living someone else’s life.
I remember the first time I heard this. Now, the cynic in me thought, you’re just telling us what we want to hear. But after that thought faded, I thought again, someone else’s life? But whose life would I be living but my own?
It was such an important question that it really pissed me off. I didn’t have a good answer, because I never thought to ask it. I’ve been living my life as I was supposed to be – working hard, earning money, spending money, time with friends, etc. So, whose life? With no answer coming to mind, I let the question fester for the next five years, poking it’s head up every once and awhile.
Whose life are you living?
What that question allowed to happen – and I only recognize this by looking back – was the little seeds of ideas that come at you all the time, seeds I normally would have brushed away without a thought, I instead let them grow, gave them some energy, to see if they would prosper a little. A lot of them withered on the vine, but a few stuck around.
And when I had an idea for the first novel, instead of brushing it aside in favor of the latest crisis, I started to think about it. I thought about what authors I already liked, and wished I could be like. When I had time, I researched these authors, and how they accomplished what they did. I re-read some of their books, not just to enjoy them, but to study them. And then, one day, I sat down and committed to writing one sentence. Not a book, just a single sentence.
Six months later, I was at 80,000 words.
It certainly hasn’t been easy, forging a path that is different from what you thought or what you’ve been taught. I’ve had a lot of support, and also a lot of but you can’t do that. But what I realized, as I still wonder what the hell I’m doing with my life, is to try and remember the seeds I let in, and continue to nurture them rather than strangle them (I’m tempted).
So back to the idea of rejection. Here’s what I’ve learned from Steve Jobs: the idea of rejection, it’s not rejection, not really. It’s just means it’s not the right fit. Somebody may not understand you, somebody may not be ready for you, or somebody may simply have another point of view that doesn’t jive with your own. But if it makes sense to YOU, then don’t let the inevitable obstacles stop you from living your life as it’s meant to be. Don’t lose your vision simply because you get a no. Because eventually, and the statistics favor this, you’re gonna get a yes.
And if you don’t know your destination yet, maybe that’s your first step: letting the seeds in, nurturing them, and trying to figure out where it is you want your life to be.
PS. Thanks to Lisa for the the inspiration for this post.
If I could have seen this far, maybe I never would have come.
It’s been six months now, and a hard road to get here. Things I didn’t anticipate, everywhere. Finishing the book was harder than I thought. Meeting agents was harder than I thought. Editing was harder than I thought.
But what I’ve come to realize is, the hardest parts aren’t the doing. The hardest parts are the stuff on the inside: learning to trust my instincts. Learning who to listen to. Learning to stick to my vision of what I want for my life, even when I am standing alone wondering if I am doing anything worthwhile at all. Learning to believe in myself.
I think these all might be true no matter what new endeavor you are pursuing.
At one point I remember thinking, once I did finish the first book, now I can work on getting it published. Easy, right? The naive part of me didn’t even know…and as it turns out, that’s like saying you want to get in shape, and then going to the gym for a month. Unfortunately, that’s not how it works, because getting in shape is a lifelong commitment, not an endpoint. And so is writing – both the act of writing and the act of selling – slow, hard work that’s never really done. Maybe the tortoise and hare story does have some merit after all.
So, if it’s so hard then, why do it? Why submit ourselves to such difficult paths? There’s gotta be easier ways to spend our days, right?
Because you never know what’s going to happen, unless you don’t try, and then you do (answer: nothing at all). Because our vision for what we want in our lives is bigger than the pain, the setbacks, the struggle. Because sometimes, it takes a lifetime to figure out a purpose for your life, and once you figure it out, you can’t let it go.
And because I look back on the past six months as some of the most invigorating of my life.
So it goes, nothing worth doing is ever easy. This may seem obvious, though from the middle of it, as I am now, it just seems ridiculous. Still, I’m sticking with it. I don’t know what the next six months will hold, but if it’s anything like the last six months, there will be moments that will surprise. And it’s the anticipation of those moments that invigorates: the UNpredictable, the UNplanned, a new idea, a positive response or a chance encounter or a string of good luck following a string of bad.
And as I put my head back down to keep working, the other thought that crosses my mind is:
Maybe it is, in fact, better not to know.
A few months ago, I wrote a post about how the grass isn’t always greener. You know, the whole, “if I just had X, then I’d be happy.” I still suffer this a fool like so many others, even though I am aware of it, even though I write about it.
I think of all my wishes, the ones I think about before I fall asleep and after I wake up, the things that I would like to do or like to have or like to be.
And then I saw Woody Allen’s Midnight in Paris. Without giving anything away, it’s about Gil, an aspiring writer visiting modern day Paris, wishing he lived in the Parisian golden age of Hemingway, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Gertrude Stein, etc., instead.
For Gil, today is full of consumerism, second rate work, everything for a buck and nothing for the love. Through the course of the film, he comes to understand the universal human trait of wishing it were different – how everyone thinks another time was a golden age, even those who lived in The Golden Age, and how at the end of the day, since you can only live in the time you are born, you must be happy in your present.
It got me to thinking, all of us, we walk around with the weight of the world on our shoulders, and we don’t know how to put it down. But we are also in an amazing age of innovation, of creativity, unparalleled ever. We just have trouble seeing it. I mean, what if we flipped the argument around. Can you imagine what Hemingway would have said if he came to 2011 and saw what we have?
Within an hour, I can write something and publish it. I get to share it with an audience of amazing people on Facebook, Twitter, through email, etc. And I can’t even imagine editing a manuscript on a typewriter. Copy and paste didn’t exist for Joseph Heller in the 1950s, who used scissors to disassemble and reassemble his manuscript for Catch-22.
There was irony in the film, of course, as Gil still wants to move to Paris in the present day, even if it isn’t the modern age. But the message was clear – it wasn’t better then. Better is what you make of it.
And, maybe someday, your grandchildren might say, how cool would it be to live in the golden age of the early 21st century? And the best part is, you’ll be able to tell them.
I was lucky enough to spend this past weekend in Napa Valley, California. Amazing.
Right before I left, I received an email from a publishing contact generous enough to read a couple chapters of my manuscript. She was writing to let me know her perspective.
She didn’t really like it.
She provided me a little bit of detail as to why, and I was anticipating a wave of depression, another “rejection,” another sign that my work isn’t really that good.
Only this time, it didn’t happen. No darkness, no despair, and in fact, I felt pretty good. WTF?
And the thought that crossed my mind was not, “I better get on those changes.” The thought that crossed my mind was, “I don’t know if this person really gets what I’m trying to do, or even gets me.”
What a different way to think about it!
I realized that somebody not quite getting me is absolutely okay. Not everyone is going to like my work. Her perspective is valid, and I will consider all the points. Just like some people love Rabbit, Run, I found it a hard read. On the other hand, I loved Watership Down, while other people could give a shit about fighting rabbits. And maybe this is true for all of us – our desire to please all people, to know we’ve done something “good” or “right”, that desire can be quite a hindrance, because it’s really not possible. Instead, you have to find it within yourself to know, this is good. I am good.
For example, this past summer, I got some feedback on a short story that I didn’t agree with. I really stressed about it, contemplating the changes and how to do them, or if I even should. After a lot of time spent worrying, I decided against making the changes, and that short story ended up winning an award.
Now, this doesn’t mean you should be half-assed in any area of your life, and of course sometimes you have to be open to making changes to your work, or yourself (I have and I am). But who I am, what I create, has my name attached to it, and I need to be good with it. I need that inner strength that knows while certain things about my book could change, there are some things that are very, very good that should not.
I still have tons to learn, of course.
This past week, an agent wrote me: “You are an accomplished writer, and while I can’t take on new projects right now, I encourage you to keep going. It was a close call.”
Perhaps the best “no” I have ever heard.
I found it fascinating to read the inner-workings, fears and mistakes that happened through the course of the writing and publication. I also found myself nodding my head, understanding the pain and confusion that Heller referenced when trying to make a decision or struggling over a draft of the novel.
And as I read through it, I learned a few things, too:
1. You only need a few believers. More people didn’t believe in Catch-22 than did. Author Evelyn Waugh wrote, after he received a pre-publication draft, “You are mistaken in calling it a novel. It is a collection of sketches – often repetitious – totally without structure.” But one agent and one editor saw the potential, pushed hard, and Catch-22 saw the light of day.
2. It’s not rejection when somebody turns you down. Candida Donadio, Heller’s agent, said after one publisher responded with good words, “Finally, somebody got it! I thought my navel would unscrew and my ass would fall off.” The “getting it” part is what really resonated for me, ahh, that’s it! This is a different and positive way to think and it makes sense. One agent wrote me about my book, “I really like this…” Another? “No, thank you.”
3. Behind the scenes, it’s often a mess. The emperor has no clothes, the wizard behind the curtain….you name it. The book was called Catch-18, then changed to Catch-14 after another book with the number 18 in the title came out, then Catch-11, before landing on the final title. “We were all in despair,” the publisher recalled later. Looking back, “Catch-22” seems so unique, so obvious. But it wasn’t at the time.
4. It takes longer than you think. Heller’s first draft was done in 1953, but the book wasn’t published until 1961 as he continued working on the manuscript. In an interview later, Heller said, “I worked so slowly…it came so hard. I’d become despondent that I could only write a page a night. Why can’t I work faster?” Even folks you most respect struggle like you do.
5. You never know. The publisher, after they bought the book, “conceded the book would probably not sell well.” However, by April 1963, 1.1 million copies had sold. By the end of the decade? Thirty printings. Those are holy shit numbers no matter how you look at them, and never predicted.
I can only dream of success at the level of Catch-22. Most of the time I doubt it, but I don’t cross it off the list. And maybe it’s the possibility of things that keeps me going.