It’s a topic not frequently chatted about openly among writers. I’ve been to an embarrassing number of writer conferences and not once have I seen it on the menu. But I’m willing to bet it’s touched every writer in some way at some time somewhere along the journey. And when nobody else is listening, my writer friends confirm my suspicions.
I think it starts in high school with the English teacher who passed out the A/A papers to all the other poor writing students who only dreamed of seeing perfect scores assigned to their deepest thoughts? These, I realize now, were the first unofficial reviews (classmates rolling their eyes) of a published work–the assignment–from my publisher–English teacher, Mrs. Jones. I recently dug through an old chest of papers from 30 years ago my mom had been saving in her storage shed and found some of those A/As (not all of them mine, mind you). Why did I save random papers for 30 years from classmates I can’t even remember? Because these were held up as the best. I remembered those feelings of inadequacy if mine wasn’t the chosen one. Pangs of jealousy.
But there was also an issue on the other side. If mine was the chosen one, that, too, was slightly awkward. It wasn’t as if the teacher passed out “The Perfect Paper” and everybody threw love and gratitude the author’s way for the great care she’d taken with her similes. No. More like, “Whatever. She probably copied it.” Still, that was certainly better than the alternative.
As an adult, I notice these concepts still alive in the lives and thoughts of writers. Who gets published. Who doesn’t. Who gets an agent. Who doesn’t. Who self-publishes. Who gets picked up by a publisher. Who leaves a publisher to self-publish. Who writes in a very commercial way (vs. literary) and makes lots of money–and makes lots of writers say, “But the writing is crap.” Good reviews. Crushing bad reviews. It never stops.
The theme has snaked its way in to night time drama. Have you seen “Girls” on HBO? Aspring writer Hannah is recently out of college as an English major. (Been there.) She does a brief internship at a publisher, but when real life calls, she needs to get a job that actually pays. In Season 1, Episode 9, she is not amused when the crappy writer in one of her classes (you know the one–there’s always one) publishes a book which is wildly successful. At the big book bash party which she forces herself to attend said writer comes up to Hannah with this really awkward, “How’s your writing going? I know it must be hard when it doesn’t come naturally to you. It just pours out of me.”
Hannah, according to her English professor, is a great writer, but horribly insecure about her writing. This insecurity seems to flow through writers like the ink through their printers. Internal critics abound. Hannah sulks, realizing she’s not disappointed with crappy writer girl, but rather with herself for her own unrealized dreams.
I’ve felt this–like everyone around me is winning and I’m not winning. One time, I went to a conference and agreed to be the carpool driver and pick people up, go early and help, and take people home. (Good karma, right?) Both my riders won top honors at the conference. I won squat. That was defeating. I wanted to throw my manuscript in the trash. Wait–something more dramatic. Burn it at night in a fire in an abandoned field while sobbing.
Once I got myself together, here’s how I decided to look at that: it’s getting closer. It’s in my car, and it’s almost to the driver’s seat. “It” is recognition. Validation. Somebody likes what I wrote. Because in the end, that’s why we do it, right? We want people to like what we write.
But becoming a master writer takes time (10,000 hours, right Burl?) It takes dedication and consistency. It takes focus. And damned if you can’t buy these things at Rite Aid. You need to dig in deep, be willing to be vulnerable, honest, and observant. Oh, and, work really, really hard BEFORE (and by before I mean in case) you get paid. All this, and yet everyone I know wants to write a book.
Today, I work at appreciating exactly where I am when I’m there. I respect and admire the A/A novels I read and am grateful to learn how language can be used in a way that tells a story so well because that is my goal, too. I feel genuinely happy inside when my writer friends do well–sell a book, get a great review, get recognized in some way along the process–no matter what part of the process I’m in at the moment. I am grateful for my mentors and am grateful when I can mentor others. What I think this means is I’ve become more secure in my own abilities. I know what needs to be done to become a better writer, and I love the process–reading, writing, growing, rewriting, rewriting, crying, rewriting.
If you’re pre-published, enjoy the waiting room. It comes with its own set of perks. Appreciate when your friends have success. What you appreciate, appreciates, and before you know it, it’ll make its way to the driver’s seat.