Tuesday, January 6, 2015

Preparing for rejection and praying for success

It's the start of a new year and rather than feeling the hope that accompanies the endless promise of a blank slate, I have this undercurrent of terror that accompanies a blinking cursor on a blank page. 

In 2014 without really intending to, I reached a goal I didn't really think was reachable -- finishing the first draft of my novel. Given the number of people I now know who have done this over and over and over, I suppose it really wasn't all that unreachable the whole time. But given my long history of half-finished projects, well, it really did feel like a long shot.

And now that impossible task is done. More or less. Aside from rewrites and edits suggested by the kind people reading drafts right now, it's time to start looking at the next step. 

Getting it published.

I won't pretend that the whole time I was writing the thing that I was doing it solely for the joy of creation. That the art of stringing words into sentences into narrative was a high-minded artistic pursuit. 

Of course, I imagined how it would look on a bookstore shelf -- face out, of course -- with a really smart sounding title and a dramatic cover art. All wannabe novelists have these fantasies. 

And through the years of picking away at this project, I've found myself balancing on a hair when it comes to managing great expectations and tuning them out so I can barrel forward without fear and self-conscious.

As much as I want writing to be about art and connection, I sometimes find myself sinking into this ugly place of trying to prove myself to a sea of real and imagined skeptics. Feeling stuck, doubting myself, or worse, making choices about what I wrote based on how it would be perceived by others. 

On This American Life the other day Jon Ronson shared about going to his high school reunion and trying to figure out why some of his classmates had pushed him into a lake back when they were 16. Decades later he finds himself still angry about the incident and he reaches out to the people who did it to ask why, but then also reminds them that he's now a best-selling author and makes more money than they do. 

I didn't like that I identified with this feeling he had. Not so much about being bullied -- I was never bullied really -- or that I care about being wealthy or well-known, necessarily. I think more sinister than those things is wanting approval or validation from the people or entities in your life that wouldn't have the first clue that you even still cared. It kind of feels like the definition of pathetic. I'm grateful to Jon Ronson for sharing his story. Given what social, neurotic little beasts we are, I imagine we've all been there at one time or another.

I'm also grateful for Amy Poehler. I'm reading her new book, "Yes Please"* and I'm pretty sure I want to be her best friend. I'm also pretty sure she would not want to be my best friend as she's made it abundantly clear that she doesn't really like strangers and she also has lots of best friends already (friggin' Tina Fey. JK, I want to be her best friend, too). 

Anyway, where was I? Oh yes, validation. In one chapter Amy Pohler is writing about the intersection of creativity and her career and she shares this super-relevant gem:

"Ambivalence is key. You have to care about your work but not about the result. You have to care about how good you are and how good you feel, but not about how good people think you are or how good people think you look." 

And lest you think she avoids all the petty, self-absorption the rest of us suffer with, she went on to say she's not great at being ambivalent.

"Most people I know struggle with that complicated soup of feeling slighted on one hand and like a total fraud on the other. Our ego is a monster that loves to sit at the head of the table and I have learned that my ego is just as rude and loud and hungry as everyone else's. It doesn't matter how much you get; you are left wanting more.

"Success is filled with MSG."

I still kind of want some MSG.

If you'll allow me to take a slight detour into Obvioustown, admitting that I'd like to have my book published and then pursuing publication is terrifying. I'm slowly lining up my ducks as we speak (read?) to head down this road -- compiling names of potential agents, drafting query letters, making sure we have large stocks of tissue, wine and ice cream in order to survive the journey. 

I'm also steeled by a long history of rejection, which has numbed me enough to the disappointment that I can charge like the Hulk through the plate glass window of denial. 

Highlights include:

  • The time I was told I could no longer sit at a certain lunch table in seventh grade because I wasn't cool enough (to be fair, I definitely wasn't cool enough)
  • Or the other time in seventh grade when my best friend from sixth invited my sister (but not me) to her birthday party because I wasn't cool enough (I'm pretty sure this had something to do with the "Animaniacs" T-shirt I wore almost daily and the rubber frog named Newton I frequently pulled out of my pocket and had long conversations with.)
  • Being turned down for a staff position at my high school literary magazine. This, as it turns out, seems to be one of those major life events because I ended up joining the newspaper staff instead where I decided I should become a journalist instead of some weirdo, artsy kid with lots of feelings. The literary magazine later accepted a very avant-garde poem I wrote about a Kit Kat bar. 
  • Telling my prom date (in the middle of the high school cafeteria**) that he didn't have to go with me anymore when, after he surprised me with an invitation, he stopped talking to me and avoided all means of communications, indicating to me that clearly, he was no longer interested. In his defense, I was and continue to be an erratic dancer who makes questionable fashion choices -- this evidenced by the fact that at the time I owned more than one pair of corduroy overalls. Then again, he used to try to saw my arm off with a pencil in AP history class and farted on me on more than one occasion. It was probably a win-win that we didn't end up going together.
  • Being turned down for a big job opportunity that I thought I really, really wanted, but in retrospect am way better off not having gotten. And that's not sour grapes. OK, maybe a little sour grapes.
My point is, I can handle rejection. In fact, rejection is the stuff of artistic pursuit. I'm thinking of that scene from "Little Miss Sunshine" where Steve Carell tells Paul Dano that he should sleep until he's 18 because high school is prime suffering years and he'll learn more about himself through suffering than happiness. I believe that -- I am who I am today because I wasn't allowed a seat at that table in seventh grade. I know there's always room for one more.

I'm just not sure I'm ready to handle large quantities of rejection in the middle of Winter Suckfest

For now, I think I'll just embrace my blinking cursor. I have a short story I'm excited to write and another longer ... whatever ... that I want to map out and dig into. So while I'm in the waiting room, I'll revel in the tortuous bliss of filling that blank page. 

One more from Amy: 

"Creativity is connected to your passion, that light inside you that drives you. That joy that comes when you do something you live. That small voice that tells you, 'I like this. Do this again. You are good at it. Keep going.' That is the juicy stuff that lubricates our lives and helps us feel less alone in the world. Your creativity is not a bad boyfriend. It is a really warm older Hispanic lady who has a beautiful laugh and loves to hug. If you are even a little nice to her she will make you feel great and maybe cook you delicious food." 

So come on in sweet muse, mi casa es su casa.

* I could go on and on about how awesome "Yes Please" is. If you are a creative sort, a mom and/or a woman -- read it. Also, I've decided to invite Amy Poehler on my celebrity cruise. She could teach an improv class and a seminar on how to stop apologizing for your existence.

** I feel like I should round out the trifecta of awesome school cafeteria experiences. So I'll share about the time in fourth grade when I spilled a carton of chocolate milk on my pants and had to go to the nurses office for new clothes and overheard the school nurse tell my mother over the phone that even though I said I'd spilled milk on my pants, she thought I'd peed my pants. Needless to say, I didn't care too much for that nurse. 

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