Often I wake up at 4AM, with a busy, full mind—and never a busy, full mind ready to accomplish useful tasks or write brilliant sentences, but a busy, full mind that wants to obsess about worries and woes, inventing worries and woes if none are immediately available. Last night, it was rejection and the writing life.
Since I have a full week ahead where I’m able to focus completely on my writing, I had to combat busy, full mind’s downward spiral. So here’s my pep talk to myself. And please remember this was all taking place at 4AM, where tangled analogies make much more sense:
1. My busy, full mind made a suggestion: Isn’t that latest rejection a sign from the universe that I shouldn’t be writing, that it’s time to give it up?
It’s always easy to jump down this hole, looking for signs and reasons and explanations, that there’s some larger force looking out for us and that everything happens for a reason. And maybe so. I mean, really, we don’t KNOW: we construct a story in our mind to make that assumption true if we want it to be true.
As harsh as it sounds, it is actually liberating to realize that the universe does not care if I write. Does. Not. Care. Writing is my choice and therefore my responsibility. I can stop looking for signals, stop trying to interpret whether the fact that my name was misspelled on the rejection “means” something. I can write or I cannot, and I think I will. There is something pleasant about anonymity.
2. My busy, full mind thought back to the Olympics, imagining that other swimmers must be frustrated by someone like Michael Phelps, so dominantly good in the sport. It’s a sport in which the difference between gold and fourth is fractions of a second (which is shorter than the time I spent typing the word “fractions”). What if, my busy, full mind wondered, you’re just not Michael Phelps?
It took a while to get beyond that one, because it’s so tempting. I mean, not everyone is Michael Phelps or can be. The difference that separates him from the rest of the pack seems infinitesimal to a casual viewer of swimming like me, and yet whatever it is that’s different does separate him—over and over and over. On the other hand…swimming has a definite goal, to touch the same wall first. Writing has many walls (oh, ain’t that the truth!—but let’s focus on the metaphor of wall = goal). Someone writing a great mystery novel is in a different event than someone working on a memoir—and you don’t see Michael Phelps in the long-distance events.
But I decided that the major difference in the writing world is that our walls are arbitrary: no one really knows where the end of the race is, as we’re swimming through. It could be a sprint, it could be a marathon. That wall could show up in front of you at any moment, and Michael Phelps could be in a different part of the pool right then—on lap 2000 to your lap 55…but the wall shows up in front of you: You wrote a vampire book right when vampire books are taking off! You meet the editor of a small press on an airplane and she happens to love generational novels about mothers and daughters and you happen to have finished yours! Your book gets selected for the lead review in the New York Times Book Review! The wall is right there.
So, I think our walls move around and are arbitrary and maybe we’re all in the same pool, but we’re each swimming our own events. Let Micheal Phelps do his thing, while you do yours. The wall will show up…as long as you stay in the pool. Keep swimming. Tread water if you must, but stay in the pool.
3. Well, my busy, full mind asked sarcastically, then why in the hell did you get that rejection?
There are lots of reasons. We all know the possible failures: bad agent, bad match, bad writing, bad timing.
But what came to me in at 4AM is the reminder that what we have—the only thing we have—is the story we must tell, the story that is ours, the story that no one else could possibly have. Have I been telling that story?
I believe that every writer has one core story—i.e. I’m gay. My father abandoned me. I will never belong—and any time we’re not writing that core, deep story is wasted time. Obviously, a core story is very broad, so you must find the voice and the narrative and the form that will make your core story feel unique while also universal. For all its wizards and invisibility cloaks, at the core, Harry Potter is a story about a boy coping with the loss of his parents. (I’m not suggesting that J.K. Rowling’s parents died when she was a kid, but I wouldn’t be surprised if there was significant loss somewhere in her life.)
I thought about the death of the TV sitcom, that period of time recently when all the network shows seemed to be unscripted reality shows or hour long crime procedurals and TV people were freaking out. Then a few sitcoms struggled forth: “Modern Family” came to mind because it’s well-respected and watched by the general public and it’s on ABC, an old-school network. I’ve watched it from time to time, and at its core, the show is about family love—hardly an original idea; for example, “The Brady Bunch” or “The Cosby Show” were both about family love—but the writers have taken this old, core idea and found their own way to explore the push and pull of family, their own voice, narrative, and form. It’s a core story, told in a unique way.
I thought about oysters and pearls.
I thought about my own work. Which pieces were about my core story? Which weren’t? Which were published? Which weren’t?
Find your own true story, and tell the truth. All of the truth.
It’s definitely possible that I’m wrong about this core story and that I’ll feel totally differently when 4AM next rolls around. But I can’t believe that Faulkner is wrong:
…the young man or woman writing today has forgotten the problems of the human heart in conflict with itself which alone can make good writing because only that is worth writing about, worth the agony and the sweat. (from the Nobel Prize speech)
I’m SO ready for my week of writing!