On Being Unable to Celebrate: “Good Enough” Really is “Good Enough”

It’s been a flat-out wonderful month with some really big wins.  Really, I couldn’t have asked for nicer outcomes writing-wise than if I had spent hours polishing a magic lantern.  And, I’ve responded to all this excitement by feeling …

desolate

…nervous.  Hypervigilant.  Like I’m forgetting something.  I’m overly weepy and having multiple panic attacks in quick succession.  Every deadline has been met, and yet, I keep looking at my completely crossed out to do list, staring at my empty calendar, and checking my email every five minutes.  “Why am I so nervous?”  I keep asking.  “Shouldn’t I be happy?  I SHOULD be happy.”

A friend of mine works as a therapist, and she assures me this isn’t nearly as backward as it sounds.  “Eustress,” she tells me, “is positive stress.  But while your mind knows the difference, your body does not.”  All my body knows, she says, is that my heart is beating fast, there’s been an influx of adrenaline, and my breathing has sped up.  So, whether you’re falling in love or going through a divorce, whether you’ve gotten an acceptance letter or a brutal rejection, your body just knows one thing:  it’s stressed– truly STRESSED.  I can’t seem to sleep, food tastes like cardboard (not that it stops me from stress eating), and my nerves are on high alert.

While eustress may be a physical reaction I have little control over, there does seem to be an element I do have control over.  It’s a certain pattern of thinking I’ve had since I was six years old that I call it the “the cycle.” Here’s how “the cycle” works:   As soon as I achieve something, I immediately dismiss the achievement and raise the bar.  For example, I said I’d call myself a real writer when I got published.  Immediately after getting published, I decided it didn’t count because it had low circulation.  Then I decided I would be a real writer when I got paid to write.  I got my check but it still didn’t feel “real.”  And this cycle hasn’t ended since I began scribbling.  This is actually a very condensed list of how I seem to be unable to celebrate victories, or worse, how each victory has actually caused me to dismiss what I’ve already done and raise the bar on the expectations for myself.  “The cycle” is the route I’m  on but, perfectionism drives “the cycle.”

I’ve heard people describe someone who claims to be a perfectionist as just giving themselves some sort of back handed compliment.  I suppose this is the type of person who might tell a schizophrenic, So what?  I hear a voice in my head too.  Fear of not being good enough has often kept me from even putting my work out there in the first place.  Perfectionism is not believing yourself to be perfect.  On the contrary, it means any mistake, any perceivable imperfection will render all your efforts nil.  It’s a deep belief that you stand out from the rest of the world not because you’re special, but because you’re running the race with a handicap just by being you.  As personality traits go, it’s quite hindering.

Being a perfectionist, even a recovered/recovering one like me, means that you get to enjoy a few minutes out of every year before being launched back into a black hole of criticism, dread, and unreasonable expectations.  I think I enjoyed about two minutes of this, by anyone’s standards, eventful and happy month before “the fear” sat in.  Even if you do manage to achieve something, even if all the fear and anxiety finally “pay off,” you reward yourself with a much more complex goal.  I fear that even if my wildest, most impossible dreams came true, this cycle of immediately dismissing my victory and raising the bar would end with me saying, “I won’t be a real writer until …” whatever the literary equivalent of an EGOT is (although I’ve yet to come up with a snappy acronym for the Nobel Prize, Man Booker Prize, and Faulkner Award.  Not enough vowels).

“Good enough really is good enough.”  I must say this out loud at least once a day.  Whether I’m hitting send on an email, before I mail off a story, or when I’m second guessing that text I just sent you, I tell myself, “Good enough really is good enough.”  I have no control over how my body reacts to eustress.  But I do try to combat “the cycle” the only way I can.  By reminding myself that I am no different than anyone else.  I don’t have to ace everything because of some sort of genetic defect.  Sometimes, just ticking off the boxes is good enough.

Now, if anyone can tell me how to actually believe the words that come out of my mouth, please let me know.

On Non-Writers Who Want to Write and Haven’t Even Done a Preliminary Google Search, Or Written Anything, or Read Anything

after-reading

 

I guess you’ve truly arrived as a writer when people barrage you after a reading with their book ideas.  Don’t get me wrong.  I’m so flattered I don’t even know where to start.  Obviously, you think I know some secret to writing, some insider information that you don’t have access to.  Today, I am going to tell you everything I know about writing and, I promise, I will hold nothing back.

Before you begin it’s important to know:

There’s JK Rowling, and then, there’s the rest of us.  JK Rowling has pulled off the impossible.  She has touched millions of children AND adults all around the world.  As a result, she will spend her whole life writing and… doing whatever the heck she wants.  She is a writer by trade and nothing more.  There’s only one JK Rowling though, and I’m not her.

Ok, there’s Stephen King.  Stephen King can write and do nothing else but that’s it!!!  Stephen King, JK Rowling, and then there’s the rest of us poor saps. The reality is, even award winning authors have a second job whether it’s through freelance journalism, advertising, marketing, copywriting, or teaching. Nobody busts out the pages like Joyce Carol Oates, and she is well-decorated and well-respected.  Yet, she’s always had a second job teaching and writing for magazines.  This is a “hobby” for all of us who are not independently wealthy.  We do it because we are passionate.  Because we love it.  Because there is nothing else we’d rather do.  You will not earn a living through this.  You will always be swimming upstream.  But take heart!  That, by no means, is an indication you are not a writer.  In fact, not earning money at it is freeing!  You only have to be true to yourself.  And you will not be a writer when the money finally rolls in. You’ll be a writer whenever the heck you decide to sit down and get to work.  And isn’t that a nice feeling?

That being said, here are the questions and comments I get on a semi-regular basis.

“I have this great idea but I don’t know where to start.  I don’t want to tell you this great idea because I’m afraid someone will steal it and make a million dollars.” 

I need you to understand this one indisputable truth about writing.  Ideas are nothing, execution is everything.  Don’t believe me?  Consider this.  There are thousands of shark movies but there is only one Jaws. And Jaws wasn’t even the first killer shark movie!  The first was “Blue Water, White Death” made in 1971, four years before Jaws came out. This same “killer shark” movie has been made and remade over and over before Jaws and for years after. This is why no one could (or did) steal Jaws:  Because Stephen Spielberg is a master storyteller.  The reason Jaws wowed audiences is because dorky, dorky, Stephen Spielberg spent hours and hours watching and rewatching Universal “monster” movies.  He saw how James Whale used music in Frankenstein, he watched Bela Legosi’s tremendously hypnotic performance.  He didn’t study sharks, he studied the craft of visual storytelling.  The shark is nothing.  The killer shark idea is a dime a dozen.  Jaws is everything. So, what Universal monster movies do you watch over and over so you can make Jaws?  

The question I always ask next is, what the would-be writer reads.  Who are your favorite authors?  Most of the time, this is where the conversation ends because most people haven’t read since high school.   There are usually a hundred reasons for this.  “I don’t have time to read…  Nobody writes like me…  I don’t want to be influenced by other writers…  I don’t like books.  Most authors write crap.”   

Well, we have a problem then.  First off, there are a million good writers out there you haven’t even met yet.  Ask yourself this, if you can’t be bothered to read their work, what makes you think anyone would bother to read yours?  Believe me, I get it, there’s so much crap out there and, truly, how busy are we?  Everyone I know is hustling more than two jobs in addition to whatever responsibilities they have at home. But do yourself a favor, on your day off, get a giant latte the size of your forearm and go to your local bookstore (or library).  Start yanking down every title that remotely catches your eye.  If you aren’t hooked by the first three pages, put it back (carefully where you found it), and get another.  Do not leave the store until you’ve found something that’s got your attention.  Something that’s made you smile, or sad or just caught your interest.  Write down that author’s name.  Read who they read.  I adore the poet Ada Limon, so I read everything by her mentor Marie Howe.  Then I moved on to Howe’s mentor, Stanley Kunitz.  Keep following the trail that tells you how that writer became that writer.  Keep reading until you know what you like and don’t like, and can say it out loud.  When the pros are asked how to become a writer, every single author says “read, read, read;” but, I think there are people who just don’t believe it.    There’s no way around this.  You can’t study craft if you don’t know what craft is.  So find out who’s good at the type of craft you like.

Still with me?  Good!  Maybe you are one of us!  Welcome to the club!  And it’s a wonderful club full of interesting people.  And the best part is, we are all in the same boat.  The best writers I’ve ever met face to face, from Margaret Atwood, to Maya Angelou, to T. Geronimo Johnson (who conducted the best workshop I ever attended) have immediately embraced me as a peer even though they put lightning on the page and I plow stiff rows.  This is because this “second job club,” this club founded on dorkiness and raw passion is something they understand and recognize immediately.   If you meet a stuck up author, remember I said this and shake them off.  It probably has to do with their own social awkwardness and has nothing to do with you. The best, the heavy hitters, do it because they adore it and if you love it too, they will be kind to you.  So, welcome.  Glad to have you aboard.

But, sadly, I’ve never gotten this far in the “I want to be a writer” conversation, not after I’ve read my own work anyways.  What I’d love to talk about is how many pages you’ve got, what you feel the hang-up is, your ups and downs.  I live for these conversations with other writers.  When they happen, they give me life.  But, outside of my residency in my MFA program, I don’t usually have these conversations and here’s the reason why I think this is:

Everything I’ve said here would be evident if you’d done even a cursory Google search about how to be a writer.  Or “How do writers become writers?”  And it scares me if you haven’t done a preliminary Google search.  Or if you don’t have any pages yet.  Or if you don’t read and have no plans to.

This is what scares me if you haven’t read the masters in your genre, or when I direct you to resources, you don’t write them down.  Instead, you keep looking at me, as though there’s some secret I still haven’t told you: The reason I’m scared of people who want to write but have no pages may be the secret to writing; it may be the one thing you don’t have that I do.   That’s self-discipline.  No.  That’s not it.  Not really.  It’s the ability to work independently.  The ability to work even though no one is saying, “Good Job.”  The ability to keep working even though you don’t know if you’re on the right track or not. Most of our jobs rely on top down authority and believe me, I know how hard it is to get out of this mindset.  There’s no longer any top down authority with writing;  the old editor/writer/agent relationships seem to be a thing of the past.  In this modern, digital age, you have to fight for your right to write.  You have to turn off the TV.  Believe me, I LOVE TV.  But I have to turn it off to write.  You have to carve out time.  You have to sometimes turn down fun with friends at the last minute because you’re on a roll and don’t want to break your concentration.  You have to finish story after story, poem after poem, knowing most of them will never be read.  And if you can’t do that, if you haven’t done that yet, I’m worried that being a writer may not be your thing.  Because the ability to work independently is the one thing, the one super-secret writing trick, that’s really worked for me.     

On Being “Too Cute” While Trying to Be “Great”

TooCuteThis Saturday, I was thrilled to do a two poem set at our local poetry night.  One, because I have made my first focused commitment as a writer, to dedicate an entire chapbook to the life, friendship and loss of my best friend Katy Koch to complications from congenital heart disease.  My first long-term writing commitment, and my first ‘big project’ as a writer, I couldn’t wait to share the news with my community.

Two, I was excited because I was reading two poems about two people I adore– my late best friend Katy and my writing partner-in-crime Genevra MacPhail.  When I got there, I felt relieved.  The thing about being around other writers is the comfort you feel while in a room with a group of people who what you go through– the bursts of inspiration, the creative droughts, the never ending drag that is the revision process.  Then there’s the social isolation, the uncertainty, the insecurity, and most of all, the extremely hard work of creating time to write in a culture that expects you to treat your work like a hobby.  In light of all this, every poem, every line, every edit feels like a miracle that I can’t wait to share.

So, after I read my two poems last night, I was hopeful when an older poet crooked two fingers, beckoning me over.  Maybe he was going to say something about my set!  Maybe he was going to give me advice about my longer work?  I leaned in close so he could whisper because another poet was at the mic performing. My hands were on my knees, my ear inches away from his face, and he said:

“You’re too cute for your own good.”

Too cute? Not only did the comment have nothing to do with my work, he couldn’t even be bothered to remove himself from his seat to tell me.  Instead, he summoned me over, like a waiter, not to tell me I’m talented, not to wish me luck on my upcoming book, not even to say a generic “good job,” but to tell me I was “too cute.”  It felt dismissive.  It felt condescending.  I felt like he thought I was a joke. I could be taking this whole ten second exchange too seriously. It’s possible.  But, here’s something else I take seriously, and I do mean way too seriously:  my work.

I don’t stand up and read out of my hand-written journal (see Caveat 1).  I agonize over line breaks.   I look at the alliteration, “where stitch meets surgeon’s slice.”  Is it too on the nose?  It sounds right.  It feels right.  But, is it indulgent?  I’ve struck out and replaced a word sixteen times in one location before.  Then I look at the entire work.  Is it too heavy handed?  Too light—too sentimental and fluffy?  Conjunctions, pronouns, modifiers–are they all clear? Are they even necessary?  Real estate in poetry is precious.  Am I making the best use of it?  The two poems I performed last night were on their third and fourth stage of revision.  I asked for feedback from fellow writers twice on both poems and revised accordingly.

Then, there is honoring the subject matter. Did I walk my reader or listener through the experience I’m trying to convey?  Will they understand the burden my best friend Katy bore?  The burden of being a congenitally “sick” person in an able-bodied world?  Ironically, the poem I read was about an entitled male coming across Katy’s many surgical scars.  How the able-bodied expect those who have come close to death to understand the mysteries of life, what a heavy weight that was on the shoulders of my friend who, at 19, just wanted to belong, just wanted to be loved, just wanted to feel normal.  Have I made it clear?  Have I “shown” instead of “told” that when my friend Genevra was reciting a beautiful old poem filled with gloom, doom, and apocalyptic views of the future, I realized this wise friend of mine was going to be a mother?  Did my readers get that this remarkable woman bringing a child into the world filled me with hope and optimism about the future in general?  Did I do that through imagery instead of analysis?  Will the reader or listener experience that same joy I did in that moment?

Most important, when I write poems about people I know, I want the reader, need the listener, to understand that these people are remarkable.  I have bowed my head and thanked G-d for putting them in my life.  These two poems, to my best friend Katy and my dear friend Genevra are my monuments to them.  Every time I write a poem about a real person, I’m filled with a crushing fear that when I read those poems out loud, I will inadvertently stumble, and knock over the monument I was building.

When I’m waiting to read, my revised papers bounce on restless knees. I try to strike a balance.  I want to hear what everyone else has to say.  After all, I came to be inspired and to enjoy myself.  I came with the same amount of desire to hear as to be heard. But I also worry about my own pending reading, something that doesn’t come naturally to me.  I have to remind myself to pay attention. Half a second for line breaks.  A full second for periods.  Where exactly should I breathe?  Where should I power though to create a sense of urgency?  And despite all of this preparation, every single time my name is called, I stand with nervous energy. I feel awkward, like I don’t really belong.  My voice shakes when I read.  It goes much better than when I don’t prepare at all. But, I never walk back to my seat feeling “awesome” about my set.

In short, for every three minutes set I do, there’s been a lot of preparation.  A lot of second guessing.  In light of that, a comment about, my looks? My mannerisms?  Whatever being “too cute for my own good means,” it doesn’t mean my writing was good.  It’s something I have no control over. And so, it didn’t feel like a compliment.  It felt devastating.

I’m sure if I approached the man who said this to me, he would be confused and defensive, ‘I mean, what the hell?  It was supposed to be a compliment. Don’t worry, I’ll never compliment you on anything again.’  Fair enough.  And in another setting, sure what he said might have felt like a compliment.  But I didn’t enter a beauty contest last night.  We weren’t at a bar flirting for twenty minutes or any other situation that said I might be interested in his thoughts about my attractiveness.  I prepared for a poetry reading.  And, though I’m sure I should be thrilled this man thought I nailed Miss Congeniality, I was hoping to be the best writer I could possibly be.

Like all writers I know, what I want to be is a great writer.  I know I’m not there yet; but, dammit, I’m trying.  I’m putting in the hours.  So, instead of the compliment he intended, when he said, “You’re too cute for your own good.” I felt punched in the guts, deflated, even a bit sick.

I wanted to respond to his comment by being petty–to roll my eyes and walk away.  Instead, I told him “Thanks,” because that’s how I was taught to respond when people are trying to compliment me (even if they do so poorly).  I also told him that I really enjoyed his reading–because, it was true.  He did give a good reading.  In fact, I found his delivery, his air of authority, quite enviable.

No matter how much I can’t stand a person as a human being, I can’t dismiss his or her work outright.  I mean, for goodness sakes, Bill Cosby and Woody Allen may be rapists, but I won’t say they are talentless because it simply isn’t true.  To deny their talent, their vision at the height of their popularity, or their lasting influence would take a lot of cognitive dissonance.  Being a good writer or performer doesn’t mean you will be a good human being.  And you can still be good at your job and be a rotten person (see Caveat 2). I think most of us can agree on that (see Caveat 3).

That being said, while we may be able to separate abhorrent, even criminal behavior from a person’s body of work, I fear that my audience will never be able to peel apart my looks and personal charisma from my work.  And, I think, this is why the man who said I was, “…too cute,” probably felt the need to say this to me–why he thought I would appreciate the words.  I will always be a female writer, not just a writer (one of the many wonders of being female).  My “likeability” will always come into play, which can mean any combination of things— attractiveness, stylishness, pleasing mannerisms, and if I don’t have any of those things, I’d better be a damned good sport. It shouldn’t be the case.  But, sometimes, I fear it’s a truth that is never going to change. For female writers, likability is a huge issue.

I remember an author, one who I look up to very much, explaining success in the literary world.  She said, “Of course it helps if you’re young, you’re cute and you have a story.”  Guess I nailed the cute part—though, I can’t say it makes me feel like a better writer.  Not even a little bit.

Caveats

  1. Although, I realize many like to read their work when it’s raw, fresh and emotive, and watch their audience’s reaction as a form of feedback, that is just not who I am as a writer. I have zero intention of making my audience sit through my “rehearsal.”  Though, I enjoy hearing a fresh, bleeding work from time to time, I don’t do it myself.
  1. I am aware in certain jobs, ethics are central to good work performance —nursing, police work, and, say, working around large sums of money, for example. But, writing (as long as you aren’t teaching) isn’t one of them.
  1. I’m meeting more and more young people who disagree with that statement. Although their arguments are passionate and full of a lot of sound points, I’ve yet to be fully swayed. I think bad behavior, even criminal behavior and job performance can be peeled apart.