Every Friday, the Hendersons go to Chinese school. Some of my homework:
Mandarin is something I really suck at and I’m not afraid to admit it. It doesn’t hurt my feelings to know I will probably suck at it forever. Same with taking pictures. They’re always blurry because when I press the button, I inevitably jar the whole camera. I suck. Oh well.
The books I write are another matter entirely. The slightest sense of failure in my writing absolutely devastates me.
This week struck me hard. I was very moved by your responses to the Question of the Week and the pain so many of you expressed that comes from being a writer or artist (rejection, self-doubt, and perhaps that pain that drove us to be artists in the first place). I am so very moved by Tommy Kane, not just his interview answers, but the whole person and the art he creates. And this week, also, was a week of unexpected deaths. If you follow Neil Gaiman’s blog, you can’t help but feel the shock of grief. And my friend, the writer Girija Tropp, who won this year’s $10,000 Josephine Ulrick Literature Prize, came to New York (her first time in this country) as a celebration of sorts – a splurge to see what’s next for her career. And while traveling, her mother passed away, and it’s become a different journey altogether. She’s staying the weekend with me, by the way.
Behind every painting and manuscript and song is a person. I think that’s what I want to talk about today. Art is not a product; it’s a relationship the artist is offering you. I think one reason why artists bond so fiercely with each other is because connecting with both an artist and their art calls for immeasurable intimacy, vulnerability, and risk. And I think that’s why rejection in this business…an editor with a dismissive “I think I’ll pass on this”…can be so very debilitating.
Maybe, for me anyway, self-doubt is a survival instinct. I want so badly to protect myself from rejection that I attack my work before I even think to send it out.
A year ago, maybe two now, I had a really lovely lunch with an editor at a big time publishing house who loved my novel and recited lines from it over and over without looking at a cheat sheet. I felt like a rock star. She was already seeing sequels and asked me to indulge her by writing an extra chapter featuring her favorite character.
Time went by, she couldn’t push the book through the committee, and that was the end of our contact. Whatever had made her run across town in her pajamas to print out the second half of my book was not enough to seal a thing. And in the end, you’re just there with your rejection slip and no book. Just like before. Wondering why you keep writing.
After that, I wrote a second book, a memoir, but was afraid to show it to my agent. I still liked it and wasn’t ready to be crushed. So I blogged about it instead. An editor at an absolutely huge magazine contacted me that day and asked me to email her the entire manuscript. She called me the next day saying she just finished it and loved it, especially the ending scene where Mr. Henderson is peeing and eating an ice cream cone at the same time. “We’d like to excerpt it! I want to blurb it! Who’s publishing the book?” “Well, nobody is.”
Now, with two books on my hard drive, I contemplate starting a third and just can’t do it. Why? Because it feels stupid. Because each person knows how much rejection they can take, and I’ve reached my limit.
Instead, I decided to put up a little corner for writers and artists that didn’t suck the life out of them. That would be LitPark. I get notes sometimes from people saying they think I’m nice, and I appreciate those notes, but to be honest, LitPark is my f-you to the publishing business. It’s my way of saying, “Enough already! There’s more of us than you so treat us with some respect, damn it!” I write here and there, but I stay where the love is.
Thank you to those of you who responded this week: Mikel K, who had an epiphany one drunken night when he was throwing crumpled beer cans at a lead singer, and that epiphany: he is a writer despite what others say, and his feelings about his talent swing from great doubt to cockiness; Julie, who wonders, when she tinkers with her work-in-progress and cuts even the passages she loves, if it will ever be right; Frank, who knows one negative comment can override all the good, but sometimes the resulting anger gets him to forge ahead; Kasper, who’s learned that art will be judged in completely subjective and unpredictable ways, so he tries to make art that’s significant to himself; Greg, who will believe the criticism over his own opinions and talks about how he judges himself by how much gets published; PD, who believes self-doubt sharpens his work; Sarah, who doesn’t mind a little self-doubt but can be paralyzed by outside criticism; Grant, who seconds the idea that self-doubt alternates between moments he’s sure he is brilliant; Gail, who thirds that idea (I’ll go ahead and fourth it here) and assures Greg that publication only alleviates doubt for a second; Lori, who believes anything is possible when she has supportive friends; Jordan, who she doesn’t doubt her abilities so much as she doubts she’ll ever break into the impossible world of publishing; Ric, who says it can be crippling to go long periods without positive feedback, but that’s where coffee and cigarettes step in; Joe, who says the stories themselves seem to get lonely when there’s no audience, and who uses the unforgettable phrase “horsey of hope” when he reveals his fear is that he’s destined for mediocrity; Dennis, who describes the self-doubt when he reads someone who blows him away but bets that even his idols have these same voices in their heads; Amy, who talks about doubt born from the disconnect between her instincts about a piece and the way it’s perceived by others; Myfanwy, who says doubt fires her up to prove herself wrong; Lauren who seesaws between elation and doubt even on publication day (Congratulations on VERTIGO‘s release this week!); Betsy, who likes Myf’s reminder of what’s really important: health, family, friends; Patry, who has become impervious to rejection because a rejected story at one magazine may win a prize at another; Thea, who says self-doubt creeps in like a cockroach in the dark, so she keeps the light on; Kathy, whose second-guessing can get such a hold of her that she over-edits; and Lance, who I continue to call my twin because his answers are always the same as mine, and that is, he skips right over self-doubt and goes straight to self-loathing. Thanks for being candid and for being here for each other. And thank you to Tommy, who is beautiful, inside and out.
Tommorow, see through the eyes of a New York photographer . . .
Have a good weekend! (Steelers have a bye week, thank God.)