The writer’s White Whale.

Don’t call me Ahab.

Remember LiveJournal? I feel like all I did on there was complain my way through middle and high school (and, I admit, college): nobody loves me, nobody cares about me, nobody filled out my seventy-question survey. What a tremendous and melancholy bore I was.

I’m trying really hard not to turn this blog into another emo-shame-spiral of posts, but sometimes being a writer sucks, and it’s just so much more fun to write about sucky things.

I got rejected twice yesterday: in the morning by an awesome job and in the evening by an awesome residency program. Nice bookends to a Tuesday, right? Since I haven’t printed them out yet to add to the pile of rejection letters that any self-respecting/masochistic writer has on her desk, I might as well include them here, in the interest of being green (and my forgetfulness and procrastination):

 
This is a note to say that we made an offer for the “social media job,” and filled it. We’ll be announcing it soon on the blog, but I wanted to give you a heads-up first, as someone who completed the questions.
 
Honestly, almost everyone who applied could have done the job, and most would probably have been excellent. The applicant pool was simply wonderful. The applicants represented many different directions we could take the company. It was hard choosing and–now that it’s done–it feels terrible to “say goodbye” to so many “possibilites” [sic] and so many great people. But we think we made a great choice–two smart and energetic people with diverse experiences. We wish we could hire you all, but two was one more than we thought we’d hire.
 
Thank you again for appling [sic] for the job, and for completing those questions so thoughtfully. One of the first tasks of our new employees is to read many of our favorite answers.
Best,
Tim

For some reason, the glaring typos soften the blow.

Thank you for submitting a Winter/Spring 2014 Fellowship Residency application to Playa. Our review panel found it difficult to select residents from among the many worthy applicants, and I must unfortunately report that you were not among those chosen for a residency at this time.

We are grateful for the time you invested in this process, and truly wish we could offer residencies to everyone that applied. Unless you advise us otherwise, your name and information will be retained so that we can send you news and updates about programs at Playa

I wish you all the best in your creative endeavors.

Sincerely,

Lisa Pounders
Residency Director at Playa

Again: that missing period at the end of Paragraph Two makes me glad I won’t be associating with such heathens this winter. It’s the little things.

Naturally, I was pretty blue by the time the second rejection rolled in around 5:00. But I didn’t beat myself up or feel like I was worthless (which is maybe how I’ve handled these in the past). Instead, all I kept thinking was: when it’s a Yes, it’s going to feel earned, and right.

Because at some point, a decision will come down to me and another person who is equally good, and who knows what minuscule criteria will separate us? And one day, those fickle margins will skew in my favor. And there’s something more than earned or right about that; it’s magical. No wonder writers put themselves through hell. The Yes is intoxicating, addicting, and worth the self-imposed hell. (Or, at least, I hope it is because I don’t really have a backup plan.)

Regarding my last few posts: I think rejection makes me a writer way more than simply “wanting it” does. Because wanting is passive; rejection is the byproduct of action, of risk. These letters aren’t in a pile on my desk to discourage me. They are proof that I tried.

The Yes is my White Whale, and I will keep flailing and failing until I finally get one.

And then I’ll start the whole thing over.

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On wanting it.

This post didn’t start out negative. I swear.

A writer friend of mine recently shared this slideshow that offers tidbits from the collection Why We Write: 20 Acclaimed Authors on How and Why They Do What They Do. In the slideshow were several pearls of wisdom, but Susan Orlean’s quote is what I’d like to address today: 

“Wanting to be a writer is a huge percentage of what makes you be one. You have to want to do it really badly. You have to feel that’s what you’re supposed to be doing.”

That’s sure easy for a published author and New Yorker staff writer to say.

I originally thought this post was going to be about how reassured I felt by Orlean’s words—how I know now that I’m really a writer, because I want it so badly. I thought I was going to talk about how we can’t base our success on how much someone pays for our work.

And then I realized: that’s bullshit. Bullshit that I keep saying, because others keep saying it. So, one poor writer to another, let’s dispense with hollow platitudes for a moment. 

Wanting it isn’t enough sometimes.

The Orlean quote reminded me of a Saturday Night Live sketch from the 2008 election season, when Hillary was officially out of the running and Palin was the VP nominee for the GOP.

Image

FEY AS PALIN: It just goes to show that anyone can be President. …All you have to do is want it.

POEHLER AS CLINTON: (LAUGHS) Yeah, you know, Sarah, looking back, if I could change one thing, I should have wanted it more.

The idea that “all you have to do is want to be a writer and you are one” falls in the same category as “anyone can succeed in America” and “you’re guaranteed a job with a college degree.” They are delusions that people with money keep perpetuating, to the continued frustration of hardworking have-nots: are we not trying hard enough? Do we not want it bad enough?

I know Orlean isn’t saying that “if you want it enough, you’ll be a successful writer and make a boatload of cash.” She’s saying, “if you want it, you already are a writer.” But this means next to nothing in the land of capitalism, household bills, and student loans.

There was a time when writers could make a living for themselves on their talents alone; they didn’t live like royalty, but they got by. But this age of freelancing and adjuncting and the ever-shrinking list of periodicals that publish and pay for original work, especially from emerging writers without a platform, makes that whole “I write for a living” thing seem pretty impossible. Very few places are able (read: willing) to pay writers a living wage, leaving us to piece together a full-time, zero-benefits schedule between community colleges and jobs off Craigslist. And who has the desire to do anything but sleep at the end of that kind of day?

I’m not going to feed you a line of bull that this life is easy or that it even feels worth the trouble every day. Sure, it’s important to believe in yourself. And, yes, even without any viable prospect for a life in which my writing pays for itself, I will continue to write and continue to try. But the longer we deny that money  matters, that being well compensated for our work is as important as the act of creating it is, I don’t see the landscape changing in our favor.

…And in honor of the Ladies of SNL theme: This post was brought to you by Debbie Downer. Womp womp.

debbie

Long time, no post.

It appears I haven’t blogged in months; I’ve funneled all of my writing into a huge paper for my MFA. But since I’m feeling all sorts of weird today, I decided it was a good time to get back into it. Apologies now for what will, most likely, be a very disjointed, total bummer of a post.

I feel restless today: a feeling that’s become commonplace since starting my MFA. Before, I was content with my job. It paid the bills and let me exercise my French. Hell, it got me out of bed five times a week while I slogged through the grief of losing my father. I’m grateful for that. But now that I’ve rediscovered my vocation in life, the waiting is wearing me down.

There’s nowhere to go and nothing to do in this moment. I need this job for the vacation time, or I can’t finish my degree. Even if I could leave, what would I do? I think I’ve been a starving artist in all of my past lives; it seems carved in my bones that I should only be drawn to endeavors that make me zero or negative dollars. Why can’t I have a passion for screwing people out of their money? Or cutting people open and sewing them back up? Why is my fire lit by solitary work that has no value in this culture unless it’s bastardized into Hollywood drivel?

I have no good answer. I guess no writer does. Maybe that’s why so many of us stick our heads in ovens or wade into a river with stones in our pockets. I don’t think what I want is difficult or complicated; I just want to live, doing what I love. I guess a lot of people live their whole lives without being that lucky. Here’s hoping I’m not one of them.

Good news all around.

If you couldn’t tell from my last post, yesterday was rough. I still feel somewhat trapped and stifled today–it’s an ongoing condition–but some encouragement came last night and this morning that reminded me why I’m here.

My faculty mentor sent me feedback on my third packet by e-mail last night. I had known when I sent the stuff that it hadn’t been my best work; a lot of it was a very rough first draft that I didn’t have time to re-work or infuse with the real nature of the characters. There were, however, sections that were difficult for me to write, given the sheer emotion behind the scenes, and she apparently thinks I did a good job at capturing this:

“Once again, you’ve proven that you have an uncanny ability to utilize concrete details to evoke complex feelings. My eyes were brimming with tears reading this whole last scene. “

Sure, there were sections that she believed needed work, and I agree. But knowing that I do have the ability to reach someone–not just someone: a published author–with my words was enough to make my night. She also liked my essay on Anna Karenina…though it wasn’t the kind of essay she was looking for. Whoops!

This morning, I opened my GMail to find a message from the woman who supervises the writing class I run at my town’s library. Yesterday, I’d asked her if the library was hiring, in my perpetual efforts to put my name out there. They aren’t, but she did say:

“I will happily write you a terrific letter of recommendation:  I’m very impressed with your classes, your organization and how well you work with the group!”

So, that was nice to hear. Both of these instances reminded me that there is a pretty big reason I have to stay in this job: I do have talent, in writing and teaching, and I have to pay my dues before I can do what I love. So, for now, paying to write and teaching for free is how it has to be. And maybe that’ll bother me tomorrow, or next week, or next month. But right now, I’m grateful for this job and what it’s given me the chance to do.

On procrastination.

Yesterday after work, I had a lot to do. And none of it got done. This loss of eight hours’ work time has put me in the all-too-familiar position of needing a miracle or an all-nighter, or both, to save my ass.

I’d love to blame this on work. Sure, it’s hard to come home after staring at a screen all day and sit down in front of another screen. It’s difficult to generate creative prose or thoughtful literary analysis after your day job as a drone. But most writers have day jobs and manage to crank out story after story. I only have myself to blame.

I’ve always been a procrastinator. A big one. In college I had to research and write my final exam–a ten-page paper, en français–in one night after having months to do the work. In high school, same thing.  When I would finish, it was always good work, but it wasn’t my best; how could it be? I’d wonder what I could have achieved if I’d worked on it every day, like everyone else in the class, but that possibility for greatness (or, at least, better-ness),  never held my attention long enough to impact future work.

Procrastination, for me, has become  a full-time job and a very real means of self-harm. While others drain a bottle of whiskey or stick a needle in their arm to escape real-world responsibility and consequences, I sprawl on the couch and watch hours of sitcom re-runs, all the while gripped by this growing panic that I do everything in my power to avoid facing. The longer I put it all off, the more the panic takes over. Eventually, it paralyzes me.

That’s what happened last night. I sat down to write a ten-page paper and realized it terrified me. I’m great at literary analysis; why was I so scared? Because after that paper, there was another paper, and my fiction, all due this week. I was suddenly tired from the blur of thoughts and panic and decided to lie down for a bit. Next thing I know, it’s 11:30 PM and time to go to bed, for real.

I have this vision of a Highly Effective Me in my head that gets me through the day. This version of me gets home, gets the house in order, makes dinner, and does her writing straight away. Beside that is this terrible fear that I will let this version of myself down, so I never even try…until I have no choice. And this is where I find myself today: the land of sudden death, my second home.

Surviving the MFA

My  MFA program is working on a book to help grads of similar programs cope with life after graduation. I think it’s a stellar idea. Now, we just need to come up with a book to help survive the MFA program in the first place.

Then again, it’s not the MFA that’s making me rip out my hair; no, it’s my 40-hour-a-week day job. I’d love to know how others cope with the day-to-day feeling of “yes, this pays the bills, but it’s doing nothing for the creative process.” At the end of the day, I find it hard to even think about writing anything. My work is so left-brained that tapping into my imagination is a chore. 

A big part of my process, as I’ve learned while in this program, is letting the ideas marinate for a while in my head. I usually do the first few drafts mentally before sitting down to write. But with a full-time job occupying brain space every day from 7-4, this doesn’t happen. By the time my brain recharges from the day, it’s time for bed, and I end up tossing and turning for hours while my real work figures itself out.

There’s nothing to be done, of course. Even a book on the subject of balancing the MFA and a full-time job couldn’t help me. I need this job for lots of reasons, the main one being that it pays well and gives me the time off needed for school. And with nothing else on the horizon that would offer me a greater amount of brain space, I know I’ll be here for the remainder of the program. Unless I win the lottery. So, there’s always that completely reasonable hope.

Whores wanted!

A few weeks ago, I wrote what was arguably my greatest and most accurate Facebook status ever:

 
This revelation came from weeks of checking Craigslist every day for random writing gigs, in the futile attempt to find a winning combination that would allow me to quit my current job and throw myself into what I really love. Once in a while, I’d find something I could see myself doing, only to scroll down to the Compensation section to see: “no pay.” Then I’d weigh out in my head if my time was worth the experience it would give me, much like I imagine a prostitute weighs the pros and cons before getting into a john’s car. Oh, wait. Except prostitutes get paid. Whores do it for free.
 
But it’s Craigslist, I reminded myself. Craigslist is shady; I shouldn’t even be considering ghostwriting someone’s shitty memoir for free, but I am, because there’s nothing else. If only I had another place to look for writing jobs, a place that values writing and writers as indispensable members of society. 
So I started checking AWP and Poets & Writers: two sites that are routinely referenced as great resources during my twice-yearly writing residencies. These sites regularly post writing-related jobs from across the country. What did I find? More of the same.

Internship (Unpaid)
Unpaid
Unpaid
Unpaid

With a wider lens, a pattern emerged before me: what writers do isn’t worth paying for. We’re expected to work 40-60 hours per week, offering up our creative process and product, for nothing. And be grateful for the work. But how are we supposed to clothe and feed ourselves, get around or have a place to sleep? Apparently, these are just annoying and impolite questions that a whore doesn’t deserve to ask.

This got me thinking about the music business: more specifically, about the musicians who are pissed about their songs being pirated online. How much of our shit do we writers give away for nothing, in the name of experience or recognition? Who decided that their art was worth millions, or billions of dollars, while I sit in front of my computer trying to piece together 10 different freelance jobs to make ends meet, lowering your standards and rate of pay to steal the job away from another struggling writer? If that doesn’t make you feel like a whore, I don’t know what would. And, just like in the world of prostitution, there’s always a whore who will do it for less, or even for free in exchange for college credit.

In the end, all I can say is this: your work is worth paying for. Respect it and cherish it. Stop giving it away for free, because you’re fucking it up for everyone else.