Oh, fellow writers. So, while I work on the revision of what will be my fourth published novel (my sixth written novel, and none of this is counting any of the work-for-hire novels I’ve ghostwritten), I look up and keep seeing this ugly face in the mirror.
I thought, by now, now I’m writing book #4, surely, surely I’d have vanquished it by now. But no.
The funny, though not really ha-ha, thing I’ve learned as my career as an author moves on is that the doubts don’t go away. In fact, I could swear that they are all the more heavy on my shoulders and heavy-breathing in my ear than they ever were when I was first starting out, and surely before I published.
Before I published, I had no idea what would happen in the “real world” once my books hit the shelves. (If they even did.) If I got so lucky, would my books be despised, lauded, ignored, used as a stepstool to climb up and get a better book? All of the above, it turns out, but when you are in that place in your career when you don’t yet know, when the road before you is hazy and fogged up and could lead anywhere at all… Well, anything could happen.
I felt oddly positive back then. I had doubts, sure, but I also had so much blind hope. So many dreams. So much possibility.
Now here I stand with the third book—17 & Gone—out last spring and due to come out in paperback this March, and my fourth book—The Walls Around Us—getting closer and closer to what I want it to be as I work through this revision. And while I do look at my pages and realize I’ve learned so much and have gotten better as a writer, I find myself doubting so much more often than I did before my first book—Dani Noir—and then my first true book of my heart—Imaginary Girls—came out. The doubts are now something I war with every single morning as I sit down to write.
I look ahead now and I see the road. I see all the turns in the road. All the potholes. All the steep hills and the far drops. I don’t want to drive that road.
In truth, as we all know, I can’t really see ahead to the road (none of us can see the future to what will happen when our books come out, it’s always a mystery), but because I’ve been on the road a few times by now, I think I know what to expect and it’s coloring everything I’ve yet to experience.
It’s damning. I wish I could pluck some of my old innocence back and just write away, lalala. And yet, I’ve also learned so much from my previous experience and I want to build on that and grow.
The truth is, you only get one (possibly two, as I did in a way, because not too many people knew about Dani Noir, and it was middle-grade) chances at a debut.
I tell myself that, in a way, each new book is a new shot and a new chance at being the best you can be… But I also know that, in a way, each new book after the first one is jumbled up with what happened before. You can’t truly separate yourself, even if you change your name. (Sometimes I wonder about that.) Readers remember. Publishers remember. Bookstores remember. And you remember.
I think all of that has only made me doubt MORE. How is it possible to have learned so much, to have gained confidence as a writer and at the same time lost it and question everything?
I’m beginning to see that this is just a natural part of the publishing process for some of us. It’s a piece of this job. So now the job grows to include ways of getting past this.
So each morning when I sit down at the café table to write, I have to make the daily effort to sweep the doubts away. I don’t look in the mirror at the monster. I avoid picturing the road ahead. I try very, very hard to think nothing about the after.
I have to think only of the here-and-now, which is all any of us can control anyway. The here-and-now of writing this draft at this café table this morning.
My ways to cure creeping doubt include:
Fellow writers, those of you who share my affliction, help me out here: What cures your writing doubts and how do you face down your doubt monster?
Writing this novel reminds me of being driven through the Lincoln Tunnel when I was a kid in my parents’ van, when they’d commute to work in the city. All that traffic just to get to it, but once we were in the tunnel it got worse. Would we ever reach the end? Why aren’t we moving? Why all this traffic? What if the tunnel collapses on us? Isn’t the tunnel underwater? Someone said we’re underwater. What if it floods? What if the river crashes in? What if we never get out? Will we die down here? Ugh, the exhaust smell is leaking in. What is that bus ahead of us doing, why isn’t it moving? Is the end of the tunnel around that next bend? No. The next bend? No. The next? The next? The next?
Only when I gave up hoping for it did I see the light at the end of the tunnel and we’d drive out. Then of course we hit more traffic in Midtown, but at least we were out of that goddamn tunnel and I could breathe.
I can’t wait to finish this first draft.
― Carol Shields
2012 was the year I didn’t technically reach my goals, for life or for writing, but I’m not worried—I can carry a few of them over to 2013.
2012 was the year I finished my second YA novel, 17 & Gone, which comes out in 2013.
2012 was the year I went away to write at two colonies: one in the mountains of northern California and one in upstate New York. It’s the year I went to Wyoming to learn about outer space. It’s the year I fell in love, even more, with my home here in lower Manhattan, especially in those dark days after the hurricane when it was E and me on our own, facing it together.
2012 was the year I was really sinfully awful about answering emails. Ugh, I’m sorry about that.
In 2012, I wrote more pages that I threw away than pages that I kept. So it goes, some years.
I must say, I had full intentions to write a beautifully crafted, long, and lush post of all of what happened in 2012, to me and around me. What inspired and distracted me. What blew me up and broke me down. Lists! I love lists. But, truth is, I have a lot of freelance work to do right now, plus reading for the class I’m teaching, so I will leave you with only a few small bits.
By the end of this year—2012—I found my heart again, in writing. I finished a draft of my new book proposal last night.
This year—2012—was the year many different voices found their way to this blog. Thank you to every author who wrote a piece for me to share here. I am honored.
In 2013, I will let you into 17 & Gone, which comes out March 21. I will continue on with the Beyond the (Latest) Buzz book series on my blog, with more posts from librarians and bloggers coming in January, and because I love to read debut novels I will get to share the Anticipated YA Debuts of 2013—my first two picks of January 2013 will be announced on my blog soon. Things will happen. My blog will continue.
In the meantime, for 2013, I was gifted with one word to carry forward into the new year:
For me, it’s an answer to a question I’d been asking. I think it means I should be true to myself, as a writer. But maybe it means even more than that. I look forward to finding out.
Happy New Year, everyone.
(Originally posted on distraction no. 99.)
(Originally posted on my blog)
On the outside, this happened:
I revealed the cover and plot summary for my new novel 17 & Gone—and I have a pub date: March 21, 2013!
If you are a librarian or a blogger or reviewer,you can request an ARC here, for when ARCs are available, which thankfully isn’t today.
And I need to update my websites once I get a moment.
But on the inside, I’m a strange jumble of nerves and yes excitement but more nerves, come from having something kept private for so long now being pulled up into the light. Do any other authors get this, too, or am I a complete weirdo?
I am also in the midst of a creative breakthrough that I can’t talk about yet. Partly it came from failing utterly at this writing experiment (which deserves a whole separate blog that I will get to) and also from needing to follow my heart right now. Needing to write what I want to write, and—no offense—not care what it is I think YA readers and the market and critics and anyone else might expect or want from me. 17 & Gone is very much me, it’s kind of ridiculous, and I love this book all the more for that, so I might as well fling myself off the deep end and keep going instead of wishing I could be more commercial, which is a flaw I have, like wishing I could be a flamingo when I’m actually an ostrich. I’m an ostrich, damn it!
I didn’t build this semblance of a life to try to be anyone other than who I am.
And thus ends the cryptic talk about my behind-the-scenes creative breakthrough! How many of these does a writer have to go through before it sticks?
(Originally posted on my blog)
I sometimes look around and realize I’m living a strange life—well, “strange” by the standards of what a woman in her thirties (I refuse to say the number out loud or write it down) might be living. I haven’t given my mom grandchildren. Every time I see her and I think of her with her friends who all have grandchildren, I feel a pang of guilt—even though she assures me she wants me just the way I am and that I’ve given her two “grandchildren” so far: Dani Noir and Imaginary Girls, with a third on the way this coming winter.
I don’t feel the need or desire to have children. It’s just not in me to be someone’s mother; there’s no biological clock in there, and I’ve tried to listen for it. No ticking. I say I don’t want children every single time I go to doctor visits, because they keep asking. But I also know they’ll stop asking me soon. My window is soon closing, and I’m fine with that.
I’m not such a successful grown-up either. I haven’t bought a house or an apartment—and I will never be able to do that. In fact, I own nothing of value at all. I’m married, but I don’t fit the standard definition of “wife” —I don’t cook; I barely clean; I don’t even do my own laundry. In fact, sit down because you might find this too romantic—I got married to give my boyfriend health insurance after he finished grad school. I took a personal day from work, we went to City Hall, and the next day I went to work and signed him up for my insurance with HR. We’d never intended to marry before, even though we love each other and have been together since we were eighteen. But I insisted. For health insurance, I told myself. Ironically, I no longer have that job. So it goes.
I don’t have a work career anymore, beyond freelancing. I don’t have many friends—I lost touch with so many of them over the years—and the only ones I do still have are writers too. I don’t like holidays. I don’t understand why people stay close with family just because you share blood. I keep close with certain members of my family, a tiny circle who I love, and I don’t need anyone else. I don’t have a social life. I don’t have hobbies. I don’t have savings. I enjoy spending time alone, with only myself. Very much. I look around lately—with so many people I know having children, and moving out of Manhattan, if they ever lived here to begin with, and doing things with family and going to weddings and going on vacations—and I see how odd I am. I am writing this alone at a café table on a beautiful weekend morning when most people seem to be outdoors, and I’m perfectly content staying right here.
I have and want one thing, and I’ve been single-minded about it since high school: I write. I’ve always wanted to be a writer, to the detriment of everything else.
When the writing is going well, I’m happy, I’m alive, I’m more pleasant to be with—and when the writing isn’t going well, I’m destruction on short legs. I’m a nightmare. I’m all or nothing. I’m that self-centered, temperamental artist no one wants to live with. When I want to go away for a month at a time for an artist colony, I jet off and go. When I want to stay home for days at a time revising and not cleaning or doing dishes or picking up things I drop on the floor, I do it.
I’m everything I always wanted to be—because I only ever wanted this one thing. And I’m also a bit of a monster, because when you have only one thing, you have quite a lot to lose.
I’m thinking of all this now because of this beautiful post I came across last night,“What I Did the Summer After I Graduated” by the Rejectionist. It’s this quote that resonates with me, this one I shared here on Tumblr last night:
“When you are a woman or a girl or female no one says to you Look, artists who are great take without asking and take and take and do not apologize because when you are a woman or a girl or female the only thing you are supposed to take is a lot of other people’s shit. No one says to you Be sure you are strong enough to take and not apologize and keep going when the taking leaves you nothing to go back to. Be sure you are strong enough to steal and live alone with what you’ve chosen to make yours.” —The Rejectionist
You see, that post speaks to me. It speaks to me about ambition. About having this kind of larger-than-life ambition as a girl and now a woman. I know so many of us have it, but I also know it’s all I have. It’s all I want. My life is made up of this and nothing else.
Which is dangerous.
That beautiful post makes me think of all I let go and thought I didn’t want and so lost, over the years. About being this strange kind of creature who’s filled with only this WANTING to become something she may never get to be because it’s never good enough, where I am, it’s never the best I can do. What will be left of me if I never reach the heights I see in my dreams? And does it even matter if I know I’ll never stop reaching?
Recently, on Twitter, I asked, cryptically, if it ever ends. If, for authors, you ever stop and think what you’ve done is good enough. Authors said no, so I must not be alone in this.
I know in my heart it won’t ever be enough. I will never have written enough. Having aspiration this enormous means it can never be fed.
I have a memory of being eighteen, the summer before I left for college and met the boy I dragged to City Hall. It was night. We were in the woods, some boys, some girls, and of the friends I was with that night, I was the only one headed off to college in a week or two. Three of them would go on to become heroin addicts and one would be murdered over a drug dispute before she turned thirty. But at that moment, the summer nights smoking innocent bowls and running naked into the reservoir and hanging our arms out the open windows of speeding cars down long, dark roads seemed to be the only thing worth having in the world. A friend was talking of all I’d miss. All we had here. How much he wanted to stay and how he couldn’t fathom how anyone would want to leave. And it was a beautiful town, yes, where people still go on vacations. But it was so not enough for me.
We were on the edge of a cliff, looking off into the dark night and there was no way to know how far we’d fall if we jumped. I remember looking into the darkness of my hometown and feeling it in my bones, this thought: I have to get the fuck out of here. I couldn’t stay. I had so much more to do. I’d barely written anything beyond amateur poems and stories at that point, and I didn’t even know what being a “Writer” even entailed, but I knew I had to be one. I was going to be a writer. Somehow I felt sure I had to give up everything and anything to do that. I looked into the darkness and swore to myself I would.
It’s a promise I kept. I did go off to college. And I never did look back, though I mourned my friend who died, who was so talented, she should have gotten out, and away from drugs, herself. She would have become an artist whose name you would have known.
I’d miss my chances at trying heroin with my friends—I thank the universe for this every day—and I’d move to the city, where I always wanted to live, and I’d stay far away from drugs and I guess I’d become this thing I wanted to become. An artist. A writer. A cold-hearted person who cares for nothing else. Somehow I got it in my head that this is how I had to be and I whittled down my life to only this.
This is a strange life, the kind of life—decades ago—only men were supposed to live.
Ambition. Why did I let go of so much while chasing after it to get here? And if I hadn’t, would I have made it anyway?
Is this where I thought I’d end up when I looked off the cliff into the darkness?
Complicated questions I ask myself. Complicated answers I can’t ever hope to know.