I’m writing this article at a retreat in Arizona. I’m staring out at a gorgeous heated saltwater pool with a faux-rock waterslide. Beyond is the desert—miles and miles of sand and cacti and a seemingly endless, perfect blue sky. Downstairs are writers whom I’ve long admired, and I still find it totally surreal that they like me enough—and take my writing seriously enough—to invite me to this creative oasis.
But I am in tears. I’m not talking a little misty-eyed; I’m talking the body-shaking, snot-all-over-my-face, eyes-burning sort of crying. No one knows this except the friend that I’ve emailed and my husband, who’s dealt with this more times than he can probably count in our six years together. He doesn’t know what to say. Nothing comforts me. There are no words.
That’s the problem. There are NO words.
I’m here to work on a novel. My fourth (sort of). I published two novels, in 2008 and 2009, and with a big publishing house—MTV Books, an imprint of Simon & Schuster. It was something I dreamed about doing for as long as I could remember, ever since I read Laura Ingalls Wilder’s Little House books. I wanted to be Laura. Before I started kindergarten, I would dress up in a hand-me-down Laura Ashley dress that I thought looked “prairie style” and march around in my snow boots in the humid St. Louis summer. I decided that one day I would write my memoirs, just like my literary idol. When I was eight, my family moved to Chicago, and I have distinct memories of mentally narrating my school day: “She approaches her locker. Every day is a struggle to remember the combination…”
I realized then that my life was not nearly as interesting as Laura’s, so I turned to fiction and started a story about a colony of cows living on the moon. At that point, writing was just this thing I enjoyed. I mean, I wanted to get published, but I thought my actual career would be something in the medical field, like my nurse parents. I even studied psychology for a year in college, but I dropped out because I couldn’t resist the pull of writing. It was all I wanted to do. So I went back to school at 21 to get a bachelor’s and master’s degree in creative writing, and during those six years, I finished one book, completed a rough draft of another, and landed a literary agent. Within a year of graduating, I had my first book deal, and before that book even came out, my publisher agreed to buy my second. The wildest dreams of my prairie-dress-wearing five-year-old self had come true.
My books debuted with covers so gorgeous I couldn’t have dreamed better ones. They were on bookstore shelves for everyone to see, and I went to those bookstores and read from them and met people who read, liked, and related to them. I met other authors, people whose worked I loved, and they told me—ME!—that they loved my books. It was the most amazing thing that has ever happened to me.
However, in the eyes of my publisher, it wasn’t nearly as amazing. My books did not sell enough to justify buying a third. My editor didn’t want another YA book, but she was interested in an adult novel. Crushed as I was, I used those words to rally myself. I got back to work.
The third book took almost two years to finish, and for most of that time, the writing felt about as good as pulling my own fingernails out. I’ve lost count of how many times I almost quit that book, thinking that I would be the only one who liked these characters, or that I didn’t have the talent to do the story justice. But when I was finally done, and this was about a year ago, I was proud. Unfortunately, by that time, my editor had left Simon & Schuster for her own dream job, and so far, even though I love the book and my agent loves it, no publisher has loved it enough to buy it.
Each day that goes by erodes more of my faith, my certainty, that writing is what I’m meant to do. It kills me to go to family gatherings or to lunch with friends whom I haven’t seen in a while, or even to get tweets from well-meaning fans, because people always ask, “So are you still writing? Did ya ever finish that book?” As if I’ve spent the last three and a half years doing nothing! I know they don’t mean it that way, but that’s how I take it—these innocent questions feel like an indictment. I’m a slow writer. A slacker. And, above all else, a failure.
Slacking and failing are things I don’t do. Even in high school, when I was acting like I didn’t care, when I was ditching class to smoke pot on a regular basis, I still made sure I got straight A’s. And writing—that’s what I’m supposed to be best at. I’d never been athletic or particularly artistic. I was average-looking, and smart, but not a genius. I’d never really shone or stood out at anything until I started writing. I did it better than anything else—not better than anyone else, but I had a gift. Or at least I thought I did.
Two months after my first book came out, I quit my office job. I was earning a decent salary and had amazing benefits, but it sapped all of my energy and was slowly killing my soul, making it hard to come home and do anything else at night. So I went back to one of the jobs I’d held while in grad school—bartending. It allowed me time during the day to write, and originally I believed what so many people repeatedly said to me: “There will be so many stories!” And yeah, I have some interesting characters for regulars, and some of my experiences inspired events in my book, but for the most part, like so many service-industry jobs, bartending is the same story over and over again: belligerent people treat you like shit and tip you poorly.
I honestly thought the job would be temporary. I didn’t believe I’d become Stephen King or Stephenie Meyer overnight—in fact, I didn’t even want to be them at all. I just thought I’d sell enough books to keep selling books, so I’d be able to make a living wage from what I loved to do. Instead, four years later, I spend my days writing fiction and doing freelance work, and my nights earning the majority of my income by bartending and teaching. I have no social life and I struggle to make ends meet, but the worst part is that I still feel like a slacker and a failure.
For two years in a row now, I’ve cobbled together the money to go on these writing retreats, and both times I’ve ended up having complete meltdowns. Last year I was working on a different fourth book—one that I thought was “high concept,” which publishers like because they can market it with an elevator pitch, like “It’s Buffy in outer space!” I thought it would save my career. My agent was so excited about it that she sent out a partial version of it with a synopsis, hoping we could sell it before it was even finished. When it became clear that wasn’t going to happen, I froze and could no longer work on it.
So now I’ve started a different fourth novel, one about a girl grieving for her dead brother and getting caught up in an emotionally abusive relationship. Grief and emotional abuse are both things I’ve dealt with, so at first, this story was coming very naturally to me. Aside from being my dream, writing has always been a way for me to express my feelings. It’s been integral to my emotional well-being. My characters deal with the things that my friends and I had—addiction, abuse, rape, pregnancy, depression. And this has helped me survive.
Which is why I’m crying so hard at this retreat. The tears started because, as usual, I’ve reached that part in the book where the plot seems too big and I don’t have what it takes to make it work. Then I thought about my writer friends, and how I’ll never be able to do what they do—I don’t have their genius, I can’t write a book in a year, and I don’t write the kinds of novels that will top the New York Times best-seller list, or become movies, or at least provide a steady income—and I cried even more. But what’s even worse than the idea that I broke my book and that I’ll never be able to make a career out of writing is the realization that the thing that had always comforted me and given me strength to endure painful times was now the source of my pain.
I think about quitting writing at least twice a week. I’ve considered (and researched) becoming a librarian or a Montessori schoolteacher—things that would keep me feeling connected to literary creativity. But when I think too hard about it, I start to panic—cutting writing out of my life would be like cutting out my lungs. I couldn’t breathe. This anxiety and depression actually got so bad that I went back to therapy for the first time in 10 years this summer. My therapist helped me realize that, difficult as it may be, the only thing I can do is try to regain confidence in myself and my art.
When I’m at my lowest, like I am at this retreat, I need to cool down, clear my head, and try some stress-relief techniques. So I take advantage of that gorgeous swimming pool and do laps, back and forth. I cry while I swim, and during my shower afterwards. I cry until I’m calm enough to spend a little time knitting. I need a creative outlet, and while I’m not particularly good at crafts, that’s a plus in this case, because it means I don’t beat myself up. I can zone out while I knit or do T-shirt surgery.
After I’m calm, I begin to remind myself that every artist suffers this sort of disillusionment with their art. When I get brave enough to talk to my friends at the retreat about feeling stuck, they assure me that they’ve been there, too. “There’s always a point where you doubt your entire concept,” one of them tells me. They all have concerns that their success has been a fluke—any writer I’ve ever spoken to at length has admitted this to me. It’s impossible not to have anxiety about the quality of your art, but I can use that anxiety to drive me forward. I tell myself that being anxious means I’m still challenging myself, and if that doesn’t work, I’ll give my worries to my characters, just like I have my other difficult emotions in the past.
These days I take special care to acknowledge my writing victories—satisfaction with an essay, getting lost in the creation of a new character, having a brilliant story idea in the shower, or even just coming up with one killer line. For the longest time, I couldn’t figure out how a secondary character’s brother died—an event that affects everyone in the book. One day, when I was sick, exhausted, and convinced I’d never write again, I talked the scene through with my husband and then forced myself to get out of bed and write it. It was just 750 words, but it felt like an enormous accomplishment. It’s those little moments—when I forget that there’s an endgame, something that I hope to sell—that remind me why I do what I do. I don’t know if I’ll ever again experience the huge rush of celebration that comes with the publication of a novel, but just having a day when I’m so into the story that I don’t want to stop working on it to watch Mad Men is enough to keep me going right now. Each day I have to believe in myself enough to continue. I’ve lost confidence, but at least I have words. ♦