Live Through This

Crisis of Faith

Sometimes I question whether writing is what I’m meant to do.

Illustration by Leeay

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. ♦

44 Comments

  • Ladymia69 December 6th, 2012 3:11 PM

    Stephanie, i am going to rewrite what I commented to Emma yesterday, because I relate so much to what you are saying and because it is even more relevant here.

    I know of what you speak. All my life I have dreamed about being an artist/writer/creatrix. Seriously, when I was 7, I started folding slabs of notebook paper in half and stapling it down the sides, and then making it into a book and illustrating it…by the time I was 11 I had a treasure chest FULL of these. I made drawings like crazy, and also recorded on cassette tape everything that I did, from my own “talk shows” to made-up interviews to recordings of my friends and I getting crazy during slumber parties. I made my own “albums” of me singing under other names, complete with cover art and lyrics.

    As I got older, my priorities shifted, and I became enmeshed in the world of teenagerdom. I just remember waking up one morning when I was 13 and saying to myself, “This is the first time in my life i haven’t felt happy.”

    And as an adult, I have desperately tried to hold on to that creative spark that I nourished as a child, but it is so hard. the world is full of awful things, and the fight for basic survival takes up a lot of my time.

    Still, I really hope that that little girl hasn’t been completely extinguished. Perhaps I peaked too early? I like to imagine that in a few years, when financial matters are more settled, I will once again find my voice and let it out into the world.

    • Stephanie December 6th, 2012 3:42 PM

      I totally, TOTALLY know what you mean. That basic survival and financial matter stuff that hits post-high school (and even in high school for so many of us) really sucks. I like to imagine that that spark always lives in us, though, and it finds its way out in many different ways, big and small. I hope you feel like you find yours again.

    • raggedyanarchy December 7th, 2012 2:09 PM

      I know what you mean. When I was little, I made TONS of those little staple-and-copy-paper books, about everything from cats to princesses. I even made a little one with my friend for my friend’s little brother about cats and dogs. She still has it somewhere, hidden from view.
      But like, when I was little I totally thought I was an artistic genius–artist, musician, writer, actress, singer, the whole shebang–and then adolescence came with its crushing reminder that I can’t draw, can’t sing, have horrid stage fright, and the musical talent of an old salamander. All I had left was writing, which has become my only real talent. And sometimes, when I’m particularly down-in-the-dumps, I can only remind myself that that talent is currently underdeveloped, as my school has zero creative writing classes offered for sophmores.

  • Mary the freak December 6th, 2012 3:13 PM

    how incredibly perfect was this? I can relate to you so much <3

    http://birdiewearsatie.blogspot.com/

  • Nerdfighter101 December 6th, 2012 3:18 PM

    Can you do one about writing music, or are they transferable? :)

  • lyss December 6th, 2012 3:31 PM

    I am constantly bowled over by your writing, man. After reading your books over the summer they inspired me to get back in to the groove of writing because I wanted to be able to produce something so great.

    • Stephanie December 6th, 2012 3:43 PM

      Wow, really? Thank you. That means a lot to hear, especially right now. I hope you are in a good groove and can’t wait to read what comes of it!

  • Pashupati December 6th, 2012 3:47 PM

    Hmm… When I read that you want to be a Montessori teacher, maybe, I can see you writing for younger kids (or write another story, for kids, aside from the one you’re writing right now.) Sometimes it’s good to focus on something else for a moment, and maybe if you change your intended audience, you’ll find new ideas?
    Also, sometimes stories about “normal” characters are more relatable. When I was a child (from 6 to 9) I read Little House, Buckeridge’s Bennett series amongst other things, and it was dreamy, interesting but not that relatable mostly because it was not set in my era and not, well, my life would have been considered boring by comparison, but for me it was not! Somehow I would have liked and still would have liked a book about some normal child, but with personal stuffs and emotion and normal life and character growth, and the character’s hopes and all. Maybe it would be boring because nothing “happens”, but reading about emotions and personal growth through what happens to you in daily life can be interesting.

    • Elizabete December 6th, 2012 4:23 PM

      I feel like this about “normal” characters and books too.

      While i like fantasy and wholeheartedly believe in faeries, parallel worlds etc, i have alway preferred to read stories/watch cartoons about fellow suburban kids ( Hey Arnold & As told by Ginger ) rather than superheroes, secret agents or talking deers. Normal stories somehow let me imagine more than the clearly impossible ones :)

      http://melodyfairitale.wordpress.com/

    • Stephanie December 6th, 2012 5:30 PM

      I agree! I also love reading and writing about “normal” people. Both of my published books and all of my unpublished books are about the real, emotional lives of teens and adults. (Even my one “high concept” idea wasn’t actually Buffy in outer space. It toyed with some mythology stuff, but was still a very real teenage girl with a very real problem.) That’s what I write because it is always been what I’ve loved to read most. I mean, I love Melissa Marr, love Francesca Lia Block, love Carrie Ryan, Jeri Smith-Ready… I could go on and on– all of those are writers whose stories are set in more fantastical worlds. However, my heart lies with Laura Ingalls Wilder and the more modern contemporary stories like those by Sara Zarr, John Green, Tara Kelly, and Courtney Summers. So I’ll keep writing “normal” teens even if it doesn’t sell because it’s what I love and I can’t help it.

      Writing for kids is an interesting idea, but I’m not sure I could do it. I guess I just swear a lot & more importantly have yet to have an idea for a kid’s book that I really loved like I do for YA and adult.

  • artobsessed December 6th, 2012 3:56 PM

    Just like you, I have always made mental, monological narratives in real-time and still do. When I was little, I was told I could write, but when I started doing “essays” in high school (cut and dry, prove-a-point) I always got C’s. It was brutal, and totally demolished my self-esteem as a “writer”. It was when I began reading classic literature and actually criticizing the process of writing itself during college application essays that I found my voice. I’m a senior now and I find my writing my strongest suit in my apps. You sound like you are simply in a trough right now, but you know that this is your love, and that’s all that matters. You are loved enough to be featured regularly on Rookie, which is one of my personal aspirations. I understand it takes a lot of focus to string together all your hauntingly beautiful ideas, but it will come, love. I know these lows are paralyzing, but when you let yourself breath and experience your epiphany the world will be your oyster once again.

    • Stephanie December 6th, 2012 5:32 PM

      Thank you and I am so glad that you have found your voice! Keep writing and do submit stuff to Rookie!

  • jenaimarley December 6th, 2012 4:27 PM

    I live in Arizona!
    But on a more related note, this is really inspiring and moving writing and I thank you immensely for it, Stephanie!
    I want to read your books!!!

    • Stephanie December 6th, 2012 5:33 PM

      Thank you and your home state is gorgeous! A walk in the Sonoran desert really cleared my mind :)

  • fashi0nislife December 6th, 2012 4:48 PM

    lovee it<3

  • litchick December 6th, 2012 5:01 PM

    Once or twice, I’ve reacted to disillusionment with my writing by quitting. I give it time, and I end up wanting to return to it.

    I guess what I’m trying to say is that writing is obviously a huge part of your life- even if you don’t totally love it right now, you probably will again.
    Best of luck to you!

    • Stephanie December 6th, 2012 5:33 PM

      Thank you. Best of luck with your writing, too, and I’m glad you keep going back. I do, too.

      • litchick December 6th, 2012 6:31 PM

        Thank you!

        P.S. I just finished reading Ballads of Suburbia a couple of weeks ago; it blew me away- one of the most relateable books I’ve read in a long time.

        • Stephanie December 6th, 2012 6:38 PM

          Thank you so much for your compliment on Ballads :) That means the world. That book is my heart and soul.

  • bookworm123 December 6th, 2012 6:01 PM

    I am still amazed that so frequently on Rookie there are articles that make me think, “Yes, rock on Rookie!” This is one of those articles, so thank you so much!

  • sophiethewitch December 6th, 2012 6:23 PM

    Stephanie. You are me. Actually. It’s scary.

    And I also used to narrate my own life! Only I did that for several years… I still do sometimes when I’m nervous.

    • Stephanie December 6th, 2012 6:38 PM

      I totally still do it when I’m nervous too…. Hmm ARE we the same person.

  • kimberleighrc December 6th, 2012 7:03 PM

    Right now I am in college and struggling with the decision of what my so-called ‘next step’ should be. Writing is one of my options, and it’s what I– in my heart of hearts– want to do, but the fear of failure is holding me back. I am scared to pursue it, scared to fail. I just don’t know if anyone wants to hear what I have to say. Are my ideas valuable, you know? I’m not sure.

  • kristin2000 December 6th, 2012 9:11 PM

    Nowadays, we don’t have to wait around for some big publishing house or agent to validate our work. Social media and desktop publishing levels the playing field.

    DIY!

    This month’s Poets & Writers magazine has lots of good inspiration for self-publishing. http://www.pw.org/content/novemberdecember_2012

    You can do it!

  • spudzine December 6th, 2012 10:28 PM

    I feel like this all of the time. Stephanie, I feel what you feel, and since I know the feeling so well, I am so, so sorry. Writing to me is what I need to keep on going. Really, it is. And although I have not published a book, and I probably won’t anytime soon, I remind myself that, even with all of my doubts, I write because it’s what I need to live. I hope you feel better, Stephanie. Do not get discouraged, as you are successful and brilliant. Always remember this.

    http://spudzine.tumblr.com

  • miranda11 December 6th, 2012 11:43 PM

    I work in publishing and I really just want to say, you go girl. Keep writing. Writing isn’t easy for anyone; you shouldn’t feel hopeless and stuck when someone in publishing tells you what you’re doing won’t sell. We have no clue what sells (most of the time), we just go on whims and sometimes get lucky. I say just get it out there—write 8 shitty drafts and mull over it all for a couple months and then hire a good editor, one that you trust, to whip everything into shape. This goes for any author. Get a good editor. And write stuff!

  • Kal December 7th, 2012 1:23 AM

    Man this article sort of screamed at me through the computer screen. Hearing about your bawling crying on the writing retreats makes my midnight meltdowns with the computer seem a little less abnormal.

    I am only sixteen but all I have ever wanted to do is write novels and magazine articles. I am a communications intern, I have had some of my work published in a few small publications and I am also the editor of my school newspaper.

    My mom and my boss love to praise my writing but I never feel like it is enough—like I am good enough. I constantly think about being a homeless writer ten years from now because no one will want my work.

    I guess so much of what I write is a reflection of myself that when my pieces is rejected it feels like I am being rejected.

    I am planning on majoring in Magazine Writing in college and getting a masters in Creative Writing but I constantly second guess my choice.

    Stephanie, if you could go back. If you could be a junior in high school and do it all over again—would you choose to be a writer?

    Kali

    • Stephanie December 7th, 2012 12:41 PM

      Kali,
      Absolutely I would still be a writer. I may be having a crisis right now, but I wouldn’t give up the stories I told and the books I did get published for ANYTHING and I still hope to have more books published one day. I know exactly what you mean though, about feeling like a part of you is rejected. There is a very painful side to being a writer and that is it, but the thing is, I just AM a writer. I can’t stop being one, even when it is hard. That’s why every time I’ve thought about walking away, I can’t. From what you are saying, I think you are the same way–stories are just in your blood and you have to tell them. So follow your dreams. Know that you will have moments where you doubt yourself–you may go through periods of doubt that last a few years or more like I have lately–but those moments when you totally nail the story will be worth it. Also you find ways to make it work and support yourself. My bar job sucks, but my teaching job, which I got because I have an MFA in creative writing, is very cool and feeds my inspiration as well as my belly :)

  • Caitlin H. December 7th, 2012 5:07 AM

    Stephanie, you are incredible.

  • Nomali December 7th, 2012 5:51 AM

    I love your writing. It always gets me.
    This is me at this particular point of my life. I’m 20 and on some days I can’t churn out a coherent 350 blog post that essentially pays my bills. I love writing, I love words but this past year I haven’t done much writing for pleasure or because of a big idea I had to get out. It’s all “scrape some words together for work obligations and see if you can do it again tomorrow.”
    The inability to do something I love this much is overwhelming. It’s all feelings of ineptitude and depression AND.

    More than once I’ve found myself wondering if I should do something else for money/to pay the bills and see if I won’t get my need (hopefully ability) to write back.

    In the meantime, I’m going to find your published works and see if your imagined people and experiences are wonderful as the words you’ve put on Rookie. I’m sure they are.

    • Stephanie December 7th, 2012 12:58 PM

      I know exactly what you mean. I have definitely had those days and spent most of this year desperate to reclaim the love of writing and the feeling like I’m doing it for me, for pleasure. One thing that has really helped me is teaching writing. I teach a college level course on YA Fiction and even though its a lot of work for not so much pay, it is really inspiring. Perhaps you could look into community organizations where you could teach/help kids with their writing? Even as a volunteer thing. Sometimes, yes, doing a job that doesn’t have to do directly with writing will help you get your spark back, especially if it is creative in some other way :)

  • ivoire December 7th, 2012 7:36 AM

    I can’t relate to it on your level exactly, but at school I feel like I’m good at, like, NOTHING. I get so bitter about everything and yeah…

  • margocole December 7th, 2012 4:14 PM

    Stephanie, whether you want to hear this or not, this post proves you should be a writer. Thank you for pouring it out.

  • Emma S. December 8th, 2012 8:51 AM

    Jobs I consider on a regular (daily) basis: full-time bookseller, pizza place owner and operator, baker, full-time teacher, cat rescuer, vintage clothing shopgirl, princess, hermit, goblin. You’re a writer, my dear, and so am I. This all comes (ever so much) with the territory. xoxoxo

    • Stephanie December 12th, 2012 6:22 PM

      Thank you, but I will totally be a goblin princess cat rescuer with you, too.

  • Sea goddess December 8th, 2012 10:18 PM

    I love how you found yourself in writing on your HS years. I’m also not good at sports, neither am I the most intelligent person, but I do know that I am good at writing and it’s what I enjoy the most. <3 From all of this I can see how in love you are with your gift of being an author. Love is struggle and success, and it's amazing.

  • ClarissaR December 9th, 2012 3:49 AM

    Wow, Stephanie, I can’t tell you how much of a comfort reading this is to me. I thought I was alone in this experience. Thanks for showing me I’m not. By the way, you’re not a failure. You’re writing for rookie.

  • lizabeth December 9th, 2012 1:27 PM

    Stephanie, I read I Wanna Be Your Joey Ramone a couple of years ago on a whim. I saw it in the library and thought the title was cool. That book is amazing, I loved it so much! You’re a wonderful writer.
    But I know how you feel, I always feel like there are much better writers than me out there so why would anyone want to read what I’ve written? It’s frustrating for sure, but you have real talent :)

  • Janet-Into-Jones December 10th, 2012 12:38 AM

    Thank you for sharing your experience of this very personal subject. I went to an Art School (bad idea!) right out of high school and lost some of my interest in designing. That was over 4 years ago and I haven’t tried to really draw anything since then. I tried to draw something last week and I ended up getting a headache. The kind right-handed a person gets when trying to use their left hand for the first time. Right now I am focusing on psychology and getting my BA in that. I hope you continue to write books 5, 6, 7, and 8!

  • Janet-Into-Jones December 10th, 2012 12:39 AM

    I forgot to ask, what are the titles of your books?

    • Stephanie December 12th, 2012 6:21 PM

      Janet-Into-Jones, my books are Ballads of Suburbia and I Wanna Be Your Joey Ramone. :)

  • korita_ December 11th, 2012 6:38 PM

    Don’t you call yourself a failure! You’re getting so many great things done.

    I relate to you so much, though. I am only in college, a low ranking one, at that, and I work in the food service industry. I feel so lame and unsuccessful already. The success that you’ve had gives me hope. You might not see as being much success, but from where I sit, you’re not doing too bad at all!

  • sighofrelief December 18th, 2012 2:44 AM

    You’re a much better write than LIW. At least you’ve got a good grasp on grammar!

    http://www.newyorker.com/arts/critics/atlarge/2009/08/10/090810crat_atlarge_thurman