When I was 25, I met a friend for coffee on one of her infrequent visits home. After being inseparable as kids, we eventually drifted into our different lives. Hers seemed glamorous to me: she’s a debutante who attended an Ivy League school, then traveled abroad to pursue other degrees. She drives the most expensive sports cars and vacations all over the world. When she called and told me she was in town, I couldn’t turn down the chance to catch up with her.
I knew we wouldn’t be able to meet long because my 11-month-old son would be up from his nap soon. I was so happy to see her – and impressed with myself for losing all my baby weight and then some – that I never thought how plain I would look in my jeans and t-shirt next to her designer outfit. I never thought she’d care to know what I’d been up to. What was there to say? I’m a mom. After catching her up on baby news (which doesn’t take long when you’re talking to someone who doesn’t have kids), she asked about my writing.
Writing? What writing? Oh, wait, you mean how I thought getting a degree in English would set me on the path to bestseller-dom? While I kept up with my daily journal, my fiction had gone the way of the dinosaur. I wouldn’t call it a slump. It was just that I was busy and happy not writing. After I missed the “published author” mile marker on the highway of my life, I moved on to “starting a family” and didn’t look back. Yes, I still wrote, but it wasn’t the kind of writing that kept me up at night.
And that was so not how I had envisioned my life – to be unpublished and happy. By the time I was 13, I knew that I wanted to make a living writing novels. I had no inclination to get a regular job and write after hours. I wanted to provide for my family through my books. And I was naive enough to think that I could go to college and get an English degree, and somehow, I would be in that perfect position to fulfill my dream.
Here’s what I often imagined: a home office overlooking a fenced-in backyard, where my future, well-adjusted children would run around and play, allowing me to work in peace. And then we would go out for ice cream and a movie, and we would take vacations whenever we wanted, and if my husband decided to get a job, it would just be because he wanted to, not because we were dependent on his salary.
Obviously, I had no idea what being a parent or an adult is really like, much less how the publishing world works.
But by 25, I was well aware of the perils of the publishing world. I’d already received rejections from literary agents. I’d even gone through a period when I thought maybe I couldn’t write. Maybe I would just be an editor, but I got over that when I realized that I simply hadn’t found my voice yet. After I did, I found joy in writing again. But I still had nothing to show for it, other than the title of “Editor-in-Chief” for a fledgling literary journal.
My entire writing “career” has been full of these ups and downs. I do actually make money as a writer, but it’s certainly not enough to buy us the house with the big yard and to keep my husband from having to work. It’s my lack of steady employment that makes him have to work so hard to pick up my slack. Part of me wishes that I’d gone to work for a newspaper or local magazine or even a small publisher. I would be able to carry more of the financial load, although that’s not at all the kind of writing that feeds my soul.
Yet despite being married to a starving artist, my husband believes in me. That doesn’t mean he thinks I’ll make millions, but he’s always my first reader, and even though he protests that he never knows what to say, I can always trust him for an honest opinion. The book that I’m shopping around right now is the best thing I’ve ever written, but just because it’s the best thing I’ve produced to this point doesn’t mean it’s perfect – or anywhere close to the best thing out there.
Amidst editing and querying and doing a whole lot of work that could amount to a lot of nothing, I finally asked him if I should even bother. I’d been gearing myself up to ask for several days. He loves me, but he’s not afraid to give me the painful truth. He told me it’s a good story, and he wants me to get recognition for it (although that in no way guarantees anything about getting it published).
Then he asked me if I would quit writing, even if it wasn’t any good.
While I would certainly quit wasting both my and the literary agents’ time by querying, I would never quit writing because it’s my outlet.
I still have that dream of making a living as a novelist. I still want to have a positive answer when I meet with a friend for coffee. If she were to ask me this week how my writing is going, my answer is that it’s great. I’m editing a story I love and that I know has potential. It still needs work, but maybe someday…
Here’s a quote from Sylvia Plath that I found earlier this week:
And by the way, everything in life is writable about if you have the outgoing guts to do it, and the imagination to improvise. The worst enemy to creativity is self-doubt.
I have the guts and the imagination, but I also have self-doubt. It’s what made me ask my husband if all this was worth the effort. It’s what makes me cringe when someone looks at me expectantly, like, “Well, you wrote a novel, why isn’t it in bookstores yet?” I think self-doubt is healthy because it makes us look honestly at ourselves. It’s only harmful when it turns into a loss of confidence; then it’s apparent in your writing and your outlook and can turn into a self-fulfilling prophecy. What self-doubt should do is help us re-evaluate our goals and adjust them to be realistic.
I think the enemy of creativity is really regret. Getting to a certain point and wishing you hadn’t done what you’d done. While I sometimes wish I’d done something to augment my position, I certainly have never regretted writing. If my stories never see the light of day, at least I was happy creating them.
Before you go away thinking that my sweet friend didn’t understand me at all and didn’t care about my life, let me tell you her response to my lack of stellar news. She said, “But you’re a mom.”
She said it with admiration and almost reverence. Yeah, I’m a mom. And quite often a writer mom. Like I said, no regrets.