Crossposted to the Deadline Dames, where there are giveaways. And advice. And pie. Check us out!
I was raised to (by and large) obey unquestioningly.
Jesus. Stop laughing. I’m serious.
I was trained, while very young, to not just listen to what an authority figure said but how they said it. Even today, I am incredibly sensitive to tone and body language. You tell me the sky is blue, I’m not just taking into account the information you’ve offered about the shade of the heavens, but also how you said it, what you looked like when you said it, what preceded this observation both physically and emotionally. Growing up, “the sky is blue” could mean anything from “go mow the lawn” to “tell me I’m pretty” to “I am about to hit you.” I became incredibly hypersensitive. While this was great practice for learning how to do characterization, it’s not so good for carrying on reasonably healthy relationships with relatively well-adjusted people. Most relatively healthy/sane adults get freaked out when one starts dissecting their most casual comments with the sort of intensity usually reserved for neurosurgeons with their fingers in someone’s brainpan. Plus, it’s exhausting to pay that sort of attention all the time. I couldn’t afford to relax as a child. I’m over thirty blessed years old and just learning how to unclench a little bit.
I’m on the far end of the continuum. But when it comes to writing, I’m a lot closer to the norm than you’d think.
Writing as a career can turn even the most well-adjusted person into a quivering, hyperattentive wreck. There’s the rejection, for one thing. Then there’s the revision letters, where a simple sentence like “I’m not sure of this character’s motivation here.” can turn into a huge steaming pile of “I HATE YOU AND THIS BOOK IS CRAP” in seconds flat. If that doesn’t make you goddamn crazy, let me just tell you about Amazon reviews.
No, wait, don’t let me. On that path lies madness.
The work of a writer lies in not only riding the swells of criticism and revision and rejection, but also the act of setting your compass.
You, as a writer, do not have power over whether or not an editor likes your work. You can hone your craft and maximize your chances by not being a jerk, true. But in the end, you do not have control. Nor do you have much control over what the revision letter contains or the cover eventually looks like. You have zero control over what other people think of your book, and what they write on Amazon or on their blogs or what-have-you.
The control you have is small but critical. You have control over writing the best damn book you can, and you have control over how you react.
I don’t let any draft out of my hands until it’s as good as I can make it. Each time, I strain myself to the utmost. Everyone in the goddamn world might hate the goddamn book, but I will have the (admittedly small) satisfaction of knowing I worked as hard as I could and did my best. Do I go back and look at some of the storytelling choices I made and cringe? You betcha. The thing that keeps me from going stark-raving (admittedly a very short distance from where I stand now) is that I know, deep down, that I did my best. I could not have worked any harder, and I could not have done any less. A reviewer or an editor can judge me until the cows come home, but I am much harsher on myself than they could ever be. I have to satisfy myself first about the quality of what I let out of my hands. If I err, well, at least I know it’s honest.
It sucks that I can’t lie to myself about that part of it. Lying to yourself is a losing game, no matter how successfully or for how long you keep it up. There’s always a worm in the bottom of your soul that knows.
I also have control over how I take rejection and the various slings and arrows of revision and reviews. I can play what I call the “Maybe It’s Just” Game. (Which I stole, shamelessly and with great abandon, from The Work of Byron Katie. Mad props to her; it’s incredible stuff.)
Here’s the thing about being raised with one finger on the pulse and the other on the trigger: You get to where you think it’s your job to find the right thing to do to make everyone happy, to fix the world. It sends you off on a spiral of grief and trying-harder, scrabbling in the dirt of fear and shame. It also fucks up your sense of proportion bigtime. The only way I’ve found to halt it is by asking a couple of questions and playing the Maybe Game.
It’s hard to think that an editor doesn’t like my stuff because I personally am the worst human being in the cosmos. It’s hard to think a reviewer doesn’t like my stuff because I’m personally the worst human being in the cosmos. It’s hard to think that a revision letter is a personal judgment on me because…you get the idea. But maybe, must maybe…
Maybe my work isn’t all there is to me.
Maybe the editor had indigestion that day.
Maybe the editor knows something I don’t about the state of the market and how not-hot steampunk werellama romances are right now.
Maybe the reviewer just isn’t ever going to like anything I write.
Maybe the reviewer was upset.
Maybe the revision letter is more about the book than me.
Maybe I could stand to work on the few things the editor underlined.
Maybe this rejection is the last one.
Maybe I got this rejection so I can make the book a little better.
Maybe I got this rejection so I could focus on writing this new book/short story/poem/manifesto.
Maybe the reviewer just isn’t a fan of the genre.
Maybe there are nine billion people in the world and I’m not going to please every single one of them.
Maybe there’s something I haven’t considered here.
Maybe it’s not so bad.
When I start playing the Maybe Game, a funny thing happens. Possibilities open up, perspective is restored (well, as restored as it ever gets–have you seen my TBR pile?) and all of a sudden the world thunks back into its normal dimensions as a weird but ultimately manageable assortment of sensory stimuli instead of a gigantic animal out to crush me.
The Maybe Game works for other things too. Maybe I can climb that huge gnarly rock. Maybe I don’t have to jump when someone I used to love applies the pressure. Maybe I don’t have to feel ugly and unloved all the time. Maybe I can figure things out. Maybe I can trust some people.Maybe I am not as terrible a writer/person as I think I am. Maybe I can’t see some things clearly and they look like gigantic mountains when they are, in face, molehills. Maybe.
Maybe, maybe, maybe.
Maybe there’s hope.
It’s better than hypervigilance, that’s for damn sure. It’s a shame it took me thirty-odd years to learn this game. Still…I intend to keep playing.
Over and out.