It was a small thing. It was on one of those groups where newly published authors cluster together, shaking, kind of like those people on Naked and Afraid. Except the thing scaring us is publishing, not bears. On there, one of the women posted about her book being included in two big, national “Best books of 2014” lists.
Because, yeah, it’s “Best books of 2014” list time.
If I was less of a jealous little creep, I’d have been happy for her. She wasn’t even in competition with me, since her book is for a different age bracket than mine. So I should have felt pure, unadulterated joy at her well-deserved fortune. But, actually, I felt very little for her. I clicked over to the portion of the lists where my book would be, had it been chosen. I looked for the little hole where my book wasn’t. I felt something for me: despair. Writing is a little bowl containing all the ways the world can break your heart.
The pain of it starts early. The first time I remember writing breaking my heart was when I was four. I’d learned to write young and I filled notebook after notebook with my totally original, amazing tales. It made me so happy to do it. One day, still four, I decided to go back and re-read my fanciful creations. I was struck by a terrible thought: they were almost identical to my favorite fairy tales that I spent hour reading. I was a fraud. And the heartbreak had begun.
It continued. At 12 I wrote in my diary, “Most of all I want to be a writer.” It was a foolish dream, as so many grown-ups in my life never tired of telling me. I should go into PR or marketing, do something useful and bill-paying with my ability to cluster words together without much effort. Like my Shakespeare professor said in college, when praising one of my papers, “Nobody makes it as a writer.” I quickly proved that conventional wisdom by writing several bad short stories and getting them all rejected at the glacial pace in which literary journals do such things. I gave up. I ached and came back to it. I wrote for crappy local publications about subjects that didn’t matter to me, all for the thrill of seeing my name in cheap, runny print. I had babies. I turned thirty. I gave up again, but, like the addict that I was, always found my way back.
And then It Happened. Trumpets blared. The check cleared. My book found its way into the world with good shelf space and a cover that made me want to rub it on my face. Reviewers took respectable notice. And all the ephemeral dreams of the first part of my life became blocky, solid reality. To say it was a disappointment would be inaccurate and totally obnoxious. It was wonderful. It was everything it was cracked up to be.
Also, it opened up a curtain to a new world that had been hidden behind the one I’d knocked myself bloody to enter: the Publishing Industry. Having clawed my way into the Real Writer room, I saw beyond it to all the things I didn’t have. The awards I wasn’t going to get. The recognition that wasn’t going to come my way. The lists my book wasn’t going to make. And at the risk of annoying everyone who thought I should be damn well pleased to get beyond where so many didn’t even date to dream, it made me sad. And I wondered if this is all there is.
There’s a place, out beyond wanting. There’s a place in which you finally understand that all the aches in the world don’t make the thing you want happen. It feels like laying your wounded self down in the grass, your arms at your side, inhaling the scent of green and defeat. And there you stay for a long time, knowing there is no more you can do. That you’ve done it all, but here you are anyway. That your powers only extend so far. It is a swirling, dark sorrow, but it is something else too: surrender. And with it comes a neutral kind of peace. It’s not happiness or fulfillment. It’s humility. It doesn’t feel good, but it doesn’t feel wrong.
So I rise from the grass, the spot of despair. And I wonder if I can leave all the yearning there. If I can walk away from the wanting and move into the land of the doing without looking over my shoulder for applause anymore. I don’t know, but I want to. I want to go to the place where the lists don’t reach.