Monday, May 25, 2015

Getting Out of My Own Way: A Note About Hubris vs. Perseverance

For the longest time, though I desperately wanted to be a writer, I was convinced that I was incapable. It took me a ridiculously long time to prove to anyone that this wasn’t true.

Many years ago, in Chicago, my first writing gig was reviewing books for a popular weekly. Somehow I had the confidence to land this plum position, which possibly could have led to a career. But I had no sense how to foster my small corner of literary real estate.

I’ll skip ahead here to when my first piece appeared, and I nervously flipped pages through the weekly to find it, and almost as quickly, my heart sank.

I was so angry I couldn’t see straight.

In the tradition for writers everywhere, I faced the great indignation of having my work messed with by an editor.

That same afternoon while at my day job (unrelated to writing), I phoned this editor--I’ll call him Sam--to argue the deconstruction done to my four hundred word review. As my voice got louder, I drew curious daggers from co-workers. I was convinced Sam had it in for me, attacking me through my work--as if he had nothing better to do. Annoyed with me, he explained how out of line I was and hung up.

A few weeks later I was surprised when Sam included me in his e-mail list of prospective reviewers, of which several were well known local authors. This must have been a mistake. Seeing my name in that email made me feel . . . humiliated. Realizing I had oversold my ability, I never followed up. My writing career seemed finished as fast as it had begun.

In the long look back, it’s a wonder that I managed to continue with writing.

This was around the same time I had weekly confrontations with a writing group that bedeviled me about my meager grasp of fundamentals.

Up until that point, I had written little more than some passionate journal scribblings about books I loved, pieces that wouldn’t cohere, and a floundering novel, as well as a handful of fragments that I’d tried to anneal into stories, or had installed like garish set pieces into my lumpy novel; I had published nothing. So when I got the job, I was overjoyed that an editor was willing to take me on--it must have meant I was a writer.

Before that fateful review, I knew nothing of how to organize a piece of writing, how to bring it under control, let alone how to edit. It’s fair to say crafting a piece of writing was an unknowable, alchemical process that I would have to spend years at, before I could appreciate, in retrospect, the triage done to my work. My writing then was in that precious stage where allowing anyone to touch it was an affront to my creative sensibility. I’d prided myself on my iconoclasm, but I was merely driven by naive hubris. I wanted to be published as a sign of legitimacy, so that I could say, “I’m a writer”; clearly, getting published came about twelve steps too soon.

I still find it astounding that I was cavalier in the face of an editor who had tried to give me a break. Mostly I’m humbled at my younger self’s willingness to put himself into a strange trial by fire before he’d even understood the ground rules. It’s hard not to think that this job could have helped me get further along, sooner, had I not retreated so quickly.

What that humiliation did was forced me to overcome all of the voices telling me (including my own) that I couldn’t do it. Perhaps I was afraid I could not improve, and then I’d eventually be rejected by the next editor. Maybe I was convinced that I couldn’t write, and I was letting my earnest attempt--because it was earnest--become a foregone conclusion.

Those years between that first writing assignment, and when I decided to really get serious about writing, was a necessary interregnum.

One point was clear: if I really did want to be a writer, I was going to have to learn the rules if I wanted to break them. No more could I rest on the assumed laurels of my journal writing. I would have to prove myself every time I put my work out for a reader, be it someone in my writing group, an advisor, or an unknown editor.

It was only after I began to listen and understand about what needed to change that I improved, and in that time I gained the confidence to start sending out my fiction to literary journals. Sending work out meant facing inevitable rejection--many many rejections. I once had a goal of getting 100 rejections and then I was going to celebrate. I got so busy sending work out that I forgot to celebrate. But I did, eventually, get published. In the years since, I’ve received encouraging recognition along the way, and publishing has occurred almost as a matter of course. Certainly, getting published offers a frisson of satisfaction that can have a long term positive effects, but I see my earlier expectations differently, now. The reality is, I wasn’t ready when I landed that gig. I needed years of practice before I could understand that you have to put in the time and effort to become a writer.

Writing is about writing. Doing the work: completing a draft of a story, or a novel, so that I can go back and revise it. It’s about perseverance in the face of rejection and indifference.

Because I have persevered, writing, the hard work and years of commitment, have gotten me closer to where I wanted to be when I couldn’t have even imagined it was possible. Small irony--perseverance is one of the lessons I learned from writing. That I stuck with it and eventually did get my work published, can sometimes still seem to me a miracle.