I pretended I was a real writer for that year I took off from teaching. See, even though I taught writing, I felt phony because I hadn’t published. If number of books sold out of a major New York publishing house was the measure of success, then I was a failure. When I tried to be the kind of writer I thought I should be, I had lots of advice, but no pubs. I just regurgitated what I’d been taught, but added nothing original. That kind of writing advice dribbled out of me over the years. That was back when I was younger, of course, before I was worn down and eventually broken after decades of rejection. I simply wrote and submitted as my teachers taught me, what the books told me, what my writer’s group passed along. I took the advice given by people who actually had agents and editors, big-time publishers, won awards, gave creative writing seminars, taught writing classes in community colleges and universities, raised their eyebrows and smirked, smug with the mysteries of insider knowledge, and said things like “Oh, yes, she’s fah-bulous” and tossed in special words like “insipid” and “deconstruct.”
Published authors were elite to us slush pile dwellers. They were lead-pack runners. Us slush puppies just made ends meet. We mowed lawns, shoveled snow, babysat, washed dishes, bussed tables, and built ripraps—as we honed our writing skills. We tossed pizza dough into the air and let the floury disk spin on our fists, ushered in a four-screen theatre, cut metal in a warehouse, drove a thirty-five-foot flatbed truck around the Southwest, cleared their coach’s farmland to make a cross-country course, and bartended—and wrote when we could and shared our prose with other unpublished writers. We waited tables, served in the military, set tile, instructed karate, and filed at Kaplan Education Center. But we also, always, wrote, because we had to write. We lectured in required English classes at a rough high school, coached track, taught in a psych hospital, processed dead antelope at a wild game meat-processing plant, were test subjects at the VA hospital, and practiced psychotherapy—yet kept writing despite the cruel silence. We were the great writing mass who hoped to get plucked from anonymity into the elite air of publication. So we endured the English majors that sniffed, “Shakespeare didn’t really write those plays” and graduate students informed us, “The Bible isn’t all that well written.”
We endured disappointment year after year, and then decade after decade, yet remained in the slush pile. We wallowed in it and pretended we were almost real authors. We were just still in the poor suffering artist stage, the stage just before we got discovered. Every writer needed that stage, the one that tempered us, the stage we would one day look back upon nostalgically. There was something heroic about that, we told ourselves. The disinterest in our fiction could all end soon, as quickly as checking the mailbox. Yes, we’d always made our nut doing something other than writing. Still we called ourselves “writers,” arrogantly at first, as a noun, “writer,” and then shyly as a verb, “writing,” as the absurdity of it grew over the years, as in “I’m writing a novel but keeping my real job that totally blows but at least pays something.”
I didn’t want to be one more guy who talked big but couldn’t deliver. Those guys were so common. I couldn’t be an elite distance runner so I coached. I couldn’t publish so I taught teens trapped in my required high school English classes. I encouraged them to write for publication, yet I couldn’t publish.
Personally? I wanted to blame the agents and editors. I wanted to say they were too snooty and elitist on the one hand, too dumbed-down and populist on the other. I wanted to blame the monolithic publishing industry for publishing drivel instead of my stuff, but the fact that I just wasn’t good enough moldered underneath. So, what should I have done with the calling to be a novelist when I wasn’t good enough at it? Was I a one-legged man dreaming of winning the Olympic marathon? Was I destined to remain in the crowd, unwilling to leap onto the stage and be shrill, right or wrong but at least with a voice? Should I have given up writing and white knuckled against the press to express myself like fighting an addiction? It was commonsense to quit, right? Or should I have only written for myself? Should I have made a conscious effort to not care if my words went nowhere, or into the trash, or got stolen out of my car’s trunk? I read the names on the spines of books in the bookstores and libraries and thought, “Now they, they are writers. I’m still a poser; a sandwich quarter.” There was something cruel about being a writer but lacking the talent to publish. The same thing that had happened to my distance-running career played out in slow motion in my writing career: I stalled out in the chase pack. Looking back, I was still thinking too rigidly; not willing to drop out of the race, but not doing anything differently either. I was stuck, injuring myself again with my tenacity, but didn’t know how to go about fulfilling my writing dream any differently. The fact was, things were different in 1991, and society and I both had some changes to undergo before I could achieve my goals. Another fact was that despite everything, I hadn’t yet sunk beneath the waves, but still treaded water.
I hung in there because I felt as if my life seeped away when not writing. I needed to express myself. Not documenting my experience, even masked as fiction, made my life less relevant and without consequence. It felt like wasting my life. It was similar to psychology graduate school when they taught us, “If you don’t chart it then it didn’t happen.” Did I have to chart my life to ensure it happened? Writing somehow gave my life meaning.
I understood even then that writing should be enough, just self-expression, art; it shouldn’t be about power, money, publication, or attention. Still I not only wanted to write, but I wanted an audience to appreciate my art. If I were a painter I’d want a show; if I were a dancer I’d want a stage. If someone else said any of this I’d respond, “Of course! It’s normal not to want to melt away anonymously, without being known, back into oblivion.” Yet I label myself a low-grade narcissist. Sometimes I think I’m too hard on myself. I hope so anyway.
Although I considered teaching and coaching young minds as arguably the most important jobs in the world, I still felt a smidge phony because I wasn’t writing. Is that weird? Moving towards self-actualization and love seemed the most reasonable reasons for human existence, and teaching facilitated that for others, so wasn’t that what Maslow had in mind? But writing still felt like my personal path towards self-actualization, an even better way for me to help others. Over the years it remained an unremitting press; it was obvious that I wouldn’t age out of it. I figured that if a corporal could help a few people, didn’t a general have a platform to help far more people? To me published writers were generals.
Although I’m a long way from self-actualizing, I’m trying. Trying matters to a lot of people; when people don’t even try it’s sad to me. I see people who have given up. They’ve lost hope. They are drowning. I imagine they get up in the morning, look in the mirror, and say to their reflection, “I’m going to do as little as possible today.” I’ve known many people like this. Are they necessarily wrong to lack ambition? Are they lazy or just scared? They think they’re incapable. They think there’s no use for them. Are they enlightened or deluded? Personally, I understand, but I disagree. I have to disagree or be a fool. I put on my psychologist’s hat and say that overcoming fear and incompetence requires us to push into and then through the fear via baby steps and then keep doing it, you know, repetition. As your fear decreases your competence increases as you slowly move forward into your better life. You feel better. We call this “courage” and “perseverance.” We convince ourselves that it matters. I wanted to be courageous and to persevere with my writing as if it mattered.
I couldn’t merely talk about writing and other writers, I had to write, and I had to publish. I didn’t fully understand why, only that it was true for me.