Last time we talked about how important it is to stay in the moment, both in our writing lives and in our rest-of-our-lives lives. The example I gave was my own book launch for The Albuquerque Turkey, and my determination to say sufficiently present in the book launch events that I could enjoy them for what they were: high points of my life; things to be cherished.
Now it’s a month later. I’ve been to Santa Fe and back. I’ve launched the novel in Los Angeles. I’ve done guest blog posts from here to kingdom.com. I’ve done interviews, some fun, some stormy. (This one guy was just completely bent out of shape that no events in The Albuquerque Turkey actually take place in Albuquerque. I pointed out that no events in The China Syndrome take place in China. Things went downhill from there.) With everything I’ve done to promote my new book, I’ve stuck to my mantra, detach from outcome, and my motto, just have fun. (And if you want to know the difference between a mantra and a motto, mantras are more serious. But both are good.) I think I did a pretty good job. Anyway, I came through unscathed.
There were disappointments; there always are. As my agent recently said of the book publishing industry, “They’re redesigning the carpet while we’re standing on it.” Consequences of this? Independent bookstores are having trouble finding shelf space for titles like mine. Barnes & Noble is only distributing the book in the western United States. Why? Because it’s a western title, I guess, and wouldn’t appeal to readers east of the Mississippi. Well, crap. But then again, oh well, because that’s a thing I can’t control. (Apart from calling my next book The Whole United States of America Turkey.) (And by the way, never put the word Albuquerque in the title of a book. It’s too damn hard to spell, and I’ve had to spell it 23,323 times to date.)
There have been real thrills, too. My LA launch drew a large and enthusiastic crowd, one that went far beyond my you-have-to-come circle of family and friends. Son of a gun, I’ve got fans. How’d that happen?
But I’ll tell you what: with the disappointments and the thrills alike, I remind myself to keep an even keel. Of course it does no good to get mentally crushed by Barnes & Noble’s distribution policies (or bad reviews or being ranked somewhere in the middle millions on Amazon). But guess what? It doesn’t do that much good to get high on the praise or the fans or the good reviews, either. This is a lesson I learned ages ago, working in Hollywood. When I first started out there, I got totally hooked on Hollywood’s validation. Then, when that validation got taken away (as it inevitably does in Hollywood), I had no ego structure to fall back on. I had no way to feel good about myself within myself. I was destroyed for a long, long time, but when I recovered I was much better off, because I learned never to externalize validation again. These days, mine is the only approval I need. I think that’s a healthier way to go.
From a writing point of view, it’s just vital, because it so often happens as we’re writing that we start to second-guess ourselves. We think the writing is working for us, but we don’t know if it’ll work for our spouse, agent, editor, audience, dog. (Well, dog. Everything works for my dog. I just have to dip it in gravy.) Trouble is, we can’t know if our stuff is going to work for all those thems until we finish it and put it out there – which, alas, we’ll never fricking do if we’re caught up in paralytic second-guessing. Which happens to me just about every day I write. So I tell myself: Please yourself; be an audience of one. This is a good way to go, because if what I’m writing never sees light of day (and this happens to a fat percentage of everyone’s output) at least I can take satisfaction in knowing that I met my own needs as a reader.
Of course, there’s a trap in this as well, a trap of not knowing if we can trust our own judgment. After all, we think it’s good, but how do we know, objectively, that the work really works? Maybe we’re just too easily pleased. For me, the way out of this trap lies in being a really clear-eyed, hard-nosed editor to myself. If I’m honest with myself (difficult, but it can be done), I know when the prose is really singing – and I know when it’s not. I know when something needs to be rewritten, and I know when I’m being too lazy or stubborn or scared to undertake that ever-daunting task.
To put this concept in simpler terms, to trust your yes, have a strong and active no. The more certain you are that you won’t let yourself off the hook, that you’ll always push yourself to the current limit of your ability, the more confident you can be that the job you’ve done is genuinely worthy of your own praise.
I love what I write, and proud of what I can achieve on the page. I can say this with humility and honesty, and with (almost) no ego, because getting to this point has been the daily struggle of 31 years of a writer’s life. I’ve never had a perfect day on the page, but I’ve always improved, simply by dint of putting in my time and being liberal with my no.
And keeping an even keel. Man, that keel makes all the difference. So the next time you’re stressed out over where you are in your writer’s life, just remind yourself that life is long, and your only job, really, is to be a better writer today than you were yesterday. And that’s a goal everyone can reach, whether they like you east of the Mississippi or not.
I close with a quote from Winston Churchill:
Writing a book is an adventure. To begin with, it is a toy and an amusement; then it becomes a mistress, and then it becomes a master, and then a tyrant. The last phase is that just as you are about to be reconciled to your servitude, you kill the monster, and fling him out to the public.
Me personally, I prefer to think of my books as playmates. But then again, I prefer to think of everything like that. So my motto for this month is: stay light. Love what you do, do your best, and take thrills and disappointment equally in stride. That’s what we call balance, and that’s what makes a writer’s life rise.