People keep asking me if…

People keep asking me if I'm thrilled -- a lot of them seem to want to live a bit vicariously through me, to enjoy my recent successes. And I *am* thrilled, this despite my mellow demeanour. (Side note on the mellow demeanour -- during the year Kevin and I were broken up, when I really was shredded and broken-hearted and on the verge of breaking down all the time, a lot of my casual friends, classmates and like, had no idea. Apparently I have a sufficiently sanguinary temperament that even when I am feeling anything but sanguine, the habit and appearance remain.) But at the same time...

I'm not sleeping well. For the last two weeks, I've fallen asleep okay, but slept restlessly thereafter, waking up too early, aside for the one day when I took Dramamine. I don't feel tired during the day -- more restless, energetic. A little frenzied, but with nowhere in particular to direct that energy. I spend it doing paperwork, for the most part, trying to catch up on all sorts of lagging projects. Things like applying for citizenship, so that if I do go to Sri Lanka next year, I can do so as an American citizen, and be less likely to be kept there. Also, if the timing works well, so I can vote. There's lots and lots of backlogged paperwork, and I'm churning through it pretty steadily, but I'm not getting much of the feeling of satisfaction I usually get, watching the pile get smaller. Just more anxiety instead.

I'm having trouble pinning down the reasons. Fear that all the success will dissolve away, that the contracts will fall through? A little, but I don't think that's overriding. Stress at everything I'm juggling? Maybe, but I'm actually juggling less than I was for quite a while, and so far none of the balls are dropping. Money woes? A tiny bit -- Kev and I are slightly overextended right now, and it's going to be another 2-3 months before we see any of the advance money. But that's really not a big deal, even if money issues do cause me anxiety beyond all reason. I don't think any of those are the real reason.

The thing is, this whole New York book deal -- this matters to me. And it isn't the money that's the issue. Although it's lovely to have a commercial publisher, to have the book coming out in hardcover and trade pb, and thus have the potential for a large readership -- in some ways, I'd be happier if I'd won one of the literary contests I entered, so that it'd be coming out from a small university press but with the undeniable stamp of literary merit.

Jed and I were talking the other day about the fact that both of us do care deeply what other people think -- despite what his brother and my parents might think. It matters tremendously to us; we want to be well-liked and praised and respected. That last is awfully important to me. I was reading Terry Pratchett the other day, and Esme Weatherwax said something along the lines of, "Respect is the most important thing to a witch. If you don't have respect, you don't have anything."

That's not quite true, of course. Or rather, what's most true is that if you don't have self-respect, you don't have anything, and if you do have self-respect, it is just barely enough to withstand whatever other people are throwing at you. If I know, deep down, that it's important for me to keep writing about sex, keep talking about it, then that's what lets me stand up to my family and anyone else who criticizes. I don't talk very much about how hard that has been -- it's the hardest thing in my life. It has been for a decade, and though it's gotten a lot easier, it still is the hardest thing I do, to keep writing and talking in ways they disapprove of, ways that disappoint them, that embarass them. If I didn't think it were important...

But that said, if self-respect is just barely enough to live on, it's almost a starvation diet. And what my soul really desires is external respect. Validation. And much as I love you all, this is not your cue to tell me that you respect me or my work, because what the stress and anxiety is really about is about wanting that from strangers, and specifically, influential literary figures like the people at The New Yorker, or the ones judging the big novel contests.

Maybe every writer struggles with a deep-down desire for literary validation, wanting someone in authority to confirm that they're good, good enough, and maybe someday great. I think that anxiety is amplified for those who write in areas (like sex, or science fiction) that have for one reason or another been considered primarily fluff. Entertaining, but not worthwhile. Not literary.

So yes, I'm happy about the sales, I'm thrilled, I'm excited. But I'm also very scared, on some level, because when these books come out, it all gets put to the test. As long as the New York literati hadn't noticed me yet, I could tell myself that later, later when they heard about me, then they would realize how great my writing was. They would respect me. But now -- now they're starting to hear about me. And I'm terrified of what they're going to say.

5 thoughts on “People keep asking me if…”

  1. I know exactly what you mean. I write category romance novels (Harlequins…talk about a genre known for fluff!) while working on a literary historical that will no doubt take me ten years to finish. Meanwhile, I am always telling people, “Yes, my books are charming and fun, but wait until you read the one about the composer in fin de siecle Vienna…that’s some good writing!” The fear is that I will spend these ten years working on the “serious book” and then people will read it and tell me that it’s not nearly as good as I hope it is. Isn’t it strange that the more success we have in writing, the more fearful we get?

  2. Michael Hemmingson

    I used to feel the same way about those literary contents — damn the $1000 prize, a book from, say, the Univ. of Georgia Press would add a bit of legitimacy; so when people say to me (and they have said it often), “All you do is write porn,” and instead of point our a crime/mystery from Forge and Carroll & Graf, I could say, “Look at me high brow collection of quiet stories that may have only sold 503 copies, still…it won an award…”

    And you know what? The folks winning those awards, or publishing exclusively with small and univ. presses, no matter how impressive it may look to the academic world, all of them, well maybe 99% of them, would give their left nut and right boob to get in with HarperCollins…or any NY house.

    You did good, lady! 🙂

  3. Mary Anne Mohanraj

    I know, I know. But it’s much easier to say ‘fuck them’ after they’ve praised you effusively. 🙂

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