Oh, writing. You are the love and bane of my existence.
As I feared, I didn’t write this weekend as I’d planned. I don’t know what came over me, but I spent the majority of my time playing The Simpsons: Tapped Out game instead of getting some words on paper (or on screen, as it were). I really do need to get a move on; my class starts two weeks from today and I don’t know how I’m going to write that many stories in the same amount of weeks. Eek.
But knowing me and working under pressure, it’ll get done. They will be shitty first drafts, but they will be done. And they could lead to something else.
But this damn novel. It just needs to get out of my head already. To briefly sum up: it’s a novel in stories, à la A Visit from the Good Squad by Jennifer Egan, We Sinners by Hannah Pylväinen, The Twelve Tribes of Hattie by Ayana Mathis, etc. It’s very much a Latina-in-the-U.S. kind of a story, but with more of a focus on growing up in the Midwest. There’s not a lot of Latin@ fiction that focuses on flyover country besides the Southwest. Most of it is coastal, New York or California, with the small exception of Sandra Cisneros in Chicago. But what about the rural Midwest? Like bumblefuck, lily-white, no-cousins-or-other-Latin@s-around Midwest? That’s the story I want to tell.
And some of it already has been told. As I mentioned before, three chapters are already done, a fourth is on its way, and I’ve outlined quite a few more. The three completed chapters have been workshopped, with great degrees of success. One of the most frustrating things about the classes I take is that I rarely get good, critical feedback that could help improve my manuscripts. In all instances, my instructors tell me my stories are this close to being ready for publication—that does not encourage revision, you know? One instructor compared me to Dagoberto Gilb—I was compared to Dagoberto effin’ Gilb. I started shaking and thought, How is that even possible? I don’t have a tenth of his talent! So flattering, but so inaccurate. Last fall, it was to the point where people were coming up to me as if I were already an established author, thanking me for writing something that held so much truth and insight. You now how I reacted?
I was scared, y’all. Friggin’ frightened out of my pants. I fled that classroom only to be given a ride to the Metro by a fellow classmate, who gushed at me some more. I squirmed in my seat until we reached the station.
I am not comfortable with flattery. I’m becoming less scared of producing crap than I am of producing something that works. I want to be hidden (hence why I blog anonymously). I feel like I lose the ability to speak the truth when I’m a known quantity.
But the thing is, I am a good writer (not Gilb great, but good). When I was applying to a job this morning, I had to pull together four pieces from my portfolio. As I did so, I re-read what I had done over the past couple of years and I thought to myself, “Damn, I’m good.” I know that sounds arrogant as all get-out, but I also know I can write. I used to doubt it when I applied to writing job—such a poseur!—but I’ve come to understand that I can put together very human pieces even when, at the time, I may feel like I’m phoning it in. My professors in college told me I knew how to get at the heart of a matter and could write persuasively. I heard things like “The humanities cannot lose you” and “Publish this paper now” when I was an undergrad. I didn’t have the stomach for academics past a master’s degree, but I took that talent and applied it to all sorts of worlds: nonprofit, university, federal and private settings. I’ve had great success, but my problem is owning it. I seem absolutely incapable of owning it.
Which is stupid and destructive to my career and ambitions. Why do I thwart myself like this?
One thing my therapist and I were discussing the other day was power. She pointed out that I have a tremendous amount of power when it comes to my current work situation. I’ve set boundaries that have been more or less respected—coworkers are amazed at the tone I’ve set (even though the constant setting wearies me). When a former coworker (yep, someone’s already left!) sat down for an exit interview, my boss complained that, while I did great work, not being able to reach me 24/7 was an inconvenience. My coworker said this: “You have to know who you have: a terrific day editor. You have to be flexible, too, and recognize when she’s strongest. Otherwise, you’ll have bad edits—and that doesn’t make sense.” My husband has pointed out this tension between what is convenient for the bosses versus what is good for the company, and I think this has led them to the brink of failure. My power lies in the fact that I don’t have an obligation to save them from themselves. I could walk away if need be; I will walk away as soon as I deem it necessary. And my power comes from the fact that I’m good and they need me. While I can be flexible within reason, their need for my talent is greater than my need for the paycheck they provide. Rather than think of myself as beholden to them, I can take control and set the limits I want and do a great job, all while I search for a way to leave.
By that same token, I need to take control with my writing: I need to stop anticipating what may or may not come and simply write in the moment. I feel I have a story to tell—I can’t let the reactions the (unwritten) story may bring stop me. If I didn’t think I had anything to say, I don’t think this would torment me this much. That I now fear success more than I fear failure is telling for me: I have got to stop squandering what I do well and focus on taking it to the next level. No one’s going to get this story down except for me.
(And to be clear, success for me is having a completed manuscript. I am under no illusion that publishing this puppy would be a walk in the park. I’m not even sure I would try to publish it. But writing for myself, successfully, is still intimidating. I need to recognize the power of my voice and run with it. Even if that voice only speaks to me and the few people I let take a glance at a completed manuscript, I’ll feel triumphant in having finished. Not diminishing that feeling is one of the biggest challenges I know I’ll have once I’ve finished this manuscript.)
Talents: I gots ’em. I need to use them.