June 19, 2012

Treasure Hunt

When I decided to be a full-time writer, I jerry-rigged the core of my creative self--poetry--to a new and relatively untested instinct to write nonfiction. On a practical level, I can't make ends meet without both incomes; on an aesthetic level, this next collection will benefit from the breathing room of times I'm focused on prose. Still, it was a risk.  

For the past couple of weeks I've felt in over my head.

I was incredibly fortunate to start with the Washington Post Magazine and then Don't Kill the Birthday Girl, but those opportunities do not equate to the decade of trench journalism  experience many of my colleagues can build on. A piece I wrote on spec--on an issue I feel strongly about--has been rejected three times over. I spent two days on a 1,600-word essay that feels DOA unless I do a major overhaul for tone. A key freelance gig has been in the limbo of people slow to return messages. Another editor is sitting on a trip of story ideas I sent, because I accidentally mistimed and sent during their production week. I am not quite ready to sell the nonfiction book I need to anchor it all. 

It's an incredible gift to reach a set of goals and then claw past them, ever higher. It's also scary as hell. Do not conflate publishing an essay or article with publishing a book. They require very different skill sets. Can I do this? Can I juggle multiple topics and pitches? Can I find that magical balance of being persistent without pestering? 

Here's where I'm supposed to tell you how I re-inspired myself through reading, or daily writing prompts, or a conversation with a trusted mentor. None of those things happened. For a few days I simply hid out in a cave, e.g., watching a whole season of Grey's Anatomy

That didn't fix anything. So I started reclaiming the tenets of being a real girl in a real life, writer or not. I went to the dentist. I got a haircut. I donated clothes I'd outgrown, berating myself for all every time I'd ordered french fries while on book tour, and laundered the others. I visited my grandmother. I went to a friend's engagement party and to another friend's baby-birthday party. I stuck it out through the 14th inning of a Nationals game. 

For once my refrigerator holds real food, perishables like sorrel and blueberries. I've gone a whole month without a roadside meal of sardines on Triscuits. I cooked lunch for a boy I love, packed it in the picnic basket my mother gave me for my birthday, and took it to his studio on a rainy Tuesday. 

These writing frustrations didn't go anywhere in the meantime. They pulsed and glowed in the dark, waiting, a fist of worry. I just looked the other way. 

My super-ambitious side wants to think that all it takes is a couple of days to pull out of a bad stretch, but sometimes it takes longer. Finally, this past weekend, the worries unclenched a little. Perhaps it was the moment, at a friend's rooftop party in Adams Morgan, when she said, "I think all freelancers go through this. Some weeks it is great. Some weeks you go to yoga five days in a row and wonder what the hell you're doing with your life." 

In that moment, hearing her say that, I forgave myself for being scared. Then I did a jello shot with her friends. I may be an old soul in some ways, but I'm a youngin' in others. And that's okay. 

Monday morning brought groceries, and drycleaning. Then good news: a publisher in Beijing purchased the rights to print a paperback edition of DKTBG in Chinese. More good news: that freelance gig materialized, complete with a contract that articulated word counts and fees. 

I swung by a local bookstore to pick up LIVING WITHOUT, in which I have a back-page article. As I walked in, I thought, I need to pause and realize how grateful I would have been, at 25, to be able to do this. This is not an errand. This is a treasure hunt. 

I looked around, and soon I found the issue of TIN HOUSE with my sestinas. 

I kept looking, and soon I found my sister. On the cover of a hair magazine. 

By one in the morning last night I found myself driving a Swiss playwright around town, showing off monuments. We'd watched a staged reading of his play earlier that evening at the Goethe Institut--I'd been delighted to receive an invitation out of the blue. He had seen my poems in WESPENNEST and liked them, realized I lived in DC, and reached out. 

His translator picked Clyde's for a bite to eat afterwards, so I bought the playwright his first oyster shooter. Probably his only oyster shooter, but I admired his fearlessness. We walked up to the Jefferson Memorial and he threw his arms out into the air and whooped aloud. We had the place entirely to ourselves, other than the Park Ranger ensconced behind his desk and a heron picking delicately along the Tidal Basin.

Who knows? Perhaps the next time I see him it'll be in Zurich. 

I have two homeless essays and a dozen emails I'm not looking forward to writing. This freelance gig could be a huge deal or a humiliating exercise in kill fees. No lightning bolt has struck on the book front. 

A hard few weeks. But I'm here. I'm not giving up. There will be mistakes, missteps. There will be editors who--I pray--take a deep breath and have patience with me. The point is, I refuse to let my desire to do it perfectly prevent me from getting it done at all. 

1 comment:

Betsy said...

I loved this post. The every-day of writers and creatives is such a mix of divine inspiration and mundane to-do lists. You captured the reality of the latter perfectly here (something we all need to remember).

I'm a new follower and really enjoy your blog. Thanks for writing it (and everything else you write).