Fail Whale

failwhale The only person I tell about my latest failure is my mother.
“I got an email from that fellowship,” I recount over the phone. Nonchalantly, like narrating a run-in with a high school acquaintance at the grocery store.
 
“The one in Big Sur?” she asks.
 
“No, no. The one in eastern Oregon. I didn’t get it.”
 
“Ohhh,” her voice a punctured balloon. “But I read that letter. It was so good! I was sure you’d get it.”
 
“Well, if I did, I don’t know how I’d get to the retreat anyway,” I say, trying to buff out the sting. “There are no direct flights to Joseph and it’s like six hours from Portland. I can’t afford a rental car for a week. So, you know.”
 

I don’t verbalize that I was praying for a logistical nightmare to befall me. I don’t agree with the fact that I thought my cover letter was epic, that I sent the best sample out of my manuscript (the chapter people have a habit of texting me after they read with praise I treasure). I don’t mention the confidence with which I sent $20 via PayPal and clicked Send, a moment of euphoria where I felt I had this in the bag. I don’t point out that I put my best out on the line for this fellowship, and if my best is not good enough, I don’t know what else I can do in this writing life. I don’t know if what I’m doing is right. Perhaps I have made a grave miscalculation with my life, and I shouldn’t be doing this at all.  
 
This self-doubt is a slippery slope, and one that no one can save me from. Not my mother, not my friends, not my writing group, not my therapist. I was the only person who could have decided that I should be a writer, and I’m the only one who can evaluate whether I should keep being one. I know this, but in times like this, I can’t help but slip.
 
This time in my writing life is Writer Limbo. My manuscript is with a publisher, who has maintained a silence most commonly associated with Tibetan monks. I have a column premiering in the future, but it has been pushed back so many times over the last six months I feel as though I’m starring in my own one-woman production of Waiting for Godot. My Submittable queue is now empty, with all of my recent submissions being stamped FAIL and filed into a folder so stained in crimson that it looks like Dexter’s kill room. This blog is the most I have written in weeks, as I am consumed with a sudden cross-country move from Portland to Tucson. I think of how Stephen King plinked out sentences on that typewriter in his laundry room after working menial labor shifts, and my self-loathing flourishes.
 
Writers are reminded in every magazine, craft book, conference and class that rejection is part of “the process.” Just like writing sentences and cutting out passages. We hear the stories about our favorite writers being rejected from agents and publishers tens/hundreds/thousands of times before changing the world. I’m not sure you can call rejection the hardest part of the writing process, but it’s high up on the Agony Top Ten. We are encouraged to swallow the jagged pill and take the no’s in stride. People will gently remind us of the discouraging odds, and occasionally someone like Philip Roth or Annie Dillard will straight up tell us to do ANYTHING else with our lives but write. If you don’t believe that you’re special, that you might stand a chance against the masses, you’re out of the game already. The artist’s necessary persistence—a combination of tenacity against gale-force winds, lead-thick skin and a maniacal ego—requires superhuman strength, and I am merely mortal.
 
Once the doubts creep into my head (Maybe my book wasn’t ready, maybe there is no arc, maybe I’m superficial and boring like Lorrie Moore says memoir is, maybe I’ll never write anything people will want to read), I become paralyzed. Fear freezes my fingers and clouds my mind, and I can feel my throat closing with panic. I can’t think. I can’t write. I hate myself for being so needy and weak, and then I turn to the most convenient vice: eating, drinking, makeup shopping. My doubt is a most efficient self-fulfilling prophecy.
 
And at the same time as I’m obliterating and recreating my delusions of grandeur, I’m sending out the same judgments to fellow writers. I work as a staff editor on two literary journals, and review books for a magazine. I send out rejections for work that may have been someone else’s best try. I do not recommend books that someone else has labored to bring into reality. I make decisions based on my own tastes and perceptions and measures of what I feel is good or bad, right or wrong. All of the stuff I tell myself is “total bullshit” when I receive another No in my inbox. I defend these decisions and stand behind them, just as I defend my rejected work and try my best to keep standing behind it. Easier on some days than this one.
 
How do I reconcile my sadomasochistic chameleon status, switching from top to bottom and back? How can I send out rejections when my submissions boomerang back to me with the same message? What I try to remember after a manic episode is that I am not everything. I do not create work that everyone in the world will like, and I don’t like all good writing. I curate and prefer what speaks to me, a person made up of unique experiences and personality traits. There are plenty of beloved, renowned works that I would pass up for my journals, and obscure pieces I would push to the top of the pack. Good writing to me means an entirely different set of values to my colleagues, because here’s the rub: this whole writing life game? It’s subjective. It’s not a math equation. You can only quantify it with your heart.  If we can’t even agree on the Oxford comma issue, we are definitely not a crowd who can give a universal answer to What Makes a Great Submission.
 
I’m always looking for pieces that keep me thinking after I’ve put them down, with scenes that I reread several times not because I’m confused, but because I can’t believe how much that paragraph rocked me. I love when the spark of an idea introduced to us at the beginning of an essay or story explodes by the end, bringing us full-circle. I crave action in memoir and characters. I prefer the dark humor and infinite sadness clawed out of the ordinary to the magnificence of the extraordinary event-for-event’s-sake. I wish for less back story and more subtlety. I don’t want to be told how to feel. I love creating connections on my own, and laughing, and discovering empathy that I would never have for someone while I skimmed the surface of their choices. These are the things I try to do when I write, and know I need to work harder on when I fail. These are the feelings that drive me as a writer and an editor.
 
Tape the No’s up to the bathroom. Buy yourself the new lipstick. Order the extra cocktail. Unsubscribe from the journal’s mailing list. Call or email someone who will share in your shock (thanks, Mom). We can own our sorrow as much as we own our right to keep trying. Let someone tell you some inane advice about how every no is closer to a yes or some such crap. Know they’ll be right eventually. If you can’t stop thinking about self-doubt, stop thinking. Start typing. Start, start, start. Because there will always be a reason to stop.