Last week–as I was re-reading a revision I would be sending to my agent the next day–I had a realization.
I am a hack.
Every sentence. Every word. It read as if someone had gone to Goodwill, torn individual pages from 300 books, and tried to join them together.
This was my manuscript. This was the last nine months of my life. This was the proof I had long-known would show its face–that would expose me for who I really am.
Hack. Hack. Hack.
I began composing an e-mail to my agent.
Dear Michael, I hope this finds you well. I am writing to inform you that I have no talent, and I will be destroying all evidence of my writing life–including Twitter and this e-mail account–by no later than the business day tomorrow. The reason, as you probably know and just have been too polite to tell me, is my inability to string more than two words together in a way that doesn’t make people want to stab themselves in the throat. I hope you are doing well.
My finger hovered above SEND, convinced that–if my prose hadn’t done it yet–this e-mail would surely jettison me from the world of publishing. It would become the stuff of legend, the new He tried to pitch that editor in the bathroom stall story that is whispered in the halls of every SCBWI event. I like to think I would at least get some name recognition for the act–maybe they would even call it Doing A Bliss. Editors and Agents would congregate together and, over cocktails, speak of my flaming descent into young adult urban legend.
Editor: I heard he FedExed his manuscript to a publisher covered in chicken blood.
Agent: Yes, that’s right–something about trying to remove the evil spirits.
I removed my finger from the mouse and picked up my phone. The first thing Jeff said to me was, “What? Why in the hell are you reading your manuscript? I thought it was done…” This was partially true. It was done in the way that a burned piece of pizza is done–there is no more cooking that needs to happen, but nobody wants to eat it, either.
“Well, I needed to make sure it read evenly.”
“Just stop reading. Right now.”
That night–in a kind of screwed up form of Karma–I opened a book I had just bought and read the following quote: “Writers generate anxiety like a lamp does heat.” Obviously this didn’t make me feel better about the manuscript that was still waiting in my bag, but it did create a strange sense of assurance. Out there, in the shadows of Twitter and Facebook, there was a sad and lonely collective who knew what it felt like to vacillate between confidence and doubt. They knew the moments of glory–when every word feels right. When you read page after page of your work and think, “I. Am. The. Shit.” And, because they know this glory, they also know the sort of doubt that turns your mind to pulp. When page after page is shitty at best.
And yet, what else do we have to do but return to it? Walking away, for most of us, isn’t an option. So that leaves us with the unfortunate realization that we have to live with our fear and loathing. And maybe, more importantly, we have to own it. Because, as much as I would like to think this doubt will never creep into my mind again–that, somehow, I’ve learned my lesson–I know it isn’t true. Doubt is forever entangled with writing, because we are forced to open ourselves to the world in the most intimate ways. And while it is heartbreaking to live through, I am becoming more and more convinced it is necessary. Good fiction–as with anything–risks something. This risk is the breeding ground of doubt. But it is also the place where greatness is born. And maybe there can’t be one without the other.
This was all fine and good but I still had an agent waiting for a manuscript. And the next morning, when I picked up the book again–approaching it like a husband approaches his wife after an argument–I cautiously turned over the first page.
It wasn’t as bad as I remembered and the second bordered on good. Five pages in I was once again convinced of my greatness.
There should be a pill for this. Or maybe there is.