When You Get What You Really, Really, REALLY Want: Then What?
We humans are creatures of imagination. We can visualize things that don’t exist, whether absurd and impossible, like fairies and unicorns and talking giraffes; or merely aspirational, like, oh, becoming a published writer.
This is a semi-follow-up to my article yesterday, about how there were all these things I thought I wanted to do, but I did other things instead.
The Roads Not Taken
How different would my life have been if I’d turned left instead of right?
In it, I mention how I deeply, madly, obsessively wanted to get published. Anything, I thought. If I could publish just one short story, it would make all the difference. Just seeing my name in print would make me so happy.
So I worked at it, I worked so hard at it. I wrote, and revised, and submitted, and got rejected.
I worked harder. I revised further, tried new stories, joined a critique group.
Eventually, at long last, I sold a story. I got published.
Was it all I imagined? Haha, funny story, that.
I mean, sure, it was at first. When I got the acceptance, I jumped up and down and ran around the house shrieking with glee. That evening, my husband and I went out for a fancy dinner to celebrate, with champagne and everything. Never mind that the dinner and champagne cost far more than the story was going to pay — this was just going to be the first sale in a brilliant career.
While I waited for the anthology to come together, I wrote more stories and sent them out.
Let me tell you, the first rejection after the first acceptance is brutal. “What is this bullshit?” you think. “I’m a published writer! Didn’t they see that line in my cover letter?? DON’T THEY KNOW WHO I AM???”
Yeah, well. Turns out, editors don’t give a flying banana split whether you’ve sold one short story about something creepy happening down by the river in Memphis to an anthology being put together by a small publishing house in East Barsoom, if the story you sent them doesn’t fit what they’re looking for.
That was a hard lesson, but I absorbed it and went on. And eventually made more story sales!
Guess what? The first rejection after your second sale doesn’t feel a lot less awful than the first.
The story sales did slowly accumulate, and my brag shelf started looking respectable, or at least not pathetic. And yet, I wasn’t famous. My stories didn’t get nominated for any awards; rejections were still far more frequent than acceptances; and I couldn’t get an agent for the life of me.
Because that had been my goal all along, I now realized: I wanted to sell a novel. I wasn’t really a short story writer; that had been a means to an end. The reason I’d really wanted to sell short stories was to build my pub credits to attract an agent.
(Amusingly, that very first story sale…never actually came to pass. The anthology, and its payment, were delayed and delayed and delayed. Eventually I withdrew the story. It’s never been published anywhere.)
I won’t belabor the details of the next few years, because you can probably see where this is going…I did, at long last, get an agent! She was a nice lady but she ultimately didn’t work out, and we parted ways. And then, at long last, I sold a novel! And it got published! And then another one! And that one even got nominated for an award! And was named one of Publishers Weekly’s Best Books of 2014!
And still, I wasn’t famous, or even rich.
A writer mentor once described to me the concept of “trading up to a better class of problems,” and this is it. The problems he was having then — his high-powered New York agent was having trouble getting his fancy New York publisher to agree to a bigger advance for his new series than they had for his previous one — looked like pretty good problems to me.
But my problems — I’ve sold dozens of short stories and several novels but nobody’s ever heard of me and I’m still not making anything like a living on this whole writing thing — yeah, Past Me would have given her eyeteeth and at least one big toe for such a calamity.
It’s as if your vision shifts when you enter a new landscape. You see things you could only imagine before.
And, as potent as our human imaginations are…they kind of suck at predicting what happens in the real world.
I’m sure big success changes people…but maybe not as much as we think it does. (I’m having to use my imagination here, though, not being a big success myself; so take this with a grain of salt.) Everything that’s happened to me in my life — good and bad — has had its impact on me, has changed me and educated me and (I hope) helped me to grow…but I’m still me.
I’ve long had a “90–10” theory, or even a “95–5” one: that fundamentally, we are who we are. Hard-wired, or laid down far too early in life to unlearn, I don’t know; but we have only a relatively small area, that 5 or 10 percent, that we can fiddle with. Our basic personalities, our core likes and dislikes and opinions and tastes and emotional set points, are pretty much what they are.
Now, that 5 or 10 or heck maybe even 15 percent (why not go crazy here) can look huge. I’ve been a vegetarian hippie and a wealthy trophy wife and a polyamorous party girl and a bookkeeper and a fantasy fiction writer and a secretary and a (failed) realtor. But I was always me, throughout those roles. I’ve always been a reader and a non-arguer and a cheese eater and (once I grew up) a wine drinker and a bit of an introvert, with ticklish knees. And all the stuff underneath that, which I can’t even put names or characteristics to: the stuff that makes me who I am.
So if I somehow break out and become a huge literary success, I feel pretty sure that I won’t just sit there basking in the pride and delight of my own mighty accomplishments as I gaze upon my brag shelf laden with glossy, best-selling tomes. (Okay, I totally will for a few minutes, but then life goes on, does it not?) I’ll be doing the next thing, and the next, and the next. Writing the next work; dealing with the “better class of problems” that will inevitably pop up.
I’m fine with that. I mean, it’s all been good so far — even when it hasn’t.
It’s led me here, after all.