I’ve spent the better part of the last two years thinking and plotting and writing and revising and editing and obsessing my way to the 330 pages that make up my first novel.
And I’ve spent the better part of the last five (ever since my life caved in on itself) in regular therapy, reflecting and conversing and soul-searching and journaling my way to becoming a person not only capable of writing an emotionally vulnerable 330-page novel, but a person whose self-esteem won’t be entirely predicated upon that novel’s success or failure¹.
Or so I thought. But then the phone rang last week, and all that hard work and self-care flew right out the window.
When you’re a writer (or an actor, or really anyone working in Hollywood), your phone is like a loaded weapon: every time it goes off, there’s a chance you might die (or, at the very least, your dreams will). The phone isn’t just a communication device; it’s a career barometer. Did that producer like your pitch? Did that showrunner like your energy? Did the studio like your re-write? You’ll never know for sure until your agent or manager calls, because trust me, nobody in this town will ever give you a straight answer face-to-face².
And when you live in a world where a few chords of Marimba can signal a life-altering phone call or (another) painful rejection, you can become quite the Pavlovian pooch.
Instead of drooling, my conditioned response typically involves some mild tachycardia³ and an adrenaline kick from my sympathetic nervous system⁴. I also answer the phone as fast as humanly possible.
(Quick sidebar: I’ve learned that the urgency with which I answer a phone call is inversely proportionate to how secure I feel about the relationship I have with the person calling. For example, when my mom calls, I am often more than happy to let it go to voicemail. Whereas, if a girl that I’ve just started dating calls, I will answer immediately, i.e. thereby eliminating any chance of her having second thoughts, hanging up, and never calling me again.)
Needless to say, when my manager called last week (on the heels of reading my post about waiting), I answered on the first ring. And before we’d even exchanged pleasantries, my head was already spinning with the countless ways that I could improve my book. The same book that we had both decided was ready for public consumption (after the aforementioned two years of revising and editing and…)
He wasn’t calling to ask me to make changes, of course. He just wanted to give me a quick update: he’d sent the book to a well-regarded lit agent, who he thought might be a good fit to help shepherd us through the publishing world. As it had only been a couple of weeks, he hadn’t yet heard back from her, but it was a first step (on what will surely be a long journey — no matter how it turns out).
But my mind couldn’t focus on the journey; all I saw was my ship (a.k.a. my book) sailing off into uncharted waters. And I wanted more than anything to dive into the water and try to drag it back to the safety of the harbor.
“When an agent or manager reads something, they’re not expecting it to be perfect, right? I mean, they’re looking to see potential, obviously. But you’d never read something and not wanted to give the writer notes, right? You wouldn’t expect it to be, like, a finished product right out of the gate, would you?” I somehow managed to ask in one breath.
“Uhh…” my manager said, clearly unprepared for my avalanche of insecurity, “it- it really depends, ya know?”
What he didn’t know (what he couldn’t know) is that earlier that morning I’d received a text from my cousin, who’d had a chance to read my book over the weekend. His feedback was overwhelmingly positive, but he did have one small criticism: he felt like the story took a little while to get going. And, of course, me being a writer, all I could focus on was the criticism.
Distracted by work for most of the day, I was able to sweep the critique under the rug. But the moment I heard that an important decision-maker now had the opportunity to arrive at that same conclusion and tell me that she had zero fucking interest in ever representing me as a result, well… That’s when I started to panic
Look, there’s no getting around it: when you work in a creative field, there comes a point where your work has to be judged (whether it’s by decision makers, collaborators, or audiences). But I don’t care how many times you’ve gone through it, it’s never easy. You think asking someone on a first date is a leap of faith? Try asking them to spend their time and energy (and quite possibly their money) on a story you cooked up in your imagination. That takes some serious chutzpah. Because let’s face it: no matter how great you feel about the work you’ve done, there’s always a question dancing in the back of your head:
Why do I deserve an audience? Or more to the point…
What makes me so fucking special?
Answering these questions can be a tricky bit of business for two reasons:
1) They’re inherently rhetorical, and even more to the point, self-flagellating.
2) They present a false choice. The authors and screenwriters of the most successful books and movies aren’t “special”, and their stories don’t “deserve” an audience; they just find one.
Among the many prerequisites of writing anything worth sharing is an openness: to your ideas, to your emotions, and to a potential audience who might one day share the journey with you. In other words, there is no art without vulnerability.
But the thing I think we sometimes forget is that we have to remain open even after the creating has taken place. (Even when our only impulse is to curl up into a ball and protect ourselves).
We have to march right back to the edge of the cliff and leap. Again. And again. And again.
¹Of course, as all of that therapy and soul-searching has taught me, the definitions of “success” and “failure” are always self-imposed.
²Basically, if “The Industry” was someone you were dating, they’d break up with you by sending a text…to your friend…and have them do it for them.
³a.k.a. an elevated heart rate.
⁴a.k.a. butterflies in my stomach.