I love writing. Can’t get enough. Gulp it down like Mr. Owl in that old tootsie pop ad [How many licks does it take to get to the tootsie roll center of a tootsie pop?]: One, Tahooo, Three.
It’s just that publishing thing that isn’t quite as tasty: there are very few winners and they all smell like bowling shoes and have buckteeth and nose hairs the length of a fire hose. Oh, and they’re freakishly lucky and don’t write well. They stink.
I hate reading stories about getting published. Most of them are like Saturday afternoon infomercials, for RoboGym or Insta Cut, where the host, always an overcaffeinated young lad with white teeth and a wide smile oozing with satisfaction, swears by the results and gushes about how easy it is and how it’ll blast the Old You into smithereens and how it’s such a swell deal (but wait, call now and you’ll also receive this bookmark, a $200 value, for free).
I hate the description of The Big Day; the day they knew they made it; the day the world stood still because everyone and their mama dropped to their knees, in shock and awe, pledging allegiance to a new generation of writers dipped in awesomeness. It’s a story a high school freshman would tell: “I was walking to the mailbox because, you know, that’s what I do everyday because, like, sometimes I get important mail, but you never know which day you’ll get important mail and which day you’ll get junk mail. So, in other words, it was a regular day. Little did I know that on that day . . . on that day . . . well, it wasn’t regular day. At all. LOL! When I turned the key, I noticed, like, right away, that the mailbox had an envelope in it, a tall envelope, so I knew something was up—well, I didn’t really know but I had this feeling, like the way a wolf—you know, a wolf, like in the woods—senses danger. But it wasn’t danger that I sensed, it was . . . OMG! OMG! My body, like, stopped working. You know what, honestly, I could feel myself changing. Transforming. Metamorphing, or whatever, into something different. Like a wolf. A werewolf! Like Taylor Lautner! OMG!”
I hate the promises. The money-back guarantees. The certainty in an uncertain world.
I hate the audience. Their applause. Their longing.
Most of all, I hate that I long, too. Wishing I had an agent. A book contract. A manuscript to edit. An acceptance letter, however corny the story, to open and read and frame, instead of a mountain of rejection letters piled so high on my desk that if I breath or cough or sigh with enough gusto the entire mountain will collapse on me like an avalanche and crush me and cover me in my own rejections and failures and nobody will hear me scream and I’ll die a slow and painful death, which newspapers will find fascinating and therefore report, on the front page in big bold lettering, “MAN DIES OF FAILURE; NOT HEART FAILURE, JUST FAILURE”—but since nobody reads newspapers anymore, nobody will hear about it until Comedy Central gets its hands on the story and Steven Colbert proclaims, with a wag of the finger, “Nation, I thought Bill O’Reilly was a loser, a real Loserasaurus [audience cheers]. . . I did, I really did, but then, Nation, [Colbert chuckles], but then I heard of Matt Blackstone,” as the audience, howling like hyenas, chants his name instead of mine: “Ste-ven. Ste-ven, Ste-ven . . .”
II. Mr. Foncy Ponts
After now, after years of rejection and rooms full of high-pitched “sorry, good luck” letters, now that I’m about to be published, with another book on the way, I’ve realized something else: I hate talking about it.
It makes me irritable, itchy, like red ants are crawling up my thigh. I don’t recognize my voice; no matter what I say, I sound fancy—no, foncy—like I have a British accent, play a smashing game of Polo, and eat only “mixed greens”—only with a salad fork.
I tell myself, “Self, yeah you, you’re not British; tell them the truth: your favorite food is hot dogs, you own one pair of jeans, suffer (sometimes for weeks) from writer’s block, you pick your nose, waste more time than you’d like to admit, and you feel guilty buying Mexican Turkey at the store because it’s expensive and you don’t think you deserve it.”
For a long time, I didn’t know why I was so hesitant and downright strange when it came to self-promotion. I thought I was camera shy, but if my subway videos taught me anything, it’s that I don’t mind acting the fool in front of a camcorder.
I figured maybe I didn’t want to make others jealous. My mom, the model of humility, taught me never to be haughty, never to rub it in. Whenever I imitated Nelson from The Simpsons by yelling “HA! HA!” at my brother when I got better grades, or he spilled orange juice on the floor, my mom threatened to wash my mouth out with soap. It was a good lesson, and I never ate soap (my brother ironically did). Nobody likes a bragger, a boaster, an elitist (why do you think presidential candidates, with their Harvard Law degrees, swig Budweiser the year before an election?).
I think, though, like most issues related to writing, it was fear. Fear that if I talked about it, then it would go away. The gift would be gone. All of it—the advance, the agent, the accolades—would vanish. An irrational superstition, yes, but a very real fear based on a very real fact: nothing is permanent—not even Oprah, or love, especially on The Bachelor. It’s a lesson deeply embedded in the mind of every athlete: one day you’re on top, and the next—be it a bum knee, a torn shoulder, a bad trade—you’re in the next Sports Illustrated’s Where Are They Now issue, sporting a McDonald’s visor, flipping burgers with the only strong wrist you got left. Ever wonder why athletes don’t wash their socks and eat the same exact meal with same exact portions at the same exact time while listening to the same exact song before every game? Well, this is why.
(Sports fanatics, who live vicariously through their heroes, are just as superstitious and afraid, which is why they refuse to declare victory until the final out/whistle/bell/horn so that they’re not personal responsible for putting the kybosh on their team.)
It’s crazy, I know, but ask most writers and they’ll tell you the same thing: they’re lucky, they know it, and they try really f—ing hard not to f— it up. And I tried, for the first six months after getting a book deal, not to f— it up. I avoided chat forums on Twitter, didn’t tell my colleagues about my book, and heavens no did I tell my students. For one, I didn’t like sounding like Mr. Foncy Ponts; but most importantly, I was afraid. Afraid of flipping burgers. Afraid I’d lose it all.
But if sports have taught us anything, it’s that you can’t win by playing not to lose. You can’t kill the clock for an entire quarter and hope the other team doesn’t catch up. You have to keep moving down the field. You have to crawl out of your little writing cave and tell people about your book. You don’t have to brag—and you certainly don’t need to pull a Mark Zuckerburg in The Social Network and make business cards that read I’m CEO, bitch—but if you believe in your book, its characters and its story, then tell people about it. Start a blog. Introduce yourself, whoever you are: if you’re goofy, wear your goofy hat and dance, dance, dance; if you’re serious, lament about the economy; if you’re a teacher, you better learn to laugh, man—and if you get a really good quote from a really quirky 9th grader, write about it, whether that’s in a blog or in your next book. (And if the haters soak you in Haterade, it means you’re on to something.)
I’m no expert (if you’re looking for one, pick up a copy of Steven Kings’s On Writing, or Anne Lamott’s Bird by Bird; they’re great books by great people who write much better than I ever will), but if you’re curious about what it takes to navigate the cruel publishing world, or wonder how many times I quit writing (One, Tahoo, Three…) but kept going, or just wanna laugh at a newbie writer who doesn’t eat mixed greens and is thankful he didn’t drown in his own failures, follow this writing series, I LOVE YOUR GUTS.