To Listen to an audio of this piece, click here https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=aG9UkzoYrTg&t=31s
I pictured the characters in my head, I set up the stage for the seen I’m writing; is it a room in a house? What color is the furniture? What’s hanging on the walls? What are the characters wearing? I put everything in place and watched my characters move, interact, and live their lives, unaware of me, inside a dollhouse I built in my mind.
I breathed life into them, their voices, their demeanor, their past, their inhibitions. I gave them faces, I daydreamed about what they’d do next, I eavesdropped on people in cafes, and stared at them in grocery stores, borrowing their style of talking, their facial expressions, their hand gestures, their quirky body language, and their tics.
But as soon as I wrote down a few pages, and the thrill of starting a new project wore off, the story began to wane, becoming alien to me, then gradually disappeared. My characters suddenly fell silent. Struck dumb, they refused to move, their eyes blank, they turned their backs to me and each other. I nudged them, as if flicking a little bug I wasn’t sure was dead or just playing dead, but they fell on their faces like lifeless Lego toys, and the walls of my dollhouse came tumbling down.
For days after my story abandons me, I’m in a kind of daze, almost bereft. Too raw to start on something new, I go back to my unfinished work pecking at it like a vulture at a clean boned carcass; I move a few commas, I delete then re-write a few ‘ands’, but I have nothing to add, no sign of my muse, all my creative ideas vanish. I feel miserable. I go out for a walk, an irritating din in my ear, I can’t tell if real or conjured by my drained imagination. I borrow several books from the library, in hopes that reading will inspire me, wet my appetite, get my juices going.
Reading brings me some relief, but like snuggling under a warm blanket on a cold winter morning, I refuse to leave the warmth of books, to face the cold blank computer screen; I read and read, searching for a glimpse of inspiration; a spark of a fresh beginning, the ash of an unexpected ending.
Scrolling twitter depresses me further. Every writer I follow is flying around the country promoting their book; they’re giving talks, they’re signing books, their books are getting nominated for awards, they don’t have time to answer all their fan mail, they’re staying at nice hotels, they’re grouchy about organizers with too many demands: “can they talk about their book at (prestigious) institution, do Q&A, and have dinner with the organizers afterwards?” *Humph* the adored writer tweets frustratingly, ending their post with an unimpressed emoji. Fussed and gushed over in interviews and reviews, the writers wish they were back home writing quietly in their room, before their books took off. I roll my eyes, I’m so far away from all of that.
I call myself lazy. “It takes discipline and dedication and I had neither.” I shamed myself.
There are market expectations that dampened my enthusiasm. One agent wrote “I’m looking for lean masculine writing”, which was strange because the reason I took interest in her in the first place, was that her genre was women’s fiction and more specifically, women in jeopardy. But the masculine and lean description bothered me too. Why are we gendering writing? And did she think feminine writing is fleshy?
A judge for a writing competition, which called for unfinished novels, wrote he was looking for exciting writing like Gone Girl. I loved Gone Girl, but there can’t be another Gone Girl.
The numerous rejections I received after sending out short stories and personal essays. Confirmed my lack of writing talent. It took months for them to respond to my submission, months of hoping, were crushed by many who claimed my piece “wasn’t for them.” As they put it. “It doesn’t fit our needs..”, “Thank you for giving us the chance to read your submission, we regret..”, “we are unable to place your work in our magazine..” and the most bizarre rejection; “our selection process is a mysterious one, even we don’t understand it..” I wished they didn’t patronize me, I wished they’d tell me plainly that my writing is bad. My first reaction is indignation; yes! Okay, my writing isn’t noble prize worthy, but it wasn’t shit either! So why wasn’t anything I wrote getting through? I read poorly written, uninteresting, overused clichés in these magazines all the time, why do their standards suddenly go up when it comes to my submissions? But after my initial anger, my hot frustration died into self-deprecating submission; they’re right, my writing is crap, this piece is terrible, it’s not worthy of publication. At the same time, I knew I would feel completely different had they accepted my submission and published it. I would agree with their choice, I would go over the piece again and see it was clever, crafty, worthy of reading, and superior to my other work. I saw my writing through their eyes, not mine. Often when I got a rejection, I’d picture the editor holding my story, and another writer’s story in each hand, and comparing the two. They’d need one more piece for the issue, one more story and they’re ready for publication, they’d look at my story, and the other writer’s story, and finally decide that the other one is just a notch above mine; braver, tighter, had an edge, had that extra element that mine lacked; experimental, unconventional work that maybe had suspense, or more relatable characters, or was relevant to a current social affairs. In my more petty moods, I blamed racism, imagining the judge of a writing competition holding my piece and another writer’s piece in each hand, then finally throwing mine in the slush pile, because my name was foreign. But I always shook myself out of my pettiness, remembering that competitions were anonymous, and submissions were rejected if the author’s name, or any indication to the author’s identity appeared on the submission.
When I put my ideas on the blank page, they never came out right. My words felt motionless and forced, while the ideas in my head were fluid, flowing, and always in motion.
I wish I kept notes on how low the lows were after every unfinished story; the aching in my bones, the sluggishness in my brain, the colors sucked out of life, my food tasting gray. “I’ll never write anything again” I obsessed dramatically to myself, knowing, and not knowing that I would write, a dark doubt rumbling through me never letting me rest.
With my soul suffocating in tar, I wandered in the woods during the day, when I hoped people would be at work, but I still came across a person or two, and wished they couldn’t see me. I preferred the joggers who had their headphones on, and would rush past me without acknowledgment. But the odd dog walker would always nod, especially when the dog came close to sniff me, and then I was under a tremendous pressure to smile and say hello, it took everything I had to look at someone and be a fellow human being.