I spent most of this past weekend crying about the fact that I don't have a book of poems published. (It didn't matter to me that I have many poems published in plenty of literary journals.) It wasn't whining. It wasn't whimpering either. It was head-in-my-hands, desperate-as-a-woman-who-might-lose-her-baby, humiliated crying. A cacophony of wailing and sniffling.
Was it really that serious? I thought it was. I felt I was having a nervous breakdown and needed help. That's when I decided to write to my former professor. I wrote:
"...I don't mean to beat a dead horse. But it's hard to get it off my mind because it hurts. A lot. This sting of being a "loser." And the contradictions of my life as a so-called gifted writer are confusing the hell out of me. I don't know what to make of it! Here's what I mean: In school, I had this so-called great mind. I won contests. I was in the TAG (talented and gifted) classes. I always tested very high on my standardized tests. I remember my principal coming to my house to talk to my mother about sending me to a special school, blah blah blah. And this confirmation of me being a great writer continued through college and afterwards. So then, why if I am "all that" would it take me a long time to become a "successful writer?" I mean, why aren't editors of the important magazines seeing in my writing what all my teachers and professors saw in it? It's like going your whole life thinking you are one thing, and then discovering you are actually not! It's quite traumatizing for me!"
He wrote back to me:
"...You are whining a bit. Your only way forward is to be realistic in yourself about your writing. Forget rejections for now. Think about your writing. Do you think it is where it should be? Do you think you can get better? Then focus on that, is what I would say. You want everything now, whether your work is ready for it or not...But my sense is that what you are going through has nothing to do with writing. It has to do with you. Your own self-doubt, your own need for affirmation, your own anxiety about failure. You are working on those things in you. Writing is just walking with you on the journey..."
My teacher was right. My problem didn't lie in whether or not I had published a book. My problem lay in defining myself, as a person, in terms of how many books I had published. And in defining myself by how many books I'd published (0), I could only conclude that I was a loser.
That's why today I made a new list of things that would define me:
1. Not the number of books I publish, but the amount of EFFORT I put into writing, learning, growing.
2. Not how much money I earn, but how prudently I HANDLE that money.
3. Not whether or not I continue to grow my fan base, but whether or not I stay true to who I am.
These may sound simple. Probably even cliche-ish. But they are important to remember because, as is the case with most artists, whenever we get "there," "there disappears." For example, I remember when I used to pray, "All-Knowing Energy, all I ask is that you help me get a poem published." Then it became, "All-Knowing Energy, all I ask is that you help me get a poem published in _____________ literary journal." Then it was, "I want to be published in magazines." And now it's "I want to publish a BOOK of poems."
The problem with such prayers is that they are insatiable. There will always be more to ask for, strive for. And if I am whiny/desperate/humiliated until I do the next best thing, I will always be whiny/desperate/humiliated.