“Why does this never get any easier?” I groaned to my trainer last week in the middle of deadlifting.
He looked confused. “Well, because we keep adding weight to the bar. You could only lift half this much a year ago.”
I had to concede his logic, even if it didn’t really answer my question.
The main thing about me is I never think I’m making any progress. Yesterday, for example, I happened to read about the six 2018 books chosen for a special “Buzz Book” panel at a major book industry conference. That’s six books total, across all genres, out of thousands published in a given year. It had never once occurred to me that mine could be one of the six… until I saw that it wasn’t. And then I sort of deflated. Your book is just not the kind of book that creates buzz, I told myself. It’s a weird book, by a weird person. Just get used to that.
I moped around for a while and then I saw the online table of contents for the spring issue of a literary magazine that recently accepted one of my essays. In fact, I thought they’d accepted it for the spring issue, except uh oh, why wasn’t it listed? Maybe they changed their minds after accepting it and just forgot to tell me, I thought. Because the essay is actually so forgettable that they didn’t even remember someone wrote it.
“Hey babe,” said my unsuspecting husband, coming in from a run in the park. “Oh hey,” I said, then explained the ways in which my career had fallen apart in the past hour. “It seems very likely that I will dwell in mediocrity,” I said gravely. “I have walked away from a successful career with money to an unsuccessful one with no money.” (Did I mention that I left my day job a few weeks ago?)
“Or maybe you’re putting a ton of weight on two very small data points,” he said. “One of which would have been like being struck by lightning, and the other of which may very well be an error.”
“Oh please,” I said. “I have had years of cognitive behavioral therapy. I know all about binary thinking and catastrophizing and projecting and the rest of it. That doesn’t mean my career can’t still be falling apart. Hypochondriacs do get cancer, you know.”
Seeking someone who would understand just how bad things had gotten, I texted a writer friend about being dropped by the literary quarterly. “Why don’t you drop a friendly email asking what’s up?” she said. I had to admit it sounded reasonable. So I did, taking pains to sound breezy and oh-hey-just-curious. I got a response less than an hour later, saying my piece is scheduled for the summer issue. Because hypochondriacs do get cancer, but they also flail around in a panic a lot over nothing.
Panic, self-doubt, fear: all just standard stuff in a writer’s life, right? Except consider these facts:
- In the late 90s, the last time I was trying to place work in literary journals, the one that’s publishing me this summer rejected me nine or ten times. This time around, they asked me to write something for them.
- The only reason I could freak out over not being one of six Buzz Books is because I have a book coming out this summer, from one of the finest literary publishers in America, the publisher of my dreams, who have made my manuscript into a gorgeous book that has been circulating and getting industry blurbs and other enthusiastic comments that make me dizzy.
- And the only reason said manuscript exists is that I wrote it. For eighteen months I spent every weekend and most nights writing, and the book was on my mind in some way 24-7, like an earworm or a tinnitus buzz. My brain became a two-story house and I learned to live on both floors at once.
- And the only reason I could write a book is that six months into sobriety, I sat down on impulse one day and wrote a page of a short story, just to see if I had any muscle memory left after a decade away from writing. And then I did it again, and again. I kept sitting down to write because it felt good. I told my husband I didn’t care if I ever got published, or if anyone ever even saw what I wrote; I just wanted to be doing it. And I meant it.
- And if you’d told me on that day that I’d ever leave my day job, I wouldn’t have believed it. And not just because I couldn’t have foreseen a writing career for myself. Because I thought someone as mediocre as me was lucky to have a job at all, that I’d somehow been tricking my employer into keeping me around. I was two years sober before I started to clearly see how good I was at my job, and over three when it dawned on me that my employer was probably never going to value me the way I needed to feel valued, and over four by the time it hit me that instead of just resigning myself to feeling overlooked, I could leave, make a new life for myself where I could shine and be seen.
That was four years ago. Four years from “Do I still know how to write a good sentence?” to “Why was my book not one of six chosen from thousands to showcase at BookExpo?” Four years from “Who else would ever hire me?” to “Who wouldn’t want to hire me?” The person I was four years ago would say “My God, 2018 Kristi sounds like an ego monster.” But 2018 Kristi (which should totally be the title of a Prince song) isn’t an ego monster. She just knows what she’s worth, and she knows it because she did every fucking bit of the work to get here. There were no shortcuts; if anything, there were longcuts, because the hard way is the way I always go.
I guess I must like the hard way.
But the hard way is slow and progress only piles up in retrospect. Years ago, ending an obsessive long-distance love affair, I couldn’t see that two days without talking or writing was twice as long as we’d ever made it before. I could only white-knuckle each hour and dwell on how that would never change. Finishing a difficult essay last month, I complained to anyone who would listen about the agony of only knowing what I think through the act of writing it, so that what I know and my ability to express it are never quite in balance; it’s a race with a photo finish.
Not to mention, I raise the stakes all the time. In yoga, I was first taught to do a headstand with my feet on the wall for balance. Over time, I moved a few inches away. Then I started kicking up in the middle of the room. Then I could kick up in the middle of the room and add on variations: leg splits, a twist from the torso, a half-lotus.
“Why does this never get any easier?” I said one day to my teacher, who laughed.
“Why would it?” she said. “You keep moving forward.”
I’ve started writing what I hope will be my next book and the mess of it is making me crazy. I don’t want to have to flounder around in the dark, searching for the voice and the structure. I want to have it all figured out right now and just, you know, type it up. Maybe I don’t actually know how to write a book, I thought the other day. Then I remembered something my friend Claire said, because she’s been where I am now:
“The second book is much harder,” she said. “Because you proved the first time around that you can write a book, and now you want to write a great one. It’s a quantum leap in ambition, and therefore in difficulty. Be prepared.”
I listened when she said this and I nodded gravely and I thought I was prepared. But of course I’m not prepared, because I’ve never been prepared. To quit drinking, to write a game-changing book, to leave a job, to leave a lover, to serpent-twist my legs in midair. I trust that I’ll catch up with myself, somehow, in the ways that matter most. And I keep moving forward.