Doubling down


As I tweeted earlier, I am coming to terms with my suckitude, and then trying to psych myself to work harder, in order to make up for my lack of natural talent as a writer. I haven’t been posting much here, because I like to entertain, even in the throes of pain whether psychic or physical, and I just don’t know how to make the anguish over my writing, at all charming.

I’ve gotten rejection after rejection from litmags, even if once in awhile, I receive a wonderful and encouraging handwritten note from a notable litmag. In the end, they’re all still rejections–hundreds of them. I even got a litmag rejection on my birthday. It has made me give up entirely on writing short stories.

I’m surrounded by successful people and friends, whether in the world of writing or in the world of business. My husband is brilliant and amazing and has achieved so much in his industry vertical. Next to their many commendations and achievements I feel, well, I feel like all those rejections speak for me. Almost, but not quite. Or more often, not good enough.

Meanwhile, my novel is taking everything out of me. It overwhelms me. It intimidates me. It taunts me. It occasionally winks at me. It smells good. It smells bad. It is elusive. It is stoic. It is confusing. It is an enigma at times. It unfurls itself and shows me its entire landscape at other moments. It is a long way from being finished.

I’ve considered never writing again. I can’t bring myself to do it. I have no choice but to write. I love it too much. I consider the tragedy of loving an activity at which I totally suck, and that just makes me want more chocolate. But it doesn’t make me want to stop writing.

It is out of arrogance that I think my novel should be easier to write, that the words should pour forth from my fingers. The reality is that it’s the hardest thing I’ve ever undertaken. I’m not as talented as others. And so I’ve got to put in the work.

And I’ve got to be happy about the work. I’ve got to be motivated to sit at my desk and write the words, navigate my prose, and be there if the Muse happens to stop by–because if I’m not there, I may miss the Muse.

Thus ends my absolutely uncharming post. In sum:

  • Writing is heartbreaking.
  • Writing involves a lot of failure.
  • I’m not as talented as other writers.
  • Thus, I have to work harder.
  • If I show up to work, I may actually meet the Muse.
  • Work is how I finished the first draft of my novel.
  • Eventually, I’ll finish revising my novel. Through hard work.
  • I don’t have to finish revising on any timeline. I just have to make it my best.
  • Shut my eyes when lists like “New Yorker’s 20 Under 40” come out.
  • Because I’ll most definitely be over 40 by the time I finish revising this novel.
  • Don’t quit.

This isn’t much different from what I tell my students. I also tell them to find support in each other, because support from peers and mentors makes all the difference.



Filed under Novel, Revision, Writing

20 responses to “Doubling down

  1. Best of luck. Getting the first draft completed is a huge deal, if you ask me. Congrats on that!

  2. You do NOT have a lack of natural talent. I think you are immensely talented, both in fiction and nonfiction. I think it is incredibly unfortunate that your writing has not met that “click” with an editor out there but I truly do NOT think it is due to lack of talent.

    You are braver than I am. In many ways I think the reason I can continue to write, and continue to think of myself as a writer, is that I submit very very little, very infrequently, and so have not had my heart broken over and over like you have. I keep putting it off, for various reasons, and in many ways this has saved me. I don’t think I’ve submitted anything in a few years.

    I would never say “stop writing” because I DO think you need to write. And you should. I think your writing is really really good AND compelling. But maybe give yourself a break from sending it out for a while, and just write for writing’s sake. You will feel ready again.

  3. Boy can I relate! I’ve got 5 more chapters to revise in my YA novel, and I’m having major insecurities. This post just speaks to me, but don’t think for a minute you aren’t as talented as your fam & friends!

    I’ve got to agree with Susan: your fiction and nonfiction is full of the talent to make your readers FEEL. That’s a tough skill to cultivate. Skill beats talent any day!

    Also, short stories are a tough sell nowadays. That’s the market–not you.

  4. Ayeeeee! That sucks; I’m sorry. This is why I stopped submitting short stories while writing 13 rue Thérèse. The trickle of rejection was eroding my ability to work on my novel. Sometimes you have to shut off all feedback and let your brain be its own sealed ecosystem without noxious interference from the outside. One thing that was unfortunate about the MFA program is that it sort of trains you to be a writing extrovert, to seek feedback and constant give & take with other people about your work to feel like you’re making progress. That is often not the best MO for long-term projects like novels, which are hard enough to wind through without painful crises of confidence brought on by avalanches of rejection slips. It is okay to go through fallow periods (they are necessary to let large structures accrete), and it is also okay to seal your vessel (because, let’s face it, sometimes nothing will fuck up your writing worse than the writing community) to give it time to heal–and also because some chemical processes require hermetic environments. It is awesome that you have a complete draft of your novel; that already kicks ass. Remember you are not on a deadline, you can let the thing take the time it needs. After I graduated from Mills, I didn’t touch my novel for 2 years! And that was okay, I needed to de-MFA first, just like you might need to de-rejection-slip.

  5. Krys Lee

    I totally agree with your friends Susan and Elena above. When I first saw your writing, I told all the people around me that I had finally found a Korean-American writer whose work excited me–and I never use those words lightly. Later, over the years, I told people that there was this writer in the Bay Area who was going to someone’s book you’d have to read when it was out. I really meant it when I wrote you and said your book is one that I think will be worth waiting for (as a reader).

    Rejections suck, period. It was Richard Ford who said he got so tired of rejection after rejection that he became a novelist so he wouldn’t have to send anything out for years and years. And he’s not doing so bad…Janet Fitch said it took her 20 years to finish her first novel; she never thought she would be done. She said everyone she began with quit writing by then, except one other person. Committing yourself to an uncertain art is a terrifying thing–I truly believe only the people who have committed understand that fear and the level of commitment deeply. Others around you just think “Oh, you’re still writing that book,” or think that’s the book you write on your free time, when you’ve sacrificed, committed, exposed yourself. You expressed it best: you keep writing, despite the desire to quit, because you love it. That’s what you will eventually be rewarded for. That, and the raw talent that you definitely have.

  6. Peter Lin

    Having read your work, I can objectively (or mostly objective) say you have talent. Unfortunately and fortunately, writing something that is universally considered “great” is much harder than writing an awesome piece of code. For me coding is 1000x easier than writing a great poem or short-short. Writing a novel isn’t a natural act for most people, so I firmly believe the writer is suppose to suffer horribly and go through cycles of self-doubt. It makes finishing the novel even more special and rewarding.

    It’s like the classic Jackie Chan movies where he carries water up the hill with a leaking bucket. It would be easier to bale water with a bucket that doesn’t leak, but then he wouldn’t have mad kung-fu at the end of the movie!

  7. I have begun to wonder who, exactly, the “20 under 40” list (and lists like them) are for. Certainly not other writers, who are inevitably stung and jealous or angry when the list is published. I guess it is for readers, but who are theses mythical non-writing readers? Truly, I know few of these. My mom, I think, but she doesn’t care about that list, despite reading the NYer every week.

    I know you think this is an uncharming post, but I don’t. I feel like a lot of the writing advice I hear comes from writers who are out of the mud, who have a first novel published. I think it is terribly charming and encouraging to read someone who is still suck talking about it. Like moms who admit that their baby is not a beautiful perfect thing, but is actually a vomitty poopy thing that can’t hold a grown-up conversation. Writing is awful. It cries all night and needs so much and doesn’t let you watch TV or drink beer all night. But you love it ANYWAY. You need it ANYWAY. So I love that you said it.

  8. amapofhome

    Stop. Submitting. Stories.
    Focus on your novel.
    When you finish your novel, your agent/publicist will submit those stories for you, and place them faster.
    Take the advice from people above and try to seal off from the outside world.
    Read Rilke’s Letters to a Young Poet when you are down.
    And remember you have people out there waiting for your book.

  9. Nate

    Okay, enough with the “I don’t measure-up” and “I lack talent” bupkis. Being an artist sucks, but I’m pretty sure it means you get to opt out of the whole rat race thing without losing face.

    Fact is, you live in one of the wealthiest and most educated places on earth. And whether you feel like it our not you are living, working, and playing with the absolute best and brightest in that place, because you ARE one of the best and brightest. Trust me, if you are ever find yourself the most successful and talented person you know, it won’t be a good thing.

    AMOH is right, focus on your book so that all of your successful writer buddies (+me) can pimp your novel out to our influential writer friends.

    Besides, maybe they will change it to “21 Writers Under 42” -hey, it’s not any less arbitrary 😉

  10. I think amapofhome has a great point about not submitting for awhile. Submitting is not writing. The market sucks. Maybe you work on your novel, maybe you work on essays or short stories, maybe you give yourself a month off from writing and just jot ideas down when you feel like it. This is clearly counterintuitive to dedicated writers like you, but if you feel like you keep hitting walls, take a breather and figure out the way around them or over them, not through them.

    Also, you know Sugar at the Rumpus. Write like a motherf*r. Big hugs from the sweltering East Coast.

  11. i can relate to your post in ways that you can hardly imagine — i have been trying to cope with my own suckitude, as you put it, for, oh, about 25 years.

    having written a novel that was agented but never published, having been rejected by boatloads of literary mags, and being surrounded by successful writers in grad school and friends, i can only offer the following advice: don’t quit, don’t compare, and don’t listen to 99% of what people tell you. don’t let the bastards get you down, and just worry about the things you can do today. which is usually “write something.”

  12. you are all so amazing. thank you for your support.

  13. This post is upsetting to me. I don’t understand why you’d say you’re not as talented as other writers. Who told you such a thing? Your self, your own insecurities? Well then, you can’t listen! Because it’s NOT TRUE. I’m sorry—all your other realizations are true and wise and important to face. But you can’t say you’re not as talented as other writers. Who’s measuring this? Who decided that? Please take it back.

    Sorry, I don’t mean to sound angry. I just believe in you and I don’t want you to have this negative strike against you when it’s not needed and NOT TRUE.

    I meant to email you a longer, and far more eloquent response. Maybe email would be better. I’m just very close to deadline and can’t think straight right now and so I’m making this comment now so you know what I’m thinking. All I know is when something feels wrong and seeing that here in this post feels wrong!

    Ok, I’ll stop talking now.

  14. I hear you on the lit mag rejections. My own stream of rejections just keeps coming. I have been getting a ton of personal ones lately, and you always hear about writers who gradually earn more personal rejections before they really start getting accepted. But when all I have in front of me is a pile of rejections, it’s really hard to believe that any acceptances are on the horizon.

    All I can say about the talent issue is that no matter how naturally talented a writer might be, it always comes down to hard work in the end. And it sounds like you are on that track. (The only other thing I’ll say about talent is that it’s often the most talented people who doubt themselves like this!)

    Best of luck with your novel. I’m working my own novel revisions and I’m right there with you on how heartbreaking and difficult it is. Yet we keep on going.

  15. HCG

    You are incredibly talented and diligent. Consider the rejection letters nothing more than a route to more exposure, not less. And those lists about the top 20 under 40 and all of that marketing nonsense? It’s just noise…life is a marathon. 🙂

  16. This list of “41 over 40: novelists debuting over 40” inspired me, so I’m sharing it here:

  17. FWIW, I am totally having one of these “what’s the point?” days. I know what the point is, I know I have to keep pushing, but damn–and I haven’t even sent this stupid little flash piece out to that many places. Even only 750 words can be a real bitch. 🙂

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