(I gave the final keynote at the wonderful SiWC conference back in October, 2017. I was terrified and struggling, but SiWC is a writing conference built on community, warmth and heart, so, I wrote this:)
First some flight instructions to today’s keynote speech. Not for me, but for you the audience.
My voice will never modulate as we continue this afternoon. It will be, at best, impassioned words of wisdom and at worst nervous choked sobs and panic-stricken mumbling. My face will begin to flush, starting with my nose, and continue reddening until I begin to hear concerned mutterings coming from the distant yet muffled corners of this very… very large room. Comments like, “Has she taken a breath?” and “Do you think she’ll pass out?” and my personal favorite, “When she faints, if she becomes incontinent let’s all make a pact never to tell her.”
I wish it were different. More than anything, but the truth is – for better and for worse – when it comes to writing I care so much that it turns me into this nervous, sob choking, panic stricken mumbler which is – of course – my real, authentic self.
As you all well know. There is everywhere else and then there is writing.
But what if we fail.
I worked on and rewrote that transition for weeks. Trying to dress it up with inspirational words and some kind of warm hue – but when you think it’s happening to you it feels about as inspirational and warm as being forgotten at a train station.
In the summer of 2014, my then-editor passed on the proposal for my 7th book. I was on vacation with my family in a small beach town along the California coast at the time. It was a truly beautiful day to be rejected.
We were standing outside of the Brown Butter Cookie Company about to go in, when I saw that my agent was calling, I told my family to go in without me. I sat in my car alone and – it’s one of those moments you think you can prepare for. That you’ll know how you’ll react. I’m going to be so sad or going to be so angry or I’m going to throw things or cry. But I didn’t do any of those things. I just dully nodded along as my agent told me that not only did my editor pass on this proposal, but she didn’t even want to work with me on coming up with a version of this proposal that would work for her. I was officially out of contract.
In the desperate last wheezes of that conversation, I blurted out a possible new book idea. It was a panicked blend of a title of a book I’d tried to write that didn’t work, a book I was thinking that needed a sequel and a TV pilot I was working on at the time. My agent was intrigued and then she did the thing we hope no one will ever do when we pitch a new story: She asked a follow up question. It was awful. I was already so vulnerable and raw and here she was having the gall to want to know what this book was actually going to be about. I know. So, I rattled off a couple of books that were in the marketplace at the time and shrugged that tonally mine could go in either column. There was this silence on the other end of the phone. It was not a good silence. I had not awed her. And then my agent gave me the best worst advice ever, “I think you need to dig deeper.” This is not advice someone in extreme denial of their feelings ever wants to hear.
See, I was ready to be called out as a fraud by publishing. I’d been waiting for that shoe to drop for eleven years. I’ve been Employee of the Month in the Imposter Syndrome Office since its inception. What I wasn’t ready for was to hear the hollow death rattle of my own voice as I desperately pitched a derivative book that I couldn’t care less about as long as it granted me access back into the club that I so desperately wanted to belong.
Because in that moment, I realized that I truly believed I could only call myself a real writer if I was published — otherwise this would have been all for naught.
I was watching this TED talk, which means I was really watching 20 TED talks and it was only supposed to be for a couple of minutes but then it was nighttime and I have no idea where the day went… but, this particular TED talk was about work and more specifically – the fruits of our labor.
They had given a group of people some Legos and they asked them to build a little bionicle – a little Lego man – for $3.00. They would build the bionicle, hand it back and the people giving the test would put the finished product in a box under the table to be taken apart and given to the next set of participants. Then they asked if they’d make another bionocle for $2.70, then $2.40, $2.10 and on down until the participant tapped out.
Then the second group came in. They asked them the same question: Will you make a bionocle for $3.00. Sure. The second group of participants made the bionocle and handed it over. Will you make another one for $2.70. Sure.
But as the second group of participants were making their bionocle, the people giving the test were taking apart the first one right in front of them. So, by the time the third bionocle came around, the participants were literally using the very same Legos that had built that first bionocle.
The results of this experiment were clear. When the bionocles were put under the desk in a box, the participants made 11 before stopping. When the bionocles were taken apart in front of the participants, they only made 7.
What was interesting was that they’d also asked the participants if they’d loved playing with Legos prior to being a part of the experiment and they found that the love of Legos kept the first group of participants making the bionocles long after the money made it worth their time. But, that that same love of Legos had no bearing on the second group of participants. That no amount of money was worth it.
So, it doesn’t matter how much we love a thing – if we think what we’re doing is meaningless, if we think what we’re doing is being taken apart in front of us – we will stop doing it, no matter the money being offered.
In the bleak days, weeks, months and years that followed, I had to rumble with the fact that over the years, I’d come to define publication as meaningful and writing as meaningless, my life’s work a handful of Legos that were once a bionocle.
For so many of us, we don’t remember a time when we weren’t writing. Shoeboxes filled with tattered pages of our scrawled tales litter our closets, our parents’ closets and now they crowd the hard drives of our computers.
We were writers before we even knew what kind of people we were.
We were writers to become the people we are.
But as we grew up, being a writer got complicated.
To be a real writer means this. This will make me feel like I’m a real writer. If I could just get that then I will have made it as a real writer. If I don’t get that, I might as well quit being a writer. Will they even think I deserve to be called a real writer if I don’t have that?
Somewhere along the way, we gave away what it means to be a writer.
Somewhere along the way, we let other people define what is meaningful.
Somewhere along the way, we decided that only someone else’s match could alight that invisible flame that used to warm us from the inside.
There was a reason I didn’t ‘dig deeper.’ There was a reason my writing had become shallow.
Writing has a tendency to know when we are hiding something.
And what I was hiding was a fear that I wasn’t good enough.
That no matter how many goals I achieved, I would never really truly believe I deserved it. So, I became desperate to achieve as many of those goals as I could thinking that it would be the next goal that would be the tipping point and that the nervous, sob choking, panic stricken mumbler would be replaced by a laid back, smooth talking cool kid bestseller and I would finally feel like I belonged.
I would finally feel like a real writer.
This is the point in the keynote where I now tell you how much better everything is. That I sold that book and here are the 7 valuable lessons I learned in the process.
As a side note, I’d like to put a request in for a “teachable moment” that comes from me eat, pray and loving my way through the Scottish Highlands as I try to grapple with why Chris Evans loves me so much.
Turns out, that’s not quite how I learn things. It’s more of a scorched earth kind of classroom that resembles a hostage-taking situation where I’m tied to a chair and forced to listen to meditation apps about stress and anxiety as I take myself apart brick by brick.
Just this past weekend, I sent out an email to my writer’s group that I was going to be writing all day – or Shaming, which is what we call it – our writers group is called The Shamers as you can count on one another to shame you into writing – I emailed that I would be planted at a local coffee shop if anyone wanted to join me.
As the day wore on, I was joined by the other two people in the writing group who had had similarly awful years. All three of us had had some version of getting the rug pulled out from under us or as one friend called it, “beaten over the head by my own dream.”
These were the same people who’d shown up over those bleak days and weeks and months and years that followed that conversation with my agent. We’d sit across coffeeshop tables from each other hollow eyed, teary eyed, rage filled, pathetic and pitiable, obstinate and arrogant our computers open and documents too long left blank and mocking. Taking our headphones off only long enough to ask – who do they think they are and I’m never going to write again and you know what, I’m just being super zen about it and I’m taking a break from writing and I wouldn’t say I was blocked I’m just … and then we’d stare off into the middle distance unable to put what we’re feeling into words… the irony of which, as writers, was not lost on us.
But, this past weekend we were all working on the projects that were forged in that crucible of failure. Ideas plucked from the still smoking rubble of our big, meaningful goals.
Because in those ruins. I found writing.
In those ruins, I found meaning.
Scared and overwhelmed with what I found as I dug deeper, it was writing that was the strong hand over the cliff.
It was writing that brought me meaning.
It wasn’t pretty, it’s been a long three years and I honestly don’t know how many more dinners I can survive with “friends” resting their faces in their hands in faux concern as they ask me “so, are you happy?”
What I want to tell them is that I don’t know if I’m happy, but I do know that I’m … real. That I finally get what the Skin Horse was talking about in the Velveteen Rabbit when he said, “‘It doesn’t happen all at once. ‘You become. It takes a long time. That’s why it doesn’t happen often to people who break easily, or have sharp edges, or who have to be carefully kept. Generally, by the time you are Real, most of your hair has been loved off, and your eyes drop out and you get loose in the joints and very shabby. But these things don’t matter at all, because once you are Real you can’t be ugly, except to people who don’t understand.”
What I realized was that to be a real writer, I must first have the courage to be real.
So, as you walk away from this beautiful, well-filling conference I give you the same best worst advice my agent gave me.
You are strong enough and if you are not strong enough, you will be surrounded by people who understand. Because you are real and you can’t be ugly.