Just a few months ago I was having a conversation with a professor about writers and books and what getting a book published means for a writer. I’d been in graduate school for about two months and I was over it already. I felt stuck somewhere I didn’t really wanna be. I was ready to drop out, not because the program is bad but because I’m bad at being in the program.
For some reason I was waiting for him to say what I was thinking: getting published means money, critical acclaim, comfort, a following, a work ethic, a career. After all, he’s pretty successful in the literary world. But he didn’t say any of this. Part of me was like, “Of course not, because you’ve already accomplished most of the things I’m working towards.” So when he told me the success of getting a book published means nothing if you’re comparing your journey to writers who land those bestsellers with big-time New York City publishers, my feelings were kind of hurt. He said what means the most is seeing the success within the product being published on your own merit, without those fleeting forces of acceptance, praise, and fake love there to validate you when it’s convenient. But, at that moment, those factors he told me not to worry about meant everything to me.
I’ve always been an overachiever and this spirit has sucked the life out of everything I’ve ever conquered, including finding out that my first book will be published in the spring, from a prize I had won. The minute I found out, I sent up prayers of thanks the entire day. I felt accomplished. But that next day, an overwhelming pressure came over me. When the publication was announced, I got nervous. The high of the accomplishment had already worn off. While family and friends congratulated me, I felt thankful, but unfulfilled, as if this was just step one of the process of reaching my real goals. Immediately after the announcement I started to wonder: Will people buy my book? How many people will buy my book? Will it sell? Is it only real if it sells? Will the things written in the book tarnish some of the relationships I’ve been trying to keep afloat? Do I call myself a writer now? Is this my one chance to write for a living? Will I fuck this up because I’ve never learned how to live in the moment and appreciate the blessings that are happening to me right now?
I got scared because I don’t have a plan B. Ever since I found writing, I never thought to do anything else with my life. So to me, anything less equals failure. I had been studying the careers of women like Toni Morrison, Jesmyn Ward, and Roxane Gay, and I want to be like them. I want the awards and the prestige and most importantly, the skill. I want to be the best I can be at the thing I love to do because I don’t know what else I love to do.
The professor asked me my plans but I couldn’t say any of this. Instead I said something about looking for an agent, which is something I’m still actively doing. I think it’ll validate and satisfy me. I immediately realize it won’t, because, even if I accomplished something as wild as having my book chosen for publication by the author of one of my favorite books in the entire world, I’m still not at ease. And even though I know so many other writers immensely more talented than I have not—and maybe will not—ever be given the chance to have their stories printed and shipped out, I know that when it’s my time all I’m going to be able to think about are my expectations.
I think it’s because I don’t believe I deserve it. I haven’t suffered enough for it. Those words in this book came out too easy and I feel guilty about it. Deep down I know I write my ass off, I know I’m a good writer, but even deeper I think I’m not good enough to accomplish the things I want to, which is why I set my standards to the moon. I mean, so many people write books; I don’t know what makes me special, and that’s even when people tell me I am. In my head, if I work myself into the ground, into a depression, into a sweat, only then will I be worthy.
Right now, I still have too much energy.
I’m worried about whether this lowly book was worth the time I put into creating it. It took me five years. I’m scared about starting over. Writing isn’t getting easier for me. I thought it would. It isn’t flowing. Maybe this was all I had. Those nineteen stories. Now when I try to write something fresh, I don’t feel like I’m getting better. I’m not reading enough. Certainly not writing enough. Certainly not doing enough to sustain what’s happening in the moment. Now when I write, I’m writing with an end goal, but I’m not completing anything. I start essays and never finish them. I’ve recently started working on a new project and I hate all of it. Getting into a groove is way harder. My sentences keep getting shorter and I have a book coming out—this shouldn’t be happening.
I don’t know how to be proud of myself, but in order for people to not be in my head, I have to pretend I am. When they ask me questions about writing, I have to pretend I know what I’m talking about at least a little bit. When my Mawmaw tells everyone in her dentist office that her granddaughter is an author, I have to pretend I am. When everyone else is proud of me, I’m proud to be believed in. When people ask me how I feel about it, I say I’m scared because my plans are coming to fruition and I don’t know if I’ll be able to perform.
I think about how in April of 2015, after attending a reading by a woman who published her first book at the age of 24, I tweeted, That’s the youngest I’ve ever heard. Got 3 years to get it together.