The other day, I took my children to a homeschool resource fair, the first of its kind in our city, which surprised me. We were there two hours in a crowd that ought to have made me feel uncomfortable, but I felt oddly in good spirits despite carrying around a twenty-two pound, sleeping toddler on my shoulder for most of those two hours.
We stopped and talked to almost everyone at the booths, and even ran into another family we know. My PNWA bag slowly filled with brochures, business cards, and class listings, including the occasional goodie like pencils or a guitar pick.
At the end, before going back out to the Girl Scouts and their cupcake sale as our treat, we stopped and spoke with Dr. Glen VanDerPloeg of Writing Workbench, who provides instruction in a variety of writing-related endeavors to students (and sometimes adults).
We talked about my daughter's interests and goals, and I encouraged her to do most of the talking, and during this active discussion between the three of us, I let slip I was a writer (as if my bag weren't obvious enough). Fourth generation. I wasn't trying to brag, I've nothing to brag about, it was in context, but the moment he asked the inevitable questions, I felt embarrassed.
What do you write?
Sci-fi and nonfiction, mostly.
Oh, just advice articles, and the like.
(I felt myself getting smaller.)
How many sci-fi books have you published?
Oh, uh, none. My books are all just poetry. I'm still trying to break into sci-fi.
(Now I'm flushed.)
Poetry, eh? Where did you publish?
Um. Well, just self-published.
At this point I'm ready to retreat. He asked me about the books I was working on now, and told me how he loved getting into ideas with people. I told him I liked the same, and though I never got the impression he wanted to embarrass me or thought less of my work for it not being literary nor fully accepted through traditional means, I left feeling small and mortified. I'd done it completely to myself, because I have this internal bias, a hierarchy of worth that applies only to me.
In my mind, I don't think my work is good enough. So says the stack of rejection letters, right? It seems the only thing any legitimate publisher wants from me is poetry or advice columns, and no one's paying me for either. Yet, I have utterly devalued these things, despite having excelled at them.
But people have read my stories and novel rough drafts and given me hope -- a glint of belief that maybe I can figure this career out. Despite my fumbling about with endings and captivating middles, flaws I might be able to learn to overcome, I do create complex, living worlds and vibrant characters that people have enjoyed following (most characters, anyway).
But hope can sometimes be the cruelest gift someone can give you. I'm a sensitive one, and I take every rejection letter as a horrid defeat. I know it's part of the process, but the last one stung most because it was just a form letter. In the past, even Asimov's editor took time to scrawl an encouraging note post script.
I've been feeling lately like I'll never get endings right. I'm so caught up in each character's head (and they in mine), I can't always see the plausible way to get to the end I want. I give them riddles I don't know how to solve and knowledge I don't possess and this can't draw on to further the plot.
I feel utterly lost at times because I think, "This character knows how to solve this, but I don't, and they're waiting for me to give them the answer!"
And then there's the old stigma about self-publishing as a form of vanity. Though several if my poems were published in reputable journals, I still duck my head when having to admit my books were both self-published (and the first isn't very good).
This all stems from the same notion that I'm rather dumb. Book smart, in some ways, but my analytical skills fail in a variety of circumstances where I really needed them.
So, there's this doubt. A haunting sense that I'll never get where I want to be because I'm too dumb to get my characters through their journeys. It's no wonder my last short story submission failed, I still hadn't figured out how to wrap it up so it made sense as a stand alone story while also being a chapter from a future novel. Deadline came, so I sent it in.
And what baffles me are the writers I've been talking to who carry similar doubt, embarrassment, and dissatisfaction. Tad Williams, one of my favorites, and a generally good and funny man, talks often of how he feels his work isn't good enough. He hadn't had a best seller in a while and felt his body of work didn't live up to his personal ideal.
If he's still carrying around his malevolent ghost, what hope is there for the rest of us?
Oh, sure, I got some good news the other day ... about a poem. And I'm excited because I've sent in a poem every other year to this contest for fifteen years, so it's a big win. But it isn't a short story. It isn't a novel. It isn't sci-fi.
I know that part of me has chosen the self-publishing route for my first novel because it's practical given the changing nature of publishing and the accessibility of ebooks and self-publisher tools online. Then there's the part of me quite certain that no "legitimate" publisher (read: traditional) would ever want my mediocre claptrap.
People might pay for a cheap ebook, and enjoy mental bubblegum, but the doubt makes itself clear every time I pick up Octavia Butler or Ray Bradbury or Phillip K. Dick. It's there to tell me I'll never be a Martin or a Williams. I should just pack it all away, write it off as a failed hobby, and go open my pie shop. But I've not got the recipe for the crust quite right, either ....
EDIT: To support his efforts and skills, I'd like to direct other parents and writers in the Seattle metro area to check out Glen at Writing Workbench.