December marked the second year since I finished my coursework for my Master of Fine Arts degree. Milestones, arbitrary as they might be, can be stressful, can make you ask yourself uncomfortable questions. How far have I come? Am I successful at what I set out to be successful at? I read stories about a writer who sells her novel seven months after graduating with her MFA, and I start to get that really annoying (to both oneself and others) self-doubt anxiety. Am I good enough? Am I trying hard enough? Is the future a bleak landscape of blasted ambition?
We all have our moments. This particular one is coming at 6:30 a.m., after I’ve been up for two hours after four hours sleep and I’m contemplating yet another narrative approach to the next novel I’m trying to write. (I’ve decided that first person wasn’t working.)
And the doubt I have is telling me that I’ve done too much of that — contemplating — instead of acting. A lot of my self-criticism is justified, I think. However, I think that people who have to regulate their own productivity — especially creative productivity — need to temper self-criticism with acknowledgment of what they have accomplished. Otherwise, you can paralyze yourself. Then you think about how you have accomplished those things and try to apply it to where you think you’re flagging. So:
Self Criticism: I have only finished one prose short story since graduating. (Albeit one I like and am trying to get published.)
Counter: I have also finished two complete revisions of my novel, which is in the hands of an editor at a good book publisher. And I wrote and had published 24 columns for Publishers Weekly, short comics for Newsarama and Comic Book Resources, and a short story in the anthology This Is A Souvenir: The Songs Of Spearmint & Shirley Lee.
So what’s going on here? The big difference is that writing short stories is something I have to do completely of my own motivation. There’s no one asking me to write them, no editor giving me notes on them, no guarantee of publication. It’s an expenditure of effort without guarantee of reward. But I used to write short stories regularly, and, no accident, get them published a lot more often, too. What happened?
For one, I shifted my focus. I used to write speculative fiction, which, I think, is easier to sell than straight literary fiction, since the submission and publication pools are smaller. Part of this change was due to ego — I wanted to be a literary writer, not a genre one — and part of it was just due to a change in interests. However, seeing as I still write stories with a tinge of the magical, it could be that I should return to doing what I was kind of successful at — writing and selling literary speculative fiction.
Another thing that happened is that I learned to be less active in promoting my work. I got writing gigs because editors asked me to write something for them. I won a contest because my friend Peter O’Sullivan submitted a story I wrote (he was acting as an agent of one of my professors). I got the opportunity to go to China because one of my professors nominated me. I won English department awards for papers that had been assigned to me. Alex de Campi did me an awesome turn and introduced me to agents and editors she’s worked with.
There was a lot of direction in my life, a lot of me being rewarded because I did what I was asked to do and did it well. But there was little of me making leaps into situations where I might fail. Facing the possibility of rejection is a lot less attractive than taking the acceptance that’s offered. But the thing is, if you stop throwing yourself in the path of potential rejection, the successes that put you out there for offered acceptance won’t happen, either. You’ll use up your stock without without replenishing it. You’ll stagnate and then dry up.
So that’s what is underlying the self-doubt — a failure to learn the right lessons from past success. I didn’t mean to make a New Year’s resolution, but it seems I have. I will risk failing more in 2010.