The title of this post comes from one of my mother’s wisest sayings — and when I say wise, I mean it. If I can grow up to be half as smart a woman as my mother, I’ll be happy. This saying comes into play whenever my mom hears about a woman who’s completely obsessed with wedding planning — in other words, throwing a magnificent party — but hasn’t seemed to give much thought to, well, the fact that a wedding results in a marriage.
What I’ve realized lately is how much this saying, with a little alteration, can relate to writing: “She doesn’t want to be a writer, she wants a book deal.” *
This is how writing feels, a lot of the time. See? It’s difficult.
Here’s the thing: being a writer is hard. It’s difficult work. It’s a LOT of difficult work. It takes time and devotion, and then it takes more time and more devotion. It requires one to admit she has failed. It requires one to admit she has failed again, and again, and again. It requires the humility to realize that one’s failures are one’s greatest successes, and one’s greatest successes often turn into one’s greatest failures — once I finally get something right, for instance, I tend to do it over and over and over again, and Lord, does that ever not work. It means spending hours in front of the notebook and the computer, trying to find the exact thing to say and the exact way to say it — and then erasing everything you’ve done and starting again. It means sitting down to start what one thinks is going to be a very easy, purely editorial, spelling-and-semicolons revision of a piece and then crying into one’s Crystal Light Pink Lemonade on the back porch because one has just spent two hours writing about the most painful thing one can possibly imagine ever writing about, which is also the one thing one promised one’s self one would never write about.
Perhaps because writing is such hard work, I admit that I often find myself focusing on the reward. I’ve noticed that I often fall into a vicious cycle: I’ll draft and draft and not get something right. I’ll submit and submit and get rejection after rejection. My mailbox and inbox fill with “Dear Author Thank You For Submitting This Piece We Are Sorry We Cannot Accept It Please Consider Subscribing To Our Journal Sincerely” messages, which my brain immediately translates as “Dear Emma Hey You Know What YOU ARE A COMPLETE AND TOTAL FAILURE” messages. I open my notebook or my word processor and it’s like the word FAIL hovers above them in giant, flashing letters. Then I close my notebook or my word processor and go out on the porch to cry into my Crystal Light Pink Lemonade because I’ve spent hours upon hours writing about the most painful thing I could possibly imagine writing about and I have gotten nothing, nothing in return.
I digress again.
And also, I miss the point.
The point isn’t getting anything in return, at least not in terms of publication. The point is that even if a piece doesn’t get published, I’m still getting something in return — and something far more valuable than a page in a journal.
I’ve realized lately is that when it comes to writing, writing is the point. Publication isn’t. It’s the process, not the product, that matters.
Here’s the thing: writing may be hard, but life? Real life? Real life is far, far more difficult. I don’t think I am exaggerating when I say that to live is to suffer. To live means being brought to your knees, literally and metaphorically, time and time and time again. The body gets sick and hurts and betrays you. The mind struggles to learn the lessons it needs to learn, and it fails, and betrays you. The heart wants what it wants and feels what it feels, and it loves and it breaks and is broken, and betrays you. You will be hurt in ways you cannot imagine. You will hurt others in ways you cannot imagine. You will fight and fall and fail and so little, so very, very little, will be under your control.
One thing that is in my control, I’ve realized, is the way that I look at things — especially my writing. If I measure success in praise and publication, I’m never going to see myself as successful. If I measure success in the writing itself – not how others respond to it, but in what it means to me – then, I’m a great success.
This is what I’ve realized this year, and this summer especially: I wouldn’t survive without my writing — or, at least, I wouldn’t stay sane without it. It’s become a comfort of the most indispensable kind, and it’s the simple practice of it that’s been a comfort, that’s buoyed me through. This summer, I’ve experienced pain of all kinds — physical, emotional, and spiritual pain, grief and shock and heartbreak and disappointment and fear — but through it all, I’ve kept writing. I’ve kept to the practice of writing, to working through poems like puzzles, to fighting through revision after revision, to polishing and pushing myself to reach the next word, the next line, the next time I sit down and write. It’s this practice that’s kept me sane, and it’s led me to realize that the product is one thing, but the process is another — and that the process is the thing that’s important. The process is what it’s all really about.
I guess it all comes down to this, in writing and in all things: if I seek approval and happiness always from others, from outside of myself — if I measure success in terms of achievements, in terms of things that tell the outside world that I’m not a failure, that I’m a success — I’ll never really feel approval, or happiness. That has to come from myself. And that requires focusing on my marriage to my work and my words, not on any party the outside world may throw for me.
* I suppose that “she doesn’t want to be a writer, she wants to be on Oprah” is equally applicable, especially when it comes to me, because honestly there is nothing I’ve ever wanted more than to be on Oprah. Seriously. When I was a little girl, I never spent time dreaming about my perfect wedding — but I had every single word I’d say to Oprah DOWN.