People, we just went through a whole DECADE. Well, we’re about to. A new decade is less than two weeks away.
I am THRILLED to tell you that I found some “diary” entries saved from an old computer from the year 2000. In the year 2000, I was still an MFA student at Columbia here in the fine city of New York and I was in the throes of writing the infamous 500-page-long master’s thesis that I would abandon after five years and which I regret horribly. (After which I would write another novel I would come to regret.) This decade was the DECADE OF NOVELS I WISH I NEVER BOTHERED WRITING! Oh, except for the two at the tail end that I’m pleased with.
Back in 2000, I did not have a blog. Did blogs exist? Instead, I wrote letters to myself.
I’m going to show you snippets of some letters I wrote to myself at the head of the decade, when I really and truly thought something was about to HAPPEN for me if only I worked hard and kept trying—though, as you’ll see, most of what I did was whine and procrastinate. I was so impatient back then. And little did I know it would take ALMOST TEN YEARS to get this started. Imagine if I’d known how long! Why am I laughing?
Do you ever want to go back in time and smack yourself? Here goes.
(The usual disclaimer: Names have been abbreviated and switched around to protect the innocent. Cuts have been made to remove slanderous gossip about literary figures and publishing professionals.)
Going back in time to… January 5, 2000
Today, I forced myself out of bed at 5:30 am and was in the wr before 7. I had a terrible headache when I awoke, but it really feels like it’s edged away, although my brain feels a little soft right now from the painkillers.
Walking to the train this morning, in the dark, cold, streetlights still on, it’s almost like being young again – junior high, the early years of high school, before I saw the way out at 18 – it puts me in that place again, the dread of where I was going, the endless days, the hatred of my life. Now, things are better, aren’t they? Who would have ever thought that I’d be up before the sun’s out going to write on Astor Place? A 45 minute commute… on good days. I have to keep putting a picture of my book (this amorphous cover I’ve dreamed up) in front of my face, holding it out there like a carrot, to try and get myself going. I don’t think I’ve ever wanted anything as much as this. Not so much for the book to exist, but for my having written it. The weight of all those manuscript pages, I can’t wait to hold them. Back to junior high, back to 13, 14, 15, the things I wanted then, all those useless things, I’ve mostly cut that out. Material-wise I don’t want much else now that I have this ibook. Perhaps a new pair of shoes, but I’ve had my eye on them for almost three months now and haven’t made the effort to walk the few blocks and try them on so obviously I don’t care to want them that badly. And boys, wanting boys, I have one – a sweetie, adorable – and am perfectly satisfied there. E is so cute.
I’m here now. I have pages and pages and pages to write. Was reading an interview of Hunter S. Thompson, just getting this distinct feeling of how much I don’t like him, men like him, writers like him, and how these are the visionaries, these are the famous ones to be remembered, the legends, right? I can’t ever see myself being something that huge. Girls who write girl-things rarely are. But I’m fine about hiding, about not having to talk in front of people, of writing my books and having that be all I’ll say.
And the [LITERARY JOURNAL CENSORED], while I’m at it, reminder: do not buy that junk again. There is a haughtiness in that magazine I just can’t stomach. Maybe it’s what I know of the people from Columbia who were connected to it in my mind (R, C, C, G, B, D.) The pandering. That party. Ugh.
Speaking of ugh, S is in this issue. But poor K isn’t even though he said he will be. I guess next time.
I do like it when Columbia students get their success. The doors opening, the possibilities. But it can’t be all about who you know, really, can it? Because I’ll never get anywhere that way.
January 19, 2000
At home. Did the alarm go off at 5 this morning? I didn’t hear it. I went out today and bought a second alarm clock, also a radio, and will set it up for one to ring at 5 and one to five at 5:10. or 5:07, or whatever. In sleep, I never hit sleep. I always turn it off. Please please please please help me get up tomorrow.
Feb. 6, 2000
What am I stuck on? Why have I been unable to write since my last submission in thesis and especially since the plans for the novel have changed and I’ve retreated back to revision?
I want inspiration to come.
Why can’t I write this novel?
March 24, 2000
My terribly stiff back. My aching neck. My cold shoulders. Plus I am yawning and need my ears cleared. plus a constant headache. Plus an entire novel to finish. Plus wake up. Plus wake up! Plus I am not happy with my life right now. Plus E was sweet last night – making such a wonderful dinner, getting movies, cleaning up after – and I don’t think I showed him enough appreciation for it. Plus I hope it’s not too late. Plus I have to drop out of that thesis advising thing. I have to e-mail the department. I finished the professor’s book and it was good, in parts, and then it was progressively less good and why spend $1500 when I am so terribly broke [drowning] as it is? Yes, e-mail the department today. Yes, try and cheer up. Try and look forward to things, to something. Do you see that Bread Loaf never worked itself out for me? Did you see that? There is nothing but my constant daily failure. What do I want? So many things… can I name them all?
If it were not for E would I think it worthwhile to do this? I wonder sometimes. Sometimes, often, I think not.
Comments that stick in my head until I can’t get rid of them:
“Maybe it should be a novella.” –a professor in thesis class about my novel, as if there wasn’t much more I could say.
“I hate this narrator.” – fellow student in workshop about the very first draft of the first chapter for my novel that no longer, in any recognizable form, exists.
“All style and no substance.” – workshop leader about a story I wrote when I was 19 called “Blue Shoes”, which, incidentally, did suck.
“Why are we reading?” –fellow student in workshop to say she doesn’t see the point.
“I am not interested in middle-class people and their divorces and their abortions.” – a professor in workshop about someone else’s novel, but still…
“Women are not as good artists as men.”–a woman I admire.
August 29, 2000
This computer is making noise and god at some point I’ll have to get it fixed. Today was work. The morning, beforehand, the alarm, the headache, the shower, the after-shower routine, the dread, just this uninformed feeling inside that I should be doing something else, I DESERVE to be doing something else. Who knows if it’s true. But it’s definitely an unhealthy thing to feel about yourself, thinking you’re better this, always better than whatever this is. The job isn’t bad. But the thought of myself in it for years, the thought of myself in really ANY kind of full-time whatever job for years and years and years, which is what life is, which is what being a grown-up is, makes me want to dig myself a hole and crawl in it.
This is why the novel must be finished. How can I even procrastinate, knowing this? How can I be typing in nonsense with the TV on, my headache blaring, knowing this? Really, I should be working on the elusive, stuck, muddy, distant chapter five. But what will I do once I finish this ranting? I will go to sleep. My headache will dissipate for the night into my pillow and then it will raise itself the next morning and settle on.
A vague memory of the dream I had last night: a room of writers, all critiquing me, and the worst, the absolute worst, came when there was a comment about how tan someone is and to show how pale I am, I show my arm in short sleeves. A girl shakes at the loose skin under my arm and in the dream I’m fat, how my skin hangs and fat jiggles, and she says look at her waddle! And everyone looks and they are all disgusted. The main thing I remember is that my first instinct was to laugh with them, laugh it off, just be the joke, and I do think if this had happened in real life it’s what I would do, blushing profusely of course, but letting people step on me as I do. But in the dream I became fierce and angry and left the room and it was important also that in the dream they were all writing students, some program, someone saying I’d come too soon and wasn’t ready, and how angry I was. What does it mean that I care so much what people think of me and yet don’t care about many people?
I stubbed my toe yesterday, now it’s purple and may be broken. My tooth hurts like the gum is pulling off. My body is stepping out of me and I don’t want this life anymore. I want something else, and yet here I sit, doing nothing.
September 21, 2000
Ok, let’s talk about procrastination. Let’s make ourselves feel bad. Say we had the alarm set to 5 for the past 2 days. Say, on Monday we slept in. On Wednesday – a free Wednesday! – we slept in, and on Thursday we slept in. Say there is a morning thunderstorm and E wakes you, knocking at you until you get out of bed at last at 5:30, you shower, you dress, you encompass yourself in a wrap of plastic to brave the rain. And on the subway platform you are dying from the heat – is it really hot down there, or do you have a fever, who knows – you feel sweat running down the length of your back, actual droplets. Besides that, you had just, by a mere 5 seconds, missed the train. So wait, wait on the platform at 110th, wait again on the platform at 42nd. Throat scratches. When you come, when you enter the WR, the night guard sleeping at his post, you come up, you find your favorite (private) desk, you jump right in, but where is there to jump, because after a page-and-a-half you find yourself floundering. And here you are – two hours left that can be filled – and your exhaustion fills you, bloats you, what do you think of but graphics portfolios and how-do-I-possibly-get-a-new-job?, and yawning and eyes blurring and the throat scratches, did I tell you how the throat scratches?, and I can’t even mark you down for 2 pages today. Reading? Read? Can’t even read. I am tired. I am congested. I am in a bad mood. Simple as that. Lie on the floor, try that out for five minutes.
Ok, on the floor, into dream-state and almost dropping into severe sleep. I could go home right now, subway to subway to street to elevator, straight into the bed.
October 1, 2000
Reading Tin House, a market I can’t seem to crack, I think I sent them another story with this round, I think I might have, which I think would make three, and never a comment from them, never anything, but still I’d like to see myself in there. It’s a good mag. I want to see myself in places I want to read, I guess everybody does, that’s why I can’t seem to get in. [Long aside about two fellow MFA students published in Tin House and who they knew and how I suspect it helped them get in, and you can tell how jealous I was.] So, reading Tin House, and reading the journal entries of Sylvia Plath. I loved the bell jar, I remember that. And her poems, I’ve never been a poem person, but reading her entries now, her anxiety about writing and trying to send stories and poems out, which is exactly what I want, and wondering what will come of her writing life, and all the WANTING the LONGING the HOPING FOR. I agree that it strangles you, but what would be worse: the choice of being an ordinary person, wanting the ordinary things?
I think too much in the past, wondering what if I did that, what if I went here, what if I, blah blah. And yet I can’t make things happen for me now. Of course I was sick all week, and yes I feel better now, but yes also I got nothing done today. Ate 2 bagels. Paid the bills, cleaned up a little. I don’t want to talk about the novel yet, so how about the story? What I want to add in with this draft is
Ha! A well-timed interruption. T. just called (recently, we became friends again, and are now reading each other’s manuscripts.) she seems to be very enthusiastic about mine, says all the wonderful things you want to hear, and I do hope she means it because I am so thirsty for encouragement right now, there’s something I need to make me keep on going, or make me get up and going again, because that’s the truth of it, I’ve come to a month-long stop. Longer than a month. I don’t want to count the days.
But T. has the first half of her novel with an agent at ICM right now and I’m really hoping that he’ll like it and want to take her on. I really believe she deserves this, but the main thing is I believe in her book. I can see it on the shelves. She has real talent. We talk sometimes of being successful together, having a reading and book-signing together, and I do hope it would happen. I hope. And all this means, when I hear these success stories about fellow writers, about my classmates (H. won that fiction contest and now has the attention of more than a few agents; L. just completely finished her book!, A. got that agent at ICM and sold his novel to Doubleday), so when I hear this, it only makes me want to work harder. Get something done! Finish the goddamn book! Or, if that takes longer than we’d hope, then at least publish some short stories! Do something! Be somewhere!
It feels hopeless sometimes, it really does.
Yesterday, two more rejections on my most recent batch of short stories. A comment I completely and thoroughly disagree with: the ending was disappointing. I believe everything about that story; it’s all about the new end. No, it’s not a happy ending, but that’s how it would be! It’s not a happy story!
What more can I say? I was disappointed with the comment just as they were disappointed in the end. And then I wonder: were they disappointed in the WRITING? Because, that I could understand. I just glanced at the last paragraph when I was bundling it up to send it out to one of those contests yesterday – yes, long shot, but I was up against the deadline – and it is sloppy. I could polish. I should polish. If I get all the ones I sent out back with no bites, god I hope not, but if I do, I’ll polish. Send it off again.
But what I’m hoping for is some lift. Some chance again, like I had that chance with Gulf Coast – although I haven’t yet seen it, so I can hardly believe it’s true –
Just something this time?
November 5, 2000
work hard. do something.
November 26, 2000
I just was writing in some plans for the short story collection, on the theme of escape. I’m at the WR, and outside it’s raining. I have a nice desk and the rest of the afternoon ahead of me. A slight headache, but I just took Excedrin.
Thanksgiving: a loss of three whole days.
The thing is, I want to be marketable. I want to be a client that an agent will really want to sign on. I have to get this novel done and ready to start looking for agents in the summer (yes, the summer, I mean seriously). I have to do everything I can. Because I don’t want to be in this same position come next year.
This summer will be a summer of big changes. In the spring, I should have a new job, a full-time sucky grown-up salary job that’s been a long time coming, but in the back of my mind is of course the thought that this is all temporary, and I will be able to make it as a writer, and have days spent writing, and have money come in from somewhere that will make all that possible. The way out is my novel. Who knows, but I have to try. It’s all I think about: what my life may be like, if only…
And the ‘if only…’ will just not fall out of the sky. No one at Columbia discovered me and led me to this great agent or this great publication or any great opportunity really and so I’m left on my own, which is fine by me, if just a tiny bit frustrating, and so I must make things happen. I buy those win-for-life tickets. That’s what i feel like getting an agent would be like. Win for Life.
I get those scratchers all the time and never win.
December 6, 2000
an early alarm and a trip to the wr and then the train stopped up under the tunnel on the upper west side. So I went back home. Now, looking at the clock, I may have still been there for 40 more minutes, but as a late-comer may not have gotten a good desk. All these excuses about train rides and desks and hours allowed, and excuses about this apartment and which way the desk faces, all these ridiculous things. All it is, and I know this is it, is my stepping away from the writing, my fear I think it is that this will take me nowhere. And it might. But is that any reason to stop writing – to stall out completely for about 4 whole days? – e said it nicely at dinner last night, so many people out there are hungry for it. It only makes us have to work harder. Otherwise, we’re not artists. Of course e is so much more articulate than I am. But the truth is there, and I know this, deep down I’ve always known, and I just hate myself for hedging away from things. I hate myself for not motivating to write every day, for it not being that easy thing of just sitting down at this computer and spewing out some words of genius, or at least words, at least something on this story I’ve been meaning to finish for a month now, and the book, ah!, the book!, and what do I have to show for myself? Not much.
Still, all I do is complain, and I have to work it.
Close this window. Open a new one. Figure out where to go next and go there.
December 8, 2000
An early start this morning. And two hours later, I’m here. It’s the waiting for the trains, the long commute, the switch at Times Square, and trying to think how I could speed myself up, I just don’t know. Not having to wash my hair in the morning perhaps? What would that give me – five minutes? It’s hopeless, unless we’re able to move downtown, and the impossibility of that, the terrible idea of us having to move to Queens of all places! When I graduate. The absolute longest we can stay in Columbia apartment housing is till August 2002. I thought it was May, but they kick you out in August – even if you graduate in February. So I think that’s what I may do, keep my full-time status a little longer (it would be the same as if I graduated in May itself) but I get my degree sooner. Which, according to my calculations, or my terrible memory, I think I’ll have to turn in December 01. which gives me a year to finish this book (because I want to turn in finished.) which has to be doable, don’t you think, I just can’t believe that it won’t be. So a year, a year.
The thought the other night that this story thing just isn’t working out and so a plunge back in to the novel. Of course that morning was work and so I carried around the binder with all more-than-200-pages-so-far and yet did not open it, or do anything to it, or even take it out of the bag until last night to put it away on the desk, so in fact the plunge has not yet taken place. And I didn’t want to carry it with my this morning – the bag with the ibook in it is heavy enough.
So, a fresh long morning ahead of me. It’s now only 7:12. It’s still dim as evening outside. And I guess I could give myself one more chance – on a story – one more opportunity to have something finished by those deadlines I set out for myself (deadlines, which I can never seem to keep). In fact, the deadline for the Prague summer writing seminars scholarship is postmarked today. I just don’t know about applying because I don’t know if I could spend a whole month away in the summer. And yet, the slim, super-slim chance of my even getting the scholarship, what an honor it would be if I did get it. I just don’t know. I was pondering sending Mars, but I don’t know. See how I can never make a simple decision?
Mars is 14 pages. I just checked.
So that would leave me six.
But six of what?
And to where?
And why? Do I even want this?
So… just move ahead with the day as if it’s a normal day, or rather a normal day in which there’s a window of time open to write, and I am standing in it, hours ahead of me still before I have to leave, and then, once leaving, the rest of the day ahead of me… Think of those long hours, all mine. Think of the weekend, today: Friday, tomorrow: Saturday, and all that might get done. Who knows. Think nice thoughts.
A semi-lie to B. last night: Do I have an overreaching plan for my writing? Are there greater themes? Grand schemes I want to accomplish? I do think I’d have a hard time articulating it without some thought first as to how to put the words together, but I said I didn’t because it’s just easier to say I don’t, but in truth, which I know, we know, I suppose there is a greater plan for my work (why else all these note to myself, these lists, these dates goal sheets titled plans themselves?) and there are things I want to say, things I know I want to accomplish. And beyond even the stories I think of, beyond even the themes that I know pop up throughout, there is that voice I want to capture, and the books I want to write like doors up ahead, like a life you might want for a young girl, not even yet a writer, like Margaret Atwood was for me. Here’s a great plan:
– get some more stories published in journals
– win some fiction contests
– finish this novel to deep satisfaction
– attend Bread Loaf as a waiter
– find a wonderful agent
– sell my book (and perhaps a ss collection)
– find a place to live in Manhattan after summer 2002
– have the time and opportunity to write every day of the week
– write more books
– more stories
– a YA novel for young girls
– novels about me and not about me, about things I know and things I don’t know
– win prizes
– edit a fiction issue of Ploughshares
– start my own magazine & publish new, talented young writers
– have enough $ to start a scholarship fund for young writers, artists, filmmakers
– look back on all this and see how much I accomplished
hahhahahahaaha. lots to do.
This is like when I was young, the journals, the “Am I famous yet?” The ridiculousness of it, but there’s hopefulness in it too. E’s in that life, trying too. Could we have these things we want? What is it we have to do to make this come true?
December 11, 2000
The things I want are not being got. But what can you do? Go one day by one day by one day.
Have to pee, so must go home. Get tomato and cream cheese, for a bagel. Think more on novel. Get something done. PLEASE!
December 31, 2000
It’s 10:40 in the morning now, and I’m at the wr, and it’s new year’s eve day, and I guess I’m trying to set an example for myself for the coming year. This is the year I’ll finish my book – it will be. It has to be.
Will it be?
Next year, is that the year I’ll finish my novel? Have an agent? Have a deal?
Check back. Let’s see.
Return to the present: December 22, 2009
But wow. Just wow. You can’t see into the future, but in that case I wish I had. I went and got my MFA too soon. I should not have written that novel (or the next one). I should not have slept on the floor under the desk so much! And I shouldn’t have expected anything. That’s the biggest thing my MFA program taught me—to expect success. It’s the thing that has taken me an entire decade to unlearn:
You are not owed anything. Not a story in Tin House. Not an agent. Not a book contract. Not a nice word. Certainly not a life writing and avoiding “sucky” grown-up jobs.
You are not any better than anyone else. Just because someone else wins in life—and in an MFA program like Columbia, you are witness to many winners—doesn’t mean you should get to win too.
That was my punishment for being entitled. In the year 2000 I had no idea what was coming for me. Ten years of struggle and rejection later, and I’m here. What a decade!