This guest post is part of the Turning Points blog series here on distraction no. 99—in which I asked authors the question: What was your turning point as a writer? I’m honored and excited to host their stories. Read on as Camille DeAngelis reveals how she gave up on the publishing conflicts and ambitions she used to think were so important… and found sanity…
I believe in bibliomancy. It means something because I believe it means something. At 2AM on New Year’s Day I took down a dusty hardback copy of Meditations—by Marcus Aurelius, that wisest of emperors—closed my eyes, and flipped to a page.
Keep yourself simple, good, pure, serious, free from affectation, a friend of justice, a worshiper of the gods, kind, affectionate, strenuous in all right acts. Strive to advance toward what philosophy tried to make you. Reverence the gods, and help men. Life is short.
Sound advice (excepting those bits about revering the gods), is it not? The emperor goes on to suggest his readers disregard the lure of “empty fame.” Aha! This is precisely what I wanted to talk to you about. This is why I believe in bibliomancy.
There are, of course, many turning points in the life of a writer. I could tell you how I talked endlessly about writing a novel before September 11th, and how I watched the towers burning from my friend Angela’s dorm room; and how I sat sobbing on the floor of a south-bound Amtrak train that night, wondering how many people who’d died had been working on novels during their lunch breaks. That was the day I stopped talking.
I could also tell you about my practice novel, and how, well into a second interminable round of reject-o-rama, my dad pointed out a USA Today interview with Big Fish author Daniel Wallace, who spoke frankly of his drawerful of unpublished novels. That article gave me the heart to try again. But I’ve already written about these turning points on my blog, and in the case of my 9/11 epiphany, well—you’ve just heard it.
This turning point has to do with a different sort of book magic. Back in April I met a girl in India who gave me a ride on the back of her motorbike. Long TMI story short, I was feeling frustrated about something, and told her about it. My new friend advised me to relax, to stop seeing petty inconveniences as capital-P problems. She told me that Eckhart Tolle’s The Power of Now was changing her life.
Now, I can guess what some of you are thinking. What are you doing, Camille, peddling some new-age hooey on Nova’s blog instead of giving us some useful writerly tidbits?!
All right. We’ll start here: ruminate for a moment on the phrase “struggling writer.”
At first you think: well, DUH, of course it’s been a struggle! There have only ever been two choices, to struggle or to give up, and giving up is unthinkable. Therefore you struggle: to glue your tookus to the chair, to come up with stories worth telling; to see the story through, to perform round after round of red-pen surgery, to find someone to believe in you, and then to find a team of bookworms tucked away in some Midtown skyscraper who’ll believe in you too. Struggle and struggle and struggle some more. You can call it perseverance, but that’s just struggle in a suit and tie.
And just when you think the struggle is over: blurbs, not enough blurbs, no blurbs, nightmares of a gaping black hole on the back cover. Pre-pub reviews. Spoilers. Snark. Marketing yourself. Social media blah blah blah. Sales figures. All the important newspapers that could have reviewed you, and didn’t. A small handful of faithful friends at your reading, asking you questions as if they don’t know you just to make it look like you have a real audience. One- or two-star Amazon reviews (marked “helpful”—!) in which the reviewer can’t even spell your name correctly. Envelopes you can’t bring yourself to open because you know there’s a royalty statement inside. Losing your editor. Losing your publisher. Remainders.
I used to think all this “struggle” was inevitable. Every day I got to live in worlds I’d furnished myself, and I paid for that blessing with intermittent bouts of doubt and loathing (maybe I’m a two-trick pony. Maybe I should pack it in and apply for a job at Trader Joe’s), not to mention some hilariously irrational jealousy (why, why, WHY is EVERYBODY ON THE PLANET reading those COMPLETELY INANE VAMPIRE NOVELS?!?!).
Until I read Eckhart Tolle, I didn’t know I didn’t have to live like this. Many years ago, when Tolle was a graduate student in London, he found himself on the Tube on his way to school one morning sitting opposite a woman who was talking to herself. The train was crowded, but of course nobody wanted to sit anywhere near her. “And I said to her, who do you think you are? How could you treat me this way? How could you betray my trust?…” Tolle became interested. She was obviously mentally ill, but where was she headed? How could she be an ordinary commuter? Surely no one would hire somebody in her condition. When the train reached his stop and the woman got off too (still talking), he resolved to follow her as long as she was headed in his general direction. Block after block he followed her—and, curiously enough, she was taking the same route he would ordinarily walk to get to his school.
You see where this is going. Still ranting to herself, she approached the very building where Tolle was doing his graduate work, and went inside. Tolle lost her in a crowd. He walked into the men’s room and sidled up to the urinal, still pondering. I hope I don’t end up like her, he thought. Except he didn’t only think it. Another man at the urinal glanced up at him, hurriedly zipped up, and quit the restroom. Oh no! he thought. I’m already like her!
That’s when he realized that we are ALL talking to ourselves. The only difference between we “sane” people and that “crazy” woman is that she’s doing it aloud. Tolle looked at himself in the mirror, and began to laugh. To anyone else, he wrote, it would have seemed like the laughter of a madman—but it was truly the laughter of sanity.
This, Tolle points out, is the great self-inflicted tragedy of our existence: we are imprisoned in our minds. We enumerate our failures, sulking inside our heads like the awful brats those VHS home movies prove we once were. We take ourselves and our “problems” SO SERIOUSLY. The ego is an ugly, fragile little demon that gorges itself on our eternal discontent. Again and again we relive old traumas, bolster grudges, rehearse what we should have said, revel in our rightness. Nobody cares. Everyone treats us so unfairly. We measure ourselves against the achievements and the smiling, shiny exteriors of others, and we always, always fall short. Basically, life is shit.
Except that it isn’t. Like a ritual that works because you believe it will, a problem is only a problem when you label it as such. A struggle, by definition, perpetuates itself. This isn’t just semantics, people. When that quiet, unflappable part of you—the you outside of ego—detaches itself from the endless stream of mental bullshit and listens to it as it flows by (not judging, just listening), suddenly something begins to shift. Now you’re observing it; therefore you are not it.
I’ll give you a concrete example. I was still in the middle of A New Earth (the sequel to The Power of Now) on audiobook when, one morning, I picked up the arts section of the Philadelphia Inquirer and found a front-page, above-the-fold feature on a debut novelist. Here is pretty much exactly what ran through my head:
What the f**k? I’m way more local than this guy, and the Inquirer book editors completely ignored both my novels. Uh huh, a bildungsroman. Whoop dee doodle. And they’re sending this guy on a twenty-city book tour? WHAT THE F**K?
Ordinarily this sort of thing would have thrown me into a funk for the rest of the day. This time was different. So that’s what it means to be stuck inside my head! A marvelous calm fell over me as I refolded the newspaper and laid it on the table. This isn’t me. It may be baggage, but I can let go of it any time. And I did. I went to the library and got back to my world building.
Yeah, I do still have those internal tantrums sometimes, but these days there’s that part of me that’s able to wade out from that stream of mental sludge and watch it as it passes, smiling at the madness. Let me emphasize that anyone can make this shift. (Yes, even you.)
Life is so much easier than it used to be. It’s easier because I have given up. Oh, not my dear little coterie of imaginary friends, not my world building—no, I’ve only given up caring about the stuff that’s pretending to be important. Now, when I reflect on old conflicts and old ambitions, I think: When did this matter? Why did this ever matter?
None of my books have earned out. So what? That’s no gauge of literary merit.
But what if I never get another book deal? Oh well, I guess I’ll self publish. And I hear Trader Joe’s is a really nice place to work.
Somebody didn’t like my novel. So what?
In fact, somebody thought it sucked ass, and said so ALL OVER THE INTERNET. This reminds me of that now-classic cartoon in which a frantic husband sits hunched over his keyboard, his worried wife hovering in the doorway. “I can’t come to bed, honey. Somebody on the internet is WRONG!”
I’m not making any money right now. It’ll be fine. I’ll get by because I believe I’ll get by.
Don’t get me wrong: this isn’t about putting on a pair of Pollyanna blinders. I’m not saying that if I wind up living out of the back of a minivan that life will be all dandy and perfect. But there are plenty of artists who lived (and live) quite humbly, and keep on working through it all. What you don’t have doesn’t have to become a barrier to your creative work. After all, what more do I need besides a few sheets of paper, a pencil, and a sandwich?
* * *
There’s something else Eckhart Tolle says that has stuck with me, and it might do you good to hear it too.
“Greatness” is a mental abstraction and a favorite fantasy of the ego.
I find this notion so liberating that I sometimes want to lock the bathroom door behind me and wedge myself behind the toilet. “Greatness”—as we typically interpret it in this twisted, vapid culture of ours—is an illusion. We’re forever confusing recognition with inherent value. Heck, if Leonardo had been preoccupied with painting a Last Supper scene that would “last through the ages,” he wouldn’t have used that weird mixture of oil tempera on dry plaster. He took that risk, got on it, and made something of profound value to the monks of Santa Maria delle Grazie every time they sat down to eat.
So try this the next time you find yourself thinking I want to be a great writer, or envying another author who has been “hailed as the voice of [your] generation” (or some rot), or daydreaming about being an extra in your sumptuous big-budget film adaptation. Remember: when Kim Kardashian “writes” her next “konfidential,” it will immediately, IMMEDIATELY hit the bestseller list. It’s true. Even if you write the best damn novel in the history of the universe (pretending for a moment that any such consensus is possible), Kim Kardashian is still way more famous than you (or Marcus Aurelius, or even, sadly, Leonardo) will ever be.
Now you want to laugh, right? So laugh. Laugh as the endless carnival of bullshit whirls by. Throw back your head and laugh the loud and cackling laughter of sanity.
Camille DeAngelis is the author of two adult fantasy novels—Mary Modern (2007) and Petty Magic: Being the Memoirs and Confessions of Miss Evelyn Harbinger, Temptress and Troublemaker (2010)—as well as a first-edition guidebook, Moon Ireland (2007). She is currently writing a novel for young adults.
Visit Camille online at camilledeangelis.com.
Follow @pettymagic on Twitter.
EDITED MARCH 9: GIVEAWAY WINNER ANNOUNCED!
Thank you to everyone who entered the giveaway via the entry form—and thank you to the author for donating the prize! I’m happy to announce the winner:
Aik won a signed copy of Mary Modern! Congrats! I’ll email the winner to ask for a mailing address. Thank you again to everyone who entered!
Want more in this blog series?
The Turning Points series will continue with new guest posts three times a week. Subscribe to distraction no. 99 to keep up with the series, or read all the posts with this tag.
Here are the posts in the series so far:
You can keep up with all the open giveaways on the giveaways page!
Series images by Robert Roxby.