By Amy Lane
Am I the only one who does this?
Spends time in the shower with a shampoo bottle as a microphone, being interviewed by Jon Stewart?
I’m beautiful—thin, have had my roots done, have magically lost ten years and equally magically not broken out into a horrible infestation of stress-zits—and I am the belle of the ball. Impeccably dressed (don’t ask me in what—but whatever it is, I’m stunning) and I have perfected my schtick. The perfect blend of coyness and brazen humor, I am a motherfucking shining star, and the world will revere me, Jon Stewart will ask me to stay after the show for the secret interview, the one that only ends up on the internet, and in the after-party at some swank New York place I’ve never heard of, Bruce Springsteen shows up magically to do a set in my honor.
What? I’m the only one who has that dream?
It doesn’t matter what you wanted to be when you were little—did you want to be a veterinarian? Did you dream of winning the James Herriot Award for Veterinary Science and All Around Philanthropy? Did you want to be a teacher and win Teacher of the Year? Every kid who’s ever dreamed of doing something—skateboarding across the street? Biking from home to school? Texting as many friends at the same time as possible? Has dreamed of being the bestest and the mostest and the fastest.
We crave recognition. Attaboy! Good job! Attagirl! Fantastic!
It’s worse when we’re writers.
To begin with, the act of writing is so very very personal. We are taking the things in our head, the daydreams, the preoccupations, the ideas of character and the human condition that we find fascinating and important, and we are using the most tenuous of communication mediums—words—to splay those out for humanity to dissect like innards on a biology frog.
Vivisection is too weak a word.
We lay these words out and say, “They’re good, right? My entrails? Good? Amazing? Totally justifies the fact that I’m not a normal person in my everyday life, right? Explains the dirt in the corners of my kitchen, the fact that my kids think all food either comes from the freezer or has crunchy black things on the bottom, and dress like Annie pre-Daddy Warbucks. Right? Are my innards good enough? Are they rich enough? Filling? Can you feast your mind upon my creative offal and say that it is good?”
And sometimes the response is, “Uh, fuck no. Your entrails were not okay. You eviscerated yourself and it was for nothing—you shouldn’t have even tried. Crawl back into your pathetic little brain and hide.”
So how do we go through that incredibly painful process again?
We rely on the good responses. The ones that say, “Yes! Those entrails were perfect! They looked just like mine and they are AMAZING!”
And that response gets us through.
But we start to ask ourselves—if we can dismiss the feedback that makes us feel bad about ourselves, what is there to validate the feedback that makes us feel good? How do we know what’s really good? The world is full of things that we used to think were great but that really weren’t. Anybody out there have a Shaun Cassidy album? You gonna brag about that? How about giant platform heels? Moon boots? A coat in the closet with shoulder pads that the big vulture from Jason and the Argonauts could land on? Speaking of Jason and the Argonauts, remember when that was cutting edge special effects? Remember when Star Wars was? Remember when Star Wars was revamped? And then there was Lord of the Rings and then there was Harry Potter, and then there was The Avengers and who knows what’s coming next? Everybody thought the first thing was great and then something new came out and we realized the first thing was crap and then we learned how to make things better and better and—but what about the first thing, what if it’s crap and
HOW DO WE KNOW IF IT’S ANY GOOD?
We tend to seek out experts, don’t we? We want an opinion that’s greater than ours, more reliable, wiser. And it can’t be our parents. If we ask our parents, either one of two things will happen—A. Mom will say, “You write porn and how do you assign a quantifiable value to porn?” and all of our self doubt will become a tsunami of negative force, or B. Mom will say, “Oh honey, it’s great! Everything you do is great!” because mom thinks you fart rainbows and burp daisies, and no amount explaining that there’s sort of a criteria to assessing literature will make her think that your farts don’t smell better than everybody else’s.
So we seek out reviewers, respected reviewers, peers in literature appreciation, literary publications—book blogs, magazines, websites, guilds—people who know their shit. Oh God, will they review me? Don’t let them review me! They might love me—I want them to love me, what if they don’t love me!
And suddenly our self-worth for this deeply personal endeavor is all tied up into something we pray is objective, something much more reliable than the individuals who come up and tell us “We love you! Your work is great!” Because what if those people are wrong?
All we want is a little fucking validation, is that too much to ask?
So, in case nobody noticed, the RWA announced the finalists for this year’s RITA awards last week. A lot of us weren’t on that list.
And it stung.
It stung me enough to whine to my besties, and there I was, stilling my quivering lip, reminding myself that the people who love my stories really love them, and that I don’t need big, pretty external validation because I firmly believe everything I’ve ever said about the fact that we write to move our readers, not to win awards.
And while I was in the middle of reminding myself this, I got a call from someone at my publishing house, to tell me that it was okay.
Now I’m not going to tell you what the total conversation went like—because that conversation is mine, and it’s personal, and it meant the world to me—but what I will tell you is this: I revere this person. I respect the hell out of her. Her good opinion means more than you can know. And she has read my work and found it good. And I don’t get to hear from her enough, so just hearing her voice on my phone was like a giant sunshine lollipop for my day.
Now after my conversation I IM’d my bestie.
Holy Cow, you told MOM?
You seem really depressed, and you wouldn’t listen to me.
I was trying to get over it my damn self!
Did you like hearing from Mom?
Of course I did. I miss her.
Well it was worth it, wasn’t it?
Yes. Thank you.
People love your work. It’s important to them. You don’t need an award.
You shut up—what have you written for me lately?
And so on.
When we’re little kids we thrive on awards. We thrive on attagirls. We thrive on the giant voice coming down from on high and saying, “You have done things and they are good!”
Remember Harry Potter? Remember how his first year they all got points for good things and negative points for bad things? We yearn for that! Remember how as those books went on, the points they got for their houses meant less and less? By the third year, they hardly thought about it. By the fourth year, kids were dying, and who gave a shit? By the fifth year, they had a horrible troll in charge, and the points were a travesty. By the end of the seventh year, the school was blown up and half their graduating class was dead, and everybody there got points for drawing breath.
Remember that? Remember how the criteria for doing good became so much more important and worthwhile than the big banner at the end?
Now remember this.
If you ask somebody who their favorite author is, he or she will, no doubt, come up with one. And then another. And then another. This person will have a very hard time ranking them. Then someone will remind him or her that five years ago it was this book, and that will get added to the list. And then this person will remember the books they loved as kids and want to reread them, because those books are beloved too. And pretty soon it won’t be one author, it will be five, and ten, and probably twenty, and even more, because it doesn’t matter if you’ve written one book or one hundred, the best thing about books is that there are literally billions to choose from, and your work is a drop in the bucket.
And still, you will be named on a list of favorite authors.
And isn’t that amazing?
And there is no sure fire way for knowing the very very bestest prettiest most wonderfullest author of them all in any given year.
And what matters—what has always mattered—is that somebody read your books and loved them. And this continues to happen on a daily basis. And it inspires you so much that, in spite of the other feedback, the bad stuff, you go into your computer and you write some more.
Because even if nobody liked it, that wasn’t what you started writing for in the first place.
You had an idea, a daydream, a concept of humanity and the world, and you decided to use our most tenuous communicative medium and present it to the world.
And then you looked at your efforts and found them good.
And then other people found them good too.
And that, right there, is where you should stop. Because five points for Gryffindor and ten points for Slytherin is for children.
We are alive, and we are writing. We are casting spells of storytelling like badasses. We win.
We are all the prettiest princess—and Jon Stewart doesn’t know what he’s missing.