I’ve lived the freelance life since I moved to this country 29 years ago. Mostly I’m just fine with that; I’ve learnt to shrug and roll with the emotional ups and downs that come with the territory. But I become hyper-aware of how precarious freelance life is when a series of Bad Things1 occur and my psychotic sense of self-belief teeters. I suspect most creators go through this.
I spend years at a time knowing with rock-solid certainty that life is good, that everything’s going swimmingly, and all will be well. Then, Whap! in the space of a day that towering belief falls, and I convince myself that, Aaaargh! I’ve lost my touch! My career is OVER! And from there I gallop recklessly up the ladder of assumption until I’m living in a paper bag under the bridge eating cat food, or presiding over the heat death of the universe.
Most of the time I consider myself relatively rational2 but there’s something about freelance, I-make-things-with-my-brain life that occasionally pushes a person over the edge into superstitious meltdown. The first time I went through this was when my first novel, Ammonite , which had already won a Lambda Literary Award and the Tiptree Award, was short-listed for the Arthur C Clarke Award (I’m telling you this not to boast but to show just how fucking irrational what happened next was). On the day of the award I was lounging about on the grass of our Atlanta back garden with a cat dozing on my lap. It was a lovely April day, smelling of honeysuckle and jasmine, threaded with birdsong, and the sunshine just right. I was smiling at the flowers, occasionally checking that the phone was to hand, waiting for news of my win—because of course I was going to win; Ammonite was on a roll. The award was mine; I deserved it. I had to win, because clearly that’s what the universe intended; top of the pile was my rightful place. But in the midst of this truly gorgeous day, I started to worry: What if I didn’t win? I might never win another award for Ammonite. And what would that mean? I might never win another award for a book again. And somehow might morphed into Oh-god-never-ever, and My career would be over… And then the phone rang and, with a sense of inevitability, I heard that, yes, I’d lost. That was it; the world had gone horribly wrong. My run of luck was over. I would never get it back. A vast shadow fell over the day and I mourned the end of my professional life before it had had a chance to really flower.
Now I look back on the moment and while I want to howl with laughter at the ridiculous young me I also respect what she went through. Because even today, every few years, I go through some version of it. It never lasts long—two days after that phone call in April I was happily back at work on the copyedits of Slow River—but it can happen anytime.
Sometimes I go through it at the start of a new novel: Oh my god I don’t know how to write anymore! My MS is rotting my brain! I’ve lost it, lost whatever talent I used to have… (As though writing were a lucky coin could that could fall out of a hole in your pocket.) Sometimes I go through it at the pre-publication stage: This is it, I’ve finally been relegated to the Publishing B Team; no one knows the book is coming, no one will pay attention, it will sink without trace. It doesn’t happen with every book, but I know that at some point, with some book, I’ll go through it again.
Illness, pain, stress make all this worse of course but they’re not the cause. The cause is just that weird thing called art, having to live in the undefined place, to hold strong opinions lightly, to balance two or or more opposing ideas at once. There are studies showing that on a daily basis willpower fatigues rather like a muscle; after a while you just can’t do it anymore and have to give up until you can hit the reset button (usually sleep will do it). I think the determined self-belief that allows an artist to decide that, Yes, it’s just shit I made up but people will pay their hard-earned money for this crazy notion that no one else has ever written before occasionally just quits and that’s when we fall into the abyss. The loss (for me at least) is always fleeting but every time—every single time—I think, No, this time it’s true…
It’s entirely possible that part of it springs from childishness: But Mummy I WANT this acclaim/award/cheque, I DESERVE it, I’m SPECIAL! And of course, yes, I am special. So are you. So is every single one of us. But there’s always a place where the artist’s necessary and almost psychotic self-belief expands into the untenable belief that the universe must and will warp itself around us; that we are the centre of all things. And the sudden pendulum swing is a necessary correction, a reset. (Otherwise we bcome like those dickhead writers we’ve all met.) We need both, I think, to make this thing called art and to remain reasonable human beings. Or at least I do. No doubt there are very many super sensible, unvaryingly sane artists out there. And congratulations; I’m glad it works for you (really). But for those of you like me: Hey, when emotionally you are living in the paper bag or watching the sun dim, don’t beat yourself up, open a beer or make a cup of tea, read a good book, and just wait. It’ll change. It always does.
1 To be clear, I’m fine. But I’ve witnessed two horrible accidents in the last three weeks, both (conveniently for my superstitious brain) connected to book stuff. One, involving a family member, came within a hair’s-breadth of, as our internist said to the patient, “Leaving you on a ventilator.” One result was that Kelley and I couldn’t go to Florida for the first scheduled reading from So Lucky. The second was on Monday, on the way to my second scheduled event for So Lucky, a PNBA Happy Hour at Queer/Bar: we were cruising slowly (probably no more than 15 miles an hour) for a place to park when an SUV coming through the intersection ahead of us got t-boned by another car. The SUV rolled, turned, and skidded on its roof right at us. We had to get into reverse super fast, and even so the crushed and shattered vehicle came to rest just 6 feet from our bumper. So now So Lucky is clearly The Book of Accidents because of course two data points make a trend, and it’s all about me :: eyeroll ::
2 For, y’know, a writer.