When we watched Robert De Niro present the Best Screenplay award at the Oscars on the DVR this morning and he said the following, I looked over at my husband, who was grinning. “I’m not saying anything,” he told me.
“The mind of a writer can be a truly terrifying thing. Isolated, neurotic, caffeine-addled, crippled by procrastination and consumed by feelings of panic, self-loathing and soul-crushing inadequacy. And that’s on a good day.”
Probably the biggest “triumph” of my literary career was my selection as a finalist in Barbara Kingsolver’s Bellwether Prize a decade or so ago. The prize has since morphed into the PEN/Bellwether Prize for Socially Engaged Fiction. That, dear reader, is the fiction that I write. So far, it is the only fiction that I know how to write, the only fiction that emerges from that deep compelling place, the stories that push and butt inside me until my only choices are to write them or become mentally ill.
My second novel,Because the Angels, at 50,000 words ended up being too short for the Bellwether Prize, and I was sad about it, but I didn’t really grieve for long, because the novel was really as long as it was supposed to be, and I thought that by the next time the Bellwether Prize rolled around, I would have another novel ready.
And it was, and I missed the deadline. And I missed the deadline because I was working with my human rights organization in Hebron for the month of October and mid-December through mid-February, so I didn’t see the Poets and Writers listing. But really, that’s no excuse. If I had been wanting to submit this novel for the Bellwether Prize, I should have been paying attention to the deadline, and I didn’t and now it’s too late.
AAAAARGH! Stupid! Stupid! Stupid!
I am trying not to lapse into magical thinking about this, as writers are wont to do. You know, like, “Well maybe God wanted me to miss this opportunity, so that the novel will have more of an impact in another situation.” (I confess I had plans involving clemency for Leonard Peltier.) Or “Just you wait writer-friend-who-didn’t-like-it; Ms. SuperAgent was thrilled to pull it out of the slush pile and is already optioning it off to Hollywood.”
As a spiritual discipline, I keep telling myself that neither God nor the publishing world owes me a thing.
But I also need something to keep me away from the spiral of self-loathing. The fact that my novel might very well not have sold in another two years and I can enter it then? Not super comforting. That the next one I’m beginning work on might be better? At this point it’s in such nebulous shape–in my head and a collection of notes, I have no way of knowing how good it’s going to be—it hasn’t reached the place that my other three did where everything begins to click.
I do pray that God will use my novels for good. Since they have secular as well as religious characters and some of those characters use profanity and follow sexual mores frowned upon by most religious publishers (and I’m pretty much fine with them the way they are), I know that some people might think that strange. But it’s true. I really do want God to use what I write to transform situations of oppression and sadness. I guess that prayer is the only comfort I have; it’s something I can do.
But still, AAAAARRRRRGH! (Really there’s nothing I can do.)
In January, I wrote a Facebook post about my grief over losing Pete Seeger and the wise comments of a colleague (a young Palestinian woman from Ramallah who had never heard of him) about why I was grieving. I felt a little “smiley hurt” reading an article in the February issue of Rolling Stone, that echoed her comments
Mikal Gilmore referred to Seeger singing at Barack Obama’s inauguration this verse from “This Land is Your Land”:
Nobody living can ever stop me, As I go walking that freedom highway; Nobody living can ever make me turn back This land was made for you and me.
That moment heartened many of us, perhaps discomfited others, but both reactions were validations: Pete Seeger was finally singing to all of America as its redeemed native son, as a loved and revered hero. The day he died, we immediately understood, we’d never see anybody like him again.
For those interested, I also wrote a blog post about Seeger in January: http://www.kathleenkern.net/human-rights/hearing-about-pete-seeger-in-palestine/
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