|The front cover and front flap from my forthcoming novel.|
For most of this I talk about me, but I'm hoping that it'll be clear that what I'm talking about applies to most writers, perhaps in different ways, but we all have to manage feelings around both "success" and "failure" as writers and as people.
I’m a goddamn genius! Love me! I just got the cover design and blurby words for my new novel. It’s a really beautiful cover and the words are really fantastic. They make the book sound amazing. And they said some tremendously complementary things about me and my work.
This should be good, right? Of course it is. I mean, it’s good for the book and attracting readers. And I’m flattered and all. However, it makes me think about that oh so difficult of issues. What to do about positive feedback? It can make you uncomfortable. (Negative feedback is another thing—thanks, Mom—but maybe what I say here about its opposite also applies.)
There is of course imposter syndrome. That couldn’t really be me! What if everyone finds out that I’m a fake? I can’t live up to those words.
And for me, the book is done, so it’s going to have to go out into the world without me. Nothing I can do will change the novel at this point. Unless, you know, I try to arm wrestle Trudeau, accidently discover a new planet or become a Kardashian. The novel is typeset and ready to go. But now that I’m working on a new novel, am I going to be haunted by the last ones? Can I make them as good? (They’re disappointments, of course, to me—I wanted them to be so much better—but also, can I make this novel as good as the last ones? It should be just like the last ones, except of course, totally different.) This is the quantum state, the Schrödinger's Cat of Self Regard that writers often live with. We're great while at the same time we're awful. Naturally, sometimes we're Mx In-between.
But can I make this new book live up to that hyperbolic praise on my last book? It actually says “a novel of sheer genius.” Holy cow! And I didn’t even write that. But of course it’s just advertising bumpf. Sure, the editor thinks the book is good, but what does saying this kind of stuff really mean? Really, it is just the relationship between a reader and a book which determines how the book works. And that can be neither quantified, predicted, or assumed. That’s one of the things that’s great about writing. It is always its own thing. And the reader makes it their own thing. Or not.
But really, it isn’t about the hoopla around the reception of the book, or how “great” I am, or how terrible. I hope just to write. To just make the book I’m writing be the best it can be. For the book. Sure, for my own satisfaction as a writer, also. I mean, I do take pride in my craft. If I were a wall builder, I’d want to make a good wall. But there’s something about writing that is different than walls. Or shoes. Or bread. (Mmm. Bread.) But there’s the matter of “wisdom” or “greatness” or “super whizbang artiness that transcends mere artisan/craftspersonness,” isn’t there? What does that mean though, for a writer? I mean, I do try to go for it. To try to put everything into what I’m writing. Not to be pretentious and gloop up the work with trying to be deep, but to really “bring it” when I sit down to write. Whatever that looks like at the time. Whatever that looks like for me. So, I do try to go “deep,” but not to be “deep” for the sake of it, or performatively so. I try to hear right inside me, to think and feel deeply about whatever it is I’m working on. And when I’m making a terrible joke, to really make it terrible to the best of my ability. And when I’m writing a character, to really make the portrayal “sing” whatever that looks like for the particular work.
I remember when my last novel received a lot of acclaim, and particularly after the fancy-shmancy Scotiabank Giller Prize shortlist, I was quite depressed. Why? I guess I let it get to me. It was strange. Part of me always wanted that kind of approval and affirmation. It was all very glamorous and glitzy. But when I got it, I didn’t like it. It seemed like it was saying that my worth as a person had to do with this success. And of course, it doesn’t. Sure, this was a tremendously lovely recognition of something about I'd worked hard on, and for my writing career in general, but it didn’t—it shouldn’t—mean anything about me as a person. As a son, husband, father, sibling, friend, etc. As a human. But to be honest, it took me aback. If I acknowledged this award, it felt like I was saying that actually it did matter whether I achieved some of this recognition as a writer, it mattered as to whether I had worth as a person.
It took a while to sort this out. Why did I feel badly? I didn’t want the recognition if it meant that I’d really wanted it. Needed it. It took a bit for me to undersand that in fact, while I was pleased that my writing was recognized, something I’d worked hard on, it ultimately had nothing to do—or at least, not much, to do—with my sense of self, my worth, my confidence. At least, not at my core.
Did the fact that I wrote strange books for 30 years before this that didn’t get this mainstream recognition mean anything about me as a person? Nope. Did this mainstream recognition? Nope. It was good for my career—book sales, some money, opportunities to write and participate in things, and it got me some work. But other than that, my life is about me as a person. And I like writing and hope to keep getting better. And to have the opportunity to keep writing and to keep being able to share that writing in whatever form that takes.
Sometimes I worry when people speak to me about becoming “a published writer,” or speak about how a book will change their lives. Sure it will AS A WRITER—maybe—but not as a human. We will still have the gaping holes of need inside us we always had, even if we have a #1 International Best Seller. Or we’ll still be filled with gladness and light if we don’t. The only difference is, we’ll have a publication, or a book. And really that’s a great thing. We get to write. And we get to be profoundly ourselves and work through all of what that means. But neither is dependent on the other. It gives us freedom and possibility always. And we get to decide what matters to us, not what is important to the market, or the prizes or anything else.
But y'know, while you're here, feel free to tell me I'm genius in the comments. Also, that my hair looks good today. Because, damn. It does!