In case anyone’s interested, I’ve quit writing.
Well, not all writing, of course. I still tap out texts and e-mails in order to give my day the illusion of productivity. I’ll continue leaving notes indicating whether or not the cat has been fed, even though she has gotten pretty good at forging my handwriting. There will still be messages in birthday cards, critiques on manuscripts, and notes posted on the front door for trick-or-treaters — Sorry! Wiped out of candy. See you next year! — at 5 o’clock. (Auntie doesn’t like her cocktail hour disrupted.)
Oh yes, and then there’s this column, although whether or not this is considered writing is up for debate.
No, I’m talking about my career. Frankly, I’ve had it. I’m tired of the hustle, the marketplace and the rules. All these things make writing seem like a real job, something I have heretofore successfully avoided. I’m sick of being told I need a greater presence on social media, just as I was told in the ‘90s I needed to buy a fax machine. (To all those people to whom I used to say my fax machine was “down,” I now confess it was down — down at the bottom of my list of advice I was not going to follow.)
Actually, what I’m really tired of is waiting for my break. As I reported here last spring, I finally finished the manuscript for the book version of my one-woman show, My Mother’s Clothes Are Not My Mother. I handed it off to my agent in May, right before I headed to New York for my show’s Off-off Broadway debut. (I must say, I felt pretty all that at the time, talking about agents and Broadway.) Although I was pushing my young-writer breakthrough a little deeper into the Centrum Silver years than I had hoped, I thought I had finally arrived. I leaned back, bracing for the big tsunami of recognition I so richly deserved.
And I waited.
This is not the first time I’ve quit writing. After an early start out the gate, at six or seven, with my magnum opus, “Duchess” (“Duchess is our dog/Duchess is a hog/But we give her love/Like we’d give a dove…”), I took a well-deserved Barbies-and-Tonka-Trucks sabbatical. Budding feminista that I was, I made Ken serve as the receptionist on the job sites.
I returned to writing during adolescence in order to document which classmates were stuck-up, two-faced and/or thought they were so great — which, according to the friendless author, was almost everyone. In high school, I started keeping a journal. I wrote furiously in it, several times a day, a different colored marker to reflect each moment’s shade of angst. I would then stop people in the hall and demand they read my latest outpouring. Little wonder I am now so resistant to tweets and posts. I basically invented Facebook.
My writing career took several more detours. When I told the head of my high school’s English department I wanted to major in writing in college, he informed me I was neither talented nor disciplined enough and said I should consider a career as an occupational therapist. That blow set me back about as long as it takes one of those inflated sock-’em clowns to tip over and spring back up. By the second month of my freshman year, my word geyser was gushing again. Later in college, my advisor said I had to choose between the English department (my major) and the theater department, where I was spending more and more of my time. “Actors are fun!” I said, as I skipped away in a spray of onion skin and carbon paper. (Children, this is a very funny joke, but I’m afraid time travel is required to get it.)
It was through the theater department that I found what I thought was my calling: playwriting. When I didn’t get into Yale’s MFA program, I was heartsick, but only briefly. My friend Lesley made me a “Happy Rejection From Grad School” card that included several sheets of paper listing all the greats who didn’t do post-graduate work — which, by the bye, is most of them. I too would go it on my own. I wrote by day (again, furiously) and waited tables by night, persevering even in the wake of the death of my beloved dad. I was working on my true magnum opus, a play entitled The Moon Has Lost Her Memory. Months later it was selected, through Portland Stage Company, as a finalist for a Rockefeller Foundation competition. It was going to be given a staged reading and would surely launch my playwriting career. I could already hear the cheers, Author! Author!, echoing in the halls.
The reading never happened. Portland Stage’s director at the time was involved in an accident, and the program was cancelled. All I could think was, This isn’t fair. That reading was supposed to be my consolation prize for my dad’s death and not getting into Yale. I thought I was owed some payback. That’s how things worked, right?
Not long thereafter, I quit writing and moved to San Francisco. I worked in restaurants and became a food-and-wine snob. My electronic typewriter gathered dust. The world of letters missed me not a whit.
Eventually I found my way back home to Portland, and to writing. My path turned toward journalism, as well as commercial work. It wasn’t exactly art, but I was getting paid and having fun. Then, one day, I began a sentence with the word I. The act struck like a lightning bolt in my brain, cracking open the door to personal narrative, the wonderful world of writing about me me me. I had finally found my voice, and I never looked back.
The “rave rejections,” as my agent called them, started trickling in from the big publishing houses in July. Yet, instead of feeling rejected, I basked in the praise I was receiving: “Elizabeth Peavey’s MY MOTHER’S CLOTHES ARE NOT MY MOTHER is so beautifully observed, compassionate, and particular…” “This project is so lovely and so beautifully done…” “I know this one is a stand-out… I’ll look out for this book when it’s published.” “This memoir is such a powerful and brave account of coping, or trying to cope, in the wake of a parent’s death… I’m sure that you’ll soon find another editor who [will offer] a suitably welcoming and enthusiastic home for [it]… I wish you and Ms. Peavey every success upon publication.” “Elizabeth Peavey is a great writer.”
They love me! I thought, overlooking the even thoughs that preceded, or the buts that followed, the praise. The way I saw it, my bundle of pages just needed to land in the right hands. When I asked my agent if I should feel discouraged, she replied with a resounding No.
But those early weeks turned into months. More queries were sent out, more rejections ticked back in. When I wrote to my agent and asked permission to feel a bit discouraged, she granted it. Around this time, I was introduced at a writers’ conference as the person who most deserves a wider audience. While I know the remark was meant as a compliment, it was kind of like being told you’ll get asked out on dates when you grow into your looks. (Yes, I heard that one, too.) It only deepened my discouragement.
And then an e-mail arrived, while I was in mid-wallow, from a talented high school student I worked with last spring. “You have both the talent and the discipline,” I had told her. “Pursue your dream!”
“I’m majoring in Professional Writing,” she wrote. “I absolutely love the program here and have never been more excited about my writing. My professor suggested that we all try reaching out to successful authors and ask them some questions about their work and careers. You were the first person who came to my mind.”
How do we measure success? How much is enough? I know from experience that there is no payback, there are no consolation prizes — but there is magic. You just never know when it will strike. So, perhaps it’s time to dust myself off one more time and get back out there.
And if all goes well, maybe I’ll even tweet about it.
If you want to give Elizabeth Peavey a boost, please like and share her My Mother’s Clothes Are Not My Mother Facebook page. It will make Santa smile.