Fear of Success?

Things have been going really well with my novel, except for the actual writing part.

I have agents (plural!) who said they’d like to see a revision. I have worked with a story editor and I think I have figured out why it hasn’t been working. I have a plan for fixing it and it’s not an overwhelming amount of work. I have time. I’m even kind of excited about the changes, which is a rare thing when you are some years into a project. And yet no writing.

A friend suggested fear of success, which at first seems odd, since I have been so driven for the past few years, but I sat with that thought for a while and I think she is right. Everything seems like it’s about to happen, except that I am not making my part happen.

It doesn’t quite feel like Imposter Syndrome. I don’t feel any doubt about belonging, or feel like I don’t deserve this. I do deserve it. I’m a good writer, and I have been working towards this. I have no doubts about who I am as a writer.

Yet at the same time, I am a kid from Scarborough with immigrant parents; we don’t write books. We get degrees and jobs and marriages and enjoy our outward trappings of success. That’s still me even though it’s not me.

I was thinking about this in the car, getting a bit teary-eyed, and then Katy Perry’s “Teenage Dream” came on the radio, and I started crying harder since apparently well-placed bubblegum pop music has the power to be emotionally overwhelming.

When I was a teenager, I remember reading Rohinton Mistry’s A Fine Balance, which came out sometime in the 90s. It was a major Canadian literary novel, and it contained characters who looked like me. They weren’t exactly like me, since they lived in Mumbai and I’ve only been there on brief visits, and the time period was different. But there was enough familiarity in the novel that it felt like someone was starting to explain my own family to me. Not completely, but the some of the parts around the edges were starting to fill in. There were other authors like this in the 90s. Shyam Selvadurai. Arundathi Roy. Vikram Seth.

I am no Rohinton Mistry. I am not an imposter, I belong, I deserve this, but do I deserve to deserve this? If I feel like an imposter anywhere, it’s not among writers but among those other children of immigrants, born in the suburbs, who went to a good school, got a degree and a marriage and a well-paying career in IT Marketing, and then tossed it all away for a different marriage, a different degree and a burning ambition to not have a job. Who the hell do I think I am, writing a book?

I never actually dreamed of being a writer as a teenager; that idea seemed so wholly unrealistic. This is not one of the five careers South Asian kids are allowed to have. But it’s the dream I would have dreamed if I were allowed to have dreams.

I’m not naive. I know Canlit is not standing out there with arms wide open to welcome a brown girl. We’ve had a number of raging dumpster fires that make that clear. I had one agent reject my book because there were a lot of strong books by South Asian writers recently, and apparently only white people can publish mediocre novels.

Still, I don’t know if there’s a teenager out there who will see themselves in my book, but I know there are some GenX children of immigrants who might What will they think? Are they going to see me as some sort of self-hating ABCD? What happens when people start looking for my life in my book? What if I say something on Twitter and an onslaught of trolls come out of the woodwork to tell me my book sucks?

Will everything change if this all works out? My gut says, no, probably not, but my fear says what if it does?

I am okay if the book comes out and sinks into oblivion. That doesn’t bother me. I’m okay if no one publishes it; that doesn’t mean anything except that publishers make mistakes. The book is good, or at least, it will be. And if it isn’t, the next one will be.

But as long as I don’t actually write it, I never have to face the question of what happens if this succeeds?

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The Worst Rejection

Recently, I was talking to some students from Sarah Selecky Writing School about my MFA, and that reminded of how I’d failed to get in the first time I applied. Of all the many, many rejections I’ve had in my writing life, that one was the most devastating.

I think it hit so hard because I’d somehow decided that the MFA was the litmus test of whether or not I was really a writer. I can hardly be faulted for thinking this, because it seemed like everyone else thought the same thing.

After I got in, I remember a friend of mine, who’d heard me talk about writing for about five years or so, suddenly asking if she could read my work. Apparently, the fact that I wrote didn’t make her radar until an instition had annointed me as a writer. I said sure, and didn’t send her anything. Neither of us ever mentioned it again, but I know at least one person who won’t get a mention in my acknowledgements.

Likewise, it was only after I started the MFA that my parents suddenly had a lot of writing advice for me. “You need to learn about storytelling,” said my mom. “You should listen to the woman who does my head massage in India.”

I’m not sure their taking my writing seriously was a bonus.

Still, it was odd that they didn’t pick up on the idea that I might want to be a writer sooner. I read so much and so often as a kid that my mom would actually threaten to burn them if I didn’t stop reading to clean my room. I was Editor-in-Chief, twice, of my high school literary magazine. I did a concurrent undergraduate degrees in Computer Science and in Technical Writing. “Why are you bother with writing?” my dad asked. “Because I want to,” I would answer. Years later, I took finally took creative writing classes.

After I was rejected, I stopped writing. My rejection email contained a very kind note about applying again, and how rejection is simply a part of the writing life, but such good advice made no impression on me. I just stopped. It felt like the dream was dead.

I knew perfectly well that an MFA was not necessary to be a writer, but I had pinned so much on this one acceptance. I had told everyone that I was applying. I made a big deal to everyone about how I wasn’t sure if I was going to have time for things next year, because I was going to be doing my MFA. It was not only other people taking me seriously as a writer, but also me taking me seriously as a writer. And so the rejection became a giant “Haha!” (Cue Nelson from the Simpson’s.)

I don’t have a beautiful story about how I found it in me to try again. I made a last-minute decision to take a writing class. I wrote again. Some of what I wrote was fun to write, and I liked it. That was enough to flip the switch; I was determined to write a bunch of new stuff and apply again. “Reject me? I’ll show you!”

That year, I got in.