Sunday, February 10, 2013

Tough Enough

It’s time for me to tell this story.

When my first novel came out five years ago, my publisher, Random House, hosted a lovely reception at the ALA Midwinter Conference in Philadelphia to toast several of us “debut” children’s authors.  It was in a large, elegant hotel room and there were crab cakes and one of those large wheels of runny brie similar to the type Anne Lamott describes in the chapter on “Publishing” in Bird by Bird.  Editors, agents, publishing poo-bahs, writers: all were there. 

It was one of those platinum moments when one feels very good about oneself, professionally.

At some point in the evening I was introduced to a woman, and when my eyes lit on her name tag I almost gasped.  Let’s call her SA.  For Snarky Agent.

Several years earlier when I was searching for agents I had sent her a draft of a manuscript (which ultimately became the debut novel we were all toasting that evening) which she swiftly and rudely rejected.  Very rudely rejected.  As a matter of fact, it was the only rejection I had ever received which made me cry.  It was mean spirited.  It was unnecessarily unkind.  It was unnecessary on all levels, because she was, and is, a very successful agent with a stable of very successful authors.

And that evening, there she was, sidling up to me for an opportunity to schmooze and lavish praise on my little book.

You dream about these sorts of moments.  Not every day, but on those bitter days, those chew-the-gristle-of-past-hurts days, you imagine what you’ll say to so-and-so who did you wrong.  You’ll wield your triumphs in her face.  You’ll trumpet your success.  “The best revenge is doing well!” you’ll cry, as you breach the walls of past disappointment and vanquish your enemy.

And oh, reader, how she asked for it.  She looked at my name tag, and a curious expression came over her face.

“Haven’t we met?” she half-asked, half-mused.  She knew the name, but from where … ?  It never occurred to her it was from her “slush pile.”

Here’s what I did:  nothing. 

“No, I don’t think we’ve met,” I answered, and exchanged some stupid small talk with her before retreating back to the brie.

Here’s why I did it, and it’s not because I’m noble, because I’m definitely not:  because that’s the business.  It’s an opinion-based, subjective business, and even if you win the Nobel Prize, someone out there is gonna shrug and say, “Oh, I really can’t get into his/her novels.”  Someone will take issue with your narrator while someone else loves your narrator.  Some will call your book “important,” while someone else will call it a missed opportunity.

In the midst of that lovely, praise-filled party, I was reminded, before I became dangerously pleased with myself, that there’s always another opinion.  And while you can’t let the turkeys get you down, you also can’t let the voices of the angels go to your head. 

In the end, it’s just about the work.  About being alone with your story, and doing the best you can, and if you string a couple of good sentences together that’s a productive day.  If someone reads it and likes it, that’s a good day. 

My third book is set for release next week, and the reviews are streaming in.  I’m grateful to have a wonderful editor at Knopf/Random House and a wonderful agent.  I’m grateful to be reviewed, grateful for the good reviews… and deeply miffed by the brain-addled idiots who missed the point and wrote bad ones. (See?  I told you I’m not noble.  Or mature.)

My teacher in college and at Bread Loaf, the poet Robert Pack, asked me long ago, “Are you tough enough to make it in this business?” 

Thirty years later, I’d have to tell him:  nope.  Thin-skinned as ever.  Sensitive as ever.

But every day, I return to the blank page.  The hours alone, the stiff back from sitting too long, stringing sentences together.  And strangely enough, I find that deeply satisfying.