Looking for a Sign? Me Too!
I’m in bed, recovering from dental work that has left me unable to smile or chew scrambled eggs, much less give a reading (which I was supposed to do tonight! Forgive me, Poets at Work! A subject I would like to talk about here, if I can’t talk about it there.)
A lot of writers get to a point when they’re looking for a sign about whether to continue trying to write – or not. A friend of mine confessed recently she wasn’t sure if she wanted to keep writing or not. My (thought, not spoken) response was: no one is forcing you to write. Stop if you don’t like it anymore, and go do something else! Be cheerful! Paint a picture, learn to fly a plane, become a nanny or a artisan cheesemaker or whatever does make you happy. I give myself the same advice when I get down. I can say that, from my experience, almost all my other jobs, from selling perfume to writing technical documentation, were more financially rewarding than writing and teaching poetry. And most of the time, writing doesn’t give you much in the way of emotional reward, either. Lots of rejections, slower book sales, five-person crowds at readings, you know, the stuff that really kills your soul.
So, how do we know whether to persevere – or hang it up? I don’t want to be a self-deluded person who keeps doing something they don’t feel successful at and then complains about it, you know? I know enough to know that as a poet who has taught part-time and been the Poet Laureate of a small city and that has had three books published by nice publishers (pretty much, I would buy a drink right now for any of my publishers if they were in front of me, they have all been stand up folks who do what they do for love, not money.) I am lucky enough to have a husband who thinks (perhaps also deluded) that I am a great writer and supports my not-making-a-lot-of-money-in-order-to-make-art, and writer friends who are mostly supportive and cheerful types, too. But I sometimes have to ask the universe for a sign – if I should keep at this mostly-forsaken art form. I look around at other people who have a lot more success at this writing thing than me and wonder what I am doing wrong, if I am a terrible writer, if I have somehow missed some obvious thing that would have gotten me – grants, publicity, better book reviews, something.
I will tell you too, that at some of my lowest points as an adult, I have had these signs. The day I won my first Dorothy Sargent Rosenberg Prize, my hot water heater was repossessed (something about my landlord – conveniently out of town – not paying his bills on time) and I had just walked in the door from a night spent at the local hospital struggling to breathe, due to a wicked flu/asthma combo that nearly killed me (and thanks perhaps in part to the paper mill next door, as this was when I lived in Port Townsend. That stuff is wicked polluting! I know it provides jobs for a small town, but seriously, could it put a filter or two on those smokestacks?) I was about to quit sending out my first book, Becoming the Villainess, when Tom called to offer to publish it. I was about to quit again with book two when Anne from Kitsune sent her acceptance letter for She Returns to the Floating World. So I guess this shows that maybe I am a bit ambivalent about the writing life. I am a practical person, and a practical person just doesn’t become a poet. I like stuff like “paying my bills” and “paying for expensive dental care I don’t really want that leaves me in so much pain I write grumpy blog posts.” I liked working at real jobs, from waitressing to middle management, with regular paychecks and benefits, where people rewarded you for working hard and once in a while, usually in yearly review, told you that you were doing a great job. Man, I miss all that stuff. The universe better give me a sign, or I’m gonna end up a couture hat maker or exotic chicken breeder.