So last weekend I’m at the bookstore–remember those? so quaint! so old-fashioned!–checking out the Best American Essays and short story collections when I see it: a black soft cover book with cool illustrations in embossed ink on the cover. The kind you just don’t see anymore on books (or maybe you do only it doesn’t look as cool on an iPad or Kindle or the Nookie, as my technology virgin sister calls the Nook).
I picked up the book. Cool illustrations, cool title. And then I see the author’s name and I think: A**HOLE!!
I know. Hardly my proudest moment. But it’s the first thing that popped into my head, unprompted, unwanted, unexpected. No, he wasn’t an ex-lover who did me wrong. It’s much, much worse. We were in graduate school together, he’s younger than me, he’s had three books published and is a professor of fiction. He’s everything I thought I wanted to be when I grew up. Every. Single. Damn. Thing.
Three books! All with similarly cool titles! The kind I wish I’d thought of! And quirky, deep characters! With interesting plot lines that peel back life layer by layer! And best of all, prose that I admire, with sentences and descriptions I read twice or more just because they were THAT good!
He has glowing recommendations from the New York Book Review, the New York Times, blah blah blah. And he deserves every single bit of praise. So why do I hate him? Where is all this hostility coming from, anyway?
Wasn’t I the one who, just two weeks ago, responded to someone who asked if I still wrote fiction ‘on the side’ that “my day job writing is enough for me?” Wasn’t it moi who told a friend I was OK with not picking up where I left off on my last book because I feel like I’ve said everything I wanted to say??
I don’t really hate this guy, but for the sake of my sanity and for fun, let’s call him BoBo. I actually like BoBo. He was very nice in the classes we had together; he accepted praise for his work with humility; to pay for school, he worked a couple of menial, low-paying jobs that gave him time to write. BoBo was smart, funny, and wicked with words on the page even back then. Everyone liked him. Even me.
I don’t regret him an ounce of his success. (Mostly.) It’s just funny, because every time I think I’ve finally gotten to the point in my life where it’s OK if I’m not writing, BoBo pops up with an interview in the literary section of the Chicago Tribune, or at an alumni reading, or on the damn bookshelf in my local bookstore, or winning yet another literary contest, reminding me of something I left behind that maybe–just maybe–I’m not ready to leave yet.
Damn you, Bobo.
Years ago, I remember asking an older copywriter (40-something, ha ha! I thought that was so old when I was 23) that I worked with whether she still wrote fiction or poetry. She said, “Nah. I finally gave myself permission to let that go, and I’ve been much happier ever since.” As I get “older,” I come back to her answer now and again, thinking–is this the year I can cut myself some slack? Is this the year I’ll be able to let go of what feels like an outdated dream so I can move on to something else or just be happy with where I am?
And then I see another book or interview with BoBo and I want to rip his eyes out all over again. This can’t be healthy. After I calm down, I realize, wait, maybe I do want to go back to that book project. Maybe there was something to that short story I abandoned like last night’s leftovers. Maybe there is still hope for me to write more of my own words and less of someone else’s. Maybe I can see BoBo and congratulate him on his hard-earned success instead of bemoaning my unfinished business.
It’s different too because, at 42, I’m halfway through my life (if I’m lucky and don’t get hit by a bus tomorrow, in which case, this would be a crappy last blog post, I would prefer to go out on a high note not some rambling bitch fest). If I want this to happen, I need to get on it already. Or let it go gracefully.
Am I the only one who feels this way? I can’t be. There are millions of people out in the world–that’s a lot of unfulfilled, unrealized dreams haunting the universe. Sure, OK, we all make choices. I remember the moment in my sophomore year in college when I switched majors from creative writing to professional writing, thinking–I want to be able to support myself and never have to rely on anyone else ever again. And I like to eat, so I better do something where I can actually get paid. Fortunately, I realized this dream–being able to support my family with my words in today’s unpredictable business landscape feels less like a dream and more like a gift. But it was my choice. And it was a good one, for me and for my family.
So I’ve decided that starting today, I’m going to try to stop beating myself up, redirect my anger, stop hating on BoBo, and revisit my personal writing projects. I’m also going to read BoBo’s latest book and see what that crafty little devil is up to now that will inspire me. And maybe secretly I hope that every time I loosen my grip on my dream, BoBo will pop up again, reminding me of what’s important and why it matters that I pay attention when I get so damn pissed off about something. Reminding me that maybe I have something left to say after all. Or at the very least, that I can someday see his name on a book cover and think, “Way to go, BoBo!” and not, “Again?? You bastard!”
Post script: As I checked out, the clerk looked over the cover of the book and said, “Interesting.” I said, “Definitely. I went to school with that guy. He’s really good.” Would have never happened if I’d just downloaded it on my Nookie.