Publish or Perish

I read Anne Lamott’s Bird by Bird about as often as I change my air filters, so basically I haven’t read it since last summer, but one of my favorite chapters is the one on publication. She writes about how it seems like getting published is going to be the biggest day of your life, “You will wake up to your phone ringing off the hook and your publisher will be so excited that they will have hired the Blue Angels precision flying team to buzz your squalid little hovel.”

When in fact, as Lamott points out, and as I quickly realized, it is not like that at all. Getting published is sort of like dating. There is a lot of checking your phone because maybe the ringer is off or you went suddenly deaf and then being disappointed. Then telling yourself it is cool, and you know deep down that you are awesome, probably they just didn’t read your essay yet/actually like you as a person. It is fine. There are more words to write. Shorter skirts to wear.

One of my issues with dating is the difficulty in finding someone who likes me as much as I like myself. When my last boyfriend and I broke up, I said, “I just want to be with someone who is more into me.”

“You deserve that,” he said.

He gets credit for not saying, “Good luck,” which is probably what he meant, and what I said when he told me that he really wants to be with someone who is less smart than he is because that would make things less complicated.

Really—obviously—he wasn’t the problem. If I didn’t think I deserved the Blue Angels flyover every time I walked in the door or showed him my new panties, then it would be much easier for me to be happy in relationships, but it would probably make it much harder for me to be a writer. There is a lot of ego in writing. First, I have to assume that people want to know what I have to say enough to actually read. And I have to send my work to publishers and ask them to decide if they want me, and when they say, “No thanks,” I have to assume it is them, not me, and I have to keep on writing.

Sometimes, I might drink a bottle of wine and browse through their latest edition criticizing all the writers they did accept, even though I know deep down that those other writers are just as good, if not better, and it is really just about making some kind of genuine connection. Then I decide to open another bottle and dance around in my underwear to “Bad Blood” by Taylor Swift featuring Kendrick Lamar and tell everyone to suck it.

And of course, Anne Lamott is talking about actually publishing a book. For me, it is just publishing short essays about living alone and being a remedial parent in a monthly humor newspaper. When my first piece ran I thought the phone would definitely ring. Dave Barry would probably call to discover the real identity of this fresh new American voice in humor. I would pretend that I didn’t believe it was really him, “Who is this really?”

“It’s really me, Dave!”

We would laugh. Then he would give me the name of his agent and then I would be on Dave Letterman, and he would flirt with me like he does with Julia Roberts, “Oh Dave!”

My dreams were really just a big Dave orgy, probably Dave Mathews was also there involved in some kind of endless jam that went on for so long that I had to take a nap in the middle. When I wake up, Sedaris is sitting in the corner autographing all his best-sellers with the inscription, “Welcome to the club,” and then at the end of it all, I find myself cuddled up with Dave the founder of Wendy’s as he spoon feeds me a Frosty.

In reality, nobody called me. I had to call to get a free copy sent to my mom just so I could get the adoration I knew I deserved. But then I knew I just had to get back to work. Not because I thought it would actually get me anywhere or allow me to quit my job and spend my days going on books tours or reading my essays as the opening act for The Foo Fighters and then letting Dave Grohl run his fingers through my hair backstage, “Oh Dave!” but because I actually like to write.

I like the process of starting with a blank screen and being terrified, and then feeling like I am going to die because I am not clever enough, and I barely understand how to use commas, and then saying, “Bitch, please,” and just starting to type. A few lines ticker back and forth across the top of my screen that are guarded and dishonest, and then I get up and go for a walk. Sometimes I cry when I walk but maybe because I walk through a local cemetery, and then I get an idea, type it in the notes on my phone, jam out to a few more Sturgill Simpson songs, and then come back to my computer and start the process all over again.

Writing is sort of like preparing an enormous, Thanksgiving meal before you know if you will even have any guests. And it gets messy. You have to stick your hand all the way up that turkey’s ass, even though it seems scary, and you are not sure what you will find or how it will make you feel, but then eventually you pull your hand out, get rid of all the junk, and cook that beast. Then you clean up, line it all up on the buffet, and hope—pray—that people will actually show up.

Your mom will be there, of course, and maybe a couple close friends, some of whom will tell you how great the food is even though they didn’t actually seem to eat anything, and you try not to quiz them too much. That random middle-aged guy from Sacramento. He is there. And maybe a writer you have heard of, at least after you look her up, and she has an actual Wikipedia page about her, so that is something. She shows up and tells you she likes your work, and you take that little leftover home and put it on the table next to the new computer that you don’t even know how to use, but you bought because you are a famous writer now, and you just sit down and keep typing.

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Princess Fiona by Day

I am currently reading-slash-devouring Anne Lamott’s Bird by Bird. In one chapter, Lamott describes her use of the topic of school lunches as a go-to writing launch. Lamott includes her own first draft on the subject and cleverly suggests, “The contents of your lunch said whether or not you and your family were okay.” Lamott continues, aptly narrowing her focus to the importance of the sandwich: “Your sandwich was the centerpiece.”

I thought about my own school lunch, and the sandwich that often appeared as its centerpiece. My mother used to pack a salami and mustard sandwich on . . . wait for it . . . cinnamon-raisin bread. If this sandwich was any indication of the well-being of my family, then obviously we were in deep shit. Other kids knew it, and they would comment that my sandwich was “grody,” and I only made matters worse for myself by eating every last bite— even the crust. I remember that my mom also used to put Coke (secretly generic cola, wink, wink) in my thermos. It would explode and spray brown liquid all over me and my delicious sandwich.

Writing about my sandwich-of-shame reminded me of another memory from the elementary school cafeteria. There was a girl from another class who ate at the same time as us, and other kids in my class—multiple kids—would mention how this girl looked just like me. I found this shocking, and I failed to see the resemblance. Now, I don’t usually like to criticize children about their appearance, but given that this girl is now an adult and I have already mentioned that she supposedly looked just like me, I feel like I have some leeway. If they wanted to cast an ogre on Little House on the Prairie, then this girl would have been a perfect fit. She had long, frizzy, colonial-style hair; she wore handmade, floor-length flowered dresses, had no chin to speak of and was doubly burdened with big bones and pudginess.

I remember defending myself and explaining that we looked nothing alike, but the other kids would just look at her, then look at me and clearly reiterate, “Yep, you are like twins.” I would study her to find some redeeming quality while simultaneously smoothing down my hair with salami grease and shrinking in my chair to appear daintier. Today, I have the image of this overgrown milkmaid of a girl etched into my mind. When I picture myself in elementary school, it is usually her that I see.

I wonder if Angelina Jolie questions herself when people compare her to the Octomom? Does she look at the Octomom and worry if it is a true representation of how the world sees her? With that pairing it is like the Octomom is the pre-drinks version and Angelina is the two-in-the-morning beer goggles version. I am sure Angelina knows exactly which version she is, but Octomom might not be so sure. Maybe Octomom thinks she has a shot at being the hotter doppelganger. As for me, I remember sitting in the elementary school cafeteria with my salami and mustard on cinnamon-raisin bread, brown stains all down the front of my shirt, fully confident that I was the beautiful beer goggles version.

****Discussion of Anne Lamott’s Bird By Bird taken from the First Anchor Books edition, 1995.