Dear Artists, Today is Not the Day to Quit
A little more than two years ago, I began writing my first book. It started with a single Word doc titled “Book” that I’d type notes in on the weekends. I’ve wanted to write books since I was old enough to staple lined paper together. I’d fill those pages with stories about my stuffed cow and write BY CARLY ANN WHEELEHAN on the front.
My parents did that thing where they told me I could be anything I wanted to be, which is a cool thing for parents to do for their little girls. The problem is, I don’t know if my personality really needed the confidence boost. When I was seven, I won a short story contest via Reading Rainbow, which led me to travel in a limo to meet LeVar Burton and play on the Star Trek set and to Disneyland and to this banquet at KQED where they gave me this new cool Apple computer with INTERNET ACCESS and PBS made a little recorded version of my story which they aired between programming and my name CARLY ANN WHEELEHAN was on the cover. Of course I could be anything I wanted to be.
My career totally peaked at the age of seven.
But this experience stuck me with me. Ever since, I’ve always assumed I would write a book someday. It wasn’t something I thought about much, it just hung out there in a matter-of-fact way as a part of my identity like my O- blood type or my Polish nose.
When I started writing Backslidden, I made all the mistakes new writers make. I started the publishing process way too early (like, six months after I first opened that “Book” Word doc). I got too excited about early interest from agents that never panned out. I let myself take the advice of these well-meaning agents and rushed into trying to write the book they wanted to sell without letting my own voice percolate. I tried to “break-in” to the voices in my niche so they would like me, endorse me, validate me. Listening to publishing experts, building a platform, networking–all these things are an integral part of being an author. But I was doing them without being true to myself or my story. I was a fraud.
There’s a part from the live-action version of 101 Dalmatians where Glenn Close’s Cruella DeVille turns to her personal assistant and shouts, “WHAT KIND OF SYCOPHANT ARE YOU?” and the assistant goes, “What kind of sycophant would you like me to be?” It’s a line I quote often and it captures who I was as a writer when I began this process.
One day about a year ago, I woke up, and this voice came to me. Figure out who you are, it said. (By the way, I’m generally not a voice-hearing person.)
So for about ten months, I hid. I hardly Tweeted or blogged and I didn’t query my project. I stopped talking about my book to the people around me. I assume many people thought I had given up. But the truth is, I was finally getting started. I blocked out the voices around me and immersed myself in my art. I told my story. In my voice.
It’s completely self-indulgent, but there are days I am overcome with emotion that I’ve written this book–and not just a book, but my story. My life. On the page. I know that’s not the separation publishers say memoirists need to successfully market their work, and believe me, there are days I am so separated from it, it feels like I’m trying to sell someone else’s book. There are days I’m able to be unflinchingly honest with my writing–and those are the days I edit, delete, revise. But I also know that when an artist pours their soul into their art, and recklessly pursues their own truths and their own beauty–not the truths and beauty of other artists, but their own–these waves of emotion are going to happen. And it’s OK.
A month or so ago, I emerged from hiding and began pitching Backslidden again. People tell me often they admire my drive, my refusal to quit. Sometimes when they say this I hear, “If you were smart, you’d probably give up by now.” I’m almost embarrassed of this thing they call “drive” at times. Like I need to apologize for pressing on, despite the rejections I’ve faced. Like people are thinking, “who is going to nicely tell Carly she should stop now?”
But I don’t even see it as “drive.” I don’t know how to not do this. It’s not discipline to me, it’s not bravery. It’s just that I wake up each day and think, “today is not the day to quit,” just like I wouldn’t quit being a mother or being left-handed. And that doesn’t mean this first book I’ve written will ever be traditionally published–but if it doesn’t there will be more books and more art and more reasons to wake up and think “today is not the day to quit.”
So if you’re thinking about opening that first Word doc, or staring at a blank canvas, maybe start typing or painting. Tune out the voices that don’t matter and listen to your own. And if you’re years into that same project, if you’re still in that same Word doc, and you’ve finally stopped giving a crap if your art is marketable or appropriate or cool and you’ve stopped being a fraud and a sycophant for the sake of your own sanity–keep going. Let yourself get emotional about how far you’ve come every once in a while, celebrate the moment by texting someone who doesn’t have a history of crushing your dreams, and then keep typing. Today is not the day to quit.