“I have this crushing anxiety every time I submit anything,” I tell this woman–essentially a stranger–sitting across from me. Her brown hair is trimmed into a straight, clean line and she has these beautifully manicured eyebrows, both characteristics which put a sort of regal finish on her features. She drinks her Americano with poise and sets it back on its saucer without any sort of clink or clatter.
I, on the other hand, am one strike away from looking like I’m on my way to a battered women’s shelter. My hair is straightened but flyaways catch my eye–an impressive feat considering it’s hard to see the sides of your own head. My eyebrows are many things, but manicured is not one of them. Nerves had a small line of sweat beading along the top of my lip, to really round out my not-trying-chic look. To top it all off, I’m pretty confident I actually flinched at the bite of unsweetened espresso and had somehow managed to leave rings around the cup, the saucer and the wood grain of the table.
“I know it sounds silly,” I continue, fiddling in a way that I hope is elegant with the handle rather than taking a sip, “but I always imagine a room full of editors at the round table just reading my pitch out loud and laughing. Like slap-your-knee-milk-coming-out-your-nose laughing. Not that they’re probably drinking milk. That would be … unlikely.”
She’s a writer. We both are, I guess. Technically. That’s why we’re meeting over coffee. And while we wore the same uniform–button-up cardigan (unbuttoned), jeans (deliberately worn-looking but also clearly new) and unassuming footwear (navy Toms and black Nikes)–she had a certain something about her that I did not now and was becoming pretty convinced I would never have. Hence my statement.
I expected her, like most people, to say something encouraging. “No, assignment editors are professionals. They see a lot of pitches and it’s just their job to look them over objectively.” She would prove to be an exception to the rule.
“They probably are,” she said flatly. “Some of them, anyway. It’s a cliquey sort of business, journalism.” She was a reporter. Not a well-known reporter, and not one that wrote much anything of note, but she was good at what she did so far as I could see. Local pieces for a local rag with clean and concise copy.
Her response had shaken my confidence. I fumbled, taking a drink of my stout coffee to stall. I’d waited tables from high school and through college, so I tried to play it off as she’d confirmed something I already knew. “Thank you!” I said with a note faux relief and vindication. The truth is, I suppose I did already know. I had sat in at such a pitch meeting before during one internship or another in college. Assignment editors advocated for pitches they’d looked over before or for writers with whom they had a relationship; they seemed to rather skeptically regard most others. One or two suffered the wrath of an astringent comment before being placed back into a manilla envelope and stowed away. (I remember being more baffled, at the time, by the fact that people had apparently mailed these things in. Who did that, even? Mail things.)
We parted ways with the empty promises that friendly strangers exchange hanging in the air, but I definitely did not have a wonderful time, it’s wasn’t all that great a pleasure meeting her and we would most certainly not be doing this again soon–not if I could help it, anyway. My broken ego couldn’t take another hour-long session of listening to her resume of success and sharing my limp little tales of triumph in return. She took her great eyebrows and her contempo-casual wardrobe and her professional demeanor home, and I lugged my mounting sense of self-doubt and dread along with me for a week after the fact. Not that kind of, “Maybe I’m not so good at this,” type doubt. More like the, “My whole life is a lie; I’ve been telling people I love writing when clearly what I love is thinking I’m a writer. I’m the worst. I’m like Thomas Pynchon had a baby with one of the Wuggles. I’m a phony and everyone who’s any good at this knows it just by looking at me. I’ll never find work because they don’t give work to remedial hacks,” kind of doubt.
I languished. I got teary looking out a rain-streaked window. I dropped chocolate on the floor and then ate it anyway. But I did keep writing, because I had already quit waiting tables and I needed the monies. I had some small successes over the next few months–a tighter word count, a faster turnaround–and, thanks to my relentless searching on LinkedIn, Craigslist, Twitter, blogs and the Write for Us pages of any and all websites, I did actually have some work to speak of. So I felt a little less morose in general.
But I had given up on trying to find a full-time job. From a handful of those ill-fated coffee dates and dozens of emails exchanged with actually successful writers on Linkedin, I knew that the jobs I wanted–roles at a magazine or a newspaper–all had a full dance card. It’s not that there were no jobs to be had, but more that they were sort of proximity opportunities. If you knew someone where you wanted to work or if you were willing to cultivate a relationship with someone in a position of authority, sure. But, as modern bard of note Warren G. reminds us with the sound bite that precedes his classic Regulators, you can’t just be any geek off the street.
Eventually and with no small amount of reluctance, I applied to temp agencies. I had worked with some in the past, and I mentally associated the whole affair with something desperate. Week-to-week work, I imagined. Probably data entry. I researched and I wrote for piecemeal projects here and there. I edited manuscripts when they came my way, and I waited stoicly to die.
In the made-for-TV movie version of my life (starring Maribeth Monroe as a much more clean-cut and employed me), this is the part of the film where the Rolling Stones start to fade in. Playing over a montage of a bespectacled brunette bent over her laptop, Mick Jagger croons out a few pearls of wisdom about getting what you want and trying sometimes and…I forget. But cut to: a phone call. It’s a recruiter. A recruiter for some place I’ve actually heard of, at that.
I’ll go to the interview, I told myself, just for practice. When I was hired, I told myself that I could always leave if I didn’t like it. But, wouldn’t you know it: I kind of did. It was a job writing short copy, which has never been my forte. Never. And it was for clothing, which it’s fair to say I’ve never really had an eye for. Nonetheless, it was really refreshing to try something entirely new.
That’s not to say my self-doubt and inadequacy and crushing sense of failure dried up like raindrops on a window after the storm. Hell no. I was a wreck for months. I cried at least twice on my way home from work. I spent 45 minutes one day looking up synonyms for the word “pretty.” I’m 80% sure I’ve developed a mild shopping addiction thanks to all the descriptions I’ve read trying to get good at product copy. I was sure they’d made a mistake bringing me on, and that any minute I would be carried out for-he’s-a-jolly-good-fellow-style and tossed into a dirty puddle in the street. “And stay out!” they’d sound off in unison, the door to the building closing quietly behind them because, you know, doors today don’t really slam anymore.
Imagine my surprise when they offered me a full-time job. You can’t, actually. You can’t imagine, because I actually remember asking the hiring manager if she was sure.
“Have I been here long enough?” I asked, stalling to give myself time to process.
“You sure have. I have an offer letter all–”
“Have you checked in with the copy leads? I mean, I don’t get detailed reviews yet, so…do I need to, like, take a test or something?”
“Nope, we’ve all discussed it already. Your name has come up a few times in meetings and we think you’d make a good addition to the team.”
“Well, did you know that I don’t always reach my contractor goal?”
It went on like that for a while. It probably sounded to that saint of a woman like I was trying to talk her out of offering me a job, but I was just legitimately baffled as to why they had thought of me when it came time to cull the herd.
The truth is–and this is where I going with all this–that in challenging myself to write differently, I was actually becoming better. In surrounding myself with people better than me, I was soaking up new information I couldn’t possibly have gotten my hands on before. And, in being forced to aim for specific goals that I never would have been inclined to try for before–keeping my word counts to Twitter length or writing more than x number of short descriptions instead of a handful of overdone long ones–I was becoming something better. Not that I’m where I need to be. We see hundreds of amazing works pass through the submissions here at Pif every month; it’s incredibly humbling. I know I have so many miles to go before I sleep. But, like a caterpillar or a Pokemon, I had evolved into something less mealy and fluffy and cumbersome. And that’s the part of writing for a living that had escaped me for so long.
So that’s the gist of this exceptionally lengthy Letter from the Editor this month: be humble. Accept that you’re not all that good at what you do, even if you know you’re damn good. Absorb the awesomeness of others; don’t covet it. Set goals for yourself in writing the same way you would do at the gym or with your monthly budget. (For me, the hardest part was finding a way to be myself and still look like all of the amazing writers I had grown up admiring. How to be marketable–read, the same as others–in a way that worked for me–read, as a hot mess.) Know that you are not going to find that dream job right away–not because you don’t deserve it, but because maybe you aren’t ready for it yet–and keep trying to get there. Tell the people you admire that you do, in fact, value their talent, because that’s nice to hear and we, as a culture, don’t tell one another how awesome we think our contemporaries are nearly enough.
But–above all these things–don’t eat chocolate that you’ve dropped on the floor. It might be the last piece and you might think you need it to live, but sometimes, when you pick up your floor chocolate, there’s cat hair on it in a big way. And sometimes, if you’re super sad and think you’re never going to be the next ee cummings, you won’t spit it out…you’ll eat it, hair and all. And if there’s one thing I’ve learned from college to the time of this writing with any certainty, it’s that floor chocolate makes no one a better writer. Not ever.