I don’t need no stinkin’ pity.
I guess that’s a rather harsh reaction, but the other day someone responded to my New Year’s Eve Confession saying he had no sympathy for me, that instead of seeking sympathy I should look at what all I’d accomplished in my career, and, and — this is the part that got to me — that I should lower my dreams. That’s the very kind of thinking I don’t want in my life.
Let me back up a bit. And forgive me if I’ve already told you this story before, but years ago I mentioned to a yearning-to-be-published author that I’d received literally 200 to 300 rejection letters from literary agents and editors. She looked at me like I was crazy and responded, “Give it up.”
Okay, maybe that wasn’t her exact quote, and as a journalist I believe in giving exact quotes. But that was the gist of her brief response — after two or three hundred rejections it’s obvious that you’re not going to make it as a published author, so just give it up.
I looked at her like she was crazy. I was not going to give up my dream. If I did, that’d guarantee I wouldn’t fulfill it. And I’m so glad I didn’t take her advice because it wasn’t long after that that I sold Wasted. We know what happened to Wasted — New York Times bestseller, Violet Crown Award finalist in the nonfiction category, three printings, and finally, finally, 11 years after publication, Wasted made it into profit territory.
I began writing this blog post almost two weeks ago. I have a tendency to do that a lot lately – start writing something, get what I think is halfway through it, then take a break and never finish the piece.
With this post, I came back to it a week later and thought, hmm, the first 300 words stand on their own as is, though there was one really bad transition, which I’ve deleted.
But despite the fact that the first 300 words stood on their own, I wanted to add more. I wanted to write about what that no-pity “someone” said to me. (That’s something I tend to do – write too long.*) So now, nearly two weeks after I started this, I’m going to diverge from my usual blog post formula and go a bit more into reporter mode. In doing so, I’m going to talk a very little about my sex book, something I’ve been refraining from doing until it gets closer to actual publication. I’m going to do that because that “someone” was one of my sex book sources.
I’ve known him for four and a half years. And from now on I’m going to call him Howlin’ Wolf. I won’t tell you how Howlin’ Wolf and I met. That will have to wait for the book. But in those four and half years, we’ve become friends, though distant friends, meaning we rarely see each other but we keep in touch through email. And, obviously, he reads my blog posts. After reading “New Year’s Eve Confession,” he emailed, “Interesting.”
A comment like that says to me that the person didn’t really like what I wrote, but wants me to draw out their not-so-positive feelings. It’s a bit passive-aggressive, but it’s games playing that I’m used to simply because I’m frequently passive-aggressive.
“Your (lack of) comment is interesting. :)” I passive-aggressively wrote back.
Howlin’ Wolf replied that he was concerned that I was feeling low. “I just care about you and want you to be in a better frame of mind.”
I read lines like that and find that it’s no wonder that he’s one of my editor’s, my test readers’, and my favorite “characters” in the book. Apparently, though, I didn’t answer his sweet email. At least I can’t find a reply.
The following day, he emailed me again with some sex news. Perhaps I didn’t react the way he wanted because the next day he wrote me again about my New Year’s Eve blog. I don’t know if Howlin’ Wolf realizes this, but often, when I don’t respond the way he wants, he’ll send me another email commanding a response:
“You know more about me than anybody in this world EXCEPT me, and as a result of that I feel like you should accept and understand me as a TRUE friend when I say I had rather tell you my honest feelings, than tell you what I think will pacify you. I’m almost sure this will piss you off initially, but if you are still mad at me after a few days of thinking about it, then I guess our friendship wasn’t that solid after all. I’m not sure I feel as much sympathy for you as I did in the first reading.”
Sympathy?! I don’t want no stickin’ sympathy. Sympathy wasn’t what I was striving for. Oh, yeah, I reacted. And if I’m truthful, the word in my brain wasn’t sympathy; it was pity.
I forced myself back to his email.
“I think some of your worries and problems were self-inflicted—”
Duh. Of course, they’re self-inflicted.
“—and maybe your ‘career expectations’ bar was set too high from the get go.”
What?!!! That’s exactly the kind of thinking I’m trying to get away from.
“If you want to know why I feel this way, I’ll continue. Otherwise … oh, well.”
“Sure. Why not tell me?” I greeted his passive-aggressive words with more of my own. “I assure you, I can handle whatever you have to tell me. Odds are, I’ve heard much, much, much worse.”
As I typed, a comment from an Amazon reader flitted through my mind. That reader wrote that I, Suzy Spencer, am “THE WORST WRITER IN THE HISTORY OF WRITING.” Man, that’s saying something – worst writer in the history of writing. (By the way, the all caps were the reader’s idea, not mine.)
Anyway, back to the subject. I believe my response to Howlin’ Wolf caused him to soften his comments back to me, rather than say what he really intended. He wrote that I should focus on the successes I’ve had and not compare myself to the likes of Harry Potter author J.K. Rowling – that that sort of success is rare.
He then talked about his days as a pilot:
“I was a far cry from the Tom Cruise ‘Top Gun’ type of guy. But you know what, Suzy? I had fun, lived where I wanted to live, enjoyed what I did and made a decent living doing it. And that’s all the majority of us can ask for expect.”
Quietly, I went ballistic. How does one go quietly ballistic? I fumed like a cartoon character blowing air out of her ears, but I didn’t say a word. To me, that very thinking – that settling for what that majority expects – is what sabotages a writer. We have to believe that we’re that special one that’s going to make it big. If we don’t, we’ll give up when so-called friends hear we’ve had 200 to 300 rejections and tell us to give up. We’ll give up when we read that we’re “THE WORST WRITER IN THE HISTORY OF WRITING.”
And I don’t know about you, but I don’t intend to give up. I see that “giving up” a lot in writers these days, especially writers of a certain success and of a certain age, i.e. writers like me.
They’re beaten down by the lack of recent success, by the never-ending financial instability, by the diminishing ability to be paid for our words, by the confusion in the present state of publishing, by the very long-term viability of our industry, and even by the near zero availability of health insurance (at least in Texas).
Just this week, a writer who would be considered a success by Howlin’ Wolf sighed that we’re “dinosaurs,” then whispered the fear that we all have: “Will I ever be published again?”
That’s the state of writers right now. That’s the very thinking I cannot be sucked into. If I allow myself to slide down that depressed hole, the odds bury me barely alive. And I won’t be published.
I told Howlin’ Wolf that I don’t want to be content, but that doesn’t mean I don’t have fun along the way. I do.
Now this next sentence might sound absolutely awful, and that’s not what I intend. I wrote Howlin’ Wolf that “I had a blast covering the Andrea Yates trial and stretching and learning, and that’s exactly why I don’t want to be content. I want to stretch and learn and strive to be Top Gun. I realize that’s not for everyone. But it is for me. And if that wasn’t the way I am, you and I would have never met, because I never would have taken on the challenge of writing a book about sex. … I would have contented myself with making a comfortable living writing tabloid trash, mass-market paperback, Texas-based true crime books. But, hey, where’s the fun, the challenge, the daring, the growth in that?
“And don’t tell me you don’t know what I’m talking about – you do that in your sex life. I just prefer to do it in my career.”
That probably sounds like I’m cutting down my true crime career and true crime writers. I don’t want to do that. I am most grateful for what true crime has given me – challenges I never dreamed. And I admire what true crime writers accomplish on miniscule budgets with often ridiculously tight deadlines and with little respect from others.
But, for me, I also feel like “been there, done that, time to try something new.”
I could go on and on about what Howlin’ Wolf said next, about how he asked me if I equated contentment “with a certain level of success” with having “no incentive to improve.” And, again, if I’m being honest, I do want to go on and on with that. But I can tell that at this point, this blog post is getting boring. So let me just get to the point. And that point is that I find irony in the fact that the very people who have encouraged me to be content with less have not fulfilled their dreams.
The writer, who told me to give it up after 200 to 300 rejections, as far as I know, has never published a book. And Howlin’ Wolf, well, since he’s one of my sex sources, I’m going to digress a moment and say that for the past four years he has admitted that he wants to get me in bed. That ain’t gonna happen. In fact, when I think about the men who have encouraged me to be less than I dream, they have all been men who have said they wanted me sexually. And, they are all men who didn’t have a chance with me.
Man, that sounds vain, and it’s an embarrassing and maybe inappropriate thing to confess. But all I’m saying is, writers … women … or anyone for that matter, when someone is encouraging you to give up your dreams … or lessen your dreams … or wants you to lower your standards … just maybe, just maybe they have a not so hidden motive. Maybe their motive is for you to give up like they did. And, more important, maybe their motive is not in your best interests.
I’m here to say you don’t need their stinkin’ input. Dream big. Work hard. Stretch. Grow. Challenge yourself. Enjoy. And most of all, don’t give up. Shout it from the sky, “I don’t need no stinkin’ pity.” Then get back to writing.
* I point out my short-fallings and mistakes so that my coaching clients can see how harshly I critique my own work. As such, I should note that I’m using sympathy and pity as if they are interchangeable. Though Webster’s Ninth Collegiate Dictionary defines sympathy as “the act or capacity of entering into or sharing the feelings or interests of another” and pity as “a sympathetic sorrow for one suffering, distressed or unhappy,” and though Word says the two words are synonyms, in my opinion, they’re not interchangeable. My reason for saying that is connotation. To me, sympathy has a kind connotation. Pity has a negative connotation. As proof, I offer you the phrase “pity party.”