Prove everyone wrong
My ex-fiance used to laugh at my dreams. He called me “cute” whenever I sat down to write. This one time, I declined an invitation to sex so I could finish a short story. He asked why writing meant so much to me. “It’s not like you’ve got a book deal with Viking,” he said.
That story wound up in a highly respected, second-tier literary journal. Surprisingly, we were still dating when the issue arrived in my mailbox. Showing him didn’t change anything. He tossed it on the coffee table and asked if they’d paid me.
My dad said the same thing, but in a less vindictive way.
Both times, I stuttered. “No, but you see….”
And their eyes trailed off. Those kinds of moments taught me an important lesson. When you have to respond with “no but you see,” then it means you should stop caring about their opinion.
You don’t have to justify your passion to anyone. Just go after it. Sure, you still have to take care of the important stuff — rent, bills, health. But if you’re doing that, then nobody else has the right to tell you shit.
A common piece of advice I heard in my 20s? “You’re wasting your time.” Sometimes, the words sank in and made me reflect. The same answer always emerged.
Was there anything else I’d rather do with my free time than read and write?
No, not really.
I mean, Netflix. But even the busiest, most devoted writers have time for Netflix. And dating. And sex.
People used to hear me talk about writing and imagine me on a suicide quest. So over time I just stopped talking about it altogether. That worked out great. You probably shouldn’t talk too much about your passions anyway. Doing that almost invites losers to take a dump on your ambitions.
Losers never miraculously go away. Even when you start winning, they’ll do whatever they can to piss on your accomplishments.
Ambitious people develop thick skin. You have to.
Here’s a story. Right after finishing my PhD, I traveled home to visit friends and family. The trip felt nice. I even had good news about a full-time, tenure-track job. I’d spent the last year in virtual isolation. I’d done nothing but teach, dissertate, and job interview.
Well, that’s not totally true. I went for long runs, and cried myself to sleep with bourbon and Netflix. Some professional advice: if you’re trying to do something next to impossible, carve out some crying time. There’s no shame there. Just cry. What you’re doing is fucking hard.
And sometimes it’s lonely.
But every morning, I woke up ready to face the work all over again.
Anyway, about my trip home. Me and a bunch of college friends went out drinking, and this one guy I vaguely knew showed up. Someone on the fringes of my old social scene. He asked a bunch of questions, and it didn’t take long for the PhD news to come out.
This guy was your classic hipster. Skinny jeans, sneakers, weird jacket with a bunch of patches sewn on. Faux hawk. So when he heard someone had accomplished something, he went into snark mode. Grabbed a pen. A napkin. And he made himself a doctoral diploma.
“Hey, look! I’m a PhD, too!” He tossed the napkin at me. “That’s all you have to do these days, right?”
We’ll never know what he wanted from me. Maybe I’d tear up and say something about how hurtful that was. Run off to the bathroom. Ask my bestie for a supportive hug. Or just burst into tears right there. But not me. Years of rejection and doubt thickens your hide.
My immediate reaction? I thought, “Who the fuck is this idiot?” He was a college dropout, working two part-time jobs at the last record store in town, and a vintage clothing store. Sure, admirable work. But not exactly bragging rights.
Plus, I wasn’t even bragging. He’d literally asked me what I did. Btw, I’ve learned now that the correct answer to that question is “teacher.” Nobody ever reacts to that. They just nod and move on.
Oh, and if they ask what you teach, say “English.” You’ll bore them so instantly they’ll offer to change the conversation themselves.
Just don’t say “writer,” or “professor,” and especially not “blogger,” or “content producer.” That invites skepticism and doubt.
So, the hipster didn’t bother me at all. I glanced at his napkin diploma and just watched him for a minute or two. He was waiting for a reaction. He didn’t get one. Except utter amazement. I just sat there and tried to figure him out. Not one ounce of shame or offense ignited in me. Here I was, advanced degree and a $50K job in my pocket. (They’d even bought me a laptop and a tablet.) I was unstoppable.
What did this guy have? He had a faux hawk.
That was about it.
But I must say, great hair.
And pretty attractive, too. In a different context, I might’ve fucked him.
One of my friends actually came over and pulled the hipster right out of his chair. Practically threw him out of the bar.
He put a hand on my shoulder and said, “I’m so sorry, Jessica. You all right?”
Wow, just wow. But we were pretty drunk, so after a laugh we went back to normal. Alcohol really is the best thing ever.
It doesn’t matter if some people don’t believe in you. Even a lot of people might not believe in you. All you need is yourself, and one or two people in the right place. But you always have to trust yourself.
If you don’t believe, others won’t.
That’s not easy. Your trust in yourself can flicker. There’s nothing wrong with questioning yourself. Nobody believes in themselves 24-hours a day, 7 days a week. You can be honest with yourself, see your mistakes, and still believe in your end game. But you need to believe in yourself a majority of the time. When you don’t, you need to go through the motions.
Let’s go back to my ex-fiance. Even after I published my first book, he referred to me as an “aspiring writer.” It didn’t matter when major newspapers and magazines started printing reviews. He cared about the royalties. To him, I was worthless until I became a bestseller.
Sure, his words stung a little. But not too much. Because he was a fantastic kisser, and I loved showing him off at parties. And in the back seat of a car, oh my fucking gawd….
Besides, I figured he didn’t really mean all that. Why would you keep dating someone who you didn’t have any respect for? (COUGH.) Plus, by then he was just the latest in a long line of family and friends to offer words of discouragement. Loves past. My parents. My brother. My friends.
Some of my best friends have never read a word by me. Are they really friends then? That’s a tough question. Sometimes it’s easier to score a kidney off a friend than to get them to buy a book.
I’m not even fucking around. I’ve got friends who would rather donate an organ to me than read something I’ve written.
Hey, I’m not stupid. I’ll take the organ. Sign up for my special organ donor wish list, and you’ll get a life-time pass on reading my shit. Or even a pint of blood. That’s nothing to sneeze at.
Flannery O’Connor once said that MFA programs don’t discourage enough people from writing. They’ve really stepped up their game since then. Ah, you don’t know who Flannery O’Connor is? Never mind.
My creative writing professors played mind games with their favorite students. Fucked with our heads plenty.
This one professor stopped me at a book festival after my first novel came out. He asked if I ever thought I could make a living from my writing. I said, “I don’t know…” And he turned around and walked away.
My thesis director accused me of plagiarism. After I turned in my final draft, he emailed me in the middle of the night. “You lifted these passages from another story,” he began. Then went on about what a hack I was, how I’d never make it in the publishing industry.
As proof, he sent me a link to the source material.
It was my own story, in an online journal. So I had to write a calm email explaining an earlier conversation, in which he’d given me permission to incorporate some previously published material into a working draft of my novel. A day later, a short apology.
He honestly hadn’t checked the byline. He’d just assumed that, since the piece was published on a reputable website, that the author wasn’t me.
But the message was clear. It didn’t matter what I did, how talented I was. This guy was looking for any reason to knock me down a peg.
Sadly, I kept waiting on him or anyone else in my circle to hook me up with a literary agent. That never happened. I just didn’t kiss enough ass. Or sleep with the right person when they needed it.
My ex-fiance didn’t like my thesis director. He joined us for dinner once, and then dessert and wine. And then more wine.
On the way home, my ex-fiance kept talking about the creep vibes. “The way he kept staring at you,” he said. “You didn’t notice, but he really looks at you weird when you’re not paying attention.” He pointed that out to me a few other times, at readings and journal launches.
But, hey, plenty of people have made it despite their share of unfairness. You can’t excuse unfairness, or escape it, but you can defy it. Just hike through the jungle of unfairness until a little bit of fairness comes your way.
Some of the greatest advice came to me by way of…..
Not joking. As much as I hate watered-down religious drivel, somehow I just picked up a Joel Osteen book in a supermarket. I was actually looking for laughs, then by accident happened across this one passage... Osteen talked about luck and misfortune. Paraphrase: You might get dumped with a helluva lot of unfair shit. You just have to keep going. Fairness and fortune might smile on you yet. If you lay around in bed and wallow all day, then you simply won’t be ready for your good luck. Who knows? Maybe your good luck comes by while you’re drunk at 2 pm in the bath tub.
There’s nothing wrong with getting shit-faced in your bath tub in the middle of the afternoon. In fact, that sounds fantastic. Margaritas and bubbles? Just wait until after you’ve accomplished some major life goals. When you do, Baileys and bath bubbles all you want. Take a hot selfie. Come up with a clever tag. You’ll be fine. Your fans will love it.
And let’s say luck never drops by, but you keep trying to help yourself. Well, you’re still better off then, aren’t you?
And so take out the God stuff, and that’s pretty smart advice. I mean, I was kinda already doing that. But seeing it printed in a mass market paperback gave me some kind of affirmation.
Along the way, people have believed in me. That matters. For every 100 people who piss on your dreams, you only need one person who supports your work. Hey, don’t go off the deep end. I’m not saying quit your job. I’m saying don’t give up your passion because a few dozen people say you suck. That’s standard practice for anyone. Look at any hugely successful artist. You’ll find hundreds of people who say Bowie, Prince, or Picasso were overrated. Fuck those rats. You don’t need everyone to believe in you. Just enough.