My Literary Bully

Michael Zadoorian
9 min readAug 19, 2021

“Have I told you lately that you suck? Well, you do.”

Photo by Ilayza Macayan on Unsplash

I have a literary bully.

He does not dispense noogies or, god forbid, swirlies, but he is constantly and relentlessly harping on me when it comes to my writing. I mean, he is really vicious. He has no filter, no sense of propriety. The things he says to me I would never dream of saying to another living soul. Frankly, I would prefer a swirlie to the stuff he says, for he is fiendishly perspicacious. He knows where all my buttons are and he pushes them like the demented accordionist for a speed metal polka band.

His comments tap into all my deepest, darkest literary fears, worries and insecurities: Why is it taking you so long to get a book out there? You’re never going to do it again, you know. You’re not smart enough. You’re not well-read enough. You went to a second-rate university. You’re washed up. You suck.

The problem is that I can’t just avoid this bully by taking a different route home from school, like I used to. I can’t get avoid him because he is me. My literary bully is the voice constantly reeling through my head. In the meditation world, he is what is known as an “Inner Critic.” It’s the motormouth part of your monkey mind that won’t quiet down, who thinks all your very worst thoughts, who takes great pleasure in undermining you and all you ever hope to achieve.

I do not like my inner critic. Frankly, he’s a total dick. The things he says shock even me, which is surprising, considering they originate in my brain. The question is: why am I always agreeing with him, letting him fill my head with negativity?

I try to ignore him, I really do. I am constantly telling him to shut up, mentally, and even verbally. I’m pretty sure my wife has actually caught me saying “shut up” to myself, which is not cool husband behavior. In fact, I tell him to shut up so much, I have named him Donny, after the character in the Coen Brothers’ film The Big Lebowski, whom The Dude and his friend Norman are constantly telling, Shut the fuck up, Donny.

But my Donny does not shut up.

Admittedly, Donny has been with me for my entire life. Which may very well explain the giant orange “Slow-Moving Vehicle” triangle on the rear bumper of my literary career. In 1998, when my first novel was accepted for publication, I had already turned forty. I had been seriously writing fiction for over fifteen years by then. Obviously, mine was not going to be a Fitzgeraldian tale of rapid and early success. Still, I was thrilled, and you’d think Donny might have quieted down a tad after that news, but he actually got a little louder.

Second Hand was published in 2000. It got positive reviews and sold a perfectly respectable number of copies for a first novel, which is to say, not a lot. By publication time, I was working on my second novel, rewriting it with my editor’s assistance. (And unfortunately, Donny’s.) At one point, she took a sabbatical to have a baby and I toiled for fourteen months on my own.

In 2003, after returning to work, she decided to pass on the book.

Not surprisingly, I was crushed. It also happened to coincide with a rough patch in my personal life. My father had become ill with Alzheimer’s disease. Despite all that, Donny rolled up his sleeves and really got to work: Has it ever occurred to you that first book was just a fluke? What made you think you could do it again? Come on, man. We both know that if I googled “Imposter,” your photo would come up.

After I finished the book, there was a year of rejection by publishers, which only reinforced everything Donny said. By 2006, it had been over six years since my first book had come out, and my second one had failed to find a home. My father had died by then and I was also without a literary agent, editor or publisher. Okay, that’s it, said Donny. Let’s stick a fork in you because you are done. Career over. The end. You want I should I play “Taps?”

I was still writing, mind you, but I had become Johnny One-Book. Actually that was Donny’s nickname for me, though I begged him to not call me that.

I thought seriously about giving up writing.

Instead, I reminded myself that literary history was full of writers with long periods between books: Tolkien, James Joyce, Maya Angelou, Harper Lee, Ralph Ellison. For instance, Donna Tartt’s The Secret History, came out in 1992. Her follow-up, The Little Friend came out ten years later. The Goldfinch followed 11 years later and won a Pulitzer Prize. Jeffrey Eugenides took nearly ten years between The Virgin Suicides and his bestselling second book, Middlesex, which also won a Pulitzer.

Donny was not impressed.

Might I remind you that your novel wasn’t a bestseller, he said. And you sure as hell didn’t win a Pulitzer. And of course this whole thing would be a lot easier if you were brilliant, but you’re not. And while we’re talking about it, what’s the deal with that? Why aren’t you special?

I told Donny that every writer can’t be “special,” whatever that even is.

Spoken like a true non-special, he said.

Yet I couldn’t stop writing. I knew that I was not special, but after years of rejection, pain, grief, and starting over, I was angry. Angry at publishing. Angry at Donny. Angry at myself for considering quitting.

I decided that I didn’t care if no one wanted my next book. I started writing something that I knew this non-special could write at that moment in my life, after the death of my father. I wrote a story about an older couple, one with dementia, the other dying of cancer, who steal away from their children and their doctors to go on a final vacation together.

Oh, and it’s a comic novel, said Donny. That should work.

What happened then is akin to the stories people tell about falling in love. The ones where as soon as they become okay with the idea of nothing happening, something happens. What happened with me was that the book I wrote, The Leisure Seeker, got me a new agent, editor and publisher.

When it was published in 2009, it had been over nine years since my first novel. Of course, Donny never failed to remind me of that. Jesus. Nine years? It’s about freakin’ time. Aren’t you over fifty by now? Sheesh. By that time I felt like I was a different person, a different writer. I started thinking of the book as “my second first novel.”

The Leisure Seeker did fine. It was well-reviewed and some people bought it, though nowhere near as many as the publisher would have liked, yet it very slowly (of course) continued to find an audience. Meanwhile, I was writing a new novel. After all, I had triumphantly overcome my long publishing drought, and surely the next one wouldn’t take so long to get out there. I had done it! Victory was mine!

This should be good, said Donny.

If my life was a black & white film from the 1940s, they would have then cut to the time-passing montage — pages of a calendar blowing off in the wind, superimposed with the image of a determined scribe at a desk, pounding away at his Underwood, manuscript pages piling up on the floor next to him. All this to symbolize that my first long publishing drought was soon replaced by my second long publishing drought.

My agent didn’t like my next book and we parted. After trying unsuccessfully to sell the new book, a new agent didn’t pan out either. Donny sighed, rolled his eyes and grew crueler with every passing year. Ugh. I was just starting to believe in you. (He wasn’t.) Why are you still doing this? It ain’t gonna happen again, dude. Pack it up. Hey, have I told you lately that you suck? Well, you do.

Then in 2016, seven years and two unsold books after my second first novel, I got word that a director had bought the rights to The Leisure Seeker and was planning to make it his next film. Helen Mirren and Donald Sutherland had already signed on to star. (I had known only that the book had been optioned, but no one told me anything else until it was announced.)

With this film news, surely I could get a new agent and a book deal, I told myself. After all, there were now movie stars involved. While I acquired a new agent quickly, the book deal didn’t come as easily. But after many months of nail-biting submissions, the new agent sold my book.

Which meant in 2018, eighteen years after my first first novel and nine years after my second first novel, my third first novel came out. Ironically, Beautiful Music was a coming of age story, a bildungsroman, traditionally a writer’s first novel.

It appeared not even a year after The Leisure Seeker film unceremoniously tanked at the box office after being eviscerated by the critics. Yikes. Donny had nothing on those film reviewers. They were brutal.

But despite the dreadful reviews on Rotten Tomatoes and disappointing box office performance, the film was a great experience for me. I didn’t work on it, but I visited the set a couple of times. My wife and I travelled to the Venice Film Festival for the premiere. I even met Helen Mirren, who was as lovely and gracious as you would expect. (Donald Sutherland, on the other hand, was kind of a Donny.) Best of all, the book was translated into twenty-five different languages.

A film based on my book was something I’d never expected or even aspired to, but damn, it felt good when it happened. It turned out it was just the validation this non-special had been waiting for.

After that, I even broke my nine-year curse between books. I’m glad because at sixty-one, I could scarcely afford to keep taking nearly a decade between books. (Better step it up, bro, says Donny. You’ll be dirt-napping soon.) In 2020, my fourth novel was published, The Narcissism of Small Differences. For the first time, it didn’t feel like a first novel. Yet it felt strangely appropriate that it was one that I had written back in 2008. It only took me twelve years to get it into print. Right on schedule!

These days, I can’t say that I’ve conquered Donny. He’s still there, though eight years of meditation have quieted him to a tolerable volume. Yet I’ve just finished a new novel and all the same worries, fears and insecurities are still there. I’m worried that it sucks. That I suck. That my agent isn’t going to like it. That editors won’t like it. I still feel like I’m not special enough, not smart enough, not productive enough, not anything enough.

Donny is more than happy to agree.

Which begs the question: do our inner critics help us in any way? Or just hinder us? I honestly don’t know the answer to this question. I do know that If I had the chance to brutally murder Donny and get away with it, I would definitely pull the trigger. Or push him off a cliff. Or bludgeon him until his brains splattered on my shoes. (Not that I’ve given this any thought.)

But maybe, just maybe, dealing with Donny all these years has made me a better writer, a more patient writer, a more perseverant writer. After all, we did have a common enemy. Maybe I needed to prove him wrong. Is it possible that Donnys are actually inspiring, the thing that some of us need to figure out not only why we write, but why we continue, through all the pain and rejection and disappointment? Perhaps he prepares us for all the other Donnys we will encounter during our literary careers, the bullies, the cynics, the bad reviewers, the outer critics that try to get in our way.

What if our inner critics are the first defense, the first obstacle that a writer has to conquer in order to be a writer, who we’ll have to continue to conquer for our entire careers?

Just in case that’s true, there’s something I’d like to say to my Donny.

Thank you for making me a better writer. Now will you please shut the fuck up?

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Michael Zadoorian

Author of THE LEISURE SEEKER (Now a Helen Mirren film), BEAUTIFUL MUSIC, SECOND HAND, LOST TIKI PALACES OF DETROIT and THE NARCISSISM OF SMALL DIFFERENCES.