“‘I wouldn’t have been disappointed because I didn’t appoint myself,'” says a character in Elizabeth Jane Howard’s The Sea Change. I’d like to be that serene, especially about things that matter to me. Like my writing. I’ve just heard my novel hasn’t been shortlisted for the competition I entered, and no agents have contacted me about my extract in the anthology. I didn’t get anywhere in a couple of short story competitions, but by comparison those feel like pretty small beer. And anyway I’m kind of getting used to the idea that you just keep on entering for things and don’t expect to be chosen – rather like buying a lottery ticket and knowing what the odds are against winning. Except, of course, that when you buy a lottery ticket it’s completely random and nobody is interested in the skill and artistry with which you selected the numbers. But when it comes to my novel – my novel – that I’ve lived through and put my heart into and am working hard to revise, that some people have liked or even praised, that’s something else. My proudest moment at the anthology launch was when Famous Tutor X introduced me to some agents. “This is Elaine,” she said. “She’s very good.” (Actually she used my other name – this one is still too new.) She may well have said the same about everybody, but it made me feel: Yes, I really can do it. I am a real one. I’ve got a chance of being published.
What happens, of course – and I don’t think I’m speaking only for me – is that as soon as you enter the competition/send off your work/get positive comments you do start to appoint yourself. Before you know it, you’ve won the competition – or at any rate been shortlisted – got an agent, had your book published and decided how to spend the money. You’ve designed the cover, planned where to hold the launch, and had the book entered for one of the major prizes. And it’s been dramatised on TV, with all the actors you would have chosen, and has even been translated into a few unlikely languages. The fantasy sustains you for a while as you wait for the results, until gradually, like a photograph left out in the sun, the colours fade. By the time you either hear that sorry, you haven’t been shortlisted/they don’t want to read the rest of your book, or else realise the competition announcement date has long passed, you’ve probably reached the point of knowing none of the above is going to come about – or at least you’re cherishing no more than the vaguest of hopes. Which isn’t to say that you’re not disappointed.
The thing about the disappointment is that it kicks you in the solar plexus at exactly the same time as you’re telling yourself you knew you’d never win/get accepted, the experience was worthwhile, you can try again with something else, not everybody can win etc etc. And it hurts. Not being wanted/valued/appreciated is painful, especially if what you have offered the world is something precious to you. And the loss of those wonderful dreams is still a loss, however improbable they may look in the cold light of day. I got hooked on watching the last series of MasterChef because I could identify so completely with the way the contestants felt about their creations. Their cooking was everything to them that writing is to writers: an essential expression of who they were. They were just as pleased and proud and touched when someone praised their dishes as I was on the course when people liked my work, and just as downcast when things went badly or they weren’t chosen to continue. No use saying they were only cooking a meal that would soon be eaten: they had endowed it with all their art and love and skill.
When you care about something so much, it’s so easy to believe that it is you. So my novel becomes who I am, and if it doesn’t do well I get led to the conclusion that I’m a bad writer, nobody will ever want anything I write, I’d better give up and go back to the day job or stick to writing a blog. If I make a cake that goes wrong, I know it’s only a cake. Much as I enjoy cooking and like to please people with it, a failed meal would rank far lower on the scale of disappointment than a rejection from an agent or publisher. I’d still know I could cook well enough and would do something different next time. How much harder to accept that a book is only a book: one of several I have already tried to write or may write in the future. I’m not young and don’t know how much time I’ll have for writing books, but if I believe that this book, and this book only, is who I am, then every time I get a rejection it will be crippling. And I won’t develop as a writer.
The Buddha talks about the eight worldly winds that blow us off course: fame and disrepute (sometimes translated as success and failure), praise and blame, gain and loss, pleasure and pain. Whether we like it or not, all of them are part of our experience: we rarely get just one half of the equation. It isn’t possible not to be affected by them but it’s the total identification, the appointing ourselves as any one of them, that causes the suffering. People often think that equanimity in Buddhist terms means not feeling things – being in a kind of flattened state where nothing touches you – but to me it’s more like the ability to ride the waves: being buffeted from side to side, losing your balance sometimes, but coming back to sanity before being buffeted again. Equanimity is one of the four ‘abodes of the divine’ that are seen to be qualities of our fundamental nature. The others are lovingkindness, compassion and sympathetic joy. What helps, I think, is realising that we can give these good things to ourselves as well as others. It’s great to celebrate with friends who’ve got agents and won prizes, and it’s also good to acknowledge with kindness the bits of me that may feel envious and discouraged about it. I’ve known quite a few Christians who have taken “thou shalt love they neighbour as thyself” to mean “thou shalt love thy neighbour and not thyself”; to me that doesn’t work. I come back to Hopkins’ sonnet No. 47: ‘My own heart let me more have pity on; let/Me live to my sad self hereafter kind,/Charitable; not live this tormented mind/With this tormented mind tormenting yet.’
I fully intend to go on entering for competitions and will send out my novel to as many agents as I possibly can. On the way I shall continue to be disappointed, but I hope that somehow I can keep open that larger space where I don’t know what will happen and don’t have to appoint myself one way or the other.