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Friday, August 31, 2018

The Adult Thing

Today a student was trying to guess how old I am, which is a popular game for all ages. It's great how skewed their sense of time is because most of them assume I'm in my 20's. Although I'm beginning to think they're judging less on looks and more on maturity level...or lack thereof. So I finally tell them that I'm 38 and one student tells me I look younger than her mother who is 33. I almost said, "That's because I don't have a teenaged girl in my house" but I caught myself. Her next question was, "How old was your mom when she had you?" I told her both my parents were 30 when I was born and of course she blurted out, "That's OLD!" I laughed because their concept of "old" is so warped, but then she seemed to reconsider her opinion. "Actually, that's not old. That's responsible!" Gotta love teens.

This week in class we are being asked to consider what it means to be an "accomplished" writer and it's funny because this is something I think about often. Like most people, I buy a book, I read it, and sometimes I'm left with barely lukewarm feelings and all I can think is, "How did this person get published and not me?" I think it's only natural that we as humans spend a lot of time comparing ourselves to others. If you asked me ten years ago what I would consider accomplished, I likely would have said something about the NYT bestseller list and a piece published in the New Yorker. At one time I even had dreams of seeing one of my books become a film.

By the time I actually had a finished book in my hand, I lowered the bar a bit. Accomplished began to mean simply published. I thought getting an acceptance from an agent or publisher would mean I had "made it" as a writer, until I started papering my office with rejection letters. I knew I had a good book and it occurred to me that an agent/editor's job is so largely subjective-- I would never be able to please everyone with my work so I had to work to fulfill my own desires.

Once my first book was self-published and I ambushed the world with it, I realized that true accomplishment as a writer is having someone come up to you with your book in their hands as they tell you how much your book meant to them in some way. My greatest accomplish became the conversations I had with folks who had read my book and come away from it having learned something. I enjoyed the press, I saved every article (and still do) written about my work, and though I could collect these little mementos of accomplishment, it meant more to me that I had started a long-running conversation.

I didn't consider myself successful until I started getting messages from strangers who thanked me for my work. When you write about something as complicated and socially taboo as mental health, positive reactions to your work are cherished. When someone reaches out like that, it means you've broken down a barrier, scaled a wall, kicked a stigma in the face. The greatest success I've had as a writer is turning my book into someone else's accomplishment. Some folks who read my books would never have openly discussed mental illness without my books as a vehicle. I've raised their social consciousness in a very small, but powerful way. On top of that, participating in the MFA program has helped me remember, regularly, that as long as I keep writing, I will have accomplished something profound, even if it never sees the light of day.

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