Ode to Anxiety (or, Sing, Muse, of how you totally don't prepare your victims for reality)

I never thought I’d be a writer.  At least not of mass-market stuff.  I thought I might write a book, eventually, about Philip Roth or Martin Amis and 27 people would read it.  That said, 27 was an optimistic estimate.  I have no illusions about academic publishing.

Then I wrote Tempest Rising.  It was fun.  It was really satisfying.  Much to my surprise and delight, when I queried agents (giggling to myself about my audacity), they actually asked to see a little bit.  Then they asked for more.  Finally, the most brilliant of them (Hi, Rebecca!) took me on as her client.  After what felt like FOREVER (but was actually just a month) I had a three-book deal.

It was the stuff of dreams.  And now, apparently, of anxiety-ridden nightmares.

The thing is, it’s felt like a big joke until now.  I kept waiting for Orbit to say, “Ha!  Just kidding!”  There’s part of me that doesn’t feel I deserve this.  I know that, rationally, I have worked my entire life at all the things one works at to become a writer: writing and reading.  I’ve never not had a book attached to my face and I’ve been writing since shortly thereafter.  It was rarely fiction, but it was writing.

But I haven’t spent years in creative writing courses, or years working on a manuscript with a writer’s group.  This makes me feel strangely inadequate, not least because the people who have actually read Tempest Rising can be counted on one hand.

And now I’ve been told by a writer whose book I worship (Stacia Kane, Personal Demons), that she’s reading MY book.  She’s got the bound galley, hopefully to give us a positive blurb.  I had no idea they’d be out so fast.  I don’t know, right now, who else may or may not have one.  I really, really want to throw up.

I didn’t expect to feel like this.  Don’t get me wrong: I’m excited, chuffed, can’t wait to see the box of ARC’s waiting for me.  I may bathe in them.  I’ll definitely take them out to dinner first and murmur sweet nothings in their little ARC ears.   But I also feel terrified.

I am a pretty bolshy person.  I remember when I was about seven, and my mother’s very good friend Barbara Pielet said, “Honey, do you know what chutzpah is?”  When I shook my head, she said, “Well, you have it.”  I am used to exposing myself (not in the nudie sense, thank you) to classrooms, to lecture halls, to conference audiences.  I talk about the role of heterosexual sodomy in the philosophy of D.H.Lawrence to sophomores in college.  I should be virtually unembarassable.

Turns out I’m really not.  Because I’m terrified.  I started to get fairly nervous when I was told that what I thought was the copyediting manuscript were actually the ARC’s (thanks, Jaye!).  I started to get concretely nervey when I signed the contracts.  And for some reason, getting the author photos really brought it home to me that not only was this real, but I had no control over it.  I couldn’t get embarassed if someone said I was pretty and post a different picture of me dressed in something ridiculous to illustrate that I don’t take myself seriously, in that way.  I just had to choose a picture that would go on the back of a book that random people could wander by, look at, and use to judge me.  And I found that I really do take myself seriously, in that way.  Because I wanted the picture to be pretty, and to illustrate the personality of “Nicole Peeler, Authoress,” to people who didn’t know me from Adam, who would never know me, and who had no reason to want to get to know me.

In other words, I want them to like me.  And I’m not like that.  I usually have one middle finger in the air while the other waggles people away.  My personal life is filled with people, but it’s not with just anybody.  And suddenly I want to win Miss Congeniality?

That’s when I hit on my issue.  I don’t really care if people like Nikki, the woman only a few people know, who grew up in Aurora, Illinois, who likes opera and new brit pop, who has an unseemly affection for dairy products, etc.  I want people to like Nicole Peeler, Author, because I want them to like my book.  I feel I owe Jane something.  I owe all of Rockabill a good send off.  I can’t get in their way.  I worry I wasn’t ready to mother them.  Maybe I should have sat on my idea, and done some time in a writer’s group.  Maybe they’d be stronger, more able to fight for themselves.

I know I sound like one of my pregnant friends, but that’s how it feels.  I gave birth to something, I love it, and I now have to send it off into the cruel, cold world.  A world very ready, it seems, to spring on it before it can even be read.

So I’ve got to get over these feelings.  And I will; I am; I have.  I’m dealing.  I always think I’m faintly ridiculous, and this experience is no exception.  Not least because all of these emotions are tempered with how honored I am that my book was chosen over so many others and how proud I am of its getting published.

That said, I also know it’s going to be an incredibly rough ride.  And that I may need to bring along a bucket.  And a flask.

The Muse never whispered to me about the bucket.  Fickle bitch.

15 thoughts on “Ode to Anxiety (or, Sing, Muse, of how you totally don't prepare your victims for reality)”

  1. Good post. I, too, am someone who is probably more sensitive than I let on. I can only imagine what it will be like to go from private to public, especially with the internet involved.

    I can't wait to read your book!

  2. Chill, Nikki. Know thyself. You are suffering from the so-called "Impostor Syndrome" which afflicts many of us any time the bitch-goddess Success even glances in our direction. It’s the exact reverse of "Survivor's Guilt." Why did this happen to me and not the others? The problem with this thinking is that it assumes that you have no role in events—that you have been a passive observer. But you did all this! One strategy: put yourself and your hard work back in the picture, and allow yourself to enjoy Success. Wallow in it, woman!
    Secondly–why do you think Mary Shelley wrote Frankenstein? Any pregnancy—real or literary–is a horrendous waiting for a potentially monstrous birth. “I created a monster,” says the author, “look at it take off and run by itself, with its book-jacket blurb and its author-picture.” Once the book becomes a separate thing , once you have actually delivered it–then it has its own life and thus the potential to turn around and hurt you. You have no control over its little ways, and that is pretty terrifying.
    So this is a post-partum, metaphorically weepy, transition. You can get used to having this child out there. Just wait til you start reading about it in the papers!

  3. I've been thinking about this as I go through the first book process. I've been keeping a list of all the things I've had to do after the sale that I never even considered, and no one ever warned me about. Along the way, practically every step of the way, I get that little sinking feeling they are going to hate it, or reject me.
    "Write back cover copy?" "Sure. Happy to." (OMG they are going to hate it! They are going to decide they don't want the book anymore.) That kind of thing.
    It's odd, the dreams always stopped with the book getting sold. I never knew the ups and downs would just keep going…

  4. Wendy: It's like it's still mostly unattached to me, which is why it's such a strange feeling. It's more that I fear getting in the way of Jane and Co. They're so real to me, and I'm afraid I haven't done THEM justice. That's what's so bizarre about what I feel. I also feel super protective of the people who have helped me get here, like my editor, and agent, and publishing company, and cover artist, etc. I am a super protective person, when it comes to my friends and loved ones, and I want to do THEM proud and I worry more about them being slighted, through me. It's sooooooo weird.

    Nelly: Thanks, lady. What you say makes sense. I think I do have post-partum author depression. 🙂 That said, it's not too bad and I mostly want to whoop and lick my cover. Did I mention I love my cover? But it IS there. One lesson I need to learn is to STOP GOOGLING MYSELF. Nothing good ever comes of it.

    Gail: SOOO funny you said that about the back of the book cover. I was like, "Oh, Devi, use mine, it's good," then I'm like, "OHMIGOD WHAT WAS I THINKING I DON'T KNOW WHAT I'M DOING GOD I'M ARROGANT TAKE IT BACK." 🙂 The dreams DO stop when you get published. It's like the sentimental novel: everything stops with the marriage. "And they lived happily ever after." We know that's not true. But now we're learning it's not true for our publishing, either. "And they then had to start blogging, and facebooking, and ignoring nasty interweb stuff, and promoting the book, and learning words like 'swag,' and 'bound galley,' etc . . ." All I've learned is I KNOW NOTHING. And that's really smart of you to have written everything down.

  5. I'm not an author so I can not relate on that level. I am growing a website though. I didn't realize how incredibly important it is to me until a 2 day problem with some tech stuff paralized the site. I nearly had a nervous breakdown. I cried! I've poured my heart and soul into it for over a year, and it's still not good enough in my eyes. And I want people to like the site, to come to rely on it for news. I even started a new feature titled Authors Who Game to tie my love of books to my work. So I get what you are going through on some level. Hang in there. Next book it won't be as hard. I think that you're pretty terrific. Can't wait to read your book! 🙂

  6. My first book launched at a convention. GenCon 2006. A *big* convention. It was published by a small game publisher, and I think they'd brought every copy of the novel they'd published right there to the site, where I'd be sitting and signing and trying to get people to buy my book for the next three days. And right up until the night before the dealer hall would open, I was totally fine with the whole process–excited and delighted to see a *real book* with my name on the cover.

    The night before the convention opened, I thought I was going to throw up. Multiple times. I got the shakes. I was really, really lucky that my parents had decided to surprise me by coming down to the convention. Because right at that last minute, I wanted to take it back–I wanted to stop the already-run presses and call the whole thing off, because I was so terrified.

    The next day was fine, we sold books, I made good contacts, and generally had a blast hanging out with the cover/interior artist who worked on the book with me. But I remember that fear, and am half glad that the second novel launched quietly, without warning or to-do, because I didn't have to have a crisis of faith about it. 🙂

    No words of wisdom from me–but I completely utterly empathize.

  7. Qwill: I think you hit the nail on the head when you said you didn't know how important it was until you had something bad happen. It hasn't been that real for me, and I hadn't realized just how much I LOVE this new identity and my new work. It's all SO new to me, that I honestly didn't refer to myself as a writer until like two months ago, and only after I was given permission by people I respect in the biz. Which sounds asinine, but it's true. I hadn't admitted to myself how incorporated into my identity all this stuff was. Now I know. And it's scary! But thanks, lady, and I feel the same about everyone I've met through the book.

    Alana: That must have been SOOOO nerve-wracking!!! That's like torture!

  8. Hey Nicole,

    Hold on, girlie. All will fall into place–your feelings and yourself, although that split identity is something every author feels, I think. I can make a big corsage for you for winning Miss Congeniality when you win it:)

    Speaking of Philip Roth–have you ever read The Breast? The only Roth I've read!

  9. Thanks lady! I love corsages, actually. And I did my PhD. on Philip Roth and Martin Amis, so have I ever read the Breast. I actually have a joke about that book in my sequel. 🙂

    My personal faves are Portnoy's Complaint and Sabbath's Theater.

  10. i've never put out a book, but i certainly know how it feels to suddenly be confused by the realization that you care what people think. not necessarily about YOU, but about something you're putting out there and doing. it's really frightening and very humbling.

  11. Erik: Those are perfect adjectives. It is very frightening and very humbling.

    I also marvel at what a jackass I am that I never engaged with what publishing would entail. Like people reading my book. Or maybe one must put such ideas aside, or one would never begin to pursue something so public.

  12. Oh, darling–we really are twins. Separated by 15 years (I think–you look 12. Me? not so much), a college education and your smarts.

    I feel the same way you do–I still feel this way after 6 NY contracts. However, the difference is, I didn't intend to do this for a living. I found myself in the middle of a nasty divorce (ex-kinda trophy wife here), and having nothing other than my incredible SAHM/FABU dinner party abilities, I was jobless, penniless and living in a retirement village with my mom and sons.

    Yeah, it was like dat. However, there but for the grace of some uber-pals, a whole lotta luck, and some major snark, here I am. Never queried and agent, never pitched a book, didn't write a whole lot before I was picked up by an agent, def didn't think ANYONE in NY would get me. Just got crazy lucky.

    Enjoy, darling, but hang on to your slice of humble pie–it's what keeps you grounded and striving to just get better 🙂

    DC 🙂

  13. *LOL* Dakota, I'm a bit older than 12. I didn't intend to do this either! I thought I'd just be a prof, if I was lucky. Realistically I figured I'd end up an administrative assistant somewhere. But your story is amazing! You're incredible to turn around and take an experience that would floor most people and use it as a springboard into something new and amazing! And I will tell you what everyone tells me, and I know you will react the same way I do (with a yeah, right) but 6 NY contracts is not luck, my pretty. It means you're the cat's meow. 🙂

  14. Nicole, bless you. I'm sure there are so many writers in varying stages of the process who need to read something about the surreal quality of it all. I've wanted to write novels since I was seven but defaulted into academic writing and memoir until this novel, so I know the feeling: like you haven't got your chops. But you do, and what a life you've got and what a life in front of you! You're an inspiration as always.

    And I have a friend in London who'd be absolutely gagging to read your thesis. Can I find it anywhere? Are you going to go monographola?


  15. Thanks Sarah! Them's kind words. In regards to the thesis, it should be available through the University of Edinburgh. If she can't get a hold of it, I can email it to her. And no, I doubt it'll ever get published. Unless the books tank and I have to go back to academia full hog. But right now I can't really be bothered, and it would need a lot of work to get it up to scratch. And it's a weird thesis, anyway, on two authors and from three theoretical backgrounds. So I'd have to do something drastic to make it less . . . bizarre. Probably go back to my original idea and write on Jeffrey Eugenides as well, and then streamline the theoretical component. I dunno. Anyway, I would sort of rather poke my eyeballs with fondue skewers than do any of those changes. 😉 When I had to do my corrections after my viva, I described it as crawling back into the iron maiden I'd just escaped from. I had finally gotten free; finally closed the damned thesis file. Then I had to open it up and climb back in for my corrections, and it was TORTURE. I had only a few days work of changes, but it took me a month just to start. 🙂 The horror . . . the horror.

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