When I was twenty-four and just a baby goldsmith, I decided I wanted to show my one-of-a-kind jewelry in a New York gallery. Most of my friends were just out of college and I wanted to think my self-taught education was in line. I steeled my heart, borrowed a typewriter, enclosed some slides, and mailed off an inquiry to the best fine art jewelry gallery in Manhattan, located on Fifth Avenue across from MOMA.
Pigs fly; I got a positive response by return mail and then borrowed money to buy the gold and gemstones for the new pieces. A few weeks after that, I boarded a plane wearing jeans and a t-shirt, carrying a backpack with new collection of work tucked inside. Such a risk. It all felt like watching a foreign film–precarious and surreal.
I checked into the Fashion Institute Dorm, changed into a ridiculous white dress with huge shoulder pads that made me look like an aircraft carrier, and set about walking the two miles to the gallery. That way I’d have plenty of time to get up a good head of anxiety and blister a toe in my new shoes. The meeting was a blur; I remembered to shake hands when I met the gallery director. In a conference room, I pulled my work out one piece at a time and he critiqued as I went, using phrases like “negative space” and “visual tension.” All I could think was Just say it–not acceptable, you don’t need to explain how bad my work is… and then he finished with a question, “Can you leave the pieces with us today?”
The rest of the day is even more of a blur. I blistered the rest of my toes going back to the dorm; I might have skipped most of the way. When I got some of my wits back the next day, I called the gallery to thank them again and got the news that one piece had sold already.
I said the word out-loud: Artist. Calling myself that name in my basement studio was one thing, but now I’d crossed a line. Okay, skipped over it really, but it changed things. Over the next year, I had work in galleries across the country, and almost as an afterthought, my work got more popular at home. I also lost a couple of friends. They stepped away quietly but I noticed. The attempts to reconnect failed. Is there such a thing as success guilt?
Maybe you know the feeling. A dear friend plans a wedding on the heels of the worst break-up of your life. You get a promotion in your dream career when your sister is out of work. If you’re in a place of scarcity it can feel like there isn’t enough luck to go around and one person’s gain depletes your possibility. Or if you’re the one with good news, you bite your tongue because mentioning your good fortune would be like rubbing salt in the their wound. Most of us have been in a place where it takes as much courage to say congratulations as it does to put on the white dress.
A year ago, I crossed another line. I went from writing endlessly in a little studio to holding an actual physical copy of my memoir, Stable Relation, in my hand. When I exposed it to the world, and I exposed myself as well. It took Zen-like focus and wild audacity. I knew a hard reckoning would come. On the high side, no silly white dress.
Writing is like constructing Frankenstein. Playing god with an 80,000 word manuscript, and when it’s finally done, being brought to your knees, trying to wrestle five words into a byline. It’s a hope that your words will catch the wind and at the same time, the profound understanding that you are less than a fleck of dust in this big, complicated world. It’s yelling, “Hey, look at me!” and knowing that your underwear is on your head.
And then, I saw a photo online of my book on someone else’s tablecloth and my mind imploded. In the next few days, more readers posted photos of the book and Stable Relation became my traveling gnome. I was over the moon. I was hiding under my bed.
Reviews started coming in and most were positive. People commonly said that they couldn’t put the book down; they’d finished it without taking a breath. Where’s the next book?
Wait! This literary “snack” had taken me two and a half years to write, a few thousand dollars, and a serious time commitment every single day since. What’s the word for simultaneously choking and laugh-howling with horror?
A year later, this is what I notice: I can laugh without choking again. My list of improbable things has been severely edited and my battered confidence is standing steady. I’m word-fearless and inspired to write stronger every day. I even dabble in poetry; fearless I tell you!
I’ve received heartfelt emails from kindred spirits in other countries, made friends with people I’m in awe of, and my rural mail-carrier told me her mother loved my book.
Now and then, I notice something missing. Someone missing. I don’t need a parade but those who have remained silent are noticed. I hope they’re well. What does it mean when we choose to miss events in our friends lives? When we don’t acknowledge passages like divorces or children born or new paths taken? Have I offended them? Could it be that our emotional landscapes at odds with each other?
I spend so much of time trying to be a human thesaurus, always searching for the right words to understand these inexplicable contradictions. All the while I’m painfully aware that I can’t control how those same words will be heard…in my writing or in my life.
In the end, maybe assuming good intention is a more productive use of energy than doubting motives. Change has an ironic sense of humor and we might do better to smile and act like we’re in on the joke, even in hard times. The other word for that is grace.
To my blog readers here, I’ve used this space to transition myself into my new surroundings. It’s been the place where I confess my dreams and my shortcomings. I wander around in old pajamas and spill coffee on my keyboard. Mainly I sit in slack-jawed amazement, balanced between wild joy and abject dread. If you have been with me here from the start, what tolerance you’ve shown. I’m sure I haven’t thanked you enough. I’m equally sure you can’t know how much your support has carried me. It’s been the very best part.
Thank you. Big. Always.