Don’t Fail: On Turning 30

Failing in obscurity is easy. Failing in public is hard.

There was a lot I wanted done by the time I turned 30. Like, you know, publishing a book (or three). I expected to “be a writer” by the time I was 24. When 25 came and went with no book sale, I quietly hunkered down and got back to work. When I signed a 3 book deal at 28, I figured I was golden. I’d have my first book published before I was 30! Then the contract got canceled, and I haven’t been sure at all what to do next.

I traveled all around the world in my 20s. England, France, Italy, Switzerland, Spain, South Africa, New Zealand. I’ve lived in Alaska and South Africa and Chicago. I learned how to throw a passable right hook. I started building a career as a copywriter and communications manager. I got an Associate’s Degree, a Bachelor’s Degree, a Master’s Degree, and started a Marketing Management degree. I went to Clarion. I accidently got married, which is supposed to be a Great Life Event, but which was never really on my “to do” list, so I don’t consider it an accomplishment, just a fortuitous partnership. My 20s was a screaming good time, sure, but also a time of terrible fear and uncertainty. I got diagnosed with a chronic illness, one that has left me permanently dependent on insulin (insulin or DEATH, yay!). I went crazy, dated crazy folks, spent far too much time flying in and out of New York City and Indianapolis, became all but homeless, acquired massive amounts of student loan and credit card debt, got said debt under control, and wrote three or four books.

That’s all fine and good, but it’s not enough for me. It’s never enough for me. And, to me, I see more of the failure there than the success. It’s just how I’m wired. The failures just sit there and gape at me. The last few years have been full of failure, of pulling myself up out of failure, of building some kind of life from the ashes of crazy misery.

I wanted to have traveled the whole world by 30. I wanted Egypt, China, Peru, Japan, India, Puerto Rico, Easter Island, Ireland, Scotland, Germany, Australia, and far more time in New Zealand. I wanted to have 3-4 books in circulation. I wanted to be a passable boxer. I wanted to be regularly running three miles. I certainly didn’t want to be living in Ohio.

I will go to all those places, in time. I’ll get the books out there. I’ll be a passable boxer. I’ll run regularly. And I will get out of Ohio.

But not today.

Not today.

And that, to me, feels like some kind of failure on my part. Lots of folks are struggling with the publishing industry right now. It’s remaking itself, and what I thought of as success when I was 12 may not be the kind of success I end up creating. Being a writer is going to look different in the future (after all, despite the cognitive dissonance that such a date causes for me, it IS the year 2010). Traveling looks a lot different too: both in costs and sheer ease of travel.
Getting on a plane just isn’t as fun as it used to be, and that won’t change for awhile. Traveling is rougher when you’re lugging around insulin, too. Not impossible, not impractical, but… different. And I’m still trying to figure out who I am now that I feel so totally disconnected from the crazy screaming terrified person I used to be.

I know all of this. I know the world is different. I know I am different. But it doesn’t keep me from thinking I’ve failed at 30, the same way I thought I’d failed at 24 because I wasn’t “a writer.”

Yet, here I am making a living as a copywriter, with full benefits (uncertain as the job market may be for everybody – including me – right now). My personal writing is stutter-start-jerk-jitter-squee, but it does crank along – painful word by painful word. And that’s another huge change: I never expected that my personal writing would ever be so incredibly painful and difficult. I’d heard about this happening to other folks, these 6 months-to-a-decade writing slumps, but I never imagined it would happen to me. I *had* to write. Writing kept me sane.

Thing is, I’m not nearly so crazy anymore. And that means I don’t *need* that outlet with the same crazy desperation I used to. More and more, writing is something I do to pay the bills, not something I do to relax or unwind.

And that’s been a problem.

Cause see, despite my long, un-done to-do list, despite my wretched embarrassment about not doing more before 30, despite all the writing that isn’t getting done, despite the house I can barely afford to heat…. I’m strangely happy.

Sometimes I attribute all of the writing block to the weird saneness, all the happy-happy putter-putter bubbliness that is my personal life.

But this weekend, while cleaning up my room, I found a box my editor had sent me after the God’s War contract was canceled. It contained several copy-edited copies of the manuscript with page inserts and a bit of typesetting for the intro bits. And I opened the box and my heart sank. I got that weird, heavy lump right there in the pit of my stomach that makes my breath feel heavy. I spent a few minutes going through the box. At first, I resolved to work on the copyedits right then. I’d resolved to do this months ago when the box first arrived. But somehow.. somehow… lost the will to do it. But I had the whole day to myself today. Why not check this off this to-do list? Why not —

Then the feeling passed, just as quickly as it had risen. And I re-packed the box and put it back under my desk, willing myself to forget about it for another week, or another month, or another six months.

And maybe that’s the trouble. Everything I associate with my personal writing right now is profoundly negative. I keep picking up the critiques from my first-pass readers for Black Desert, and all the negative stuff just leaps out at me. And there’s this profound depression that comes over me, and I think, “It’s not going to get any better. I’m going to work on it and it will get worse.” And then I pack those letters away again, too.

I’ve rewritten Black Desert once now, and need to print it out and copyedit it to make sure I caught all the big plot changes I made the second time through. But I don’t. I just open up the draft on occasion and rewrite a scene or a paragraph and then pack it away again.

There’s just no joy in it at all for me. And I don’t know what to do about it.
Everything is supposed to be OK when you sell a book. Certain things are supposed to happen. Then they don’t. And though I’ve gotten slightly more productive the last few months, the book depression is still there. I have a feeling I may need to start a new series entirely just to get away from the negative feelings that get dredged up every time I open this one (at least until I resell it).

I’m starting to wonder if that may be the trouble with my life, really. Or, rather, not my life but my *feelings* about my life. I’m still judging myself on what I used to want and who I used to be. And I still don’t know what it is that *I* want *now.*

I know what I love. I love my partner. I love our life together. I love the big old house we’re renting (tho I would like to be able to afford to heat it). I love reading. I love school. I like my career. I like my job. I like traveling, still. I like to get in the car and go. I love just being still.

Stillness. I still revel in absolute stillness.

Some days I wonder if I’m suffering from a mild form of PTSD. Three years seems like a long time to crave stillness, even after the crazy that was chronic illness/Chicago crazy/unemployment/homelessness.


There are a lot of stories I’d enjoy telling, I know. But some days even opening up a Word file causes a deep, sinking feeling of depression. I open it and think, “What’s the point?”

And that may be the trouble, too. Because I don’t have the answer to that question. I don’t know what the point of anything is, really. I just know I want to live. I love life with a sickening, bubbly rush of sweetness. I love it because I know how close I am – all the time – to losing it. Staying alive – while maintaining my quality of life – is really hard work for me.

I only have so many spoons.

And I’m just not spending them on things that don’t make me bubbly-joyful anymore, not unless those things are absolutely vital to survival.

There are things about my old life that I was happy to part with.

There are things about my old life that I want back.

We’ll see how much I get back and how much I never needed in the next 30 years. I know something needs to change, soon. I just don’t know what it is.

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