I just finished reading Amy Poehler's Yes Please, which is the 77th and last book I will have read this year. In the book she offers this career advice: "You have to care about your work but not about the result. You have to care about how good you are and how good you feel, but not about how good people think you are or how good people think you look." She goes on to admit this is difficult to accomplish and that she struggles herself. While this bit of wisdom isn't necessarily that life-shattering, I felt like it was something that spoke to me and the year I've had and where I am at this point in my own career (in fact, Poehler's book offers a lot of wisdom and advice, which I normally hate, but Poehler made me like it).
2014 has been a good year for me in lots of ways. I published quite a few poems, a few essays, some pop culture pieces/reviews, and my second poetry collection A History of the Unmarried. I did more poetry readings this year than any other year in my life. I had the honor of reading at my alma mater and even got paid to do it (my first paid poetry event ever). I got a second adjunct gig in a traditional college setting, which I've been longing for. I adopted a new and wonderful dog (with only three legs). I read a lot of books. I saw a lot of great plays and art exhibits. I got a memoir piece published in a book about Atheists and got to read and speak at a few Atheist events (in fact, I'm now the go-to gay Atheist at Columbia University--just kidding, but kind of). All in all, I had a good year.
Since I moved to NYC a little over two years ago, I've been trying to forge a new path for myself. I've focused on writing as much as possible and I've dived into the adjunct world (which has some positives (flexible scheduling), but one big negative: horrible pay). Like someone in AA, I've tried to accept the things I can't change. I can't change the terrible academic job market. I can't suddenly make some school give me a full-time teaching job with benefits and security. I can't change how little I get paid to teach adjunct classes. The idea I once had for my life may not completely work out. I spent a few years being angry about this (sometimes really angry), but now I've come to some sort of peace with it. I still need more money to survive, but I'm casting a wider net and trying to worry less (I won't bog this down with my money troubles or you might get depressed). I love teaching, but I have to accept I may not be able to do it as a full-time faculty member (at least not for a long while).
What's partly kept me going has been my writing. In my darkest days spent teaching at a for-profit school in Florida, I wrote He Do the Gay Man in Different Voices, which served me well. It sold well. It got nominated for awards. It won one. It helped open some doors for me when I moved to New York. It was like my invite to the party in some ways (though I sometimes think I've lost the invite and I'm crouched on the floor looking for it while all these other poets walk over me).
My first book also set me up for disappointment. When it came out, I was just so excited to have a book that I didn't focus that much on people's reactions and when the reactions were good and a year later I won the Lambda, it all felt a little unbelievable or like extra icing on an already really good cake. When my second book came out in September, I had a lot more in my head about how people might react and the reviews and the reading opportunities, which brings me back to Poehler's advice. She recommends a heavy dose of ambivalence when it comes to these things (which proves correct in my handling of my first book).
My new book has been selling well. I've heard only good things about it. I haven't even had an angry Good Reads review like I did with my first book (which is actually disappointing). But, at the same time, it's been like pulling teeth to get any publication to review it or interview me or talk about the book or whatever (as of this moment, I've had one professional review of the book in three months). It seems every publication that wants to talk about poetry (especially poetry by gay people) is only aware of about two books that came out this year and mine isn't one of them. This isn't for lacking of trying. It's just how things fall into place. I thought having one already successful book would get me invited to the table or get me something more. See, expectations are harmful. You heard it here.
As anyone who has published a book knows, it can be easy to get bogged down in negative thoughts no matter what is happening. We often focus on what hasn't happened instead of what has happened. We also compare ourselves nonstop to others, which is super easy to do with the Internet.
This is why, on this next to last day of the year, I'm glad I read Poehler's advice. Is it easy to shut off our need for outside approval? No. But I think it is vital to being successful. If we worry too much about what others will say, we may never do our very best work. I try never to censor myself in my creative process. I might later change things or revise or edit, but I let it all out first because who knows what might happen.
I'm not writing this to complain or to seek sympathy. I am very aware that I'm lucky in many ways and that I have many things to be thankful for. I'm not writing this to give you the impression that I'm bitter or I've been spending time sulking (both would be incorrect). I'm writing this because it's real. And I think as a writer we often feel alone in these thoughts because everyone is afraid to say anything that might make them look this way or that way. On the one hand, we put ourselves out there in the most vulnerable ways possible, but then also stay very guarded (or at least I do).
I'm growing up and I'm trying to care less what people think of me. Somedays I'm really good at it other days I'm not. I turned 32 this year. I have, in some ways, had more success as a poet than I imagined I would at this age, but I'm also a very driven person and I know I have a lot more to offer. I'm already halfway through a new book.
Like Poehler recommends, I do care about my work and I'm proud of what I've done. My second book is better than my first book. I know that. And maybe that's enough. Or maybe not. What do you think? (Just kidding).
Here's to another year of ups and downs and chances to do more, write more, and be more.
Here's to 2015.*
*I realize some of you will find this post annoying, full of bullshit, attention seeking, etc. But I don't care.