It was neither the best day, nor the most beautiful. But no amount of rain could dampen my mood.
I sat across from a writing friend I’d known for years and drank my iced tea. (A little sweet for this girl from New Jersey who now lives in Virginia, but I’ve adapted.) Despite the drenching, we’d met for lunch at my favorite cafe. She’d just received another stellar review, I’d just received the GH call announcing my double final, so we were celebrating.
We’d even planned on splitting dessert. A huge double chocolate brownie with ice cream.
“So,” my friend said with a self-satisfied half-smile. “How does it feel to have eight Golden Heart finals in six years and still not be published?”
I choked on my tea and my heart skipped around, searching for a rhythm somewhere between shock, anger, and ripping out her hair.
Finally I responded with a weak, “What’s wrong with eight Golden Hearts?”
Great. Now I was on the defensive. Not a familiar place for this particular Jersey girl. So I added, “I’m proud of them.”
“You have eight Golden Hearts and you’re not published yet. You’re not even self-published.” She might as well as added the word loser as a stand-alone emphasis sentence.
I didn’t understand. She was my friend. We were supposed to support each other on our journeys, regardless of how long it took to reach our goals. She’d published her first manuscript almost immediately after finishing it and had a bright publishing future. I’d been truly happy for her.
And now I was under attack.
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“Aaannnd,” she drew out the word while her perfectly-painted nails held her straw so she could sip her tea, “all of your critique partners are published. Everyone you started writing with is a PAN member. You’ve been left behind.”
Then she reached over to squeeze my hand in fake concern, as if I didn’t see through her what is wrong with you? putdown. “I’m worried that at this rate, you’ll never have a future in publishing.”
I pulled away and sat up until my aching S-curved spine straightened against the chairback. I’m not very good at a lot of things, but for some reason I’ve been blessed with the Jersey girl comeback gene. Despite the fact I’m a huge introvert and quiet in public, I never regret not having the perfect retort until hours after an event because I’ve usually said it, made my point, and moved on.
Except, for some reason, this was different.
My words–my reliable verbal defense–disappeared. All I wanted to do was run and hide.
But since Jersey girls don’t run away, I borrowed someone else’s words. “Every artist was once an amateur. There’s no shame in that.”
She scoffed. “You’re quoting Whitman?”
“No.” I took a long, slow sip of my too-sweet tea and scored my first hit. “Emerson.”
The waitress came by and I waved off the dessert menu. I wasn’t about to cry, but the back of my throat itched and my hands felt hot.
When my friend didn’t respond, I shattered the silence. “Since when did this writing thing become a race?”
Lame, but I’m not Emerson.
“First of all, it’s a publishing thing, not a writing thing.” She tapped a red-tipped finger against slayer lips. “Maybe that’s your problem.”
We’d entered full-on combat mode? “So much for using “I” statements.”
She shrugged. “People are talking. It’s embarrassing.”
Embarrassing? “For me or you?”
She looked down and away. To the left.
Betrayal burned, not unlike the night before when I’d burned my fingers pulling a burnt marshmallow off a stick so my son could make s’mores over our backyard bonfire. Except last night I’d been able to lick off the sweet residue and make another.
Today’s scorching could empower my self-doubts, incite my internal editor, and encourage my muse take off.
Today’s scorching could derail my career before it even starts.
Today’s scorching could leave a scar.
Today’s scorching could destroy me.
As I drank my tea and watched her squirm, unable to admit that she was embarrassed by my apparent lack of talent, ambition, or self-awarenss, I realized a few things.
The first is I have never asked for, nor needed, her validation.
I have always been a storyteller, but I came to the actual writing gig late. I wish that wasn’t the case, but since it is, there’s no use regretting it.
I started writing down my stories nine years ago when my father was diagnosed with cancer and I had to move, with my four-year old twins, to another state to care for him while my husband held everything together at home. The writing became a desperate kind of therapy. Then, after my dad died and the grief kicked in, writing became life-saving.
Since his death, I have written eight and half manuscripts, garnered eight Golden Heart finals in six years, and somehow snagged the agent of my dreams (probably because she got tired of me pestering her every year with a new manuscript).
For the past nine years, I have written my way out of too many griefs, through two lay-offs, and around children who grew from preschoolers into teenagers.
For the past nine years, I studied craft, wrote over a million words, and thought I’d made trusted friendships.
But as the woman across from me refused to meet my gaze, I knew that while I had made many wonderful friends, she wasn’t one of them.
She was talking about me behind my back.
She pitied me.
And that truth made me sad. I’d shared my words with her and she’d shown her jagged edges.
I bit my tongue until I tasted blood. Then I waved over the waitress. “I’ll have a hazelnut latte and the double chocolate brownie with ice cream.” I glanced at the friend I didn’t recognize anymore and smiled. “One fork.”
Her eyes widened in spite of the heavy mascara weighing down her eyelashes. “I don’t understand.”
Her palms hit the table and she leaned forward, almost out of her chair. Anger pinched her face until she resembled a feral ferret. “Of you?”
You see, my second realization was this: She envied my Golden Hearts. Not for the shiny pins or the champagne receptions at Nationals. She envied them because she’d discovered the truth.
There is nothing more powerful in this difficult business than the sisterhood and brotherhood of the Golden Heart. And I am blessed to have six classes of sisters and one brother who care about my journey, who would never mock me behind my back, who would never be embarrassed to sit next to me at lunch because my badge says PRO instead of PAN.
The third thing I discovered? She knew that those of us, both unpublished and published, who don’t push when we should pull, who struggle to hold on and don’t let go, who persevere through the hard because we know the only things that matter are the present and future readers, are the ones who will ultimately succeed.
In our own way.
In our own time.
On our own terms.
Always holding hands with the Golden Heart sisters and brother who’ve gone before, and those after.
“I am an Unsinkable, Starcatcher, Firebird, Lucky 13, Dreamweaver Dragonfly,” I said. “One of my classes even has an unofficial victory song. Do you have a victory song?”
She grew fish lips. She knew, in that moment, that she would never have that kind of support and love. She was swimming in this ocean of sharks completely on her own. Whereas I had six classes of sisters and a brother to help balance the boat and sharpen the harpoons.
Seven classes if the Rubies adopt me.
So am I embarrassed? Or sad? Or scared?
(expletive deleted) No.
The waitress brought the dessert, placed it in front of me, and left. One fork glinted in the emerging sunlight.
“You’ll never succeed.” My ex-friend grabbed her purse and stood. “You’ll never be known. Never be seen.”
She tossed her hair and left the cafe, letting the door slam behind her.
The waitress hurried over with my latte and the check. “What was that all about?”
Of course my ex-friend left without paying. But I didn’t care. I had a dessert I didn’t have to share.
“She’s just mad because she inadvertently paid me a compliment.” I took a sip of my latte, then picked up my fork. “Did you know that the best and most beautiful things in the world can’t be seen or even touched?”
She picked up my friend’s empty dishes and finished Helen Keller’s quote. “They must be felt with the heart.”
We laughed together until she nodded toward the window. “Look. The sun is out. We’re going to have a good day after all.”
“Not just a good day,” I said around a forkful of melting ice cream and chocolate. “We’re going to have the best future. And it’s going to be beautiful.”
While you listen to the Firebirds’ unofficial victory song, I’d love to know how you handle people who hide their attacks behind thoughtful and caring demeanors. (Or does that only happen to me? I hope not!)
All photos courtesy of Sharon Wray.
(Fall Out Boy Meet & Greet photos taken at Merriweather Post Pavilion, MD attributed to staff photographers)