This may be a passing feeling, so I’ll grab it while I can. Walking today along the river, a resplendent baby blue, fluffy white, and cotton candy pink sunset splashed across the big sky to my left, I thought about the fear I’d had that my first book wouldn’t be a success, that it wouldn’t lead to an obvious next step, that it wouldn’t cement my status as a Real Successful Adult Worth Taking Seriously. That it would come out, make a splash of one size or another, and then fizzle, leaving me with no clue what to do next.
Well, by some measures, it was a success. It got published by a real publishing house. It got great reviews. It was named a Top Travel Book of Spring by National Geographic and a Top Travel Book of the Year by Publishers Weekly. I did book tours in more than twenty states (dozens of venues, including a handful of Barnes & Nobles) and half a dozen foreign countries. It was published in Turkish and was featured prominently in several Turkish newspapers. I even made an appearance on live Turkish national TV with a host who was sweating through his make-up because he knew his English was totally garbled. (Luckily he went over the questions with me beforehand. And of course, his English was better than my Turkish.) And I still get really nice fan letters from readers.
But did it make me any money? Other than the $15k advance, not really. My book tours mostly broke even or produced so little income vis-a-vis the incredible efforts that went into them, I would have been better off working at McDonalds. I haven’t earned out the advance yet, which means no more money from the publisher until I do. And those royalties will be only about a dollar a book (industry standard).
Did it become a major nationwide bestseller? Were the film rights purchased by a major studio? Did it catapult me into a more lucrative book deal and on to a sterling career? Naw. I killed myself for years trying to get that celebrity endorsement that would take it to the next level. I slogged through snow on my 34th birthday to get my book into Jon Stewart’s hands.
Nothing ever came of it. It sold respectably while I was actively touring, then it fell into the normal obscurity most books fall into that aren’t breakout bestsellers. Neither Oprah nor the New York Times waved their magic wand (as they do with so many mediocre books that go on to sell millions).
The worst part? The book (Fast Times in Palestine) is about a part of the world Americans are desperately undereducated about, one where our policies have a direct and horrific impact. American voters / taxpayers need to know this stuff so that millions of people — some of them dear friends — can stop being oppressed because of ignorance and political expediency. I felt like I had failed them all.
For a long time it bothered me almost to the point of depression. I felt paralyzed, unsure what to do next. I started writing another book, a novel this time, and I’m almost done with it. But it’s been a hard slog, dogged by feelings of, “What’s the point?”
The new book, actually, is about this very subject. What happens when you follow your heart, pursue your passion, do your best to change the world, only to find yourself a broke, middle-aged nobody? What then?
Through writing the novel, I dealt with my own issues, my own disappointment. Obviously this is a first world problem. But it can be a very real one, a very human one. We’re surrounded in this culture by entreaties to “Follow your heart!” mixed with messages that if you’re not a success, you’re a failure. (Especially in the achievement-oriented places where I was educated.)
The overall message seemed to be, “Follow your heart to success!” And if you’re not wildly successful, maybe you were stupid to follow your heart, or maybe you did it wrong, making you a double failure.
What you have to realize is that, at its essence, following your heart is not about “success” in the way our culture defines it. That kind of “success” is extremely fickle, and let’s face it — these days it mostly goes to people who don’t deserve it.
Real success is something more subtle and internally defined. (It’s not something I can adequately summarize here. I needed to write a whole book to get at it.)
You also have to really learn, really take to heart the fact that you can only do so much. Your work ethic, your integrity — these are things you have control over. How it’s received by a public apparently obsessed with the Kardashians? That’s not up to you.
So yeah — through writing a second book, I worked through my hang-ups around the first book. And that’s a kind of success, no? I’ve learned to accept that I’m not a nobody just because I’m not a “somebody” with a big studio deal and a five-figure advance on my next book, or whatever would qualify me as worthy of a magazine profile. I’ve learned to remember that “success” can be a double-edged sword. It comes with risks and constraints: hangers-on, expectations, obligations, and a very real danger of becoming entirely too full of yourself, not to mention various degrees of loss of creative control. (One publisher who rejected my book advised me to make it more angry, divisive, polemical. She said that kind of stuff really sells. I side-eyed her email and never responded. And don’t get me started on how my actual publisher set up my Amazon page and refused to change it. Who knows how many sales that killed?)
My life wouldn’t fundamentally change anyway (other than having an easier time with all these damn medical bills). I might have a bigger house, a nicer car, but that’s the kind of stuff you take for granted in no time. The really good stuff is here already. The sunset by the river is free. So was my silly cat. And I managed to travel the world many times over without ever breaking five figures in my net worth.
As far as the bigger issue — changing history, changing the world — tens of thousands of books have been written that are wiser than mine, more beautiful than mine, more trenchant than mine. Vanishingly few of them make a significant mark on history on their own. (In fact, none of them do on their own — they are all inserted into a particular society, a particular time period, a particular historical milieu composed of billions of interacting factors that determine whether a book soars or just chugs along.) But all the books together make up the vast human library, and it’s an honor to be a part of it.
And while it’s incredibly painful not to see my book measurably changing public opinion it is finding many readers — probably a lot more than the sales numbers show since it’s in libraries, passed to friends and family by readers, and available second-hand on Amazon and other venues. And there’s always a chance the right person will find it at the right time to really make a difference.
In short, I’ve done just about all I can do. The rest is not up to me.
Meanwhile — sigh — I’ve started another project that I haven’t yet found “success” with: starting my family. And that has been even more painful, even more difficult to work through. A big part of what’s tough is feeling like people see me differently. I’m one of “those” people, those unfortunates, those people you kind of avoid when you have your own exciting baby news, those people “going through something I just can’t imagine!”, those people going broke while their life is stuck in stasis as the world moves on around them. Those people who withdraw into themselves every time there’s bad news — and that’s a lot.
I don’t want to be that person. But I am.
I’m always on pins and needles, always stuck on a high wire with no end in sight, always impatient for the next cycle, always waiting, waiting, waiting for the next phase of my life to start.
But after the last miscarriage, after the grief passed through me, I started to realize I don’t actually have to live like that. I can enjoy the wonderful blessings of today and let the next cycle, the future, do whatever it’s going to do. It doesn’t mean I’m giving up. It just means I’m acknowledging there’s only so much I control and learning to live better and more honestly with that fact of life.
It’s a lot like writing a book. There’s only so much you can do, so much effort you can put in. Then you have to let go and let the rest take care of itself. Our next cycle may work or it may not. It’s thrilling to think it might, and I’ll survive if it doesn’t. And people can think whatever they want to think about it. That’s not up to me, either.
Meanwhile I’ll keep putting one foot in front of the other, keep playing soccer and reading and writing and editing novels and going for sunset walks and cooking good food and playing with my nephews and taking ballet classes and enjoying being so free and independent.
It’s not what I would choose if I had a choice, but it’s not bad.
This is as much peace as I’ve felt throughout this whole process.
And that’s a kind of success, too.
P.S. I recently read something about Catastrophic Thinking, which means that whatever happens, if it’s not completely ideal, you immediately jump to the worst case scenario and tense yourself up against it. I realized this is something I do. Which makes sense in a way, because it’s been pretty much nothing but worst case scenarios so far. (Well, I take that back — things could have always been much, much worse. But there’s certainly been no happy news that lasted in the past four years.)
I’m entitled to keep doing this, of course, but it doesn’t actually help. Being tensed up against bad news doesn’t make bad news any less bad when you get it. And meanwhile you spent a lot of time that could have been good tensed up for no benefit. And if the news finally ends up being good? You really wasted all that tension.
It was helpful seeing that propensity of mine written down in black and white as a “diagnosis” of sorts — something pretty normal, but not helpful. It has made it easier for me to recognize this behavior and get it in check before it spirals out of control.