When my galley copies arrived a few months ago, friends and family asked me: “What’s it like to hold your book?” I got the feeling they imagined it was a transformative moment, something akin to holding your child for the first time. I’m a terrible liar, so I told them the truth. Meh. Shrug. “It’s okay.”
I was as surprised by my lack of reaction as they were. Hadn’t I been working for this moment for nearly ten years? I had, and there was a time during that decade when holding my book would have been as big of a deal as people expected. For the first six years that I worked on it, my book was my life. Unlike many writers I knew, I didn’t come home from a long, soul-sucking day in an office and try to squeeze in a few words before bed. My time was not siphoned by the chaos of family. There were no children to feed or clean up after, no soccer games or PTA meetings. I was married, but my husband worked. So all day, every day, it was just me, my grief, and my laptop.
Because I’d quit working to write, I funneled all of my self worth into my manuscript. When it sucked, I sucked. When it was a mess, I was a mess. If it failed, I would be a failure. At the time publication was my validation, and because I was a masochist, and Oprah was still on the air, her couch was my benchmark. Anything less than Oprah’s couch, anything less than a New York Times Bestseller, would be worthless.
In some respects, my expectations were lowered organically. By which I mean I had no other choice. Offers of representation from agents did not come pouring in. I was not miraculously plucked from the slush pile. Oprah did her last show, and no one even told me what happened to her couch.
At the same time, I made a concerted effort to redefine success. I’d finished my second draft around the six-year mark, and my grief had resolved. In that pause before the editing process started again, I took a deep breath and looked, really looked, at where I was and what I was doing to myself. My expectations had made me miserable. My life felt tight and small. There was no room for anything, or anyone, else. I needed to loosen my grip.
That grip-loosening happened organically too, in the form of a life-threatening illness, an injury that required surgery, and several years of infertility treatments (another book, anyone?). As shitty as it was (and it was really, really shitty), it was bigger than the book. It was my health, my body, my son. The book was important, but it wasn’t my life anymore—and I didn’t need it to be. My life was my life, and it would be even if my book never made off my hard drive and into the world. I’d written the book, and that was huge. The book had shepherded me through my grief, and that was huger. The hugest thing of all was learning that my worth didn’t lie in my work. I have value even if no one reads a word I write. Moreover, I have value even if I never write another word.
This is big talk from someone who has been hiding under her covers for the last week. You know that dream where you’re naked in public? Turns out publishing a memoir is exactly like that dream. Only it’s real, and you have to walk around emotionally naked for the rest of your life. Guess I’m not as detached from my book as I thought I was. The good news is that whether it becomes a New York Times Bestseller or a basement bargain, whether Oprah resurrects her couch just for me or my only rave review comes from my mother, I know I’ll be okay.
As I write this, there is a copy of my book on the chair next to me. Maybe I was holding it back, just to be sure. To cushion my heart in case it wasn’t real. But it is. It’s real. I can pick it up and hold it in my hand. I’m finally starting to feel the glow, you guys.
I did it. I wrote it. It’s done.
If anyone needs me, I’ll be under the covers.