She and I don’t talk that regularly but we have each other’s backs no matter how the chips fall. I believe in her work and she believes in mine, and we have known each other since our indignant adolescence, when she was newly arrived from South Africa and I was too mad to rise from any ashes just yet.
That day she’d seen my bellyaching on social media and picked up the phone. She called just as I was sobbing on my bed with the particular hopelessness of someone who doesn’t expect to be comforted.
“What’s going on?” she said with her customary lack of introduction, a trait I find endearing.
“You know,” I said, trailing off. Then I remembered her disdain for coyness, and plunged in. “I’ve been writing this book for a year but it’s still not done and I’m running out of cash and I’m comparing myself to other people which is the kind of shitty behavior I thought I’d outgrown in the nineties and I blew up at my beau so badly he’s never going to like me again and anyway I’m such a mess and he’s about to blow up and why would anyone like a 40something writer who’s never published anything major anyway? I am just a fuckup fucking up left and right.”
“Ohhhhkay,” she said when I wore myself out.
We were silent for a while.
“I can’t afford to be precious about it,” I said, sniffing. “I need the cash and don’t even know if I’m going to sell this fucker. And you know I’m working-class at heart. Write, get paid. Write, get paid. Otherwise, why not just write in your journal?”
“I get it,” she said, and I knew she did. “I still take down the number when restaurants post help-wanted signs, and I’ve been doing pretty well this year.”
This was a serious understatement. I sniffed some more, slightly mollified.
“Look,” she went on. “You’re stepping into life as a full-time creative person, and it’s just a whole other level of fear and vulnerability. Your beau has been at this for decades, so it’s not doing either of you any favors for you to compare yourself to him. He knows that, and in your heart of hearts you know that, too.”
“I do,” I agreed. “But it’s mortifying feeling this exposed. I have been so ugly lately.”
“That’s the deal when you’re living as an artist,” she said flatly. “Your insides are on the outside. You’re raw. Accept that.”
I nodded wordlessly. She seemed to hear my assent anyway.
“My friends and I have a joke,” she said. “When you get rid of your safety nets and start working full time as a creative person–and you only started doing that last year–you need two new organs. You need one organ to filter out all your envy and comparison and ego bullshit. “
“And you need another organ to filter out the paranoia you start feeling all the time. About how your work is terrible and everyone but you knows you’re fooling yourself and how you have no real allies, and no one really likes you.”
“Ya,” I said. “I need those organs.”
“Well,” she said. “They don’t grow overnight.”
We made plans to get together later that week, and she hung up as abruptly as she’d begun the call.
I flopped back down on my bed and tried feeling sorry for myself some more. Then I grinned and picked up my computer.