Why Writers Need To Grow Alligator Skin

I’ve recently been pushed up against my manifold flaws: my disorganization, my fear that my writing isn’t good enough, that I’m not as published as I should be by my age (“Why don’t you have a book Mama?”), my constant tardiness, the fact that I’m 48 and halfway toward the death march and my funny, patient boyfriend is running out of patience with my flaws. In one of his less funny moments, when I told him I was doing a lesson for my sons’ career day, he actually said, “What career?”

This is a man who makes $400 an hour for writing legal arguments in which he figures out how to destroy people. I make 4 pennies an hour for writing essays in which I attempt to enlighten people. This was not the kind of pay I bargained for when I got my terminal degree; the MFA. It almost sounds like a degree in something that might kill me. Some days, I’m sure it might.

The one thing that keeps me afloat right now is the fact that my refusal to give up got me into Listen To Your Mother , a national staged literary reading, not the first time, not the second time, or even the third time, but the fourth time. Yes, it took me four years (1,460 days) to get my literary ass into LTYM. 

Like most of us, I’ve battled my fair share of critical voices: a famous grandmother, a disapproving mother, a father I’m always disappointing, a sister who will always be ten steps ahead of me in heels higher than the Eiffel tower. I’ve been shushed and cowed and corrected—but somehow this tiny stubborn part of me believed that I had something worth saying, along with a tiny bit of talent—the part of me that fought it’s way out of my childhood, that fought to be a better mother, that got in trouble at home, at school , and at work for calling out injustices—that part has cost me a lot of grief. But recently it won out in the battle against: No you can’t and no you shouldn’t.

Here’s how it went down:

Year 1: I believed I was born to do this show–that as usual, I’d coast my way in on charm and chutzpah. I wrote something  raw and unpolished about parenting twin five-year-olds after divorce quaked my world. I joked that Osama Bin Laden had nothing on maternal rage. I used the F-word, although I worried it was too crass.  I wore this perfect burgundy strapless sundress.

The rejection took me down a notch. I slunk into the back row of the theater feeling bitter and small. What did they have that I didn’t?

Then I thought, I’ll try again next year. I’ll take out the curse words. I’ll edit it ten times instead of five.

YEAR 2: I wrote something serious, political, curse free. I wove in metaphors that could break your heart. I brought the judges two cups of coffee hoping it would wake them in case my essay didn’t.

Turned out they didn’t like my essay or the coffee. I felt like the dorky girl in the eight grade in the knee socks who melted into the wall.

YEAR 3: This is my year I thought.

Until it wasn’t. I felt shrunken with hatred, jealousy, shame. The parade of critical voices had a party in my head:

I’d never make it as a writer, who was I kidding? I ought to go polish boots on forty-second street.

Year 4: I’ll write my own one-woman-show. That’ll show ’em! But– what if this is the year?

Publishing is like tango dancing. When I’m on the floor I feel beautiful, graceful, adored. When I’m waiting for someone to pick me I feel irrelevant, deleted.

I made a half-assed effort. I submitted my essay at exactly one minute post the midnight deadline; I begged forgiveness and they let it slide into first base.

On the day of the audition, one of my twins (now 9) had one of his volcanic mornings. The oatmeal was too cold. The bacon was charred. His brother’s chewing was too loud.  The lights were too dim. I stood between my two nine year olds who were hollering so loudly they didn’t even notice me standing there, feigning calm. I was trying to calculate if I could finish making perfectly balanced lunches, quiet the boys, get to yoga on time, and finish selecting and editing my essay.

A hard object got thrown. The boys howled. The neighbors, must have determined that I was beating my sons with a tire iron. My stomach clenched. I said, “Get your ass in the car now.” My smaller twin looked up and cried harder. “Don’t you dare curse at me!” He cried. “I’m sorry,” I said. I was sorry about everything that I could not undo.

When I crawled out of child’s pose I was late. I had not printed out directions. I hadn’t decided which of my two essays was most likeable and I was hot flashing.

When I finally located the building, I tore up the stairs to find a host of other non sweaty, perfectly dressed women. They were early. Classical music was playing. The sun shone through a skylight. Everyone who was not me was bathed in a sea of serenity.

I burst into tears.  I had no paper copy. My computer was at five percent. I had failed before I had even begun.

My three judges offered me a box of tissues and gently said, “It’s okay, you’re fine. We’ve all been there.”

I took a deep breath. Then I picked the story that I had first submitted four years earlier. It had been through 49 more edits. I put the F— word back in, because it had truth buried in it. I discovered the theme–something about courage in the face of adversity.

The story began to carry me, the room stilled. I rode the words like a wave until I forgot where I’d come from, and I found myself facing land.

Three days later I got the email, You’ve been selected!

So to all you powerful brilliant writers out there who did not earn a spot this year, I say to you: Your voice is just as powerful and kick ass as mine, and as all the women lucky enough to earn a spot on stage this year.

If you’re willing to keep on taking a chance on yourself, one day, someone else will too.

To be a writer you’ve got to grow a skin as tough as an alligator. You must silence those mean little voices in your head—because in the end, your voices are the ones that will do you in.

You may be the best damned pole vaulter amongst five hundred other agile pole vaulters, but the judge is gonna go for the fourteen-year-old from China because you’re not his cup of tea. You can’t let that lost contest or that essay rejection determine your worth, or you’ll give up your dreams before you’re halfway out the gate.

When I told my sons I’d been picked they said, “So you’re gonna be rich and famous?”

“Not really,” I said. “‘Cause you know, money and fame isn’t really that important,” I said it like I meant it. “What really matters is that it’s just fun–my hard work paid off.”

“But Mama, what’s the prize?” they probed.

I thought about the astronaut who tried to get into the space program for 7 years running and then finally got picked; he got to touch the moon.

“The prize is getting to tell my story,” I said. They tilted their heads, like huh?



 Alligator Photo by Matthew Paulson