Thursday, May 19, 2011

Are you a real writer?

Dear Readers,

Last Friday there was a lot of TSLP movie buzz, which you can read about here: Vulture, The Playlist, or The Weinstein Company. I've been on the David-O.-Russell-Mark-Wahlberg train since THREE KINGS. I also loved Wahlberg in I HEART HUCKABEES. Thought THE FIGHTER was fantastic. So I really hope this latest bit of gossip sticks and the film gets made soonish--mostly because I'd LOVE to see it.

THE SILVER LININGS PLAYBOOK began as an essay I wrote back when I was teaching. The essay was about the Philadelphia Eagles and my father. I mustered up the courage to show that essay to a few friends who read it and were supportive, albeit a bit confused about my asking for feedback. Back then, my dream of writing full-time was a secret.

One friend returned the essay with a copy of Pat Conroy's excellent MY LOSING SEASON and a note that read, 'A book for the next Pat Conroy.'

I remember feeling mixed up when I read the note.

Was my friend making fun of me, or did he seriously think I had the potential to be a 'real writer' like Pat Conroy?

There was part of me that wanted to believe my writing would someday make me a household name. That maybe my work would be adapted like THE PRINCE OF TIDES. And as I stood there in the main office, in front of the teacher mailboxes, in which my friend had left the Conroy book, my body tingled with thoughts of Maybe and Why Not?

But then the rational side of my brain began to scream, "You're a high school English teacher! You grew up in a blue-collar town! You didn't exactly go to Harvard or Iowa! Who the hell do you think you are, dreaming about being a fiction writer? Movie deals even! Have you lost your grip? Don't set yourself up for disappointment. Know your limitations."

Back during my teaching years, I dreamed of doing an MFA program, writing full-time and finally feeling like a real writer. But when I quit my job and enrolled at Goddard, the doubts and demons stayed with me. So I decided that I needed to publish a short story to feel like a real writer. Once I published a short story, I thought I needed to make money as a writer, before I could justify calling myself one. When I sold my first personal essay, I decided I needed a literary agent. Then I needed to sell a novel. Then another one. Then I felt as though I needed better sales figures. To make a best-seller list. There was no end to the things I thought I needed to accomplish before I would feel like a 'real writer.'

And, of course, now I wonder if seeing my first novel adapted for screen by one of my favorite directors will slay the demons of doubt forever.

If only the movie gets made this summer, perhaps I will finally get to feel like a real writer!

The hard truth I am learning is this: there is no bullet-proof accolade that will keep you feeling like a real writer for the rest of your life.

The artistic life is bi-polar. You feel very good and in control sometimes, and then you don't. Highs and lows.

But writers get up every day--regardless of any (or a lack of) prior successes--and try to write as much as they can. Some days feel like failures, others make you feel like you can fly or breathe under water. But real writers keep writing regardless. Real writers find a way to get the words down on the page and then they revise and revise and revise in an attempt to connect with an audience, if only for a moment or so. Real writers do the work, and continue to do it through the good and rough patches. Real writers find ways to maintain faith in their abilities and in their craft--if not every single day, then at least over the long haul.

I look back now on the day my old teaching friend called me the next Pat Conroy. And even with news of Mark Wahlberg, David O. Russell, and Harvey Weinstein working hard to get TSLP up onto the big screen, there is still part of me that believes my name should never be mentioned in the same sentence as Pat Conroy. I look up to the man, as I do many other writers. And I am intimately acquainted with my own limitations.

But then there's another part of me--the part that quit teaching, sat down at a desk, and did the work. And that part says, Q, hell yes, you are a real writer! Stop worrying! Don't compare yourself to others! Just write! And then that part of me sings a song parody of Lady Gaga's JUST DANCE. Just write. Gonna be okay! Da da doo-doo-mmm!

While praise and success helps, we must anoint ourselves if we want to be writers. We have to believe wildly when no on else does, regardless of what comes to us and what doesn't. And we have to cultivate that belief from within--always. It doesn't get easier as you progress down the professional road, but if the good stuff is in you, it's always in you, no matter how clouded your mind may get, no matter how many demons attack.

Regardless of whether THE SILVER LININGS PLAYBOOK movie gets made, I need to protect and nurture the part of me that believes I am a real writer, just like I did when I was teaching high school English and hadn't yet published anything. And regardless of where you are in your artistic career--whether you have received many accolades, a few, or none--you must do the same.

To be continued, and please keep being you.


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Sister Kim said...

First let me say you are a real writer! Real writing is not based on sales or publications, or movies, it happens when your words affect another's life. It happens when your words touch another person's heart and leaves them changed. I knew you were a real writer when I saw the affect of Sorta Like a Rock Star on the lives of my students. What a gift you have been given and have given to so many already. Don't stop believing and don't stop writing!

Doug Worgul said...

It feels the real-est to me after I've re-read a paragraph I just wrote and I think "Damn. Did I just write that? that's some good shit."

David Stephen Kelly said...

When I am reading a novel that I thoroughly enjoy, I always envision how it would/could be filmed as a movie. When I finished TSLP I was convinced this would someday be brought to film.

Wahlberg is one of the few actors that could play this role. Glad to hear that one of the best novels I have read in the last 10 years is being given the attention that it deserves.

PK said...

I need to protect and nurture the part of me that believes I am a real writer, just like I did when I was teaching high school English and hadn't yet published anything. And regardless of where you are in your artistic career--whether you have received many accolades, a few, or none--you must do the same.

I think this is good advice, especially for this young guy. If it means anything, I believed you could do it at 16.

kent said...

Matt, I love your message here. So many people worry about the wrong things and don't just focus on the craft (whatever craft that may be). I do it myself! But I have been working on just allowing myself to go at my own pace and not feel competitive or disappointed in where I am compared to everyone else on the planet. It is a mind game that is hard to win. I appreciate it so much, Matt, that you are willing to share your uncertainties with us. It shakes me that someone in your position still has the nagging question in the back of your mind. I feel certain, sometimes, that an Oscar would still not quench that "Am I the real thing?/Am I good enough?" state of mind. Oh well, if the consequence to that is always aiming higher... I'll take it. Thanks for sharing!

Reenie said...

The "good stuff" IS in you...always has been and always will be....never doubt!

Bill R said...

Kent took the words out of my mouth Matt. I really appreciate you sharing this with all of us. Your blog has been an amazing help to me of late.

Scott Humfeld said...

I well remember our conversation on the Arca where you confided in me your desire to become a writer. Since then I have read your short stories, essays, TSLP and then SLARS and look forward to BOY21. I have seen your work get better and better.
You ARE a writer and a damn good one.
While I would love to see you have great faith in yourself, but perhaps the self doubt is an important component/demon.
I, however, have great faith in your abilities.

Alicia said...

"Anoint yourself." Amen.

For years I edited the alumni notes section of a prestigious college's quarterly magazine. Want to talk about developing an inferiority complex? There was no end to the milestones these graduates achieved. I was so impressed with their successes -- and at the same time, convinced that mine paled in comparison.

For me, the key was doing away with comparison. When I anointed myself a full and capable person, that's when I started becoming one.

Q said...

@Sister Kim, you are simply THE BEST! Much love to you and many high fives to your students. @Doug Worgul, Can't wait to read your next. @David Stephen Kelly, you just made my month. Thanks! @PK I believed you could do it when you were 16 too. @Kent & @Bill, glad to have you on the journey! Right on! @Reenie, Thanks, Mom! @Scott Humfeld, that ARCA conversation changed my life. @Alicia, you change my life every day!

Really appreciate all the follows and comments. Thanks also to all of you Internet ghosts who are reading invisibly. Feel free to comment anytime or just keep reading. We're glad to have you here either way.

The Sensai said...

A real writer and a true friend. Each book that I am blessed to read, shows growth and supreme talent. Keep fighting the good fight!

Q said...

Thanks, Sensai!