Gut Check: Living the Writer's Life by Dennis Palumbo
Okay, here's the good news, at least from my perspective: my third crime novel, Night Terrors, has just been published by Poisoned Pen Press. It has fine reviews, a promising start on sales, and -- thanks to the publisher's art department -- an extremely cool cover.
So much for the good stuff.
But there's another side to the book's publication. As some of you may know, after a career as a screenwriter (My Favorite Year, Welcome Back, Kotter, etc.), I became a licensed psychotherapist specializing in creative issues. For over twenty years now I've counseled writers through the turmoil of early drafts, the terrors of manuscript submission, the perils of publication. I've helped them struggle with writer's block, procrastination and fear. I've consoled them in the face of an agent's neglect, a publisher's rejection, an editor's disrespect and an industry's indifference.
I mean, let's face it: I know the drill.
So how has it been for me, now just another author with a product hitting the marketplace? If anyone should be able to handle the expected pragmatic and emotional challenges, it's me. Right?
Guess again. In the months leading up to my new novel's release, I have (in no particular order) obsessed about the book's title, fantasized one minute about getting on the best-seller's list and then in the next was absolutely convinced that no one would buy it at all, yearned for my agent to be completely devoted to my personal and professional well-being to the exclusion of all else in his life, already mentally answered potential bad reviews with pithy, scathing rejoinders, and felt unloved and unappreciated when a friend even looked like he was anything less than totally thrilled or profoundly moved at the thought of my novel coming out.
Believe me, I could go on, but space doesn't permit. The point is, despite the knowledge and insight gained from long-time careers as both a writer and a therapist, I found myself wrestling with the same dilemmas as every other author.
Why? Because, like it or not, if you're a writer, there's no escaping the writer's life.
As I've learned with the publication of this new novel, when it comes to the feelings, obsessions and just plain worries that accompany any writer's efforts, there's no "Get out of jail free" card. Even when, like me, you've already published a novel previously, as well as a collection of mystery short stories, and even a nonfiction book about -- what else? -- how to deal with the up's and down's of the writer's life!
Which means that regardless of career experience, advancing age and sizeable amounts of therapy, there's no "cure" for the writer's life. As soon as a writer commits to the writing of a thing, he or she embarks on a journey through both an external world of crises and triumphs, and an internal world of feelings and belief systems.
And this is true for all writers, no matter their level of success, no matter how large and loyal their readership. After many years in the literary trenches, on both sides of the battlefield, I can posit with great assurance two simple facts: first, that all successful writers used to be struggling writers; and, second, that the successful ones still struggle. This is not merely philosophical ruminating on my part. As my recent experience with Mirror Image attests, this is the straight dope. One of those hard truths of the creative life. Bedrock.
On the other hand, I've negotiated the psychological rigors of publication about as well as can be expected. As both writer and therapist, I've learned -- and changed -- a lot over the years, and it's definitely made a difference.
The biggest change? Probably this: In many ways, I'm as neurotic and insecure as I ever was. I just don't hassle myself about it anymore. And although that might not be a cure, it's the next best thing.