When I had the flu a few weeks ago, I spent a lot of time in bed watching TV, since my head hurt too much to read. One show I watched was Project Runway. I'm not given to watching reality shows, but this one is different: the contestants are actually creating something (clothes). In that way, these hopeful designers seemed akin to writers.
Then another parallel struck me, hard.
In each Project Runway episode there is an agonizing moment when the runway display of clothes is completed and the designers stand in front of the judges, waiting to hear who won and who will be sent home. It's a long, sadistically drawn-out moment, to rev up drama for the TV audience. Ominous music plays. The designers reveal on their faces just how much this competition means to them. Heidi Klum, Michael Kors, and Nina Garcia sit on their stools like gods judging mortals. I thought about the anxious designers: Those poor artists. Then I realized that writers go through the exact same thing, waiting to hear from editors -- with the difference that the agony can last for weeks or months.
Let me make something very clear here: I don't mean that editors are sadistically drawing out writers' agonies. I have many friends among editors and most of them are a hard-working, dedicated bunch who like nothing better than to find a wonderful story amid their submissions. They also receive an overwhelming number of those submissions. The writer's protracted, edgy torture is not their fault. But that doesn't change the fact that it exists.
When I began submitting stories thirty years ago, I would approach the mailbox each day in a state of keyed-up anxiety. If there was a rejection (and there were many), I always felt as if I'd been punched in the stomach. Now, when editorial feedback (and agent feedback, which is just a more advanced form of the same thing) comes by phone or email, my feelings haven't changed all that much. If I know that I might hear soon from a decision maker on a project I really care about, my stomach clenches each time the phone rings or AOL chirps "You've got mail!" My face probably looks like those young designers', tense with hope and fear.
I suppose this goes with the territory -- "If you can't stand the heat, get out of the kitchen." I'm still in the kitchen. But as the cortisol floods my body, I can't help but wonder if I couldn't cultivate a calmer, Buddha-like detachment. Except then, I'm not sure I'd write at all.
You'd think we'd at least get ominous music to agonize by.