Despite being a lifelong writer, I have not published often for the same reason that plastic sporks exist: fundamental resistance to difficulty. A plastic spork says both I do not want to wash silverware and I cannot be bothered to use a separate utensil for solids and liquids. Publishing involves finishing, correspondence, keeping track of things, and putting yourself out there to be judged. All things I resist.
Until recently I blamed this resistance on laziness, but my laziness got a clinical label in my fortieth year: attention deficit disorder. What I once thought a character flaw I now believe to be a differently-functioning brain. (Among professionals in the field, calling it a “deficit” is so five years ago.)
No doubt that ADD/ADHD is controversial, as many children were casually medicated, but the more I read the research on the condition, I don’t know how I could have anything else. I had an extensive battery of cognitive tests to tell me I have an affinity for words and all the managerial capability of a depressed orangutang.
When it comes to publishing, all that correspondence involved in the submission process, all that finding markets and writing submission text, and tracking submissions seems like a big waste of time to my ADHD brain, like doing my tax returns (note to self: tax returns are overdue again).
I knew early on that I had a knack for writing. The first paragraph I ever wrote, on the subject of oxygen, was read to the class by my third grade teacher. I didn’t work that hard on it. I just did it in a way that made sense, main point first, boring details in the middle, end with a flourish. The same thing happened often throughout school. In my freshman year of college, I was woefully misguided in my choice for electrical engineering as a major (and in moving away from home to go to college), but my technical writing teacher announced to the class, “I don’t know how Jonathan made fractal geometry understandable in such a short paper, but you all should read it.”
After engineering and I broke up, I decided to major in creative writing. I received praise for my creative work all through school and even into graduate school, but when I finished my MFA in 1996, the praise did not arrive from the source that mattered most: editors of literary journals. My plan was simple: teach and start my publishing career. A few key publications and an award or two and I’d be off to the races to make my mark in literary history.
But the awards did not come. Nor did the acceptance. I was ignorant about the amount of rejection it takes to publish, or thought I would move to the front of the line because I was special. I had an M.F.A., after all. I was also ignorant about the effort involved in crafting good submissions. I assumed my degree and my oft-praised work would stand for itself. Didn’t happen.
So, just like my choice in engineering seemed wrong, after a number of rejections, the career as a poet seemed foolish too. I had a moment success with a small backpacking article published in a national magazine, but then it got Michigan-winter cold outside and I got tired of the idea of being a nature writer, so I left that behind and focused on trying to manage my teaching, getting tenure, earning a Ph.D., getting married, starting a family. I thought I would get that teaching career and my finances under control, put aside neatly organized in a mental box and I could be free to write. Finances and grading papers turned out to be really hard with undiagnosed ADHD, so I could never get a lid on that box, could never get the momentum going in any writing endeavor, and so gave up and started earning a Ph.D. in “Critical Studies in Teaching English,” whatever that means (short version: everyone is oppressed by the hegemony of capitalism and it’s your job as an English teacher to be angry about it for some reason).
But writing always nagged me. A key turning point several years ago came after a string of career setbacks. Tired of grading papers after ten years, and worried about my small salary, I had been working on a second Ph.D. degree in educational leadership, specializing in faculty development (it turned out I was only cynical about capitalism and couldn’t finish the first one). I had been doing an internship of sorts, getting release time from teaching to work in our faculty development center. That abruptly ended, with some vague explanation that I was not filling some unsaid expectations. Around the same time I had a run-in with a surly statistics professor who gave me a bad grade. He thought I did not take him seriously because I did not do the extra credit, when instead I was madly grading papers to finish my own semester of teaching.
Fine, I said to myself, I’ll go back to being a poet. On a whim, I applied for a writing sabbatical. It was granted. I applied for travel money to creative writing conferences. Approved. I gave up the second Ph.D. and started writing and submitting again.
Today, though, I am nearly in the same situation. To say I have a trickle of publications would be to exaggerate. Unless you count blogs (my promotion committee doesn’t) I have mere drops of published output. The difference is that now I have accumulated a much larger pile of rejections. It reaches that tipping point sometimes: I’m ready to give up. What other profession requires enduring so much rejection? Maybe telemarketing. I did that job once too.
So why keep writing? Ah, the artist’s life! The bohemian lifestyle! The freedom of the life of the mind! Nope. My life is difficult. I have two sons with autism. My youngest boy, seven years old, has cancer and is in chemotherapy. I have lots of debt. All those years of indecisive graduate school were not cheap, and compounding interest makes it worse. Not exactly a Yaddo residency around here.
But, maybe excepting the debt, I can deal with all that. My sons are happy and innocent and young. I’m married to a wonderful woman. My son’s cancer is in remission, and the chemotherapy schedule helps keep me focused on things that matter.
However, the inconsistency that ADHD saddles me with is the source of my darker days. Which is why I write.
Even in my furthest orbits away from the idea of a career as a writer, I still write, or at least stay in the writing frame of mind. My greatest thrill is when a project takes off, even though that project is likely to end up shelved, gathering virtual dust on my hard drive. I’ll read a mediocre novel, and see ways it could be better. I teach writing and literature, so I’m always connected to the written word.
There are many quirks to the ADHD mind. One is hyperfocus. A myth about ADHD is that someone with it cannot focus. I can focus intensely. I am a voracious reader. I read a book a week on average, and I read widely on the internet about whatever topic I am into at the moment (right now: software patent litigation). My mind enjoys being intensely engaged in a rewarding activity. I just can’t often control what that activity is. And I can gin up that hyperfocus for a few weeks at a time. I once wrote a wonderful first draft of a zombie novel during a semester break a dozen years ago.
I’ve learned to trick my mind. If I have a vague notion about wanting to get some writing done, doing a Google Image search for “writer’s desk” or “writing studio” does wonders. I keep the Jill Krementz book close at hand. The Yaddo website is pretty.
Despite all the rejection, despite all the hurdles my mind puts in the way of submitting, despite my inner critic saying you cannot call yourself a writer based on that publication record, and despite the abundance of genetic misfortune in my house, I am still a writer in the sense of “one who writes.”
Putting words together into coherent sentences and paragraphs is akin to meditation. My brain wants to ruminate in several different directions as once, but despite all advances in technology, a person can still only write one word at a time. When I write I gain nourishment from that focus. The feeling of the keys moving along under my fingers by itself is enough to lift me out of a funk. A good writing session is relief from the constant tug of war between should and want and it is fleeting evidence that my mind is capable of channelling chaotic thoughts into linear, executive-functioning form. It is hope that my quirky personality has an ideal home somewhere.
Though it is melodramatic to say so, I write to keep the demons at bay. There can be no other explanation. How else could I justify doing something with so few extrinsic rewards? How else can a person continue in the face of constant messages of sorry, not good enough? On a day that writing happens, that real, honest work gets done that I feel in my bones, I am more at ease in the world.
The process of publication, though, is more akin to running for public office. It does not fit my persona. It would be like Socrates running for president; every debate would be a one-sided version of “Questions Only” from Whose Line is it Anyway? Jim Leherer: “Mr. Socrates, what would be your plan to address the current legal morass concerning immigration law in the United States?” Socrates: “I’d like to first say that I am honored for being here, Jim, and thanks to NPR for hosting this event. I’d like to say this, but I can’t because, first of all, what do I mean when I say ‘being here’?”
I recently saw a new ADHD specialist to get a second opinion on my medication plan. I talked about the difficulty of submitting and publishing. He said “there are people in the world who love sales, even cold calling, where you get fifty rejections for every sale, and those people love racking up the rejections because they know that each rejection is one step closer to that next sale.” All right. Good for them.