A recent interview with David in which he mentions the secret to literary output through self-loathing got me thinking about my own self-loathing, namely, the various missteps I’ve made in my writing career. There have been 8,556 faux pas to date—yes, I counted—and there will no doubt be many more. Here, I list 5 which represent the worst and the best of my experience. The worst because I cringe when I think about each and every one of them; the best because, in each case, I learned a valuable lesson. I’m going to shed my pride and share them with you now so you can a.) learn these lessons the easy way, i.e. by reading about them instead of living them, and b.) laugh with me. Or at me. Okay, at me.
Without further ado and in chronological order, my top 5 most embarrassing (un)professional moments, and how you can avoid them.
5. I refused to revise a series of short stories because “I [didn’t] feel that there [was] anything I [could] do to improve them.” No. No, no, no, no, no. Rookie mistake. But it felt so right at the time! I was a freshman; I was in finals; but mostly, I was lazy. I didn’t want to do it. Simple as that. I can just imagine the horrified look that must have crossed my professor’s face when he read my note which, in memory, went something like this:
Dear Mr. Russell,
Enclosed, please find my collection of creative work produced over the course of the semester. These pieces appear in their original forms because I don’t feel that there is anything I can do to improve them. My writing is perfect. Due to my blinding brilliance, I am excusing myself from the universally accepted revision process by which countless writers throughout the course of human history have improved their work. I just don’t need it. It may seem incredible, but what can I say? My stories are perfect the first time, every time. Enjoy!
Justine Tal Goldberg,
a.k.a. the densest, laziest, most narcissistic wannabe writer in the whole wide world
Lesson: Get over yourself. There is always something you can do to improve a piece of writing. It will never be perfect. You simply come to a point at which looking at it makes you vomit. That’s when you revise, and revise, and revise again.
4. I hassled a literary journal to consider more of my work. It was one of my first rounds of submissions ever—let’s get that out of the way right up front. The editor of this lit mag rejected my piece but did so by means of a personalized note; the best one can hope for from a rejection. I should have left it at that. What I did was write back, begging him to consider yet another story for publication. Not next year, not in the near future, but now, and I had the audacity to attach the file. The message was threefold: 1.) My writing is more important than your time, 2.) I don’t trust your judgment as far as I can throw it, and 3.) Like me, like me, please, like me! The amazing part of this anecdote is that he actually responded, which was more than I deserved. He said no, of course, because there was nothing in that message to like, not a thing, not even the story itself.
Lesson: No means no. This goes for unwanted sexual advances and literary mag submissions, both.
3. I asked for more time to produce work in a graduate workshop and, in so doing, revealed my ongoing love affair with procrastination. (We’ve been hot and heavy for 10+ years now. Sure, we have our issues, but who doesn’t?)
Here’s the long and short of it. It was one of my first workshops at Emerson. We were in the process of solidifying our schedule, our bible, the document that would tell us when we were “up” for critique, thus when we should plan to pull all-nighters because we hadn’t yet written a word. I drew a slot that fell right before spring break. I had an idea, which was my first mistake. I raised my hand and said it out loud, which was my second.
Me: “Can I turn in my story after break?” Awkward silence. All eyes on me. I immediately regret my decision.
Instructor: “This is grad school, Goldberg. Step up to the plate.”
Lesson: More time = procrastination = self-sabotage = bad. This is both painfully obvious and one of the hardest lessons you’ll ever have to learn. I still haven’t learned it. So, that happened.
2. I emailed a nonsensical inside joke to Gently Read Literature founder Daniel Casey. David had just run his first review in the publication, and I was excited. I was so excited that, in my haste to congratulate him, I responded to the original email rather than responding to David privately.
“You my famous girl,” I wrote. (Don’t ask.)
Daniel Casey was good and confused which is not in the least bit surprising. My face was good and red which is equally unsurprising.
Lesson: Your email’s “Reply All” button is not your friend.
1. I told well-known author and Rolling Stone contributor David Lipsky that I don’t read nonfiction. Truth be told, this was one of the most embarrassing moments in my career thus far, and possibly my life. I couldn’t believe the words that were coming out of my mouth. There I was, interviewing this man in a professional journalistic capacity; Lipsky asks me what nonfiction writers I admire; I draw a blank. I can’t think of a single name. So I lie—and not well, I might add.
“I … uh … I don’t really read nonfiction,” I giggle.
“Oh.” A pause which, in reality, could only have lasted 10 seconds but felt like an hour. “Wait, really?”
No, not really. I’m just an idiot.
Looking back, the truth would have been much less humiliating than the lie.
“I’m drawing a blank,” I could have said. “Don’t you hate when that happens?!” And he would have chuckled and I would have chuckled and we would have been merrily chuckling together, forever bonded by our common humanity.
Lipsky is still willing to talk to me, a small miracle for which I am grateful.
Lesson: Be prepared. Take the time to consider who you’re talking to and the context in which you’re talking. Those few minutes of extra preparation will serve you in the long run.
The big lesson: Learn from your mistakes. Better yet, learn from mine.
It’s easy to forget that professional writers are just beginners who’ve been at it for a while. I’m here to tell you that we all start out the same way: completely and utterly clueless. I am no exception and, I’m willing to bet, neither are you.
So, WriteByNighters, what are your most embarrassing (un)professional moments? I showed you mine, now you show me yours.