I received – at the age of 72 – an MFA in fiction from Spalding University. I decided to go to graduate school because I had been working on a novel for years and thought the pressure of the MFA would help me finish it. My experience at Spalding was terrific. I added to my knowledge about the craft of fiction and I did finish a version of my novel. However, after I graduated, I lost momentum: teaching, being a mom, son getting married, being a wife, having a hip operation. Life intervened, as it tends to do.
I don’t often talk about my work or show it to anyone except occasionally to my husband and assistant. But recently an old friend from my Hollywood days reached out to me and asked to see my novel. Since he lives mostly in Israel, and is not in my social group, I figured he would be safe, discrete and of course honest.
Bill had good notes, and I realized I had to rewrite the book once more. I found a writer’s group with three other women who also have MFAs, very busy lives and books to finish.
Last week, I handed in my first submission (first chapter of my novel) to my writer’s group, and immediately fell into a depression.
Here’s my inner monologue: “My work is so bad; they’ll hate it; why did I ever choose this (pre)occupation? No one will talk to me ever again. Everyone will look at me with pity. Poor woman, she thinks she can write. OMG, she teaches writing.”
I spent 24 hours in this depression before I ran into my friend Malcolm Brooks at Owl & Turtle Bookshop Cafe. Malcolm, who is a composer and teacher just smiled and told me the story of his own fear of failure, reminding me that if I reach only one soul with my writing, I will have done my job. Malcolm’s story reminded me of Martha Graham’s letter to Agnes DeMille. Martha Graham and Agnes de Mille were, at the time of the letter, world-renowned dancers and choreographers at the top of their game.
Martha Graham to Agnes DeMille
There is a vitality, a life force, a quickening that
Is translated through you into action and
Because there is only one of you in all time,
This expression is unique.
And if you block it, it will never exist through any
Other medium and will be lost. The world will not
Have it. It is not your business to determine
How good it is
Nor how valuable it is
Nor how it compares with other expressions. It is
Your business to keep it yours clearly and
Directly, to keep the channel open.
You do not even have to believe in yourself or
Your work. You have to keep open and aware
Directly to the urges that motivate YOU.
Keep the channel open…
No artist is pleased…
There is not satisfaction whatever at any time.
There is only a queer, divine dissatisfaction, a
Blessed unrest that keeps us marching and
Makes us more alive than the others
From 1968-2001, I worked in the entertainment business, starting in publishing and moving on to television, feature films, animation and toys. I learned from the many accomplished people with whom we worked that we creatives are all afraid, no matter how famous we are. Example: having lunch with a successful agent, (it was just after the Oscars and four of his clients had won Oscars), I noticed the agent seemed dejected. And I said, “But Sam, you seem down. Four of your clients just won Oscars and Robin Williams’ movie just opened and it’s a huge success.” “Yes, he said, but Robin is really depressed. He doesn’t like some of the takes. Feels as if he messed up on a couple scenes.”
This is a story heard again and again. As Martha Graham would say, “No artist is ever pleased.”
When you feel scared, read Divine Dissatisfaction out loud and check out this terrific video aby the Idaho State Ballet and this reading of Divine Dissatisfaction by Meryl Streep, spoken against YoYo Ma playing the cello.