Dear Steve Almond: A “Letters in the Mail” response

Comrade!

Thanks so much for your “Letters in the Mail” letter, which I just received yesterday. It was a much-needed missive on a dreary day. Earlier that day I had actually, pathetically, posted a self-pitying “Really, really depressed right now” update on my Facebook status, and needed something to give me a bit of perspective about life and my perceptions of success, or the lack thereof.

Basically: I haven’t had much work in the past month, and now I can’t pay my rent, much less purchase groceries or tell my credit card company that the check’s in the mail. Sorry dudes; it’s not. Money troubles. That sounds like such a stupid thing to be mortally depressed about, when you write it out like that, but then again, isn’t life just a series of ridiculous highs and lows that none of us can really explain?

Steve, I’ll be honest: when you said that you left journalism to write short stories, “because being a writer means you don’t have to pretend you’re not a mess. You just have to do something interesting with your mess,” I completely understood. I’ve written as a mess for years. Usually a scuffed-up needy relationship type mess, but now that I’ve got a handle on that, it’s the money. Isn’t it always the money? You mentioned Cheryl Strayed always freaking out over her finances; that was me today. You said “Success is how ambitious people punish themselves.” If that’s true, I look forward to my forthcoming bestseller Bullshit from Reasonably Famous People I Admire.

But you know what? I have to agree that “there’s always a joke lurking in the darkest shit.” Call it that old Nietzschean chestnut of “what doesn’t kill ya…” if you like, but people really do only learn from the painful parts, the bad times, the darkest shit. Why is it that we’re wired that way? And also, why is it that we can change our behaviors by being paid to do so? The only thing that really works to get kids motivated to get good grades, a recent study suggests, is bribery! And isn’t that true for us grown-ups, too? We want to be rewarded for having done the right thing, even if the right thing is just writing your own address on a letter, rather than allowing the postal service to deliver your missive sans stamp under the guise of being “returned to sender.” (An outdated reference for kids these days, I’m sure, but one that seemed appropriate, given your letter’s snail-mail trajectory and the Postal Service song that puts it far more eloquently.)

Bribery. Monetary bribery. It works for writers: we are the chameleons changing our tone and tactic to suit the mood of the highest bidder. We write for little green bits of paper, or nowadays for 1s and 0s launched into our Paypal accounts from god-knows-where. Every day, we try to scrape it together as the business world demands more text, less poetry and erodes the value of the written word, pricing it at less than one cent each. How can that ever add up to success?

But I know I’m judging this wrong. Like you said, it’s the small things, the surprising things that really make us happy. Turning around to suddenly see the moon, when all this time you’ve been trying to see the aurora borealis (I lived in Canada for almost a decade, Steve, and never did see ’em, myself, though the moon is always there, just doing its thing, never ripping anyone off or using your name to get in on the guest list, as Henry Rollins put it). Getting a letter in the mail. Having friends that don’t tell you that you’re just being a self-pitying jerkoff when you post things on your Facebook that you will most likely delete in the cold light of morning. Friends who will, instead, tell you what you need to hear: that they are sorry you are feeling down, that they are sending love and hugs, that things will get better, that they are willing to come over and do a little dance in a clown or gorilla suit, if it will help—will it?

And sometimes, it will.

So, thanks, Steve. If you’re ever passing through Austin, let me know! I would definitely attend one of your readings. Hell, I’ll even post it on my website and scrounge up a few comrades to join me, though I’m pretty sure nothing happening at BookPeople is ever “sparsely attended.”

Onward together,
Laura

P.S. I still owe you a book review for Rock and Roll Will Save Your Life. My apologies for taking so damn long; perhaps I can finally get that sucker online this week. I will also add all of your other books to my To Read list as penance.

2 Responses
  1. D.S. Jones says:

    Wow, Laura, you hide it so well. We have been talking a lot these past few days and I would never have guessed you were having such a hard time. Probably my own ego has something to do with that. As an artist, you don’t expect to make much money. In my book, Tony tells Stephen he knew it would end this way that a life of crime comes to a flash, from a gun, or a police cruiser light. It is a sad truth on our end too, that we live in a world where James Patterson is the watermark for writing success and non-creative remakes are all consumers want.

    You are doing great things with Buttontapper and Black Heart, and you are one of the best young writers out there. I read your emails and posts, how smooth you use language, and I’m blown away. Warren Zevon has a great song called Lord Byron’s Luggage and it cheers me up. In it is a line about how every dog has his day. You will get yours, Laura, you are a great writer and friend and person. The cream always rises.

  2. I try not to dump this kind of shit on people I don’t know, and usually don’t post blogs like this (anymore… you should’ve seen my very first blog, which has thankfully been deleted, and whose URL shall never be revealed), but the Steve Almond letter was a good reason to write a heartfelt response.

    I have actually really appreciated getting your emails, D.S.! I appreciate the enthusiasm you have for my projects, so thank you for your honesty both here and in the emails you’ve sent me.

    I’m feeling less crappy about it all today, but I do hate feeling like a failure. Not being able to pay your bills seems like a pretty big fail, since my bills are not really extravagant. But you’re right: the cream rises, every dog has his (or her) day, and that stuff has nothing to do with my bank account. It can be hard to maintain perspective, I think, when your job and your creative outlet are the same (i.e. writing).