Copyright notice

All content copyright 2010 by Chelsea Biondolillo. Seriously.

Monday, September 27, 2010

On dreams, writing, and not winning

First, to those still searching for column results: I did not win the McSweeney's column contest. I did not get a sweet but encouraging rejection note. I saw what you saw on the website.

It's supposed to be good for me to write first thing in the morning.

All night I was up with dreams. Terrible, anxious dreams. First, there was a toddler, supposedly my sister, and she grabbed at a pincushion of mine (to be a brat) and then when I came close to get it, she squeezed the pins, and they stuck in her skin and her clothes. She didn't cry. But then she ran, and the pins lodged into her deeper, and I had to get her to pull them out.

I grabbed her by the legs as she ran past, and she fell down, and then the screaming began in earnest. In the dream it was from them worrying deeper into her skin, not from me grabbing her--she knew it would hurt to pull them out and didn't want me to do it. Piercing, shuddering, hiccupy, terrified crying. I pulled out long pins from her back—8 inches at least, some bent. She screamed louder. Once I was done with her back, and was about to flip her over, she had stopped screaming, but I had woken myself up. That was 1 am.

Then I dreamed that I had won the McSweeney's column contest, but they wanted me to write a column on fisheries, their workings and politics and greenness. They wanted four columns in the next year. I was confused, but when I looked out my bedroom window (from the pink and red room on Mitchell street, when I was a kid) there was a giant, clear lake outside, up to the window sill, full of trout and salmon. So I bravely told everyone that I could do it. I would go back to the library on Holgate, I would find out about fisheries. In my dream, though, my awake mind must have decided that was too frustrating.

So then I dreamed I really won the contest. I checked twice--sitting on the couch in some strange house I've never been to--it was really my fast and fun column about science. There was a whole ornate package with handwritten congratulatory notes and collaged questions and next steps. I called Jeff on the phone to tell him first, he said he knew I could do it. Then I went to work and graciously told a few important coworkers, assuring them that no, I wasn't quitting. It was a small contest, but a pretty big deal nonetheless. In my dream I started planning out how many columns I would need, and how much of my writing time would be spent on them. It generally feels stressful to be planning things in my dreams. So even this "good" dream showed signs of my freak-out level (red rimmed).

I couldn't plan anymore, so I woke up 4 minutes before my alarm, and looked at the website on my phone and confirmed the non-dream truth: I didn't win. I checked my email to see if I had at least gotten one of the few kind rejection letters sent to the finalists, but no. Not even that. I am sad, but too tired to care.

The winning columns are all edgy and tinged with violence and loss. I can't speak to being transgendered, an escort, the horrors of war, or total fire damage. I wrote about the wonder and delicacy of bees and other science things. It makes sense, if that's the vibe they want going forward, I didn't fit it. We are in times of great loss and suffering, I know.

The winning wasn't difficult to pre-visualize (like a cow, say, getting hit by lightning*), but the losing was. Writers lose more than they win, it's a fact.  Perhaps I am trying to get myself used to the feeling, like Altschul in his cabin of solitude with the suicide laundry room: I am surrounding myself with disappointment so that I am no longer crushed by it. Or to see if I really can man up and take a beating.

It's just not enough to be good at writing. If no one wants to hear what you have to say, you have failed as a writer. This is an opinion, not a truth. There are folks out there who don't mind writing into the vacuum of a (writing) blog and leave it at that... I am not one of them. I also can't personally get behind painting out in the back of a garage for years, showing no one. I suspect there are other issues at work in those instances, and will leave my opinion at that.You have a responsibility as a writer or artist to contribute to the greater conversation about what you do. If a short story is written in the woods, and nobody reads it, is it any good?

This is not just a brainstorming session (sans coffee or sleep) about money. I want to make a living, sure. But I don't expect to get rich. I don't even expect to get to the lower middle class, to be honest. (Middle lower class would be nice, or dare I to dream of the upper lower class?) It is about reaching an audience and saying something to them that matters. That moves them to think or act or be different. If someone like me writes an essay about starlings, and someone like you reads it and hates that poor, wonderful bird just a little bit less, then it is a successful essay. Whether I got paid for it or not.

And, if you know of anyone who might want a quirky and brief science column, let me know.

*Apologies to Galway Kinnell.

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