A couple of years ago, I had a book contract that went sour. I still don't know exactly why. My editor was a highly respected name in the publishing world and I was thrilled to be working with her. Trouble began, though, when I turned in my first three or four chapters. I knew they could use improvement--what first draft couldn't?--but I was not prepared for the terse and scathing e-mail I got, something along the lines of "Well, this is frankly disappointing." That was it. No critique, nothing about what needed work, no guidance. This happened three or four times over the course of the next 18 months, which rank as the most excruciating in my career. I'd been a professional writer for more than 20 years and things had gone wrong, but nothing like this. I was baffled, distraught, utterly demoralized. On one particularly bad day, I actually crawled under my desk and sobbed. Eventually, things got so bad that my agent negotiated an end to the contract--which the editor's publishing house agreed to, on one condition: I had to repay my six-figure advance.
When my agent told me this, I had to check to make sure my ears were screwed on properly. I had to repay them, when I had tried in every conceivable way to fulfill my end of things, had asked repeatedly what I was doing wrong, had begged for guidance, and my editor had barely answered my e-mails? I couldn't believe it. I called the Author's Guild.
"It sucks," their lawyer said. "You're right and they're wrong. But if I were you, I'd pay up. Believe me, I've heard worse. And they've got a battalion full of high-priced legal talent. What have you got?"
I took a deep breath, and I took his advice. (The book, incidentally, is The Ghost in the House: Motherhood, Raising Children and Struggling with Depression. Another publisher, HarperCollins, bought it; since then it's sold two foreign rights, is now in paperback and has done quite well.) But I was writing checks to that editor's publishing house for a long, long time.
Fast forward to last week. A non-profit group I've been a member of for some time sent out a mass e-mail about a book contract just signed by one of the group's former officers. The e-mail said that the book would be based in part on things that had been said by members in online discussions over the past several years, and it expressed the sincere hope that we would all continue to contribute our thoughts and experiences. There was a clearly implied hope that someday lots of us would buy the book. The amount of the advance was not disclosed. But in the usual course of things that money goes straight to the author, minus a percentage to his or her agent to be "earned out" against future royalties, if any (and there usually aren't, unless the book hits the best-seller list).
The only reason this is interesting at all is that a couple of years ago, two members of the group (I was one) were barred from even discussing two topics they had written about--topics which were highly relevant to many members. One of the people who made this rule was the person who last week announced her own book contract. And the reason we--this other member and I--were given was that we had written books of our own, the mere mention of which, we were told, would be abusing our membership for personal enrichment by, you know....selling books. When people expressed an interest in the topics anyway, the group's leaders actually shut down the e-mail loop temporarily.
So. Two incidents--one pretty important in my life, one fairly minor. Both times, I was treated unfairly. Both times, I went ballistic. The first time, I had no recourse; I just had to take it. The second time I spent, I am embarrassed to say, an unbelievable amount of energy trying to reason with the folks in charge. And when reason did not prevail, I yelled and screamed (both online and in person). I wrote angry e-mails. I talked my husband's ear off. All in all, I did a credible imitation of Yosemite Sam in a full-force swivet. I got utterly fixated on the fact that these folks just did not understand, and I couldn't get away from the idea that it was my job, personally, to make them understand.
And both times, the Universe said: So?
And I said (condensing madly here, because actually this process took a couple of years): But I'm right and they're wrong! I'm right, I'm right, I'm right! And I'm being penalized and it's just not fair!
And the Universe said, Okay, but what's your point?
That one was easy. The point was being RIGHT, goddammit. And being right was a kind of high. Self-righteousness is the spiritual form of crack, and just as hard a habit to break. You give up your self-righteousness, and then turn around and realize that you're self-righteous about giving up your self-righteousness. Giving it up, really giving it up, is like a little death. Well, not "like"--it is a kind of death. Because you're killing off that kindergartener in yourself that's jumping up and down screaming about fairness.
The way I arrived at this conclusion was that after awhile, this posture of Being Right became a kind of psychic black hole: it swallowed up tons of energy and gave nothing back. I was very, very slow on the uptake here, but one day I was thinking about how that editor had shafted me when a new thought occurred: "I bet she doesn't remember your name." And the same thing last week: that e-mail got me all riled up again about this incident several years ago, and I fired off several rounds of e-mail before my frontal lobe came back online. And then I remembered how much time I'd spent online a couple of years earlier, how I had bored my husband to utter stupor with every itsy-bitsy detail.
And then I remembered something else--an incident that had happened just before I left the Washington Post, when I'd done a story about some financial hanky panky at a major animal welfare group. This was a non-profit that got donations from hundreds of thousands of little old ladies around the world, who dug into their Social Security checks or whatever and gave $5 here, $10 there...and the leaders of this group were living in what could only be called palatial splendor. The percentage of income that went to executive salaries in this organization was way up there. I asked one of those guys living in one of those palatial homes about some deal where he had padded his salary in the guise of some real estate deal. I remember that he made a little expression of distaste, as if I'd just belched or something, and he picked a piece of nonexistent lint off the leg of his extremely expensive suit. I got mad then, too. I wrote my story, and maybe some little old ladies out there stopped sending in their money--I don't know--but I do know that this man in his expensive suit went right on enjoying his palatial lifestyle as if I had never existed. Maybe I gave him an afternoon of heartburn, but that was about as much as I accomplished.
And then, finally, I got the point: It is not my job to fix anybody but me. I have a friend who says that our job is to send our energy outward--to create, explore, connect--and that anything which obstructs that process is inherently wrong. That sounds right to me. And so what was wrong here, truly wrong, was not what these people had done to me (or to the little old ladies of the world), but what I'd done to myself--how these events had lured me into an addiction of sorts, one which took a whole lot of energy and turned it inward.
And so now, by saying this, I hope that I have turned that around.