Listening To: High By The Beach by Lana Del Ray
Failure has a function. It asks you if you want to keep going on making things.
– Clive James
It was early. My coffee was…not great, admittedly, but hot. After a weirdly intimate and mostly sleepless night on the train, I finally gave up the ghost around 4 a.m., staring out into the dark beyond my window as I listened to Elizabeth Gilbert’s new podcast. I was waiting for 6:30, when the á la carte bar would be open and I could grab coffee and sit and write in the observation car. Our train was scheduled to arrive in Glacier National Park around 7, and I didn’t want to miss it.
About a half hour later, we rolled into Whitefish, MT under the first colors of dawn. As we circled around a lake ringed with pines and framed by mountains, I found myself scrambling for my camera in the way that always annoys me when I see other people do it. Amber. You’re missing it already. Just look. I looked up, realized I could still see stars glittering in the still-dark-blue dome overhead, and I wanted to cry.
And then a guy who appeared to already be drunk at 7:00 a.m. jokingly yelled at me that I was facing the wrong way. “You’re ruining your own skyway observation car experience!” He bellowed behind me. As he passed by my table, he insisted on telling me good morning twice in that slow, deliberate way that men use when they are trying to force you to acknowledge and then talk to them. I merely stared blankly at him and then slowly and deliberately responded by slipping my earbuds into my ears, because go fuck yourself, dude. YOU’RE the one ruining my goddamn skyway observation deck experience. Just because I’m a woman sitting alone doesn’t mean I have to talk to you if I don’t want to.
So there was that.
For the rest of the morning, I alternated between writing and staring out the window. As we began to crawl through Glacier National Park, I put away my laptop, turned on Elizabeth Gilbert’s podcast, and sipped my coffee as I took in the mountain peaks and rushing streams and changing colors of the trees. I pondered creativity and failure as Gilbert and Brené Brown talked about how one continues to search for the former even at the risk of only finding the latter. I thought about how lucky I was to be on this train right now, rolling through one of the most beautiful places on Earth, and on my way to meet my parents in Minneapolis before we flew to Maine to spend a week with the rest of my family. I thought about taking some more photos so I could Instagram them later, and then decided against it. I had enough photos, and I knew the ones I took right then would never be as good as what was right in front of my face…which I would miss if I was too busy trying to capture it with my camera.
And that, right there, was the thing that led me to figuring this whole mess out.
“I’m just feeling really defeated and frustrated right now,” I had written in my email to Karah the day before, right before I boarded my train. “And I’m starting to feel like I don’t even wanna do this anymore. Let’s hold off on the covers…I think I need to just take these next 34 hours to figure out where I want to go from here.”
When you decide that you’re a writer and writing is the thing you want to do (and that’s it, that’s all it takes – don’t ever let anyone else decide or tell you that you’re not a writer if writing is the thing that you want to do), there’s a few different paths you can choose when it comes to making a living at it. After making some money at being an indie author, I decided earlier this year that this was going to be my full-time gig. I was going to be my own agent, my own marketer, my own – let’s all puke together on this one – brand. I knew it was doable, and I knew that if I wanted it enough, it was doable for me.
I love writing. I love telling stories, I love developing characters, I love the sense of purpose and accomplishment that came from working really, really hard to create something. But sooner than later, I learned that I really hated what came after that: The promotion, the marketing, and the selling of that thing. I HATED writing promo posts and “attention-grabbing” social media updates. I HATED asking readers to rate and review my books. I HATED hoping others might share and RT my book news. I HATED feeling like I was wholly dependent on the goodwill and support of many others in order to make my dreams happen.
And I especially hated all of that stuff even more when it didn’t work.
It made me feel like I was failing. At all of it…because I wasn’t good at promoting my stuff, I wasn’t selling a lot of it. And because I wasn’t selling a lot of it, I started to feel like maybe people didn’t really like my work. And then, because it felt like people weren’t buying, it started to feel like they weren’t buying me. Which can hurt your feelings, you know? Like, why aren’t you liking this thing that I’ve worked so hard on and even if it’s not a thing that you might not ordinarily pick up why aren’t you just buying it anyway just to support me? It just started bring up all of this stuff for me. This hyper-sensitive, prickly, resentful, perseverating side of me, that normally only came out when I spent too much time with my family, now felt like she was staking a permanent home in my personality. I railed and raged against Facebook and its stupid dumb algorithm that stomped down posts about new work in a clever attempt to get me (and you, and you, and you) to buy ads. I found myself growing resentful toward friends who had repeatedly cajoled me into supporting their five Kickstarter or IndieGoGo campaigns but couldn’t be bothered to RT a tweet about one of my free Kindle book giveaways (but like, that’s just shitty, right? Can we all just agree that’s just plain friendship-garbage behavior?). And I was growing to hate Twitter, even more so because I was thisclose to quitting it all together multiple times this fall but felt like I couldn’t because it felt necessary for my indie author career.
And the worst part? All of this was stealing joy away from my work. When I pushed a project I loved out into the world only to see it land with a disappointing thud, I started to look at that project differently. Maybe I didn’t love it so much anymore. Maybe it had let me down. Maybe I was just kidding myself, in thinking I was any good at this.
The last nail in the veritable coffin was working for three days straight on a preorder announcement for a massive, massive project. I wanted it to be perfect, I wanted it to reflect my excitement for it, and I wanted other people to be excited about it, too.
So, basically, I had expectations.
When I hit that “Publish” button, I couldn’t wait to see what happened.
And when it became clear that I had just wasted three days – three days that I could have spent on actually writing a story – on this promotional thing that I probably could have not even written for all the expectations it met, I had a moment. A moment of laying my chin on the back of the couch, staring dejectedly out the window, and letting these sort of pitiful mini-tears work their way down my cheeks (I’m a cryer. Okay? We should all just know this by now. I cry at everything. One time I cried over a Linkin Park song). I was exhausted, in every way that you can be, and I was tired of working so hard for basically nothing. So I let myself just feel my feelz about it, and then I found myself quietly asking if I maybe just wanted to give up on all of this. Maybe I should just go back to school instead, go back to having an established career, and just sort of quietly write in my spare time, and just for me. And then I could also go back to blogging just for fun, without having to care about visitor stats or landing pages, and I could shut down my Amber L. Carter page on Facebook, and I could stop using Twitter for anything other than Fav’ing all of Gerard Way’s tweets…I could even become one of those strange and mysterious girls who set all their social media accounts to Private (LOL/JK because what’s the point of tweeting if Tom Hiddleston or Garrett Hedlund can’t run across my tweets and fall in love with me).
Before, going back to school and having a regular job had always felt more like a threat, a scary story I told myself when I wanted to frighten myself into being productive: I would conjure up a vision of myself going to work at an office somewhere, just walking in with this dead look in my eyes…my soul obviously having been sucked out of my body, pure happiness now lost to me forever. But now, for the first time in…probably ever…it sounded really, really good.
But it also felt really heartbreaking, in the way that giving up on something you once really wanted always does. It reminded me of when you first start to realize that you might have to walk away from someone you love. I don’t want to leave you, but I’m starting to realize that maybe you’re just not that good for me after all. And I had been really hoping to take this thing all the way with you, but I think it might be better if we don’t.
And that was the real reason I wanted to cry…because I didn’t want to give up, but I finally had to admit that I had reached my breaking point. Instead of making me feel happy and fulfilled, this particular life path was making me miserable.
So I did the thing that all logical people do when they’re trying to decide whether or not they should give up on their dream: I listened to some ghost EVPS, did a little research on the Manson Family, and looked at photos on the dark web of notorious crime scenes. When I woke up the next morning, I decided in my email to Karah that I would give myself the next 34 hours to think it over, and I boarded the train for Minneapolis.
The first night on the train, I sat slumped down in my double-seat with my hood up, headphones in, and my eyes trained on the dark night outside my window. I felt a little like a runaway, or maybe a fugitive (a hot fugitive, on the run from the corrupt arm of the law!), mostly because I was trying really, really hard not to make eye contact with the guy across the aisle from me. I could tell within the first five minutes of him choosing his seat that this tall, lanky, long-haired dude with leather chaps over worn jeans was definitely a talker, and was also kind of a weirdo. And while I tend to find this combination delightful under the right circumstances, I was, like, in the middle of an existential crisis, maaan, and so a big No Thanks to becoming seat buddies. But he kept trying to catch my eye, and so I kept putting my hood up and pulling it to one side to obscure my face, which at one point I realized only really made me look like the weirdo in this scenario.
Still feeling dejected and a little hopeless, I listened to an interview with Elizabeth Gilbert (I just really love her, you guys) and paid intense attention to what she had to say about shit sandwiches and day jobs and desperation and making promises to your art. It felt like she was saying it all directly to me. I thought about my email to Karah and how it probably made me sound like I had had one bad day and was now ready to just give the whole thing up, when hundreds and thousands of authors deal with rejection and disappointment and failure their entire lives and still doggedly pursue their dream. But it wasn’t that I wanted to give up writing, I decided. All I wanted in life was to just be quiet and write something I loved. But in establishing a goal of building a platform of books that could support me while doing just that, I realized that I was sacrificing that precious writing time to the promotion of that platform.
In trying to make a living out of my art, I ended up strangling it.
So maybe it was still my dream to spend my life writing and creating my own stuff. But I was failing at the next aspect of it…and if I had learned anything about failure in my life, it’s that it’s just simply clear but helpful feedback that something you’re doing is not working.
Which meant that I probably had some new promises to make…to my art, and to myself.
Sitting up, I dug my laptop out of my bag, whipped it open, and began to write up a list.
The next morning, after the mountainous landscape began flatlining under the big Montana sky, I headed back to my double-seat and dozed under the hot sun that blazed through my train window. When I woke up, I couldn’t remember what I had dreamt about, which is a rare occurrence for me, but I could tell that it had been peaceful and calm. Not wanting to jolt myself out of that feeing, I sprawled out on my seats and listened to Pete Holmes interview Jude Apatow while I read the thick September issue of Vogue I had been carrying around since I had first moved to Portland.
When we crawled into Malta, MT, I managed to snag enough minutes of pilfered wifi to read Karah’s reply to my email.
“If you were going to give yourself advice about this situation, what would you say?”
Which was, like, such the perfect thing to ask me, and I could tell that she knew it.
Taking my laptop with me, I journeyed down to the bar car to grab a hot chocolate (I wasn’t taking my chances with another bad train coffee) and a bag of peanut M&Ms, arguably two of the most healthy choices offered on the train. Grabbing a table in the observation car, I read Karah’s question again while I thoughtfully chewed my way through the bag of M&Ms. I scrolled through the list of promises I had drafted the night before…promises that are between me and it, but can be summed up with a couple of basic principles: Stop doing what makes me miserable so I can do more of what I love. Protect my writing by clearing out the things that threaten to strangle it. Stop expecting my writing to support me, and instead replace those expectations with actions that support it.
So if it were me, I began typing back, Here is what I would tell myself:
First, I would tell myself to give the Amber Colored Life books two weeks. Spread the word that if people want one, they have two weeks to order one, and then the opportunity to order a signed print copy is dunzo. Also gently declare that I have to receive a minimum of 20 orders to justify the production of it. Get better at refusing to feel shame about the fact that I need to back up my work with reward just as much as anyone else. When it comes to sharing the above information, put it out there succinctly and quickly, trusting that if someone’s in the book and really wants a copy to show off to every girl who comes over to his apartment, he knows what to do to make that happen for himself. And if people don’t want the book(s) and the minimum isn’t reached, then that’s great, too – then I can stop pushing it altogether, cheerfully give refunds to everyone who’s already ordered a copy, and get to work on writing something new.
Then, I would tell myself to reconsider everything else I’m doing to get my books “out there.” And to stop doing most of it. My books are visible enough, and anyone who comes to my blog or follows me on social media or meets me in person can easily figure out how to buy one if they want to. Stop doing preorder phases and then book releases and then flash sales and other promos; make signed print copies available for a limited time in conjunction with a new project, then shutter the Amber Colored Life Bookshop for the season. Shuffle earlier work onto other selling platforms that will take care of the ordering process for readers. Schedule the last of the free book days on Amazon, announce them once, and then move on. And any time I’m tempted to come up with another selling strategy or pour myself into another promotional platform, I’ll instead punch myself in the face and then go and spend that time writing something new.
Then I would tell myself to go back to school and get a(nother) job. My basic needs are already being met, but I want to take Gilbert’s advice and eliminate any chance for desperation to affect my writing (also, I always forget how much great writing material I always get from a new workplace). Going back to school…it’s just time. I’m a better writer when I’m being challenged, and I’m a better person when I feel like I’m doing something that gives me more options in life. The End.
And then I would give myself permission to stop using social media as I know and operate on it now. It’s getting crazy and oversaturated with everyone doing everything for Likes and Hearts and Shares and hits, and it makes me want to run for the hills and get off the grid and just do something entirely different. Which I would now advise affirmatively. Go dark on the Amber L. Carter FB page. Go silent on Twitter. Institute a ban on any and all stats or Favs or Likes checks. Only blog and post and tweet and update when something is bringing me the kind of joy where I do not have one single fuck to give when it comes to what other people think about it.
And then I would tell myself that, going forward, when I write books, finish them quietly, share them with the people who care about them, and then go right back to writing more.
I slept more poorly that night than I had the previous one. Waking up around 3 a.m. to find us speeding through a raging thunderstorm, I huddled under my extra cardigan and listened to Cheryl Strayed talk about Dear Sugar. A handful of years ago, before she came out with Wild, I read a piece she wrote about accidentally losing her mother’s ring while swimming in the ocean, and how it had pulled up tides and tides of grief she didn’t know she still had. Tears rained down as I read that, as it reminded of the time when I had found a surprise love note from Hansel buried in the back of the glove compartment in my old car. How, before I even knew what I was doing, I found myself sitting on the dusty floor of the garage, clutching that note and sobbing my heart out just as long and as hard as I had on that nightmare night a handful of years before. On an earlier podcast, Gilbert had talked about authenticity and how it trumped originality…that instead of worrying that someone has already told a story like yours or done it better or whatever, know that the world needs your story in the way that only you can tell it. And that when the world needs your story, it won’t leave you alone until you tell it.
And that is what I don’t want to give up, I found myself thinking, as we slowed to a stop in St. Cloud, Minnesota. The feeling that I still have more stories to tell. The weird mix of calm and urgency I feel when I hear other writers I admire talk about how that’s all that really matters.
Last week, I wrote about a question Gilbert had posed, which was: What would you be willing to give up to get what you really want?
I think I might have my answer, now.