Note: This piece was written 10 years ago. I now have a lovely agent who, although he never sends me anything at Christmas, has sold a lot of books for me and is one of my dearest friends. But I think a lot of us feel this way from time to time.
This morning I had some tea. It was some kind of mixed berry tea, herbal because caffeine does weird things to me that makes me think I probably need to go to an emergency room. But the flavor is not important.
What is important is that I drank the tea out of a mug that was sent to me two years ago at Christmas by the literary agency that represents me. It's a plain white mug with a drawing of the building that houses the people who, like the Greek Fates, weave the thread of my career and, I am convinced, sit there with their golden shears ready to snip that thread at any moment. It probably cost them all of eighty-five cents per mug, and I recall vividly the thought that went through my head when I opened the little box and saw what was inside, "Well, this is clearly your last chance."
I am convinced that the quality of the Christmas gift I receive from my agency is directly related to my worth to them. The first year I was with them, I received a lovely big box of apples and a cheery card welcoming me to the family. For weeks I chomped apples as I sat at my desk writing, sure that everything was going to be perfect now that I had someone who believed in me. The second year, when nothing I'd given my agent had sold, my Christmas gift was a strange little book that I believe my agent plucked from a pile of review copies she had sitting around. There was a short, awkward, note in it that I took as a veiled threat to produce something, or else.
When the mug came, I left it in its box and didn't look at it. It was too painful. It reminded me that I had yet to pay off for this big New York agency that had taken me on with such high expectations. Of course, this didn't stop me from putting the box on the kitchen counter, where I couldn't help but see it every time I had to open the cupboard or needed to clear space to chop something. Whenever I picked it up or moved it, I was reminded of my diminishing worth as a writer, of the painful fact that, as of that year, I was worth only an approximately 85 cent investment.
About two months ago, my roommate finally took the mug out of its box. He needed something to put paintbrushes in. He thought the mug would be perfect since, as he remarked casually, "You're not doing anything with it."
But I was doing something with it. I was letting it depress me. As a mug, it wasn't particularly pleasing to look at, but I got great satisfaction from knowing that it was there, like a sweet little cancer waiting to take over whatever space I would allow it to fill. Being forced to move it whenever I needed to tend to a basic physical need like eating allowed me the dark pleasure of handling a talisman of my failure, reminding me of everything that stood between me and receiving a really good Christmas gift, one of the gifts I imagined the agency's successful writers were all getting.
Now the mug was out of its box. There it sat, filled with murky water and an assortment of stained brushes. I passed it several times a day as I went in and out of the kitchen. Even though I tried not to, I glanced at it every time. And every time, that scab was ripped off again, and I would have the pleasure of thinking, for maybe half an hour, about how awful it was that I hated the things I was writing to make a living and how unfair it was that writing the things I loved wouldn't pay the rent. Once or twice, I considered knocking the mug onto the floor. But I knew I would have to pick up the broken pieces, mop the paint-muddied water off the linoleum. Part of me was attracted to this picture. Something else to be depressed about. Another indignity forced upon me by my lack of motivation. But then the mug would be gone. I left it where it was.
Along with my depression about the mug came another kind of depression, a darker and more oppressive one. At first I assumed it was just the general moodiness that I am subject to from time to time, a kind of overall greyness that sweeps in and clouds things for a couple of days. But when a week went by, and then another, and I was still depressed, I started to wonder.
True, I was under more stress than usual with work. True, I had been thinking lately that maybe I'd made a terrible mistake in choosing writing as a career. These were not new things, however. In fact, they're regular visitors, and over the years I've learned to recognize them, let them have their whiny, raucous stay, and then kick them out when even I can't stand the sound of their voices in my head anymore.
I knew I was really depressed because I'd stopped eating for the most part. I would pick at things here and there, but more and more I was going all day without putting anything in my mouth until, around 10 o'clock, I knew I wouldn't be able to get to sleep unless I quieted the howling in my stomach with something, however small. Even then, I fed myself reluctantly, resenting my body's inability to control it's needs. For several weeks I lived on bread and butter sprinkled with cinnamon and sugar.
One particularly bad day, when I woke up in the morning and knew that even hearing the phone ring would send me over the edge once and for all, I took myself to a matinee of Girl, Interrupted. I was feeling a little crazy myself, and sitting in a theater alone with my anxiety seemed like a good idea. Like being forced to acknowledge the mug on the kitchen table, I think what I really wanted was to stare at the crazy girls on the screen and dare them to ask me what my problem was. Or maybe I was hoping that they, with all their vast experience, would tell me.
As I sat there in the dark, watching the characters peel away the layers of their lives to reveal the causes of their various behaviors, I began to feel a little better. It always helps, when you're feeling not very good about yourself, to look at people who are worse off. At the same time, though, I had a vague suspicion that maybe I wasn't so far away from becoming those girls, especially if anyone was paying close attention. When I left the theater, I made sure no one was following me.
That night, because I couldn't sleep, I turned on the light and read. I picked up Traveling Mercies, Anne Lamott's book about faith. Anne and I are pretty much the same person, except that she doesn't have a penis and I'm not an alcoholic. I've always loved her books because I just know she's writing them specifically to me. Except for this latest one, which is all about her attraction to Christianity, a faith that left me cold long ago. Still, Anne is funny and clumsily wise even when I don't get into her particular brand of spirituality, so I kept reading. And almost at the end of the book, when I was so tired I could barely keep my eyes open, I read the following:
The truth is that your spirits don't rise until you get way down. Maybe it's because this--the mud, the bottom--is where it all rises from. Maybe without it, whatever rises would fly off or evaporate before you could even be with it for a moment.
I read this section several times, with a growing resentment. I was angry at Anne for tricking me into realizing what I'd been doing to myself. I hated her for so swiftly and mercilessly ripping off the scab that I'd been picking at piece by piece for the past two months. I was so mad that I almost picked up the phone and called her to tell her what a shit she was.
Instead, I got out of bed and took the dog for a very long walk in the cold, thin light of a winter dawn. We walked for a long time, while the sun came up and I finally let go of the depression I'd gathered around me like extra clothes. I let go of the anxiety about work, and money, and the future. I let myself enjoy, for the first time in weeks, the fact that I can do something wonderful with my writing. And when I came home, I took the mug from the kitchen table, rinsed it out, and made myself some tea. Sitting at my desk, I drank from the mug that no longer symbolized failure to me. And I began to write.