When I asked my mom what she wanted for Mothers Day she said that Mothers Day is a Hallmark holiday and I didn’t have to do anything.
So I didn’t and now she’s mad at me. I don’t think this is fair. If she wanted a gift she should not have discouraged me from buying one. What do you think?
—In the Doghouse
P.S. I *did* call her to wish her Happy Mothers Day, which is how I found out she was annoyed.
P.P.S. No, I didn’t visit, but I’m in college out of state and this is exam week. If I’d come home and jeopardized my grades she would be even madder.
Dear I the D,
Mothers Day can be a minefield—worse, even, than Valentines Day in its potential for resentment, disappointment, and misunderstanding. Even so, I think you should have sent something—a small thoughtful gift, or flowers. At the very least, you should have sent a card, preferably handmade or blank, containing your own grateful sentiments. She might not like Hallmark’s.
You say you think it’s unfair for your mother to be angry after she discouraged you from getting a gift. And perhaps it is, rationally speaking. I agree that it can be maddening when people assume that their loved ones will somehow intuit their true and often complex wishes despite a lack of evidence or, in your case, some contrary evidence. But family love makes for all sorts of contradictions and delicate egos; in this case I am a bit surprised that you actually took your mom at her word. Do you also say yes when people ask you if they look fat in their bridesmaid’s dresses?
I would add that, based on your letter, your mother did not actively discourage you from getting a gift; she simply said that you did not have to get one. To me, this statement practically cries out for a gift, or at least a tangible remembrance of some kind, when spoken by a mom whose daughter has gone away to college and who is probably feeling bereft at the prospect of being without her on Mothers Day.
Of course I do not know all the circumstances. Was there anybody still at home to cook breakfast in bed, give presents, and generally make much of your mom? Was your mom’s own mom around to go to brunch with and be fussed over? (This could cut either way, obviously.) Before you went to college, was Mothers Day a big deal, or just a little blip with a kiss and maybe a school-sale geranium? If you have never given her a gift before, I agree that your mom is being a tad unreasonable. On the other hand, if your failure to send a gift is a departure from tradition, I can see why she might be hurt, especially if she was home alone on the day.
What I can’t see is how she could justify staying mad for long over this, no matter what the circumstances. I hope the annoyance has already blown over at her end. If not, you can speed matters along a bit. How about you forget the unfairness issue, think about how much she loves and misses you, and take the high road? Send her a card, along with flowers or some other token, as soon as your exam schedule permits. Use the card to tell her that you love and appreciate her every day of the year, not just on days that Hallmark earmarks. Do these things whether or not she is still mad at you—either way, it should improve mother-child relations. And never take her at her word again where gift-giving is concerned.
To be honest, I feel stuck. I realized that I’ve been writing, studying, and publishing fiction for a decade, but I can’t seem to take the next step.
My short stories show up in the pretty-good literary magazines. I’ve had some near misses but haven’t cracked into the first tier yet. Even though I’ve got several completed manuscripts, I can’t seem to find an agent and I despair of ever seeing my name on a published novel. It’s discouraging, and I wonder if I’m doing something wrong?
I am not in general an angsty person, except when it comes to my writing. Should I just throw in the towel and self publish? Am I actually really untalented, but nobody will tell me?
Is there anything I can do to break this streak? Please advise.
—Down in the Doldrums
Since I have never read your writing, and don’t know what steps you have taken to market it, I’m not sure what specific advice I can give you. But your letter did motivate me to engage in a few general discussions with some writer and writing-teacher friends about this stuck feeling so many writers face. Here are some consideration and ideas that kept surfacing. I hope they help a little.
One point to consider when trying to get unstuck from the doldrums—I always think of the doldrums as a gooey, quicksandy kind of place, perhaps because of The Phantom Tollbooth—is that you never know which story, poem, article, or novel could be your big break. Sometimes it only takes one acceptance in a major magazine, one prize, one enthusiastic MS reader, or one meeting with a mentor or potential agent, to get things moving. A fellow I used to workshop with found a single editor at a single fancy magazine who loved one of his stories. The story made a splash, a collection of stories came out, novels followed, prize nominations and an august reputation ensued. It can happen. I know, trying to publish creative writing feels like playing the lottery sometimes; but at least it is a lottery where hard work and an element of merit occasionally temper the element of chance. And the next story, contest, or encounter may be the winner! So onward and upward! Invictus! Excelsior!
You can also take heart from how far you have already come. The many published stories you mention, and especially the near-misses, are encouraging. Plenty of writers who have published books with major houses had not come that far in their first ten years. I am also guessing that you have had other things to do during that time—school, job, perhaps family obligations?
What’s more: if you have completed several manuscripts, I am guessing that you are way better at your craft than when you sent out your first stories. It would be such a waste to lose heart now, after you have learned how to mix the paint.
Do you really wonder whether you are “talentless,” or was that just the voice of despair? If you have been studying writing for as long as you say you have and hardly anybody has pilloried you, I am guessing that talent is not the problem. (And I must make a confession: I have a policy of never going beyond the text of the letters people send, but after I started writing this response I remembered reading a short humor piece whose author’s name sounded like yours, so I checked it out. It was yours, and it was hilarious. I was jealous.)
You ask how to “break this streak,” and so far all I have said, really, is to keep doing what you’re doing. Not the stuff of pounding brass-and-percussion soundtracks. But I believe that “keep at it” is the best answer, since from what I can tell you seem to be doing everything right. Perhaps you can do more of everything? More submissions (multiple if possible), more conferences and networking to find an agent or a mentor, maybe more classes if you think you need them? And perhaps a new, high-powered peer workshop to challenge you and get you energized?
By the way, I was surprised that, when you wondered whether you should just “throw in the towel,” you were referring not to giving up writing but to self-publishing your work. These days, when hardly anybody gets a book tour, much less a Max Perkins, and when mid-list books have about the same shelf life as bagged romaine, traditional publication is not always the clear choice. I am not an expert in this area, but I do know people who are getting their voices heard, and earning at least some money, by using one of the many creative new print and electronic options out there for publication, marketing, and reviews. Who knows? — you might find a solid readership, or even a second, traditional publisher, for your work. But of course you should not consider self-publication if any part of you thinks that doing so would mean giving up.
I look forward to reading your books.
Cleaver’s in-house advice columnist opines on matters punctuational, interpersonal, and philosophical, spinning wit and literary wisdom in response to your ethical quandaries. Write to her at [email protected]. Find more columns by June in her attic.