FRESH YARN presents:

Ike To My Tina
By Carrie Friedman

I lie on the kitchen floor. It's a crime scene without the chalk outline. My dog licks my face, then rests at my feet. He's familiar with this by now: it's part practicality, part drama -- the kitchen floor tile is the coldest place in my house (as our air-conditioner has a bloated sense of entitlement and turns off whenever it wants), and when the day gets me down, lying on the floor is the only thing left to do sometimes. A kind of damage control: I cut my losses by simply not moving.

I have just learned that my second novel has also, like the first, been rejected by every publisher in New York City. So, essentially, it feels like all of New York sent a memo saying: "Once again, we hate Carrie Friedman and everything she's ever done." Each novel took three years to write, and I've now watched both -- six years of my life -- get passed over.

Lying on the floor, I'm listening to the sound of my neighbor's construction workers riveting the unforgiving cement between our two houses. There's another sound too: that of my mind snapping like a bra-strap at a drive-in movie. Big tears used to roll down my cheeks when getting news like this. My heart would ache, felt like it was severing. But none of that is happening now, which concerns me. I just stare at the ceiling and notice a flaw in the ceiling tile.

As a sign that my hope was still alive and kicking, I used to stand in front of my bathroom mirror and practice the "author photo" that would one day be on the back cover of my Great American Novel. There was the happy smile with teeth, the serious smile without teeth, the 'I've lived a tough life' straight face, and the 'you caught me at a good time with really great clothes and makeup on' mock candid shot.

Now, I think about how foolish that exercise was. Now hope is flicking off me like crusty nail polish.

I am, like everyone else in Los Angeles, or the world for that matter, trying to find my piece of prosperity-pie or any-form-of-success-cake. Any kind of pastry of which you could carve me a piece will do. And I'm starting to fear I arrived too late to the party. All the pieces have been doled out, mostly to my friends and anyone on the street I happen to meet, and none are left for me. I will, therefore, be left with nothing but a lot of jealousy and a dog who licks my face. I will fall through the cracks, my biggest fear.

My resume of rejection is long. Before I wrote novels, I wrote screenplays. Ten of them, all rejected by agents, producers, everyone who ever saw them. Sure, there were notes, and glimmers of hope in the form of penniless options, or someone who knew someone who knew someone who might want to produce it. I've been a semifinalist, third place, honorable mention. Which is great, is something at least. I celebrated and cherished those. I've taken criticism, made changes, killed my darlings, swallowed my pride. And every time resulted in a big fat no.

I used to be an actress, so clearly I know how to pick professions that will maximize my heartbreak. Just as I used to have the distinct ability for deciding to date the one man who would stomp on my heart the hardest AND, added bonus, would sleep with my friends while doing it. What can I say? I have a gift.

My work has been rejected enough times that there are now recognizable stages to my grief:

The 'What the Hell Am I Doing With My Life?' stage, where I wonder if I will only ever be known to friends and family as the author of such memorable emails as "No Subject," and "Fwd: Fwd: Fwd: Mothers Day."

You can't even call what I have a "career" since I've never made one red cent doing it.

"A writer writes," my husband always tells me. "Period. You're a writer. You put words on the page every single day of your life. You don't need to make money in order to be a bonafide writer."

Fine, except that I am shrinking under the crush of the 'You Haven't Made One Red Cent' stares, which are the hallmark of the Paranoia stage, in which I assume my in-laws and my husband's friends only see me as a money-sieve, a gold-digging, bon-bon-eating dependent who's sucking their son/brother/friend dry.

The next stage of my grief is depression, in which I lay on the kitchen floor. Everyone I know tries to cheer me up during this stage, in one of two ways: either they say a bunch of mean things about all the publishers in New York, or they regale me with wonderful stories of other writers who achieved phenomenal success only after a spate of rejections. The kind of stories that have the power to propel me another day, another year perhaps. The equivalent to talking me down off the proverbial ledge in my brain.

These stories include, but are not limited to, the following: Oliver Stone wrote 13 screenplays before his first got bought. Danielle Steele's first 10 books were rejected by all the New York publishers until the 11th. After that, apparently, all of their previously rejected work sold.

And today, while I lie on the cold kitchen floor, my husband reminds me that most of Van Gogh's work was celebrated and revered posthumously.

I pause and look up at him. "Is that supposed to help?" I ask. "Maybe I should kill myself now so my work gets noticed." How's that for dedication?

The exceptions to the rule aside, how can a person have hope in this fickle business? How does one continually return to the blank screen, when nothing before has proven that anyone cares, that anyone will ever start to care, will want to hear your voice, your stories told? If you worked at a job for 10 years without a single paycheck as compensation, you'd quit that job. If you dated a man for 10 years who never told you he loved you, never put out, repeatedly rejected and hit you, you'd leave that person. So what gives? Why keep doing it, when it is continually Ike to my Tina?

Because the satisfaction is supposed to be in the work. Just keep writing, everyone says. Do it for the love of it, the thrill of creating something out of nothing. The external rewards shouldn't matter. The actual creating has to be reward enough.

Well, I hate writing. And from what I've heard, anyone who enjoys it probably isn't doing it right. I find it profoundly excruciating, agonizing when it's going awfully and just plain painful when it's going well. I live that Gene Fowler quote, that "writing is easy: all you do is sit staring at a blank sheet of paper until drops of blood form on your forehead."

So why write then?

Because, I suppose, I can't not.

As the painfully shy middle child in a boisterous family, I was always interrupted, and so, wanting my voice to be heard, I retreated to my room and wrote stories. I told the page all about school that day, or a friend who was mean, or the science teacher I had a secret crush on. I'd write my unspoken rebuttals to bullies who teased me because of my headgear, or roasts of the awful popular girls who stole my diary and divulged my crush to the whole science class. I wrote stories where things happened that I was afraid to execute in real life.

I've written some form of fiction every day since I was nine years old. It was always there, like the best kind of best friend: it helped me through bad times and reflected my happiness in good times.

Until one day, three years ago. It was May 1st 2003, the day Mr. Bush landed on the aircraft carrier and declared the war a mission accomplished. I remember this because I shouted at the TV: "Yeah right," then got in the shower, to get ready for a blind date. When I emerged, my laptop was gone.

I remember coming out in my towel and looking at my desk -- stark, naked, the oak wood showing instead of my computer. The immediate shiver up my spine; how terribly underdressed I suddenly felt. After the police arrived and searched the place for the robber, I realized he or she had taken the carrying case as well -- the carrying case that held all my backup disks, full of work. Two whole novels no one has ever seen, the ten screenplays, a collection of poetry.

For a year after that I cried at least once a day. I felt as though I had lost my mind, and in so many ways I had. I still held out hope I would find it. I trolled downtown pawn shops every weekend, searching, and had crazy nighttime dreams that the robber might read one of the novels on the computer and realize what he or she had stolen and maybe return it with a simple note like: "Sorry, I had no idea what this must have meant to you. Here ya go. P.S.: nice job! Overall good stories, but the humor felt a little forced in places."

Sometimes, even now, I'll walk somewhere and stop, recalling a phrase or a sentence that sounds familiar. I smile as if seeing an old friend for the first time in years, and run to write it down because I know it's from the old laptop, my own mind.

I was most troubled by what the robbery meant. Sure, perhaps it was a random act of violation, but I assumed there was more to it: was God telling me to stop writing? To give up? To move on to something else? Or was this another hoop to jump through, to triumph over?

If He was telling me to give up, I didn't listen -- couldn't listen. Eventually, I started to write again, on legal pads. For a long time, I couldn't bring myself to buy another computer because it felt like a betrayal of the old one.

Why did I do it then? Why and how did I restart when all was lost? Why keep doing it?

I've tried to stop, about a thousand times. But there's always something bringing me back: another story that begs to be told, a character screaming in my head. I've tried to refocus -- tried to return to my second love, teaching -- but none of it satisfies me as much as the act of telling a story.

When the writing's flowing out of me, even though it's a laborious process, I can feel my chest untense. It's not a hobby, or even a career. It's my way of life. Literally, my way of living. It's all I'm trained to do, all I want to be doing when all is said and done.

So I enter the acceptance phase of my grief, in which I sit up on the cold tile floor, then stand -- one leg, then the other -- my legs weak at first, and walk back to my desk to get ready for another day of work. An opportunity, I suppose, to create something out of nothing.

But first I practice my author photo in the mirror. For hope's sake.


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