On (Not) Finding Myself in Barnes & Noble

Writing seems to be a skill that requires age and experience to be properly honed. And I still don’t think I’m very good.
Publish date:
April 18, 2012
books, being kind to yourself, learning what authors know

Prepping for a book event from the floor of my hotel room (yes, those are bunk beds).

Last week, on my way back from having one of my cats admitted to The Very Expensive Veterinary Hospital for the second time that in four days, I stopped at a Barnes and Noble.

As many of you know, I had a book come out this past Tuesday. It’s a strange thing for me to write, like a sentence lacking a subject-verb relationship, a nonsensical fragment. I went to the Barnes and Noble to confirm that it had really happened, that the book existed outside of my control, that it was on a shelf in a public space, a reckoning of one narrow part of my life rendered not in an emphemeral digital form but as an actual document with pages.

I wandered back to “Self Improvement” and was overwhelmed with a horrible stench. It reminded me both of drunk vomit and the nursing homes I volunteered at as a teen: sweet, chemical, unnatural, an odor of disease. I heard employees talking. Something had gone terrifically wrong in the ladies’ room, so wrong it was wafting through the entire store, unavoidable.

“I could smell that all the way from Graphic Novels!” laughed an employee. The response was muffled and incomprehensible, as if spoken through a surgical mask. “Well,” continued the first employee, “good luck.”

My first inclination was to leave the store, but I thought, no, I will just find the book. I was shaking, a bit, possibly from not having eaten since the day before, possibly from worry over our sick cat, and the cost of his treatment -- or possibly because I was looking for a book that I wrote.

I look at my life today -- in this very moment, even -- with a sense of surreal disbelief, of wonderment and confusion. You must understand: somehow, everything has suddenly turned out exactly as I might have dreamed.

As a child, even a very young child, I knew that I wanted to be a writer. I sat at the hand-me-down desk in my childhood bedroom -- a desk I still have today -- and wrote things, little stories, endless poetry that was, paradoxically, quite stirring, even now, although I am sure I could not write a poem one tenth as compelling today.

There was some magical liquor associated with my adolescence that ran through my veins briefly and made me beautifully terse and passionately perspicacious with my language, a moment that would not only pass but be forever obliterated by a love for the wordiest and most meandering constructions I could assemble. But there was enough left in my late teens and early 20s that it seemed natural to major in screenwriting in college.

In my 30s -- and it has taken me half of that decade to accept my residence there as an immutable fact of my life -- I have begun to understand why young authors are so rare, and why most of the writers who move me the most are far older than I. Writing seems to be a skill that requires a certain accumulation of age and experience to be properly honed. And I still don’t think I’m very good.

My book was nowhere to be found in “Self Improvement”; maybe I was being presumptuous, maybe my book didn’t belong there. I backtracked to “Women’s Issues” -- away from the nightmare bathroom smell -- but found no luck in that section either.

Finally I resigned myself to go to the information desk. I spoke loudly, wondering if it would be obvious that I was looking for my own book, and then realizing how utterly stupid that concern was: it’s a bookstore, all people do all day long is ask about books.

“I’m just wondering what section a book might be in,” I said to the woman.

“Do you know the title?”

“Two Whole Cakes.”

She searched on the computer, and read the full title aloud. “Two Whole Cakes... how to stop dieting and learn to love... your body.” (My working title was “Fat and Fuck You,” and for a moment I wished that had stuck, for all the same reasons that I decided against it.) Was that a side-eye she was giving me? Did she suspect me? Or was I imagining it, were my strange feeling of incognito and my accumulated cat anxieties conspiring to make me paranoid? “Kin-ZELL.” That’s not how you say my last name.

“It’s in health and nutrition.” She said decisively.

“Health and nutrition,” I repeated.

“Health and nutrition. And diets,” she confirmed.

“Health and nutrition,” I mumbled, walking away.

“AND DIETS,” she called after me.

I’m not enormously in love with my subtitle, if I’m being honest. I don’t hate it, but I also feel that it’s a little misleading: nowhere do I teach anyone how to “love” their body. Indeed, I am vocally critical of the idea that anyone should feel compelled to love their body or else be a failure at self-acceptance; at best we ought to be at peace with ourselves, but full-on loving our bodies is rarely feasible or realistic. Bodies are too messy, too unpredictable, too complicated to expect more than a fragile truce -- and maybe a lack of overt hatred, if we’re lucky.

I wandered back to health and nutrition, which forced me to stand immediately beside the reeking bathroom, and scanned spines as quickly as I could. Not there, not there, not there. I found Jeanette Fulda’s “Chocolate and Vicodin,” which made me feel less annoyed at my personal stories potentially being filed in the diet section, wedged between Jillian Michaels’ latest literary effort and a spiral-bound book all about various carbohydrates and why they are all very bad.

This happened. Diana Cage is AWESOME, by the way.

As I read all the unfamiliar titles, holding my breath (because of the rank smell? or the tense expectation that any moment I might see my name?), I thought about how I still sometimes feel as if I don't deserve any of it; what if I didn't work hard enough, didn't suffer quite enough? What if I have bled too little and kept too much? I am not yet jaded and worn, all my edges are still coarse and splintered. My austere perfectionism chatters away an interminable inner monologue about how I could have improved. I always see the spaces I have left unfilled; I always see the one negative comment in a sea of positives; I always see the gaps.

I don’t beat myself up about them, and I don’t internalize them. I just tend to focus not on the things I’ve done well, but on the things I could be doing better. Why did I get to write a book, and why now? How did I get this job? Did I take it from someone more worthy? Did I pay sufficient dues? I probably owe something, somewhere, along the way.

Nevertheless, here I am.

I couldn’t find my book. It may not have been there, it may have been in the stockroom, may have been filed somewhere else by a creative re-shelver, nestled among the memoirs, or resting lightly atop a row of fantasy novels. I didn’t ask for further help, I didn’t want to be there smelling the foulness of exploded human disease. I found a book on container gardening. I carried it to the cashier.

The woman who rang me up was the same woman who had sought my book at the information desk. “Did you find your cookbook?” she asked cheerfully. I cocked my head at her, confused, and she became flustered. “I mean, your diet book... your not-diet-book.”

“No,” I said, “but it’s fine.”

I wasn’t honestly disappointed. I knew I didn’t really need to see it there to know it exists, that people are buying and reading it. I have heard that some stores have even sold out of their meager handfuls of copies, and I marvel at the strangers interested in my stories, willing to pay money for them. How this has all happened continues to be a mystery to me, and I prefer the wonder to the certainty. I made a book. Not a long book, not a brilliant book, but a book that is heartfelt and passionate and radical -- just like me. I am proud, for all my confused trembling, I am proud and I will not apologize for my pride.

How long has it been since I looked around my life with an almost perfect sense of bewilderment and gratitude? Too long. For the first time in a long while I can see the spaces I’ve filled, the things I’ve done, the distance I’ve come.

And not the gaps.