On Coping with the Pressure of a Professional Literary Scene
~by Amanda Silberling
Did you get the call? A Facebook group sends messages from Illinois, to Connecticut, to California, all asking the same question: Did you get the call? In my Florida bedroom, my friend Andre and I work on an English project. Andre asks me what I think the theme of Madame Bovary is. Did you get the call? I stare at my phone, knowing that just one ring tone holds the validation I have been working towards for months—years, even. Did you get the call? A girl in Pennsylvania gets the call. Facebook tilts on its axis. The messages come quicker. Did you get the call? A boy in Massachusetts gets the call. Did you get the call? A girl in New York gets the call. Did you get the call? I have four texts, seven Facebook messages (Did you get the call?), three Snapchats, and zero missed calls. Did you get the call? Andre goes downstairs to tell my parents that he’s worried about me. Did you get the call?
I keep my phone on the loudest volume for a week. I never get the call. I check my mailbox every day when I get home for a month. Finally, a rejection letter. Did you get the call?
Andre and I don’t finish our Madame Bovary project that night in November. I apologize to him the next day (with one eye on my phone, just in case it rings). In class, my English teacher discusses the protagonist’s self-destructive desire for constant validation and superficial success. We decide that Gustave Flaubert’s Madame Bovary is a novel about a woman poisoned by her lofty expectations, slowly growing more and more disappointed with her life. She is her own worst enemy.
* * *
It’s no longer enough to be passionate about art. We need the premature publication, the gold spray-painted plastic, the Facebook requests from random writers we don’t know who tell us that, like Gustave Flaubert, we too are Important. In a culture where websites like College Confidential (“I got a 2360—I failed the SAT!”) reign supreme, it isn’t surprising that teen writers have become obsessed with their fifty-word bio statements. Instead of (or in addition to) SAT scores, prom dates, and pep rallies, we worry about publishing. I am tormented by the list that follows the phrase, “Her recent poems have appeared in…” I cringe every time I open my e-mail inbox, praying that I won’t receive a rejection letter. But most crucial and worrisome, I am not alone. It’s slowly becoming more common to see highly reputable magazines publishing teenagers. While this is an excellent sign for the future of literature, there is a horrifying reality behind the phrase in my bio that reads, “Amanda Silberling is an eighteen-year-old poet.”
I was first immersed in the puzzling culture of teen writing at The Kenyon Review’s Young Writers Workshop. On the lawn in front of Kenyon’s famous Finn House, the reincarnation of F. Scott Fitzgerald tells me that he’s had a few of his short stories published, but he tries not to put himself out there too much as a teenager—after all, we don’t want to regret this when we’re forty, am I right? An older girl with long pig-tail braids tells me that she solely writes period nonfiction—and no, not the Judy Blume kind. On that night—at age sixteen, the summer before my junior year of high school, the summer I learned how to drive—I sat on a bench with some of the most motivated teen writers in the country, thinking that since I had not yet published a poem, I was already far behind in the cut-throat race to become a successful writer.
* * *
After performing at a reading with Winter Tangerine Review, two writer friends and I take the subway out of Queens. Though we’ve exchanged thousands of Facebook messages and texts, this is only the second time we’ve met face-to-face, and only the third time I’ve been in New York. I clutch the rail of the subway, trying not to fall—but Alexa and Talin are calm. They’ve done this a million times.
My dad lurks in the corner, trying to give me my space. I’ve just read on a New York City stage, but I’m still too young to travel alone from Florida to New York. Alexa jokes that she refers to us as the “snotty teen writers” at school—or, the STWs.
* * *
Last year, Ocean Vuong won a Pushcart Prize at age 22. I’m 18. I imagine myself in four years, graduating from college, doubting that the phrase “Pushcart winner Amanda Silberling” will grace the backs of any books.
My phone buzzes. The STWs react to the Pushcart announcement. An STW with thousands of adoring fans on the internet says, “omg ocean vuong won a pushcart. isn’t he like 20-something? wtf. what have i done with my life so far?” Later, an STW whose publication credits look more like that of a 40-year-old than a 19-year-old reacts: “idk, i need to stop wasting time in my life… i need to get my shit together.”
I find it hard to explain to my friends at school that I didn’t finish the AP Calculus homework last night because I was creating the manuscript layout for a 175-page literary magazine. When a close friend and I go to our favorite sushi place and talk about his grandmother’s fatal disease, I can’t bring myself to express my futile worries about how my submission has been at Word Riot for sixteen days, but they normally respond after a day, and what could that possibly mean? Are they considering it?
I think that’s why this community of overzealous, dangerously ambitions teen writers emerged. We revel in our likenesses—we relish our mutual understanding of Submittable lingo, our shared Duotrope accounts, our idolatry of poets whom even our English teachers have never heard of. We talk about how we wish we weren’t in middle school when > kill author was around. We gripe together over our rejections, the close call from our favorite magazine, the gossip about the Pushcart Winner and the Guggenheim Fellow who are secretly dating.
* * *
Sometimes I think I’ve emerged too quickly into the literary world. We’re on a subway rushing from “middle-of-nowhere, Florida” to “somewhere,” and while my friends stand calmly, hands off the subway rails, I’m clutching onto any support I can find. I think that it’s only a matter of time before I fall. When a wide-eyed tourist falls on the subway, the subway won’t stop. The subway won’t stop for anyone. I clutch the railings harder.
But that’s enough self-depreciation. I’m not writing so that people can feel bad for me and tell me that I’ll get into top-tier magazines one day, or that I should have gotten “the call.” I’m writing because I think something’s wrong. I’m writing because my hands are sweaty, and I’m losing my grip on the subway rails.
I don’t want to let myself become bitter. I want to continue to be happy for my friend who’s publishing a chapbook, or my friend whose script is being performed in Hollywood. I don’t want to be jealous of James Franco for publishing a poetry book, rather than for his Golden Globes. I think that being young and artistic is about self-discovery—none of us started writing because we wanted to make Facebook statuses about winning awards.
* * *
One morning, I drive to school after a late night of frantically sending submissions to every reputable magazine I can find, begging the seemingly impenetrable literary world for validation. I imagine a train driving into a wall, full-speed. The subway won’t stop for anyone.
I use my breaks at the stop sign. I park my car and sit down in English class.
Amanda Silberling is an incoming freshman at the University of Pennsylvania. Her writing has appeared or is forthcoming in SOFTBLOW, The Louisville Review, and The Los Angeles Times, among others. She is the Managing Editor of Winter Tangerine Review and a poetry reader at The Adroit Journal.