Turning the Tables: The Art of Waiting
August 8, 2016 § 14 Comments
by Sandra A. Miller (with Marc Zegans):
To hear back from the story contest? Your editor? Perhaps that dream agent who loved your pitch, requested a partial manuscript on March 3 at 2:57 pm and now has been sitting on it ever since? Does she seriously not have 15 minutes to dive in, gasp at your genius, ask for the full, and call to say she must sign you?
What the hell is she waiting for?
When I wait, I tend to badger my beloveds, like my sister in Munich, who in February waited for the most excruciating week of her life to find out if she had cancer. And here’s what I told her on the phone everyday: “Waiting is the worst! Now go get ice cream.”
It was the best advice I could offer from across the Atlantic, but I’m not sure it was worth anything. And it certainly won’t help me since I’m lactose intolerant. In fact sweet distractions won’t help any of us; when you’ve taken your last lick of moose tracks, you’re right back to waiting.
So yesterday as I entered week four of waiting to hear from my agent on the revised manuscript for my memoir, I called the one person whom I thought could help: my friend Marc Zegans, a well-published poet and consigliore to creatives who’s always at the ready with wise words.
Here’s what he told me:
- If you want to get past the pain of waiting, you have to acknowledge a basic truth: “Waiting sucks!”
- Waiting sucks because you’re choosing to put your life on hold for a contingency—something that may or may not happen. (As in, maybe the dream agent will take the book. Maybe she won’t. But since another day has passed with no news, I guess I’ll toss and turn all night then wake up at 5am and start waiting again.)
- We do this because sometime down the road we’re going to get some news about something we truly care about (my memoir) that could change our lives. We have no control over the timing, and we fear the result. Our hearts tell us, “This is too important to do nothing.” So we choose to wait and fret.
- We wait because it gives us a feeling of control, a sense that somehow by stopping the flow of our lives and waiting—with attendant frustration, ice cream and worry—we can avoid the bad result.
- But waiting doesn’t give us control. It doesn’t prevent the bad result, and it doesn’t deliver the good one. It simply locks us into a state of fear, while wasting our time. And the worst part about waiting—it’s entirely voluntary. We don’t have to do it.
Several years ago, I entered an essay contest in Glamour magazine. The five chosen stories would be turned into films with top Hollywood talent. One day, Glamour phoned to say my submission called “Expecting Him” about working as a waitress while dreaming about a long-lost love was a finalist. Six excruciating weeks later, during which I worried myself into a state of severe illness, I got the phone call. My short film starring Kerry Washington was to be retitled—drum roll please—“Wait.”
No irony lost on me. I had sacrificed my entire summer to cultivating sickness while counting the days.
So, once Marc and I had agreed that waiting sucks and why, I asked him what I could do about it. How do we not count the days?
“The key is to not wait,” Marc said. “Remember waiting is a choice that flies in the face of what our hearts are telling us: ‘this is too important to do nothing.’ So, why hand the car keys to our fear when we can go for a nice drive instead? If we’re feeling scared about what could happen, we can simply admit it, tell a friend, decide what we’ll do if things don’t turn out as hoped, and then plunge back into life.
“Well that’s easily said,” I told him, “but what if I find myself going back to worry, waiting and chocolate?”
“One thing that can help,” Marc said, “is to do a mini-project. Pick something small that will take your mind off things then reward yourself for doing it. That way, you’re patting yourself on the back for actively choosing not to wait. You’ll have more fun, and that future thing won’t loom so large.”
“Thanks,” I said and sat down to write this essay.
As I considered my own feelings about waiting, I saw the experience from another angle: Right now my memoir is at the center of my creative world. In such moments it feels more important than my kids, my husband, or any future writing projects.
Conversely, my manuscript is not my agent’s everything. She has young kids and dozens of other clients who, like me, are planets circling her literary sun. She will shine her light on me when it’s my turn. In the meantime, while someone else is getting her attention, we will both benefit by my moving on to something new.
As for my sister, when the dreaded phone call finally came, it was cancer. Ovarian. Stage 3. She spent the last six months bald and burnt from chemotherapy. But guess what? When she had a speck of energy, she gardened or walked or cooked for her kids. She gathered friends around her to lift her spirits, and the week before her last chemo treatment, she dragged her tired butt to an aerobics class. Rather than waiting in fear for the unknown symptoms, side effects, and blood tests, she’s been trying to live every moment of her life—while enjoying the occasional ice cream cone.
Now, that, I believe is the way to wait.
Sandra Miller’s essays and articles have appeared in over 100 publications. She is ready (but not waiting) to get her memoir, Trove, into print. You can learn more about her work at www.SandraAMiller.com.
Marc Zegans helps people thrive and shine in their creative lives. You can find our more here at www.mycreativedevelopment.com.