June 16th, 2012 - Claire Polders
On a blue-sky Saturday in Paris, I’m roaming our neighborhood to photograph billboards. My American husband and our French director-friend have written their first film together, scheduled for release in the fall, and the movie magazine Première shows the film’s title and lead actors on its cover.
I feel proud seeing the larger-than-life advertisements all over the city. Proud and happy for him, for us—I was present for Populaire’s inception and critiqued early drafts. But I also feel torn and anxious. What do I have to show for myself?
My fourth novel was released eight months earlier in the Netherlands to a lukewarm response, and I fear my work-in-progress will have a similar fate; I never repeated the sales of my debut. Why do I spend my time writing novels that don’t find a larger audience?
It’s counterproductive, self-destructive, to compare yourself to another writer, especially if that writer seems to be successful at whatever he tries his hand at and happens to be your husband.
In 2012, we’ve lived together in Paris for twelve years (four of these as a married couple) and will continue to live there for seven more years. The landlady, from whom we’ve been renting our atelier-duplex home, has not yet decided to sell it for a price we cannot afford, and we’ve not yet placed our belongings in storage to roam the world. We’ve not yet been under lockdown in Vietnam. We’ve not yet lost our mothers.
I hold a fresh grief in my heart, though. The death of my stepfather puts a gray fog over everything that spring.
“If you want more readers,” my husband says, “write in English.”
How simple it sounds. How enticing. How terrifying.
In English, I would have to start all over again in a more competitive market, open myself to new levels of failure.
We batted the idea around in our house a few times before. It’s not just about reaching a larger audience, about 23 million speakers of Dutch versus over a billion speakers of English. Dutch has become a language I no longer feel connected to. French is what I use in everyday exchanges, but the language I speak at home, the language in which I read and dream and make lists, is English.
The switch makes sense, yet my ego resists. In the unfamiliar fragile state I find myself in that spring, I don’t dare to lean on my husband even more. I already depend on him financially, making a tenth to a quarter of what he’s bringing in each year. If I start writing in English now, I could neither afford nor justify hiring professional editors; I would have to rely on him as a native speaker to correct my grammar and guard me against mistakes.
I’ve always appreciated the critique of Dutch editors, gladly used their feedback to improve my work. After all, humans evolved to be interdependent, not self-sufficient. But welcoming my husband’s corrections would be another animal. He’s my husband and his corrections come with a maddening arrogant claim: Trust me, I know what I’m doing.
I deviate from novel-writing, veer in different directions to escape my secret envy and overt discontent. I exchange a series of columns with my Dutch politician-friend, a rising star. I get hired for a travel piece on Hôtel Lutetia. I edit texts for my web design clients. I work and work and work and spread myself too thin: I’ll never excel at anything if I scatter my attention.
My frustration embarrasses me. I’m a privileged author who gets to spend half of her waking time writing. I never chose this art form to make money, never expected to turn out bestsellers, so why is my humble success not enough? I feel like I’m falling between the cracks. My novels are neither literary enough to gather the praise I crave nor commercial enough to make me feel accomplished. And the more I push my writing into one direction or other, trying to please readers, the more I lose touch with myself.
When I surrender to “my husband’s” idea and my own longing to write in English, our quarrels increase and my confidence plummets. Who am I if I cannot trust what I write?
I’m grateful for his time and he means well—he wants me to succeed—but he cannot separate what’s linguistically wrong from what he dislikes. Confronted with his corrections, I’m left to wonder whether he reacts to my thoughts or the flaws in their expression.
Despite my daily doubts, I don’t quit. A year passes, then two. I get excited about the possibilities the English language affords me, such as the progressive, and start sending out short prose. Slowly, I write myself into this new language and become more assertive. In my mother tongue, I wasn’t always aware of the semantic choices I made; I wrote with a natural flow. In English, I select each word and sentence structure with care. I grow into a more mindful writer and gain poetic courage. Finally, I get so bold that I send an experimental short story to Fiction International, a magazine that has published so many of my heroes and heroines, without giving my husband (or anyone else) the chance to review it, and when the story gets accepted overnight, I feel proud: I’ve regained my linguistic independence.
It’s ten years later, and my husband and I have co-written two novels for younger readers, of which one was published by Simon & Schuster. I’ve secured a great agent who’s trying to find deals for my other book-length works. I’ve joined a female writing group and started a critique circle, because independence is not in my best interest. I’m writing from all over the world, authoring this essay on a salmon-pink desk in Oaxaca de Juárez as I sip green tea from a Frida Kahlo mug. I’m also learning another language, Spanish, and marvel at the idea of having two verbs to say “to be.” I still feel restless and searching. I still spread myself too thin and make mistakes and fall between the cracks and don’t earn enough money. But my confidence is back. When I write, I no longer wonder why.
Claire Polders is the author of four novels in Dutch and one novel for younger readers in English, A Whale in Paris (Simon & Schuster). Her short prose was published in Prairie Schooner, Tin House, Electric Literature, TriQuarterly, Denver Quarterly, and Fiction International. She blogs about traveling, books, and writing on www.clairepolders.com.
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