I was in Portland recently, at the tail end of my first book tour. After finishing up a decently attended reading in which I managed to screw up only three lines of my own essay, a novelist friend and I were sharing a few glasses of wine at a shockingly uncool restaurant in Portland’s Southwest quadrant. Uncool restaurants in Portland are hard to come by these days—you have to utter magic words like “I’m broke” or “I’d like to hide” to cause them to appear—and my friend joked that she felt like this restaurant was “the kind of place where lame dads bring their families to make themselves feel like they’ve got it all figured out.”
We were both no strangers to self-deception or fathers who occasionally put on airs. My father had passed away three years before my book came out, but he was familiar with my writing before that. I missed him, and told my friend so.
I wasn’t exactly experiencing a comedown from the tour; at the same time, it didn’t feel like a victory lap, either. It felt like a Rumpelstiltskin deal: I’d traded one thing and received a different thing in return; I’d shed a part of my past and transferred it into a magical object that had a bar code, an ISBN and cost sixteen dollars. I was the miller’s daughter. She would be executed by the king unless she can spin straw into gold, so she lets Rumpelstiltskin do it for her, in exchange for her firstborn. Old Rump is the original ghostwriter, an evil Cyrano, an unscrupulous loan shark of good ideas and comfort. Would someone come and take away my firstborn—my first book—after I had seemingly spun straw into gold to produce it?
And yet Rumpelstiltskin himself is frightened: He’s terrified that someone will discover his name, and that suddenly his anonymity—seemingly the source of his power—will disappear. All writers, I think, are unholy chimeras of both Rumpelstiltskin and the miller’s daughter. We’re afraid we can’t really spin straw into gold, and we’re afraid people will suddenly guess our names and, in doing so, see us for who we really are.
But this only partly describes how it felt to me to see my writing out in the world, existing somewhere other than on a website or in a small literary journal. It’s hard to explain what being on tour was really like—the highs and lows, my feelings of loneliness, my longing for my father, my gratefulness at the kindness of fellow writer friends (including one couple who let me stay with them for a whole week in San Francisco). When my novelist friend asked me how the book tour had gone, I wanted to tell her all these things, but instead I complained about my tooth.
It had started on the way to San Diego, when a different friend was driving me from Phoenix and we stopped for tacos. Something happened with those tacos that destroyed one of my wisdom teeth, which—let’s admit—had been neglected for a long, long time to begin with. All the way from Los Angeles to San Francisco to Portland, I had a terrible, terrible toothache. (By the way, while writing this, I had to retype that previous sentence about six times, because my mind and fingers kept writing it as “bookache” instead of “toothache.” How was my tooth-tour? It was great, thanks, but you know, I had a bookache the whole time.)
The immediate side effect of the toothache was positive: I was forced to quit smoking, which I guess is a little like the miller’s daughter having to stop lying about what she could and couldn’t spin. Smoking was something I did because I wanted to escape the reality that smoking itself was inherently bad for me, that it was one of those fraudulent things I’d have to pay for later. But one little Rumpelstiltskin of my life had caught up with me in the form of this toothache. Of course that little guy is going to come back and collect on his debt! Of course someone is going to figure out Rumpelstiltskin’s name! And of course a neglected tooth is going to eventually cause you a great deal of pain.
So will publishing essays and books, it turns out. You hear that Dorothy Parker quote repeated often. “I hate to write; I love having written.” But for me it’s the opposite. It’s the actual writing of essays and books that is truly magical. That’s when you can believe, for fleeting moments, that you are spinning straw into gold, that no one will ever really figure out who you really are. It’s a beautiful feeling. When it’s over, all you have left is a toothache and the loss of your firstborn.
I’m not sure there’s a universal lesson in this, about thinking of books as children, or magical straw, or quitting bad habits, or entering into shady deals with evil magical imps who you can’t hope to pay back. I will say this: When I returned to my home in New York, I broke down and got that rotten wisdom tooth pulled. It cost me a lot and I’m still paying for it, just as I am for my first book. The doctor who pulled my tooth had great bedside manner, mostly because he told me the most boring, rote stories I’d ever heard, full of fish markets and the way New York used to be. At first I was annoyed: This guy’s little stories lacked structure! How awful! But as the Novocain kicked in, I started to love his ordinary and very real stories. He was talking to me to comfort me. He was telling stories to distract me from the legit pain of life. I could relate.
When the tooth actually came out, I felt like a small part of my life had ended, but instead of being anxious about it, I was relieved.