I started my self-injections last night. It wasn’t too bad, just a small prick of pain as the needle went in and then a tiny degree of discomfort counting out the ten seconds after the dose. No big deal. No wild mood swings so far today, although I did get emotional on Saturday. I felt lonely, and I felt like I’d been doing all this fertility stuff completely by myself. As I said to Llew, it’s impossible knowing whether it’s the drugs talking or not – because I’m on the drugs, so I can’t say how I’d be feeling were I not – but I was definitely feeling pretty blue. He’s had a lot of Christmas things on – team drinks, work drinks, mates’ drinks, a business dinner, a boys’ lunch – and he’s been working really hard all year so naturally wants and deserves to blow off some steam, but that’s left me frequently alone at a time when I am not only unable to make a raft of alternate arrangements for myself – because I’m supposed to be taking it easy and looking after myself – but when I am feeling especially vulnerable. It’s been a bad combination.
And there’s no question I’m more sensitive to perceived slights at the moment than I would otherwise be; in a much more general sense, I’ve been feeling left out, excluded, overlooked, forgotten… pretty sorry for myself, in other words. By Saturday, I honestly couldn’t remember the last time Llew had even asked me how I was feeling (of course now he’s already called twice today, checking up on me), and I could rattle off a list of people who either haven’t responded to sometimes multiple efforts of mine to keep in touch or who seem unable or unwilling to ever go first. It gets tiring, being that person. And it’s enormously deflating seeing who I hear from when I fall silent; most people don’t say another word until they hear from me again. I like to think that most of the time I manage the juggling act between different friendship groups reasonably well; I put a lot of work into it, at any rate, and I try really hard. But having dropped all the balls – which I have done in recent months, just too exhausted and with my own things to worry about – I feel I’ve sort of been dropped too. So I guess I am taking stock of many things – some of this is rank self-pity, I know that, but some of it isn’t – and reflecting on all my relationships, not just the one I share with Llew. The funny thing is, I suspect many people feel the same way, and might even describe themselves as the ones who are always making the effort with me, so perhaps this is just the way it goes.
Anyway, in keeping with the general stench of failure attending my own work, one of the other Darklings had a disappointment last week when she didn’t place in a short story competition that shall remain nameless. The winning story left her completely underwhelmed, not to mention depressed about her new piece, so I searched for the winner online and read the story myself. Well, it’s no wonder she wasn’t impressed: it’s not very good. Actually, it’s really quite bad. The precise words I used in my email of commiseration were ‘sentimental, clunky and cliched.’ I’m gobsmacked not only that such a mediocre story could have won but that the Darkling’s clearly superior story could be simultaneously overlooked. It doesn’t make any sense. It’s really, really hard coming to terms with the essentially random rather than meritorious nature of competitions such as this one; we place so much stock in them, and expect judges to be better than fair arbiters of literary worth. But a result such as last week’s exposes this faith as a complete fallacy, and there’s enormous liberation in that.
Sometimes prizes go to undeserving winners. Sometimes a terrible story will beat out a field of great ones. Sometimes a mediocre writer will rise and rise and rise, scrambling over far more talented people, kicking them in the head on their way past. It doesn’t make any sense, but it happens. And so I think the lesson for us, the five Darklings as well as other beginner writers, is to recognise now – and never forget – that these forums, these crushing judgements, do not really succeed as a measure of anyone’s work. They’re simply too flawed and strange and subjective for that. We look to these contests to be something they cannot be, which is the unimpeachable answer to our prayers, a kind of Platonic form, a defining yes or no about whether what we have done has truth and beauty and worth. That’s why they’re so utterly devastating, why it’s so crushing when we don’t get anywhere. But now I think we need to embrace the freedom inherent in the system’s flaws and inadequacies. Sometimes they’re wrong. They don’t need to be wrong all the time, and of course they’re not, and often we don’t get anywhere for no other reason than we don’t deserve to, but because they’re wrong sometimes, just sometimes, well, they lose some of their authority, which makes it easier, I think, for any writer to simply accept the verdict and carry on.