Why am I calling this series How Not to be a Writer?
It’s embarrassing and awful and stupid and I shudder even saying it, but what the hell. That which doesn’t kill us makes us stronger. (But may require extensive physical therapy.) I rewrote a beloved story, a nineteen year old piece, Clarion vintage, finding within it a slightly more interesting ending. I then sent it to a market that had rejected it long ago. It sold. I was pleasantly surprised, but I had mixed feelings. I quit for almost twenty years because of that story’s rejection. I had written, “The Last Straw,” on the slip, (which I stumbled over the other day, with no memory of having written it. Why was I looking at a folder of 20 year old rejections you wonder? Never mind.)
My problem, back then, was that I had gotten ahead of myself.
I remember spilling my guts about my frustration, as to where I was, as a Writer, to Nancy Kress at Readercon sometime during my 19 year hiatus. She’d been my first week Clarion instructor. She said something to the effect that she didn’t really worry about writing as a career, until it was one. Her expectations for her writing weren’t way out ahead of the reality. She never suffered from my cognitive dissonance. She hadn’t gotten ahead of herself. God I felt like an asshole talking to Kress. Not blaming her, I mean, just listening to myself made me feel like an idiot. Well, that, and the look on her face.
It reminded me of how stupid I felt in therapy.
Back in the 90s, the editors did this thing, with your Clarion stories, where you got hand signed, typed rejections. A professional courtesy; you shucked out the two grand and spent six weeks, and the editors kinda tipped their hat at you, for sticking it out and coughing up six stories. A nice thing, really. But what happens, when Clarion is over, the stories all sent round and you start getting the unsigned half page slips again? After Clarion, I took every rejection to heart. You knew you were being read, you were being seriously considered. I’d been giving it a bit of a go, as a writer, for six or so years, I thought, finishing a few stories a month, sending them out, but I didn’t feel like I was moving fast enough. I submitted my Clarion stories to the four mass-market magazines, one by one, and then, stopped writing.
That’s the ‘how not to be a writer part of my story, and it’s very simple and stupid and howlingly banal, like the end of a 1000 page Steven King novel you sort of loved till it was over, but the way you stop being a writer is by stopping writing.
Which I did.
For nineteen years.
I blogged for a few causes, did some GLBTQ advocacy, wrote a Slate piece on parenting, but basically, I gave up on writing.
I gave up. Was I blackballed? No. Did the editors stop reading my stories? No. Did they come around to my apartment, and destroy my mac with a sledgehammer and call me names? No. Was I imprisoned like Nelson Mandela and denied writing materials? No. I gave up. I had editors who were publishing me, back then, Warren Lapine and Ed McFadden, whose various nationally distributed magazines did everything imaginable to give me hope. Short of hopping on planes and slapping sense into me, they did what they could. It didn’t matter. I had gotten ahead of myself.
And so, all stories end in tautology. Here goes.
Wanna write, then write.
Wanna Be a Writer? What does that have to do with anything?
Wanna be rich and famous and loved? Everybody does, and what does that have to do with writing?
How is the experience of writing different, for you or Neil Gaiman or Steven King? Is the blank page they stare at somehow more seductive? That void they fill, different from the void you chuck your prose into? Aren’t we all the exact same, in that blissful no mind moment of creation? Here but not here, awake and aware and asleep all at once, rocked to sleep in the wake of the ongoing flow of the fictive dream?
Or unpleasantly awake, grinding it out, painfully, on the days when it all seems like shit?
Is their blank page really better than yours?
Write if you want to, and write if you have to, and write what you want to write, what you have to write, something that means something to you, so that, just in case there’s no fame and fortune, then, well, you’ve already paid yourself with meaning.
You want to write to a market? Write in a genre? Then you do that; maybe you’re not writing stuff that you yourself would read for pleasure. That’s OK, you can do that too. If you want to. Set your goals, create your metrics, give it a shot, see how it feels, see how you do. I know people doing this with indy pub, who are making serious money at it. That’s cool, too.
But finish what you start, submit what you finish, to editors or publish it yourself, and see what happens.
Need a community, to write for, to write with? Then… build that community. Write to it, and for it. The community you wanted to belong to doesn’t embrace you, after five years? Ten? Get over it as quickly as possible and keep writing; change your game, change the rules, look for meaning, keep moving, don’t stop if you can find a way to keep going with some kind of joy in your heart some sense of purpose.
Veronica Roth, the author of Divergent and its sequels, a best selling YA series, puts it pretty well; that this is the first paragraph of her first in series novel description gives you a sense of how important she thinks this is.
One piece of advice I have is: Want something else more than success. Success is a lovely thing, but your desire to say something, your worth, and your identity shouldn’t rely on it, because it’s not guaranteed and it’s not permanent and it’s not sufficient. So work hard, fall in love with the writing—the characters, the story, the words, the themes—and make sure that you are who you are regardless of your life circumstances. That way, when the good things come, they don’t warp you, and when the bad things hit you, you don’t fall apart.
I’m a James Thurber fan, but I don’t really like his ‘serious’ short fiction very much, the angry drunken couples at party stories. I like his personal writing, his autobiographical sketches, his satire of period stuff I have little knowledge of; his drawings, his doodles, his, well, fluff. A Thurber collection invariably scrapes all the stuff together in a single volume. I wonder sometimes, if his stories were hard to write, and the fluff easy.
I’m just glad he wrote both. Maybe, someday, someone will feel the same about me. Or you.
Wouldn’t that be something?