Yes, I’m still breathing. Just editing a zillion books at the moment. I promise I’ll write a real post soon. Meanwhile, feel free to visit the archives. Or watch old episodes of X-Files. Whatever works for you.
This is not a hopeful post. Usually when I say something like that up front it’s just a clever (or not so clever) ruse; a setup for the inevitable twisty punchline that will leave you feeling strangely encouraged, despite having walked barefoot across the broken glass path of a none-too-pleasant publishing reality.
There is no clever twist this time.
Have you seen the movie, 500 Days of Summer? When it begins, you’re certain it’s going to be a love story, but then the voiceover says, without apology: “This is a story of boy meets girl. But…you should know up front, this is not a love story.”
This post is like that.
I haven’t touched any of my works-in-progress in months. That includes the middle-grade-though-maybe-it’s-really-for-adults novel, Stolen Things, that I believe is eminently publish-worthy, or maybe just a chapter-one-rewrite-away from being the kind of novel that agents would fight Ronda Rousey for in order to represent me.
That doesn’t mean my brain hasn’t been busy. I mean apart from the editorial (ie: paying) work that consumes my days and nights and eats my vacation dreams for breakfast. I have had plenty of Really Good New Ideas for short stories and novellas and novels pop into my head during this time of writerly despair.
But those are just ideas. Ideas come easy for me. Go ahead, give me a prompt, any prompt, and I’ll have a story idea for it in a matter of minutes.
This isn’t a post about ideas. It’s a post about writing. About being a writer. And about not doing the former and struggling to see myself as the latter.
My writerly despair isn’t just about rejection, though I have had my share. (Here’s how to deal with rejection: Let it sting, feel its bite, then move on.)
And it’s not just the fact that time is an inexorable asshole, layering age lines on top of age lines until I wonder who the old man in my mirror is and why hasn’t he done anything meaningful with his life?
It’s also not just about clinical depression, though I am intimately familiar with that Liar-In-Residence.
This is a post about discouragement. About the kind of failures that don’t make us stronger or count toward some cosmic tally that will ultimately tip the scale in favor of some grand success. (“You’ve hit 53 rejections! Congratulations! The next agent to read your book will love it and so will the whole world and Neil Gaiman will refer to it as ‘unexpectedly brilliant’ the same day Steven Spielberg options the movie rights.”)
It’s about thinking you can’t do it anymore. I mean write, but I also mean “believe you can write.” The former is a familiar place for all writers. We look at our words, no matter where they are in the editorial process, and whisper or shout, “I can’t write.”
That’s normal. That’s expected. And that doesn’t scare me one bit.
What does scare me is thinking that I may have lost the ability to believe in myself. Oh sure, there are others who believe in me. At least two or three. And I don’t mean to disparage them for their generosity and kindness.
But to be a writer you have to have at least an inkling of belief that you can do this thing. And I am currently inkling-less.
No, really. That’s the end of the post.
Feeling a little uncomfortable? Anxious? Nervous? You really want me to end this with a tease of hope, don’t you.
I warned you this wasn’t a hopeful post.
Sometimes you just have to own your despair.
And then see what happens tomorrow.
(What’s that? The last sentence looks a little like hope to you? Well, that’s all you, my friend. All you.)
There is a tiny flame that burns deep within a writer. A pilot light. In moments – some lingering, some fleeting – that pilot light sparks to life and becomes a furnace of ideas. Great books have been stitched together from such moments.
These are not sweet and beautiful moments. There are no butterflies whispering perfect words into your ears. There are no fairies singing songs of your literary brilliance. These are pain-filled moments where orcs threaten you with bodily harm and the flame itself threatens to incinerate your soul.
Your fingers fly across the keyboard not in delight, but chasing fire. You fear the unpredictable flame, as well you should, but the end of it more.
So you type and type and type and type and type like a rocking horse winner, praying that it will be a refining fire that melts away everything except the truth and not a conflagration that burns your city of ideas to the ground.
Without warning, it fades. It recedes. It dims. Your fingers slow. So too, your body, your brain, your belief in yourself.
The once-febrile world inside your head grows cold. Doubt thrives in the cold.
“You can’t heat a room with a pilot light,” it says.
“Just test the words in your mouth,” it tempts. “You know the ones.”
(The words taste like ashes and rust. And oddly, like candy.)
Some have said that what defines a writer is an unavoidable compulsion to write. “I can’t not write,” they proclaim. But what if that’s a lie? What if you can quit?
What if you could close the laptop, put down the pen, and walk away. Go back to living in the moment instead of filing every observation away for future consideration by firelight.
It should be easy. Just say these two words. Recite this incantation. This promise.
It would be so easy, but for the problem of sparks. They’re everywhere.
In a song
In a laugh
In a vacant look from the stranger who is watching you write a blogpost from across a crowded coffee shop
If you are a writer, your pilot light can not be extinguished. It will continue to burn, faint and blue. Waiting.
In a vacant look from the stranger…SPARK!
Damn. I was hoping it would stick this time.
I think I just un-quit.
“There are two kinds of ache in a writer’s life – the ache of writing and the ache of not writing. Pick one and live with it.” – Me
Usually it goes something like this:
What if I’m a terrible writer. Or (gasp) a truly average writer?
What if all the kind words people offer about my stories are nothing more than polite lies accompanied by fake smiles because they want to avoid hurting my feelings?
What if my dogged pursuit of traditional publishing is a fool’s errand? What if there are exactly zero literary agents interested in the kind of stories I write? What if the only thing I learn from querying is how poorly I handle rejection?
What if I self-publish and the book just sits there on the virtual shelf, impervious to my attempts to find an audience for it?
What if the book’s cover is all wrong? What if the marketing blurb sends people away with a shrug? What if people think it’s too expensive? Or too cheap?
What if readers hate the book and slap it with 1-star reviews? What if they find it bland and purposeless and don’t review it at all?
What if I run out of story ideas? What if all my stories just plain suck?
Or it could go something like this:
What if I’m actually a decent writer? Or maybe even a really good one?
What if I start to believe the nice things people say about my stories?
What if I learn to trust my writing voice on the first draft, and my re-writing voice on the second and third and fourth?
What if I accept the possibility that I just haven’t been lucky enough to find the right literary agent, and reject the idea that my work isn’t good enough for traditional publishing?
What if the 1-star reviews don’t matter? What if I own the idea that I’m writing for the people who do get it and that this is more than enough?
What if readers fall in love with the characters, the plot, the words? What if my stories matter?
What if I’m a better writer than I think I am? What if I get better with every story?
What if I could trust the “what ifs” in the second half of this blog post more than those in the first, and still be thinking about them long after I’ve clicked out of cyberspace and returned to my writing reality?
I wonder what that would be like.
When the language gods sat down at their very expensive polished maple conference table to decide which term to use for the art of putting words together to tell stories, “writing” wasn’t their first choice. “Bloodletting” actually had the most up-votes and was likely to get the nod. But then one of the lesser gods – the one everyone mistakenly called Vern – felt compelled to mention how similar “writing” was to “waiting,” which they’d already determined would mean “excruciatingly long pauses where nothing appeared to be happening.”
While he was publically showing his support for the already-popular idea of eliminating “writing” from contention, he was secretly hoping his observation might be clever enough to gain him a little status among his peers. But when the other gods noticed this similarity, they immediately changed their votes. They’d find another use for “bloodletting.” “Writing” was perfect, because, as the god known as Carl V. Clamphammer said, “Writing and waiting are intimately intertwined.” The other gods cheered and nodded and deemed it a done deal and Vern was hailed as a genius.
All this is true. Except the part about Vern being hailed as a genius. Ask any of the gods today and they’ll universally respond, “Who’s Vern?”
By this point, you’re probably wondering if I’m ever going to get to the point of the blogpost. Oh, I will. Eventually.
But first, let’s talk about bloodletting.
Okay. Fine. I’ll save that for another post.
This one is on…wait for it…
[Taps fingers on table.]
[Stares at clock on wall.]
[Goes online to try to understand Tumblr and find out where the missing “e” went.]
Writing and waiting. Carl V. had it right. If you’re a writer, you’re a waiter. (And yes, you might also be a waiter, but that’s not important, so ignore that six-top and rejoin me here at the point. Oh, and could you bring me some water? With lime, please. Thanks.)
Here are some of the ways a writer waits:
- You wait for the computer to wake up from sleep.
- You wait for inspiration.
- You wait for the children to take a nap so you can wait for inspiration.
- You wait for the Internet to stop offering you pictures of kittens knitting sweaters for their pet sloths.
- You wait for feedback from your beta readers.
- You wait for a response (or non-response) from literary agents.
- You wait for your editor to get back to you with his notes. [Ed: Thanks for your patience.]
- You wait for someone to buy your book.
- You wait for the first five-star review.
- You wait for the first one-star review.
- You wait for someone to respond to the one-star review by telling the reviewer he should probably read the book before reviewing it.
- You wait for writing elves to finish your novel while you sleep.
- You wait for sleep that never comes because you’re worried that the writing elves might steal your idea and give it to James Patterson.
- You wait for phone calls. Emails. Texts. Ideas. Words. Brilliance. Coffee. Wine. Hope.
There’s a lot of waiting in writing. But it doesn’t have to be an “excruciatingly long pause where nothing seems to be happening.” See, you can still write while you’re waiting. You can brainstorm the next book. You can come up with marketing ideas. You can argue with the voices in your head. You can crawl out of your bed and put on sweats and running shoes and pretend like one day of exercise will make up for the dozen donuts you ate yesterday while you were writing.
Waiting is a great time for pondering things. But here’s a tip – be sure to have paper and a pen (or a laptop, or a smart phone) nearby while you’re waiting. That plot problem you were struggling with? The answer will inevitably come to you while you’re waiting in line at the corner deli.
But it’s not like you have to fill every waiting moment with stuff. That’s insane. Please feel free to enjoy an “excruciatingly long pause where nothing seems to be happening” if that’s what you need. Sometimes doing nothing is exactly what you should be doing.
Then, when your nothing time is over, you can get back to waiting. I mean writing. I mean waiting. I mean writing. I mean…
Bloodletting might have been a better choice.
Thanks a lot, Vern.