Posts Tagged ‘writing life’

Heard somewhere or other recently: “There are two kinds of people in the world. Writers, and those who are never heard from.”

Well, I thought first, that seems kind of pretentious. And mean. Then I thought, and it’s wrong, first because there aren’t only two kinds of people no matter how you divide them, and second because it’s just wrong. Writers aren’t the only people you ever hear from.

Painters, dancers, photographers…you hear from all of them, if not in words. And it’s not just artists you hear from, it can be anybody. Especially today, when shouting out to the world is just a matter of typing on your keyboard–case in point: “Hello.”

So what is it about writers that they have to be heard? I mean, if you ask any writer, the real reason he writes is because he can’t not write.* (I suspect painters and dancers and such feel the same way, but I can only speak to writers.) And why is that? I mean, for writers it’s not a matter of, “Hey, I can post on Facebook and everybody can read it and I really am here!” For writers, it’s a need to express their ideas (whether deeply philosophical or highly entertaining) –and to do it over and over again. Preferably for pay.

Maybe that’s it. Do writers go through years, sometimes decades, of constant, crushing rejection and criticism (neither of which ever ends), just because they want to get paid for what other people put on Facebook and Twitter for free?

Only if they’re complete idiots. The chances of ever making even $100 a year writing are about 1-in-1,000.  And given the chances of making any real money?  Please. Writers may be masochists, but they aren’t stupid. They aren’t in it for the money.

So why do they do it? Why do I do it?

Same answer. Because I can’t not do it. I guess it’s because we’re readers first, and we grew up wanting to emulate the people who created such wonderful worlds for us to play in. I started writing in grade school. I don’t even remember why, what sparked it. But I must have liked it, because I didn’t stop, and somewhere along the line it became the thing that defined me.

Which may explain why writers are nuts. We are defined by what we cannot do: We cannot stop writing. We can’t stop when we can’t sell anything, then we can’t stop when we do start selling. If anything, it’s harder when you actually taste some success. (Must be all that money…)

If someone were to figure out why we do this, and write a self-help book, he’d probably sell a copy to every writer on the planet. But until then, maybe there are two kinds of people in the world:

Those who like to write things, and those who just can’t stop.

*Or “she,” obviously.




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For those of us who make our living—or hope someday to make a fraction of our rent payment—at the keyboard, writing is a slog, a muddy trek through the mire, the sedentary equivalent of Frodo trudging to Mount Doom. Except, of course, for that small subset of authors for whom it is a walk on the beach, a stroll along a country lane, Legolas skating along a castle stairway, smiting orcs with a sly smile.

I hate those guys.

You should, too, if only for the fact that they drive your favorite author insane. “Why can’t I write like that? What’s wrong with me? Three books a year just requires more discipline!”

Naturally, that line of thinking is totally off-putting, completely distracting, and utterly wrong. You might as well wonder why, if you play three-on-three at the gym every week, you’re not LeBron James.

It doesn’t keep us all from thinking it.

I first encountered this sort of writer at a mountain retreat several years ago. It was my first workshop with real, published authors. We even had a Hugo winner. Color me star-struck. But one guy, who as it turned out (unsurprisingly) had dozens of stories and zillions of articles published, could literally come up with an idea at breakfast and write a 3000-word tale by lunch. Never mind how you conceive a full-blown story that quickly, how the hell do you type that fast? I mean, let’s see…divide by four, carry the one…okay, so it’s not that fast. But it still doesn’t explain the speed of writing, which is an entirely different thing.

Naturally, I hate that guy. Haven’t seen him in years, haven’t talked to him, really nice guy, doesn’t matter. I loathe him.

Because it’s easy. If people like that are going to have it so easy themselves, then it should be equally easy to hate them. It’s only fair.

So you go on a nice rant, vent your spleen for a while, blow off some steam. You know what? You still haven’t written anything, and he’s probably got a new story out. That’s when you realize, too late, that you should have poured all that venom and outrage into your story. Then you’d have finished one too. Then maybe people could hate you for a change.

See? Easy.

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In my day job (the one I use to hide my secret identity as Superfiction–not be be confused with SuperChicken), I work in a law office. Much of my job involves writing legal documents, or what I like to refer to as “creative non-fiction.” Given the type of law our office routinely deals in, I have a certain latitude not available to scribes in more constrained areas of practice, a circumstance which lends itself well to my talents.* I can give a freer rein to my literary spirit than others might, and this serves very well. I am, in short, very good at my job.

Oddly enough, I find that is far easier to become emotionally involved in writing legal non-fiction than in my fiction. There are two likely reasons for this: First, we represent consumers who have been wronged, often horribly, by large corporations. It’s not hard to take a harsh stance under such conditions. Second, legal complaints and briefs are designed with a specific goal in mind. You never have to wonder about character motivations, or whether you want an ambiguous outcome. Motivations and desired outcome are already determined, and you simply have to work toward them. As a bonus, the time it takes to receive a ruling on a legal argument is often less than the time it takes to get an answer from a lot of magazine editors (and in my case, the incidence of positive returns is much higher).

So if creative non-fiction is easier, more focused, and more fruitful, why do I prefer the other kind, the hard stuff, the things that may take years to sell (if they ever do)?

(Yes, I’m probably not right in the head. We’ve been over that.) The difference is what I need to write versus what I want to write. Complaints are what I write for other people; fiction is what I write for myself. If I write a brief that brings a ruling in our favor, I might high-five the boss. If I write a story that sells to a pro market, I dance around the room like an idiot. (No one who has seen me dance will argue that point.)

When you write a brief, you gather up case law and arguments that other people have made and incorporate them into your situation, and it’s all perfectly fine, but at the same time it’s not all you. But a short story–that’s all you. At most you put your draft (after you’ve written it, alone) out in front of beta readers and they make suggestions, but it’s still your idea, and your draft, and your decision what to use in the end.

Is it, then, creative control that determines the issue? Is it the personal stakes? Is it, perhaps, the very fact that the odds are so much more daunting? Which of these explains the conundrum?

The answer, I think, as so often occurs in life, is “all of the above.” Oh, and that insanity thing, too. Don’t forget that.

*And by “latitude,” I mean strictly in the stylistic sense.

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Being a writer is like being in love with someone who doesn’t love you. Or maybe she does. Then she doesn’t. Sometimes you even break up over it. But when you do, it’s never about her, it’s always about you. Except it’s really about her. And you. Writing is like love; it’s very confusing.

When you’re a young writer (or lover, let us treat the two as interchangeable for our purposes, or this essay will be filled with parentheses), you don’t know how to treat the object of your desire with respect. You are at the outset of life, everything is shiny and new and will last forever. You have time for all of it. So you’re reckless, and perhaps careless, and you don’t pay attention the way you should to the details. And you get shot down. This is called “learning from life,” and it sucks. The worst part is that it never ends.

After some time, you learn to take that extra care, and along the way you learn that just because you think something is going fine, not everyone agrees. You have to take other people’s feelings into consideration. You may be the center of your own universe, but each of us can say the same, and each of us considers his feelings and his interests to be paramount. So you learn some more. It still sucks, but maybe a bit less, because you’ve been through it before.

Eventually, you have some success. You sell a story, or embark on a real relationship. You have learned to accommodate someone else. Here is where writing and love diverge. In writing, you have to accommodate lots of people (i.e., your fans). You’ll never please everyone, or even most people, but if you please enough, you can have a career. The more you please, the bigger your career. On the other hand, in love you need to concentrate on The One. (Please no, Matrix jokes. Or Lord of the Rings jokes. And yes, we could go on.) In love, if you try to please more than one person, you’re going to get slapped down harder than you did when you were young and naive.

And yet, contrary to logic (and what about life isn’t contrary to logic?), while writing and love diverge, they remain similar. You still, in the end, have to please yourself, even while you’re pleasing others. You’d think that pleasing yourself in love (get your mind out of the gutter) would be easier than in writing because there are fewer people involved; that’s not the case and we pretty much all know it. But if you don’t manage it, both will suffer. As will you.

There are those who say that writing is easier without love, and vice versa; each demands too much time to accommodate the other. That might be so, but without love, who would support you when the writing is hard and the sales are few? And without writing, how could you be yourself?

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A great man (okay, it was me) once said: “To readers, a writer is as good as his last story. To a writer, he’s only as good as his next.”

Well, that’s a hell of a way to live. I don’t know any writers who are happy based solely on the work they’ve done. If they’re happy at all, it’s with their current project, or maybe the thing they’ve just sold. Why can’t writers just sit on their laurels? Attorneys don’t judge themselves on their next case; doctors don’t say, “Just wait till tomorrow’s appendectomy, then you’ll see what I can really do!” Quarterbacks don’t look at the Heisman on the mantel and think somebody made a mistake. But writers? A Nebula nomination can send us on a two-day bender, bemoaning the fact that it’s probably the only one we’ll ever see.

The pre-published masses know that just selling one story would validate them in the eyes of the world. In the eyes of the world, yes. In their own eyes? Not so fast. “How do I know it wasn’t an accident? A total fluke?”

What is wrong with us? Neo-pros need to sell a novel; novelists are afraid their next book won’t sell enough and their house will dump them. We’re like addicts, our last fix was never enough.

I blame society. (Of course I do, doesn’t everyone?) Attorneys and doctors and teachers and athletes go to schools or to camps to learn their professions. They climb the ladder toward success during their training process: the best college, the best grad school, All-American honors, etc. They receive validation throughout; they’re constantly graded, given the opportunity to test themselves against their peers.

Writers? Who trains them? There are some programs (I studied creative writing at UCLA), but even then, we’re largely self-taught. There are seminars, but you’re not graded, and the number of classmates against whom you might try (futilely) to gauge your skills is very small. The only chance you ever get to compare yourself to other writers is when you submit your work professionally–and then not only are you treading water in a sea a thousand writers deep, you can’t see any of them, so you still lack the ability to compare.

And say you win out, your story is chosen. Anyone who has swum the Sea of Submissions for any length of time knows that rejections are subjective and unpredictable–so why shouldn’t acceptances be the same? If rejection isn’t a reflection on you, why should success be?

I suspect that a couple of Hugos, a Nebula, maybe a Worldcon GOH invitation would serve to soothe some of these feelings of inadequacy, but it’s entirely possible I’m wrong. Maybe every writer spends his life seeking the Holy Manuscript, that one shining achievement of which he may be ultimately proud, the novel which spawns a movie trilogy, a TV show, a Broadway musical, even a line of toys.

But I also suspect that the next day he will sit at his desk, turn on his computer, and think: “Great job, Self, but what have you done for me lately?”

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