As if a blogger needs a special day to talk about themselves . . .
But if I let one pass, I’ll probably have my blogging licence revoked.
2010 was a long year. Something like 365 days. And some of those days seemed to be of greater personal import than others.
I was married on March 4 and sold my first book on my birthday, May 3. But these are just markers. Both of those things never would have happened without a lot of little things done on a lot of unremarkable days.
There’s another day I remember. It happened between my marriage and my book sale. My memory paints it in the bright yellows and greens of spring.
My wife and I sat across the street from a now bankrupt bookstore, beneath the pale pink leaves of a blooming cherry blossom tree.
pic nicked from here
“I’m going to give up writing.”
It was not an easy thing to say. I’d been writing my whole life. But for the past couple years, it had got tougher and tougher.
I’d long ago given up any hope of ever selling a novel. Science fiction seemed like a battlefield where the best and brightest were being slaughtered almost daily. Writers I loved and respected were being cut from companies who needed to save a buck. Just today, I heard that Harlan Ellison has put his first typewriter up for sale. He needs the money.
Harlan Fucking Ellison.
The notion of making a living from writing was something I gave up on a long time ago. It hadn’t stopped me from writing. I’d finished four novels since I’d stopped submitting. The process was good and writing wasn’t something I aspired towards. It was just a part of who I was.
Then something changed. Hard to say what.
Writing is a solitary exercise. A long and lonely pursuit.
From start to finish, it takes me about a year to write a novel. That’s a year spent doing something that no one will ever see, read and has no reward other than the doing of it. I know some people participate in NaNoWriMo (whatever it’s called) and write a novel during the course of a month. While I have no problem with these people, such a concept is alien to me. I never have participated in that and never will. For me, a novel is not so much a thing of speed as one of endurance.
It’s more siege than blitzkrieg.
It’s also a matter of life or death. A book can kill you.
Unlike blogging, which is a matter of lighting up a pipe, having a coffee and jotting some shit down, noveling is an emotionally devastating process. You try to make the thing perfect and you fail. As you fail, you meet every imperfection in yourself. You’re not good enough, clever enough or strong enough to do it. You reach the end of your talent.
To start, it takes a lot of big ideas about yourself. By the end, all of these ideas are in tatters. Say goodbye to every delusion you had about your talent, strength and intelligence. These will starve to death in some ditch. The book is trying to murder you. You’re just trying to outlast it. You rope-a-dope.
I doubt it matters how much or how little talent you have. Every writer must push themselves beyond the edge of their ability, find everything they cannot do, and deal with that. By its very nature, the novel is bigger and stronger than the writer. You beat it or it beats you. If it beats you, you are no longer you. You’re fucking worthless.
You’ve bet your very notion of yourself on it. Now have fun.
When I told my wife that I was going to give up, I’d gone through this process again and again. I’d spent my whole adult life doing it. I’d sacrificed happiness, jobs and friendships to do it. My life was a machine designed to facilitate the writing of novels. And I just couldn’t see the point. Not any more.
In his speech to the National Book Foundation, Steven King said:
There is a time in the lives of most writers when they are vulnerable, when the vivid dreams and ambitions of childhood seem to pale in the harsh sunlight of what we call the real world. In short, there’s a time when things can go either way.
His time was between 1971 and 1973. Mine was between 2008 and 2010.
The harsh sunlight of the real world had given me a sunburn long ago.
I’d endured even that. But then I saw skin cancer.
I’d been struggling through the same novel for a long time (one I now hope you someday get to read) and having finally finished the first draft, I had lost the last third of that book and the first half of another to a computer virus. Unable to give up but unable to go back and finish it, hating myself because it should be easy to do either and I could do neither, I found myself trapped in a creative limbo. The empty page terrified me. I turned to an old friend who gave me some good advice. I tried to follow it. It worked for a bit. Then it failed.
Some people say there’s no such thing as writer’s block. These people can go fuck themselves.
Blocked up, thinking that I’d given the best years of my life to something that was its own reward and that reward was just a lot of mental torment, I finally sat beneath the cherry blossoms with my wife and said something that I’d been thinking for a long time:
“I give up.”
Then I sold a book I wrote and submitted about four years before.
When that happened, my roommate and best friend broke into tears. There was a lot of backslapping and congratulations. I have heard that I deserve this more times than I care to count. I have also heard that I never gave up and that people always knew this would happen for me.
These are all lies.
I gave up.
If someone knew this would happen, then they knew more than I.
And deserve’s got nothing to do with it.
A lot of books that deserve to be published, read and enjoyed never will be. Some that shouldn’t even have been written will make a fortune. A lot of writers who deserve a comfortable living have found themselves without a publisher. Many more will never find one.
And I’m supposed to feel like I deserve something? Like I’m somehow entitled to it?
I was supposed to know this would happen? I never thought it would.
And now that it has happened, I feel strangely ready for it.
I’m over a month into edits and an odd thing has happened. I remember the vigorous joy of writing. I have found the zone, my old home, and set up shop in it. I was not sure that I could or would. I feel like I’ve come home to myself. This is the first time I’ve really felt like me for a couple of years now.
No matter what happens, I know I won’t give up again.
And that one day in spring, sitting below the blooming cherry blossoms, is what 2010 means to me. My new wife, my old life, both painted bright. Opening up to one while closing the door on the other. I never imagined that they would fuse but I’m happy they did. Even if I don’t deserve it. Deserve has nothing to do with it.
Happy 2011 and best of luck. I hope you understand when I say I hope you never get what you deserve too.