Thursday, December 11, 2014

Murder Your Darlings: Perish Your Dreams

This is one of the harder pieces I've ever had to write. Please read it all the way through. Please understand that this is something I've arrived at after years of thought, consideration, struggle, depression, and anger. It takes a long time to murder the dreams of an idealist, but the coroner has finally arrived and declared this life-goal DOA.

I'm no longer going to call myself a writer.

Writers write, see? And I don't. I'm not. I haven't been. 

Let me back up for a moment. In order to see the trajectory of a thing, you need to see the launch point, follow the arc, watch the apex and the slow curve back to earth. When I started this path, I was in fifth grade. I wrote a poem, and it got a lot of attention from the parents and kids in my school. I thought that was cool, so I wrote more poems, and the occasional short story. When I got into high school, I met other people who were creatively inclined in a literary vein, and we became friends. One of my very best friends came from that meeting, and from a shared sophomore-year English class with a teacher who gave thoughtful, careful, instructive criticism and praise, and encouraged us to keep writing. I fell in love with writing. I was going to be a writer.

I wrote. I wrote a couple hundred poems. I'm still pleased with some of them, though I know they'll never change the world or win any prizes. I got to college, and I kept writing, short stories and essays. I filled four or five journals with thoughts and dreams and hopes and aspirations, sorrows and ruminations on my future. I developed friends who enjoyed SF role-playing games, and out of that experience I drew the stories for my first novel. The summer after my sophomore year, I wrote that novel, 110,000 words in 89 days. I sent it out, first to Tor, then to other houses. I was going to be a novelist.

Unsurprisingly, it didn't sell. I've got the rejection letters. All of them, generic and implacable as they are. Later, I was told by some writers to throw them away, and by others to save them, to use them as motivation. "There are 1,001 ways to write a novel," a close friend of mine, another writer, often says, when confronted with a 'which way is the RIGHT way to write' argument. "Do what works for you and keeps you writing."

I kept writing. I wrote my second novel during my junior and senior years of college. It also didn't sell, but it was a fundamentally stronger work, and I learned a lot from the process. By now, I knew the old saw that Stephen King had only been published on his fifth novel, and John Grisham on his sixth. I had written two. I was on my way to being a novelist. 

Life threw me some pitfalls. I had a disastrous first marriage beginning shortly after college and ending a couple of years later. We hated each other.  That's not a word I use lightly, but in our case, it applied. It damaged me very greatly, in a way that took me many years to recover from. I think, honestly, it broke something in me that I'll never get back, some of that sensawunda. I still speculated, but they were dark, slimy speculations, and they came from an ugly, cankered place.

Still, as I found myself in the corporate world, in relationships where I had fiscal responsibilities, and where the taxation of a day's work was on my mind and my emotions, I didn't write as often. And when I didn't write as often, I also didn't write as well. I stopped learning, I stopped stretching. I started to feel desperate about my dream.

I was EXCEEDINGLY lucky to meet one of the most amazing groups of people I have ever been fortunate enough to know in the Wyrdsmiths, my writing and critique group here in the Twin Cities. I would not have healed as well as I have were it not for the consistent presence and interaction of a group of friends that took me and my writing seriously, even though I have never published a thing--not for lack of trying. I reinvested. I wrote short stories, on their recommendation, as a way to hone my craft and begin the climb in the publishing world. I joined in 2004. I got my first acceptance letter in 2007, for a short story anthology. We celebrated. I was a writer.

The anthology collapsed. The house that was publishing it was bought as part of a larger package deal by another publisher, and that line was closed. The editor took it elsewhere, sold it, then had too many authors pull out of the project; eventually, in 2011, the second sale of the anthology collapsed, too.

I recently made my second first sale of a short story, to another anthology. Now this project looks like there is turbulence ahead. I hope it goes through--I want one of my little broken-winged darlings to fly, if only to have put something, anything, out into the world of Story. I love Story. I believe in it. Story is necessary for the existence of culture, perhaps for the continuance of our species.

I started writing in fifth grade, in 1987--twenty-seven years ago. I have submitted and submitted, been rejected over and over and over, and I have spent what emotional capital I have. It's gone. I still believe in my stories. I may still write, from time to time. Hell, I may even submit things, if I think a piece is good enough. But the dream has had all the helium let out of it, and I cannot fly on blind hope alone. Dragging the carcass of this airship across the ground and hopping will never be flight.

It is important that I share this with my writing peers and friends, because I want you all to succeed, and tell amazing stories. I want to read them and revel in them. I want to talk with you about the worlds you imagine and the ideas you want to share. But I also recognize that the shape of my life is not one where I will ever have the chunks of time that--for me--allow me to get into the headspace of a story and work, consistently, where I can regularly produce material to critique and submit, nevermind publish or make a living from. 

And, as a community, we don't talk about the people who walk away from writing. We have this story, this archetype, that people who leave the writing world couldn't hack it, that they are quitters, that we are somehow better than they are. Without knowing the shape of their lives, or the antecedents, we judge. So much for our vaunted skill at getting inside another's head, at creating sympathetic characters; don't let the fallen drag you down. Whatever their reasons, they are no longer playing the game, and therefore they no longer matter. I've watched it happen dozens of times in the past decade. But given where I'm standing, and the choice I'm making, I think it's important to give my reasons why. I'm not made of cardboard, and this wasn't a whim.

Going forward, you will see less of me on Facebook. That has been a drain on my energy and my focus, and that needs to change. There are perfectly good ways of getting in touch with each other that aren't cluttered with a million clamoring voices telling you what to think, what you should do with your time and your energy, who is wrong and who is right, what the latest scandal or fail or goat-with-a-human-like-voice video is. Will I miss the socialization? Yes. Some people I only know online, and I like their voices, and their jokes, and their insights. But the world is full of people, right here, all around me, if I take the time away from the computer screen to go out and live. I'm not gone entirely, but I will be there far less often. I have already cancelled my Twitter account. I will be moving to emeritus status with the Wyrdsmiths, like others who have moved away or shifted in their writing habits or needs.

Like many of you, there is no viable way for me to live without being creative. I am always making things. Some years ago, I took up photography, first as a hobby, then semi-professionally, when several of my photographs began to sell. This past year, I launched a photography business, SMM Photography, and I fully intend to pour myself into that. I want to make good art, to quote Neil Gaiman's now famous graduation speech. Photography seems to be a venue where I am having a degree of success. I already have ideas of ways I can merge my love of SF with my passion for photography, and I would love the opportunity to collaborate, if any of you have mixed media projects you want to explore, or if you need author photos taken. 

Most importantly, in growing to know myself and become the healthiest me I can, I've found that there is only so long I can go without some success, some sense that what I am doing is of value, before I run out of energy. And since I'm the one who has to live my life, I'm going to try and be happy.

Thanks for reading, and good luck.


Anonymous said...

You are growing. This is a cause for celebration! You may find later on that theses skills/art will combine into something different. So, go grow and becoming ....

Eleanor said...

Wow. First of all, I don't want to lose track of you. Maybe you could drop by the Wyrdsmiths early now and then and show me your photos? Or we could meet now and then at the Black Dog?

Secondly, I support you in this. You have a demanding job and you have found a way to express your creativity in photography. There is a quote I love by the painter Ad Reinhardt. "Art is art. Everything else is everything else." Writing and photography are both art. So you are moving within the art category, but not out of it into the everything else category.

I think this is a sane decision. I have stuck to writing because it's the only real skill I have. Having several skills, as you do, leads either to tough decisions or being caught forever between different projects.

But I don't want to lose touch.