Sunday, April 26, 2015

My Foot in the Crosshairs

Funny thing.  I work my butt off towards a goal for months and yearsand with the finish line in sight, I’m not sure I want it anymore.

I began my quest to see my work in print in the summer of 2012 with my attempt to win the Norman Mailer Award for Teachers*.  I’ve come a long way as a writer since then; I’ve learned a good deal about writing and a GREAT deal about marketing, certainly enough to know that, of the two, I prefer writing.  I’ve put together a very fine YA novel (which is still dangling out there in front of publishers and agents of various types) and a collection of short stories of varying types, genres, and qualities.

And now:  success.  Within the space of three days came purchase offers on two short stories.  The simpler call was the offer on “The Commander,” a sort of child soldier’s Life of Pi, which will be published this fall in an anthology by a small press operation I respect.  “The Commander” is entertaining and voice-heavy, a little bit derivative perhaps, but not a story anyone’s likely to regret having read and certainly not a story that’s likely to offend anyone.  A perfectly cromulent high school prose piece.

“Thump Dumps A Chump” is, well, another story.  I’ve written about it before.  It’s rollicking, very funny (in my opinion), entirely original, and borderline racist at times.  It came from a place that’s very close to the core of me, but it’s not necessarily a part that people who don’t know me are likely to fully appreciate or respect.  Certainly it is not in any sense a safe piece of fiction, and I won’t be promoting it to my students or to other underage readers.

The journal whose offer on “Thump” I ultimately accepted was one I hadn’t expected a favorable response from; on first review, it didn't strike me as an edgy purveyor of word-chaos, but a very pleasant and mainstream site with tastes that often run towards the cute and clever, work written from the perspective of paper-cutters and the like.  The principal editor, an older gentleman, was surpassingly nice in offering me an initial revise-and-resubmit on the grounds that, while he liked the sheer chutzpah of the piece, he couldn’t quite bring his wife around on it, and the two of them publish nothing except by mutual consent.  He offered insightful ideas as to how the story’s opening might be made punchier and how Thump's motives might be made more clear**, and offered nary a complaint about the dozens and dozens of f-bombs, nor the references to “feces-eating anarchy” and the like.  I doubt that “Thump” will be the best or most popular thing they’ve ever published, but it will very likely be the cussingest.

And so now, with one of the best things I’ve ever written about to go before the public in three months’ time, I find myself consumed with the peculiar terror that people will actually read it.

I knew from the start that if this story were to obtain a wide readership, I would be courting backlashand not just from professional holders of ideological grudges or people who live to be offended.  This is not a short story that, for instance, the sort of sincere Catholic who sends their kid to private schools is likely to appreciate.  I can honor that by not pressing it on their kids, by drawing a bright line between my work and my hobbies, but there do exist people who, if they knew about this story, would use it to go after my job.  Including some of the people who employ me.

And yet I can’t NOT put it out there, either.  Because it’s good.  That’s the bottom line.  I created something good, and I want people to read it, because I think they’ll enjoy it.

As an adolescent and young adult, I was a disaster on the romantic front.  I developed crushes, and was afraid to pursue them due to the prospect of embarrassment and humiliation:  fear of failure.  I was pursued by perfectly wonderful partners, and I ran away due to the possible downsides of romantic entanglement:  fear of success.  And when the chaser/chase-ee strands happened to intersect, through blind luck, something in me made me ruin things.  I would inevitably show too much of my personality too quicklyhello, attractive first date, check out this collection of ugly ties I’ve duct-taped to the wall of my dorm roomin what I now recognize were acts of blatant self-sabotage.  And that sort of thing continued and intensified until, at the age of 42, I find myself alone.

And, at the end of the day, I think I'm tired of being that guy.  The guy who shoots himself in the foot for fear of what success might mean.  I have resolved to take the risk and put my writing, however sketchy, out there in front of the public.  I’m gonna do it!  I’m gonna commit to this!

Unless…what’s really going on is that publishing the story is the real act of foot-shooting.  Unless I’m actually terrified of the long-term commitment I’ve made to my school, and putting “Thump Dumps a Chump” into print is actually an attempt to escape that commitment by getting myself fired.

I don’t know.  I’m 42 years old and I have no real idea what's going on in my brain.  I don’t know why “Thump Dumps A Chump” was inside me, or what’s motivating me to show it to the world.  In any case, the die is cast at this point, and starting in July, we shall see what we shall see.  Perhaps the best-case scenario is the most likely one:  that nobody will actually read the thing, and I’ll have to go looking for even uglier corners of my soul to put on public display.

*Spoiler alert:  I didn't win.

**Spoiler alert:  He wants to dump chumps.

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