Wednesday, December 5, 2018

On not writing

When an author concludes a story with the words "The End", it rarely means THE END, at least not from a reader's perspective. The reader is going to read more stories. And in almost all cases, the writer's gonna write more.

The words "The End" signal an interregnum. An interruption. The sad, sweet finale to a particular adventure that the author and the reader shared.

It's too early to know for sure. But it seems increasingly likely that I have reached an end where semiprofessional writing is concerned, at least for a while.


I don't know if most readers fully understand exactly how long the delay between the creation of work by an author and the publication of that work can be. My own stories have, in some cases, spent more than two years on the market before hitting print. It's like starlight. When you look into the night sky, you are examining the light that was produced four, or ten, or fifty, or a thousand years ago. It may well be the case that the star that you are looking at burned out decades or even centuries ago; yet from your perspective, it still shines. And the "new release" you read from your favorite author might be last year's work, or the work of five years ago. People change in that amount of time. The author who wrote that story is gone.

I've got good work hitting the market in the weeks and months ahead. Soon I will be posting here about the most deeply personal short story I've written, which will be published on a prominent free internet site. I will also be breaking the news of my greatest single professional success as a writer, both in terms of dollars earned and in terms of likely readership. Other new stories will be appearing in periodicals where I've seen print before, and some in new markets entirely.

It will seem like I've been productive. But I haven't completed a story since July 23. It's possible my star has exhausted its fuel.


It's not writer's block. The problem isn't that I don't have ideas. The problem isn't the lack of a plan as to how to do the work. It's no longer a matter of me not knowing what I'm doing. On the contrary. The problem is that I know too much.

Over the last five years, I have learned what it takes for me to write a high-quality short story, and I have learned what happens when I expend less than my best effort.  I've seen, through interaction with professional writers, what "the writer's life" actually entails, in terms of daily input and output; in terms of grinding at the keyboard and in terms of schmoozing with other human beings.

I can no longer lie to myself about the nature of my talent, or about the requirements of being a real writer. The evidence is accumulating that I'm reasonably good at this, and that I'm improving with practice. But the inputs that good writing requires are also becoming more clear. To produce really good work, one must sit down and wrestle with the material for a matter of weeks (in the case of a short story) or years (in the case of a novel). There are no shortcuts. Anything less, and the work will be less than the best version of itself.

In the beginning, I enjoyed cranking out short stories at what some writers call "pulp speed", and watching them find markets. I still feel that sense of pride when I receive those acceptance letters.  But the rejections produce more shame and guilt than they did before--because having experienced success as a professional writer, I know that I'm capable of it. And now I know that the failure of a story is frequently the product of my failure to commit to it; of my having settled for "good enough".

Good enough isn't good enough anymore. I can't accept it from myself, or look forward to it. If I'm in, I have to be all-in.

Now when I contemplate the prospect of sitting down at a keyboard, I find myself seeing the task not as a joyful outpouring of ideas, but as a commitment. I know that I'm going to have to sweat and bleed to make the story what it's supposed to be. I know that my best efforts are still going to get it sent back at me, sometimes with disdain and sometimes with apathy, by people whose judgment I respect. I sit down at the keyboard with a clear view of the mountain in front of me. And the task intimidates me in a way it didn't when I started, when I could just grin about the crazy idea the Story Elves put in my head and go charging merrily up the slope.


What a privilege to be able to write fiction as a hobby, instead of for a living.

Hunter S. Thompson, a genius with a thunderbolt in his pen, once wrote of the pure hatefulness of having to meet a certain word-count in order to get paid. Almost everyone who's produced fiction, from Gutenberg's day to this, has been reliant on the success of that fiction in order to eat. What a nightmare that must have been! For a growing and developing writer to have faced hunger and privation as the cost of imperfection, with no realistic hope that things would ever be different!

I'm blessed to live in an era in which even dilettantes like myself can achieve a measure of success while doing the work part-time.  I can sit down at the keyboard and write at my convenience. As, indeed, I have. As I hope I still will, someday, when I can work up the gumption.

But the writers of a previous generation were driven in a way I don't have to be. When failure means starvation, you work or you die. For every Charles Dickens or Joseph Heller, there must have been thousands who went hungry, sick, and dead in pursuit of artistic success.We will never know how much human wreckage was produced in order for us to read A Wrinkle In Time or Twenty Thousand Leagues Under The Sea. I'll never have go through that meat grinder, thank God.

When I confront the amount of commitment it takes to turn an idea into a story, I don't experience it as a necessity of survival. I experience it as a choice. I could write today, or I could play a video game on Steam, or to grade papers, or read something someone else has written.  And regardless of what choice I make, I will be employed tomorrow, and I will live a climate-controlled, antiseptic-surgery-secured existence in conditions that the richest men on earth a century ago would consider luxurious. The luxury of laziness is available to me, as it is to many of us. It's the gift of our foreparents, the product of generations of pain and toil. I embrace it gratefully. But I also recognize that, for lazy bastards like myself, it does rid the creative process of its urgency.

There are people who are DRIVEN by art, who MUST CREATE. And there are others who can create, or can choose not to, on a daily basis. I'm one of the latter, thank God. But the creative process rewards those with the drive to chase it. And it may be the case that I simply lack that drive. Or that I have misplaced it somewhere along the way.


I wrote some time ago of the professional inadequacies that led me to write Axis of Eternity. I wrote about not being a great teacher, and about hoping I might be great at something else. I have, in the years since, discovered that I am the same sort of writer as I am a teacher: a good one, with moments of greatness. But I am probably too interested in too many other things to ever fully realize my potential in either venue.

In the last year or so, I've gotten back on the beam, teaching-wise. I have new goals, and a plan to achieve them, and I'm seeing results. I'm getting more daily joy from the craft of teaching and from the small victories. Younger Me would not in any way understand the sort of educator I've become. But Younger Me didn't always understand things as fully as he thought, and was kind of a dick besides. At any rate, a lot of the creative energy that I once reserved for my side-hustle is instead expended on my day job.

I have a couple of cool story ideas, and a pretty clear idea of what the finished product would look like. And I stare up the slope at what really bringing those worlds into existence would require of me if I did it in the right way. And my mouth screws into a grimace. And I close MS Word, and I open Steam, and I vanish into one of those convenient worlds somebody else created for me.

I haven't completed a story since July 23. And it feels like maybe I won't for a while.


I tell myself that I need not close the door entirely, that I can come back later. My brain rebels, knowing that it's necessary for a writer to write every day, that the muscle slackens when you don't use it. I think about the quality of the writers with whom I'm competing for publication space--and instead of inspiring my competitive urge, I find myself intimidated. I look at my catalog of twenty published stories--and the pride doesn't drive me on, it makes me complacent.

So, maybe: The End. I don't know. We'll see. But, just in case: thanks to all of you who have put up with this little side-hustle of mine. To those who've published the stories. To those who've humored me by reading them. To those who've even enjoyed them a bit. To those who've given me a pat on the back, or who've merely resisted the urge to piss on my parade.

And if it's The End, well...there's a couple of cool postscripts coming your way. Several stories yet to drop, including my favorite. More stories still on the market. And my greatest professional success is, as I mentioned, yet unannounced. So keep watching this space. Even if the last rockets have left the ground, there's still one last burst of fireworks coming.


[Update:  within three weeks of writing this, I completed two more stories.  So much for the melodrama.  The Magic Brain Goblins are some weird and unpredictable little bastards.]