Friday, September 25, 2015

Responses to doubts about writing fiction

At 25, I wanted to be a writer. At 31, after six years of floundering around, I gave up. Two years ago, I started again, but actually read some books on how to write. After a year, I had had some small success, but gave up again, largely because I thought it was interfering with more critical responsibilities. Now, I'm back to trying to write some more stories. If I can get to three publication credits, I've got a novel idea I'll start on.

During the end of the year of writing and for the year of not writing, I've occasionally scribbled in this blog about two subjects, mostly: 1) How dumb graduate writing programs are, and 2) Doubts about the value of spending time writing fiction. I here leave my final summary of these doubts, and how I've resolved them personally. This is not a scientific list of doubts that plague hopeful writers. I didn't research top doubts. These are mine. Most writers are probably at least a little weird. If you're my particular brand of weird, then some of this list might resonate with you. If not, feel free to list your own. These are in no particular order.

1. Nobody will ever read this, so I am wasting my time.

I'm sorry to say this, but mathematically speaking, this doubt is probably correct. There are between 20 and 100 submissions to every journal for every story they actually publish. Colleges are cranking out M.F.A. holders every year, probably at higher rates than old writers give up or die. Meanwhile, reading is on the decline. Shrinking demand, increasing supply. You're pushing into a very, very glutted market.

I've always felt that I would quit writing if I knew it would never get published. That's still probably true. But I think I've vastly altered my expectations such that I would settle for much less now in terms of readership to make it worth writing. Like anyone who thinks they write "serious" literature, I once wanted to be toasted as the "it" writer for intellectuals. I felt kind of like Keats, who once said he'd rather fail completely than not become one of the greats.

I don't write as therapy, that's true. I don't write just to work out my feelings, although that is a benefit I sometimes get out of it. I want to share ideas. But maybe you can think of readers like friends. How many do you actually want or need? If I had ten really close friends I could talk about the really big stuff with, I'd consider myself a lucky person. Scrounging together ten readers who really get you isn't such a tall task. I found one already.

If the end goal is to become financially independent through writing, give up now or start writing post-apocalyptic tween fiction. If you goal, though, is to make your ideas about the big stuff clear enough, and for them to be worth reading enough, that you find a few kindred spirits in the world, that's within reach. Melville probably wrote Moby Dick more for Hawthorne than for any other reason. For a variety of reasons, hardly anyone else really got the book for more than 50 years. If I ended up with a friend like Hawthorne and a book that everyone loved after I was dead, I'd call that a life well spent. (Okay, Hawthorne kind of dissed Melville soon after the book came out, but you get the idea.)

2. I'm not that good

This is similar to doubt #1. It's another "I'm wasting my time" consideration.  Not infrequently, I read something someone else wrote and think it's so perfect, it makes everything I've written seem suddenly naked with a shriveled wiener. It makes me want to throw a towel around everything I've written and just hide in a corner until all the big guys have left the locker room.

So what keeps me writing? Three things. One is when people who I think are even worse than me end up being feted as brilliant authors. Pure anger makes me think I need to write, because if anyone thinks that bullshit is worth a read, then it's for farking sure I deserve a few pages.

Secondly are those people who I think are writing great stuff, but whose talent is within my reach. I can't write like Jonathan Franzen. I don't want to write like Jumpa Lahiri, although I admire her work. But maybe, if I keep at it, I might write something that could be mildly reminiscent of a writer whose work appeared in the latest Pushcart anthology.

Third is love of the things I'm writing about. I'm a kid from a nearly all-white suburb in Ohio who had two Chinese siblings. My best friend was the only black kid I knew in town. I became a born-again Christian, because I had just started to wonder about the big things in life at 16, and they were the first people I ran into with answers. I enlisted in the Marine Corps because everyone I knew was going to college and I wanted to do something special. I hated the Marine Corps, but loved the people I was enlisted with. I married the girl I knew in the high school youth group at church, because it was better to marry than to burn. I got out of the Marines. I divorced the girl from high school youth group, because I no longer believed the answers the church had given me and she did. I went to college to get better answers. I married someone new. I went to more school to get even better answers. Then I gave up on answers to the big questions and decided to try having a family. I have learned three languages and lived deeply, for a time, in the cultures of people who speak them. I've met cowboys and intellectuals and racists and people who've lived through unimaginable shit. People who deserve to have their stories told, and, unlucky for them, I'm the most qualified bastard around to tell those stories for them. So I have to become the person who is able to tell them. No one part of my experience is that unusual, but the mix is. Writing is the only way to make that experience speak beyond my own life.

3. I have more important things to be doing

Then do them. Writing will be there. I didn't write for ten years. Things incubated. When I had time to write again, those incubating thoughts poured out. Writing is part of life, not life itself. Live your life. You'll know when it's time to get back to writing.

4. All the writing books say I should write every day, but I just can't

Books have great advice about how to handle tags in dialogue and similar mechanical things. But only you know you. I'm not the sort of person who does ANYTHING every day. I like to work out. But I don't do it every day. Sometimes, I work out five times in a week. Sometimes, I only get to it twice. If I'm feeling like I have time and the desire to devote to it, I do. If not, I just do enough that I don't fall apart. "Something is better than nothing" has been my fitness motto for 20 years, and it's worked. I'm not always in great shape, but I've never really been "out of shape," whatever that means. Write when you can, or when you want to. If you have time on the weekends, go apeshit on the weekends. If you have an idea you're really in the swing of, and there's nothing going on at work on Thursday, call out Thursday and write. Then don't write next week when the big audit is on at work and you need to be there the whole time. I'm the kind of guy who doesn't clean house for two weeks and then does it all at once. I tend to do the same with writing. That's just me. I don't see why writing should be different from every other thing in my life.

5. Fiction is a corrupt, capitalist, bourgeois luxury read by the wealthy who have time for such activities while most of the world is working 27 hours a day on 14 calories (or some version of this)

Fair enough. Earlier, I wrote about having neo-Augustinian feelings about literature. I also have completely repented from having once said that writing was more important to me than family. People matter. Writing matters, too, but far less. If I really thought that by giving up writing and dedicating myself to teaching immigrants I would accomplish more net happiness in the world than by writing, I would do it. At least, I hope I would. Maybe I wouldn't be able to. A different saint, Saint Jerome, tried to give up his books when he went to the desert, but just couldn't. Millions of people who have lived after him are glad he didn't. To some extent, you are what you are. If you're the kind of person who just has to write--so much so that you are reading this blog by someone else who, against all rational argument, continues to do the same thing--then you're probably just a person who is going to write no matter what. So live with it. Give something else up, instead. Give up Facebook. Give up porn. Give up something. It's 2015, and you're (probably) a Westerner who has something else he can give up.

When I was working in retail for years after the Marine Corps, I wasn't a third-world day laborer, but I wasn't really bourgeois, either. But reading made my life better. I don't think I'd have lived through the Marine Corps without reading Melville when I was at sea. Human happiness is a weird commodity. Sometimes, a stupid thing like a good book contributes to it as much as five pounds of rice.

Writing doesn't matter much in the cosmic scheme of things. But really, on that scale, what does? So write if you want to. 

6. Failing often is making me feel bad about myself

Anecdote: I have a former brother-in-law that I like a lot. He tried for many years to be a pro golfer. He is a great golfer. I once watched him shoot a 60. A 60. That does not happen. But he was a streaky guy. He'd have great days and bad days. He never quite managed to make it as a pro. He's better than 99% of people who have ever played golf. He's a great golfer. But somehow, he still isn't good enough for it to really matter.

This is probably familiar to a lot of people. You start off, and you're the best at something. You get to the next level, and you're still the best. Your parents talk about you as that kid who is great at that one thing. Then, one day, you get to a level where you're not the best. You're still better at it than almost anyone who ever tried to do it. Mathematically, you're amazing. But it's still not enough to matter.  It's crazy. How can you be so good at something, and still be so far away from being good enough?

I honestly haven't really figured out how to answer this one. The universe isn't fair. Maybe the point is that day he shot a 60. He was a foot from a 59; his putt on 18 was just a little short. If he had done that, he might have gotten a little play on ESPN. (He did this in a local tournament.) If you're good at something, and you keep at it, you've got a puncher's chance of having your day. But even if you don't, at least trying to have that one breakthrough has distracted you from the meaninglessness of life for a while.

7. Literature is bad for people

I made this very argument. I have a feeling that thinking too much in literary terms can corrupt your mind. In literature, it's imperative to bring things into some kind of order, to simplify, to give purpose. Life isn't really like this. It's unordered, and, ultimately, kind of without purpose. If you read too much stuff where life is working to some kind of end ordered by an intelligent designer, you can fall into magical thinking.  

I can offer three humble defenses:

1) People think in stories. We're hard-wired to do it. Our whole language is built around it. So live with it.
2) Some magical thinking might not be a bad thing. It's better to talk yourself into a mythology where life makes some kind of sense than to live with the alternative.
3) Too much literature reading might be bad for the reader, but it can also be very good for the writer. Forcing the jangled discord of existence into some kind of order can be a healthy exercise. It's what life makes us do all the time, and writing can be a way to force yourself to try to find some kind of order to the mess.

8. Life is hard, so I should man up and face it and not try to duck it with stories

Stories are a survival technique. Okay, I could try to sneak in a re-statement of the thesis of Joseph Meeker's The Comedy of Survival, as my own, but I'll attribute. Life can be hard, even for people for whom there is no reason for it to be hard. Surviving it can be as simple as the the story you tell yourself about it. You can face it head-on with stoic resignation, not allowing yourself to re-create life in the godlike role of storyteller. Or you can make up stories that help you to survive. I'll give you one guess which philosophy passes on its genes. There is a grand, tragic beauty in refusing to blink before the meaninglessness. But they'll be admiring you while you're dead. Ahab faced the universe head-on. He killed a boat full of sailors. Ishmael, the more pliable one, escapes to tell the story. Escape to tell the story.


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