Friday, September 15, 2017

Actually, William Faulkner, I think about your daughter a lot

I was sick some this week, sick enough that I got tired of being side-eyed by the germ-adverse at work and stayed home some. That gave me a chance to catch up on a lot of writing work that I intended to do over the summer but never got to. A lot of it was administrative, submitting stories all over the place. September and October are the months more journals are open than any other, so I've got to make hay. I've submitted 20 so far, and I'm going for another 20 by next week (not that I've written 40 stories: we're talking about 6 stories submitted to 40 or so places). I'm also still plugging away at getting my novel query letter out to the magic 50 agents--that number somehow being the underground wisdom for how many you should write before you begin to think something is wrong with your novel.

I also did a little actual writing, finishing a story that's been taunting me since I started it on Memorial Day. I think it finally came together, although there were times I really wondered if I knew what I was even doing there.

My original plan was to have a busy September, get a ton of queries and submissions out there, and then shutter things up for a while with writing, to return to it after an undetermined time. I have been feeling like I both: A) need a break, and B) ought to do some other things, like pay attention to my son's homework or Mrs. Heretic's school year-induced fatigue (she has something like 120 students this year). I also am always aware of the need to retrain myself for work, mainly on Information Technology types of subjects. Probably wouldn't hurt to do some re-training in the languages I translate, either. This would all be self-training, but it still has an opportunity cost of time and energy. I'd need to give up some things, and nothing sucks up my time like writing.

There's that famous story, which apparently is not apocryphal, about William Faulkner, where his daughter asked him to please not get drunk during her birthday party. Faulkner replied, "Nobody remembers Shakespeare's children." Meaning, I guess, I'm a world treasure, and your suffering is nothing compared to the value of the art I produce. I told that story to a non-writer friend of mine one. He went pale and said, "That's terrible." I agree.

I said in my twenties that I'd gladly give up family for writing. I didn't have kids then. Pretty much from the moment Mrs. Heretic was pregnant, I have disavowed that stance I once held. A person is real, a story is not. A story might make the lives of people who read it better, it might not. But investing in a human being always means something. Especially a person I'm uniquely responsible for.

 After I get all this work done, I'll be at another cross-roads. I've published a book. I could call it a day, say I did all that a part-time writer could realistically hope to accomplish, and move on. Or I could keep hammering away. I know a lot of writers insist they write because they have to. Sometimes, I feel that way. I do feel compulsion, but I think it's also a compulsion I could control if I felt it were necessary. Is it necessary?

The "if I won the lottery" question

If I won the lottery, I wouldn't sit around and write, I don't think. I knew what I'd do with the money about six years ago, when I visited Mrs. Heretic's then-school in Baltimore and saw an entire run of about eight row houses, all vacant. If I won the lottery, I'd buy a bunch of vacants like those, rehab them, and set up some type of recreational facility within them, with rock climbing, indoor paintball, etc. There'd be some room somewhere for homework mentoring. Just a place for kids to do something other than get into trouble. Like the Boys' Club, only with stuff I like to do, not boxing.  Hopefully, it could provide a few jobs, too.

There are all kinds of problems with this dream. First, I'm an idiot at real-world stuff, and likely to lose all my money in a year doing this. Secondly, as I've discovered, when you try to help people with a lot of problems, you end up with a lot of problems. It's not a romantic world where you are adored as a white savior. It's hard work. I'm not sure I'm equipped for it sometimes. People with years of training in handling this stuff burn out. I'm likely to, also.

But let's just say that Baby Haysoos came to me in a vision and gave me a choice. Either I can write a novel that will gain recognition and become part of important cultural discussions, or I can have a non-profit that I will somehow manage to run successfully and it will have a tangible benefit to dozens or hundreds of lives. How should I answer that question? If I'm not a monster, I have to pick door #2, don't I?

Of course, I don't have a Baby Haysoos crystal ball. All my decisions are based on guesswork. Maybe writing will never lead me anywhere beyond where I am. Maybe it will lead me to a best-seller, and I'll sell the movie rights and use it to buy my row houses and start my non-profit. Maybe if I put writing away, I'll succeed more at work and get paid more. Money is always useful for helping people. Or, maybe I give up something I love doing and it gets me nowhere.

My guesses about what I should do change almost every day. The important thing to me is that when life asks me to not get drunk today, metaphorically speaking, for the sake of someone else, would I be willing to put the bottle down?

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