When you are just a young thing, in years or ambition or both, you hear writers grousing cynically about the art, the craft, the life. You read interviews with them or you go to talks by them. If you are interested in writing science fiction or fantasy or horror you might go to a convention to see them, and here you will especially hear some horror stories because writers in what used to be called the old pulp fields are especially hard done by, or maybe not, maybe it only seems that way because that’s the world I know best. I’ve heard horror stories from the world of lit fic, and that on top of that they lack what we who toil in the genre trenches enjoy in a true embarrassment of riches: a sense of community, camaraderie and friendship that’s really without equal. I mean, for a particularly moving and dramatic case, look at the fund raiser for Jay Lake where $20,000 was raised in a matter of hours for genome sequencing to fight his cancer amid a flurry of loving silliness from his fellow writers. But the rest of the time there are the quieter friendships and conversations that spring up even for those who stridently declare they eschew all “cliques” and, apparently, human ties with people who might actually have some stuff in common with them.
But writing is a crapshoot. To go back to the convention thing, at the very first convention I ever went to, which was the World Horror Convention in Eugene, Oregon in 1996, I saw a writer on one panel urge aspiring writers to look into writing video games and I saw a writer on another panel argue with Clive Barker who was waxing eloquently about Art and stuff that, basically, it was all very well and good for him because he was Clive Barker but the rest of us have to eat, you know, and that means doing work-for-hire and writing media tie-ins and doing whatever we can do to keep the wolf from the door.
I found all of that a bit depressing. Because when you’re starting out, you believe you’re going to be Clive Barker. Well, okay, not Clive Barker exactly (he’s very good but he was never my favorite writer) but whoever — that model that you have in your head of the brilliant successful writer whose career you want to emulate. You think you’re going to be one of the exceptions. Of course later on what you often find out is that despite the brilliant string of novels and awards, that one writer (not Barker, who seems to do just fine, but lots of other writers) has actually been broke most of their life and teaching or stacking grocery store shelves or living off a spouse and/or all the spouses left and/or is an alcoholic/drug-addled mess so on and on, ad infinitum. After David Foster Wallace’s suicide I was shocked to learn that he taught creative writing, had a day job just like all the rest of us mugs because I guess even David Foster Wallace couldn’t find a way to squeeze a living wage out of the stone that is the fiction writing life.
The point being I have a lot more sympathy for all the (okay, maybe kinda angry and bitter, but can you blame them?) writers who tried to tell all the young ones, gently or harshly, “It’s not going to be exactly what you think. You can believe in Art all you want but can you keep believing in it when nobody else cares? You can’t eat Art. You can’t pay your rent with Art. And you may think none of that matters right now, but someday it will.”
It’s not just about eating or putting a roof over your head though. It’s also about the wisdom of repeatedly bashing your head through a wall. Now writing-wise, I’ve had a pretty good year as these things go, but there have been a lot of bad years in between. In fact, I even quit writing for a few years, or “quit writing,” I should say, round about 2004/2005. I had a particularly bad and frustrating experience in the world of Big Publishing which in retrospect is really more of a run-of-the-mill major disappointment that doesn’t hold a candle to some of the horror stories I’ve heard, but that combined with the fact that I just felt like I wasn’t making headway and was losing track of what I loved about writing in the first place plus, well, a bunch of other stuff, put me on retreat. I went back to school and studied Old and Middle English and wrote a bunch of lit crit (oddly enough, writing lit crit made me a much better and leaner writer, partly because I had a terrific professor and thesis adviser) and poked at stories in my spare time but for 3 or 4 years I really didn’t do very much at all as far as fiction-writing goes.
I felt like I had become too focused on trying for extrinsic rewards, and for a writer, that way lies madness, because they are so fickle and so unpredictable and so unconnected really to how hard someone works or how good they are — and at that time, the extrinsic rewards were extraordinarily few and far between. I mean, patience, talent, persistence, writing good story after good story, all that stuff is needed. And if you have that stuff and if you keep sending your stuff out there (that last bit is key; it’s amazing how many people fail at that final hurdle) you will get published in good places (anyone can just “get published”: aspiring writers, I beg of you, this alone is not something to strive for. Aim to get published somewhere good) and you will get some recognition but there is so much luck involved along the way as well.
A few years off did me good. When I was ready to start sending stories out again, I had a little bank of stuff I’d been noodling at over the last few years and I was a better writer and most importantly, I had fallen back in love with the work again.
I think for me writing, and art in general, holds the place that religion does for many. It’s my rock. Writing is what sustains me when everything else is gone. When Tom Piccirilli wrote in his remarkable essay on facing brain cancer “Meeting the Black” about the terror of losing the words, of wondering what was left of him if the writing went, I could barely keep reading. It’s the one thing that can’t be taken from us, we think, except of course it can, through madness, through illness, through injury. I’ll say it publicly here: someone please cart me off the to nice people at the Swiss suicide clinic if the words ever fail me.
I don’t really know where this blog post came from. I’m not usually this honest in public. (Well, only in fiction.) I’ve been thinking about The Writing Life more than usual lately, I suppose (more on that in a minute) and I woke up with this line in my head: By the time you’ve figured out being a writer is a really bad idea, it’s too late to stop. I tweeted it, mostly joking as I usually am (usually to cover up the fact that I am actually really deadly fucking sincere and serious about pretty much everything most of the time, but that’s neither here nor there). The truth of course is that I love writing. I love it more than anything. All I’ve ever wanted to do for as long as I can remember is be a writer, and there’s nothing quite like the satisfaction of finishing a story I think is really good or making a sale or getting an email from a reader who took out the time to say they love something by me that they read. I am, in fact, a more contented writer than most I know. I like writing, I like having written, and I like my stories after I’ve written them.
So, as I said, I’ve been thinking about the so-called Writing Life because after about a year and a half of saying no, no, no, I don’t have time, no, no, no, I have finally been persuaded to guest edit an issue of the science fiction fanzine Journey Planet edited by Chris Garcia and James Bacon called The Write Stuff with the theme of the writing life. I’ve already asked a few people for specific pieces and I’ll be asking a few more, but if you’re reading this and you think you might have something interesting to say, please do drop me a line at lyndarucker at gmail dot com.
And extrinsic rewards. Someone pointed out to me the other day that someone had nominated two of my stories for a British Science Fiction Association Award. Now really all this means is that one person liked the stories enough to send in a nomination, not that the stories are actually on the final ballot or anything. But it is the first award recommendation or nomination of any sort I’ve ever gotten, so it is a milestone and that was kind of nice. (I never win anything anyway. I once won a cake walk in second grade and a bottle of wine in an office raffle somewhere around 2004 and the fact that those two incidents stick in my mind tell you just how infrequently I win things.)
And it seems someone (well, not just someone, one of their reviewers, Barbara Melville) at Tangent Online liked my F&SF story “Where the Summer Dwells” enough to put it on their recommended reading list for 2012 with two stars (apparently they have a system of recommendations which goes recommended but with no stars or with one, two, or three stars). Thanks, Ms. Melville!
So. A few final words on the writing life. There are some writers who have a kind of working-class ethos approach to the whole thing, taking particular exception to the whole suffering-artist pose. I’ve always particularly appreciated the way one of my favorite writers, Graham Joyce, smacks down that kind of preciousness; hailing from a Midlands mining family, he points out that writing is not exactly being lowered down into the coal mines each day (and getting your lungs lined with carcinogens in the process). Indeed. Sometimes angst is all about perception, and let’s face it, we writers can be a whiny lot. It’s not the worst thing that’s out there, but then, most things aren’t, and they can still be difficult anyway.
I think one of the real frustrations of writing is that it is so unpredictable. There’s no clear correlation between effort and reward. Yes, you can work hard and get a reward; you can also work very hard and get no reward. I know people who do. You can be very good and toil in the trenches with that most dreaded label of all, the writer’s writer (that means all the other writers know you kick ass but nobody who actually has the money to buy your books has figured it out yet).
But the fact of the matter is nobody holds a gun to your head and makes you write (unless you are poor old Paul Sheldon held captive by Annie Wilkes, and sometimes it certainly feels about that bad). You can quit anytime. There are plenty of more extrinsically rewarding things you can do. Pretty much everything offers more extrinsic rewards, in fact! I used to watch those crabby, bitter, angry, cynical writers on panels and I would tell myself if I ever got to that point I would stop. When there wasn’t any joy any longer. When I didn’t understand why I was still at it. When I couldn’t think of anything good at all to say to a fresh-faced somebody who came up to me and said they wanted to be a writer. When it was all just pain and anger and stories about how I’d been screwed over and how bad everything was.
Of course I love it. Of course it brings me joy. It does more than that; it sustains me. I’d keep at it if I never published another word. Even in the years “off” I was still writing, always writing, maybe not every day, and I wasn’t looking at or thinking about markets, but the stories were still growing and taking shape.
I don’t know how to not be a writer.