Tag Archives: the writing life

Writing the Hard Thing

Writers on the pain of hindsight in publishing: 'It's like a bad breakup – you have to move on ...

If I could tell you the number of stories and novels I’ve begun writing and not finished, we’d be here too long.  But “not finished” doesn’t mean “discarded.”  It means what it says. 

The difficulty comes when I’ve convinced myself that I’m one sort of writer (the consistent, cheerfully productive kind) as opposed the other, less glamorous (or, at least, less visible) sort—a slave to the vicissitudes of the moon or some shit, the guy with 25 ongoing projects and an inability to stop working on any of them. 

I know this about myself.  I tell myself that it’s all part of the bigger creative process.  I imagine all these incomplete pieces fermenting, cross-pollinating, mutating.  Nothing lost.  Everything in motion.  And I take refuge in those ideas and metaphors so I can keep working.  Being a writer, I tell myself a story.  But it might be bullshit self-deceit.

The Romantics smoked opium to get closer to the moon and further from the Victorian head trauma of  “productivity.”  And when my genre writer pals do highly Victorian social media posts that go, “Sigh.  Only 10 pages today,” I wonder whether they’re writing from inspiration or simply turning a lathe in some Dickensian word factory.  Productivity equals commercial success, while moonbeams are their own reward.  Still, I have word count envy no matter what I do. 

The problems of productivity and self-deceit are at the center of trying to write the hard thing.  They are the essential obstacles in making the fiction I came here to make instead of clocking in and lathing out a bunch of words to satisfy something or someone else.  I don’t want to produce that which has been assigned to me by industry, necessity, or convention.  I hate obeying.  But am I achieving anything in my disobedience?  For that matter, is achievement even the point?

When yet another publishing industry blog post comes out sounding like the vehement Alec Baldwin scene from Glengarry Glen Ross, I feel repulsed.  I don’t want to spend time creating a fucking audience platform.  Being an artist is not about “closing.”  Just doing the actual writing takes up all my energy.  I don’t want to frame pieces of my fiction as marketable units.  I want to sit in a moonbeam and make something that arises from my own unique imperatives and disposition.  I want the serendipity of inspiration.  I live for it.  And I resist the overtures of commercialism dedicated to consumption and to bullying artists into seeing themselves as part of a service industry.

Unfortunately, I also can’t avoid wanting the world to read my work and maybe give me some money so I can feed and clothe myself.  It’s terrifying sometimes.  Years ago, at an AWP conference, talking with a publisher after I put out Gravity, my first collection of stories, I felt like Nunez in “The Country of the Blind”—faced with the choice of getting what I loved if I voluntarily blinded myself or seeing clearly and climbing out of the hidden valley forever.  In the end, I chose to keep my eyes.

“If you want to get a second book out using the momentum of your first,” he said, “you need to complete the manuscript in less than a year.  More than that and people forget who you are.  You won’t be able to position it.  You’ll be starting over.”  Six years later, my second book was done.  And he was correct: from the marketing, word factory standpoint, I was starting over.  From a creative-process standpoint, those six years were predicated on the six that came before.  I wasn’t starting over.  I was writing something hard that had emerged from my ongoing creative process, something I couldn’t have written in under a year.

Finishing writing in one’s own time instead of in service to the word factory is difficult.  Discovering one’s limitations as an artist and then transcending them is very difficult.  Putting in the years is difficult.  Doing this up to and beyond age 30 is not only difficult but scary.  Nevertheless, all can be accomplished if one is willing to believe in something greater than the word count.  One says, it’s all part of my creative process and tries to calm down.  One decides not to read (or write) certain self-aggrandising Facebook posts.

Of course, there might not be a bigger process.  Maybe there is only Random House, Amazon, AWP conference ugliness, building a platform, positioning and branding, and Best American Monotony.  Maybe.  Maybe we exist in a world full of cynical anti-creative money-making ventures, cautious art, and nothing else.  It’s always possible.  The thought of it sometimes keeps me up at night, especially in those blocked periods of worrying and not writing.

It’s like reading about nuclear war or the earth dying from climate change: you have no agency, no option to mitigate the damage, soulless politicians are making horrible decisions, and there is only one way this can end.  Apocalypse.  Tragedy.  No one at the wheel.  Inhuman corporations controlling everything.  And death, ignominious and unnoticed, unless you get with the program and start churning out formulaic units. 

Capitalism wins.  It usually does.  But if there is a bigger process at work in your struggle to be an artist, it can’t have anything to do with metaphors of productivity on a factory timeline.  That is a reality you must not accept.

How does a writer know what’s real?  Is it moonbeam or production line?  Is it both?  Can it be both?  Andy Warhol, Ernest Hemingway, and David Bowie say yes.  For the rest of us, maybe not.  For every Warhol, Hemingway, and Bowie, there are multitudes who weren’t lucky enough to have their unique artistry coincide with commercial demand. 

Hugh Howey likes to write about Wool the way Elon Musk talks about launching a roadster into space: let me tell you about my unique genius and the origin of my success.  But self-publishing fame and running a car company have one thing in common that never gets discussed: they exist because they are timely.  So it is with any highly lucrative creative effort.  And that intersection has to do with luck.  Meanwhile, someone out there is no doubt making Peking opera, but they are unlikely to be buying villas on the Riviera anytime soon.  Nobody cares.  Their units don’t ship.  And yet they also have the favor of the moon.

Writers are especially predisposed to misunderstand what is real—what is objective versus just a moonbeam.  They spend a lot of time deliberately thinking in metaphors, some more useful than others.  And if they’re not paying attention to their minds, they can mistake such metaphors for objective reality (which, incidentally, has nothing to do with capitalist realism).  Over-absorption in a world of imaginative metaphors can become a source of anxiety when the non-make-believe world reaches out and reminds us that we can’t live totally in our imaginations.  Make your Peking opera, sure, but also accept that the six years you put into it mean nothing in terms of branding and positioning.

A writer will see something and begin to imagine things about it—everyone does this, but writers seem to do it with particular intensity—and before long the writer starts to feel like he or she knows it or, even worse, is it.  Then something from the world of physics and money communicates: no, you are not that.  You can’t imagine yourself to fame and fortune if you’re doing original work.  You might get lucky, yes, and I hope you (I hope I) do.  But commerce and true creativity exist in different spaces.

So I look at my 25 open projects with a bit of trepidation as the days go by.  I’m turning 46 this month.  I’ve published a lot of stories in magazines and two books.  These have been hard things.  Are they enough?  Will they ever be enough?

Don’t worry, I tell myself.  There’s bigger process at work.  There must be.


Of Trouble, Money, and the So-called Writing Life

There is a writing life.  And you could lead it if you could only get past everything else, which is to say yourself.  This is what a lot of writers eventually believe, even if they don’t start out that way.  Maybe you believe it, too.  It’s not the wrong way to think (tell me there’s a right or wrong in this business and I’ll show you how that’s both right and wrong), but it is naïve. 

So be naïve.  There are worse things for a writer, like crippling cynicism or despair or (absolutely lethal) early unwarranted success.  And what is success?  Before we get into that, let’s start with trouble, which means we have to also start with money because they’re inseparable. 

I was going to call this, “Of Trouble and Money,” but I realized that’s too broad.  It covers everybody.  And this is a post aimed primarily at writers and at those closeted egomaniacs grappling with the concept who call themselves, “aspiring writers.”  So I added “the So-called Writing Life.”  But that, too, is just a label, a concept, a paper hat, an identity that often proves to be more trouble than it’s worth.

You need something else, a different paper hat to stave off Bob, who works in IT and hates himself, at the dinner party you were coerced into attending.  Bob despises everything in the world, but he’ll despise you so much more if you put on the writer hat.  So you say, “I’m an English teacher” (nice and boring; he feels superior; well done) or “I’m a copyeditor” (also boring; satisfyingly obscure) or “I’m between jobs” (could be true; boring; allows Bob to feel superior and has the added benefit of desperation cooties, which will make Bob excuse himself in 30 seconds and avoid you for the rest of the evening).  Say anything other than, “I’m a writer.”  You don’t need the paper hat to lead the life.

You just need to lead the life.  And what does that entail?  First, trouble.  You have it the minute you make the decision to put down words that amount to anything more than a grocery list.  There’s the art, which takes a lifetime.  There are the ponderous exigencies of time and space that seem to conspire against you from the beginning, making it very difficult to get anything completed.  There are many pencils to sharpen and bagels to eat and horrific dinner parties to endure.  There’s your recalcitrant mind, your spouse, your family, your friends, your old pals from high school at the reunion, your outright enemies, the publishing industry, crotchety reviewers, and posterity, which you won’t be around to appreciate but which you’ll worry about nonetheless.  There’s needing to eat.  And there’s existential dread that you’re wasting your time, which you’ll laugh at until it starts laughing, too.

Second, money.  Another pernicious idea.  A demon.  The basis of all well-being in our mentally ill society.  Getting it.  Having it.  Spending it.  Losing it.  Cycle, cycle, cycle, over and over.  Writing doesn’t work on money.  And the writing life doesn’t know money exists.  All writing wants is more writing.  All money wants is every part of you salted on a plate.

A young horror writer I know recently told me that he feels small presses are fine, but his goal is to make a middle-class income off his writing.  So he has to go for bigger game.  I told him that I thought it was possible, that I thought he could do it, and I was being honest.  You can earn a middle-class living doing just about anything if you make that income level your goal and subordinate all other considerations to it.  I admire his clarity.  I never said, “I want that.”  I only said I needed to write because if I didn’t I’d get (more) mentally unwell.  For me, it’s a matter of health.  For him, wealth. 

We’re both writers.  But he’s going to get what he wants because he actually knows what it is, which gives him wisdom.  Very few writers are healthy, wealthy, and wise.  All I ever knew was that I didn’t want to not write.  When I did write, I was happier for it.  I’m still on that track: write so I can avoid having not written, then get busy with all the other compulsions and machinations of my day, which are ultimately in place to facilitate one thing: me being able to avoid not writing again tomorrow.

So you eat the trouble-money sandwich every day.  And if you can keep it down, if you can do your art on a regular basis with a free and sincere mind, you’re leading the writing life—insofar as we can call it that, since most serious writers will be equally serious when they tell you that’s no way to live.  Go into plastics.  Sell computers.  Operate a used car lot.  Go make Bolivia great again.  Manage a bowling alley and spend all your free time watching spaghetti westerns and smoking weed.  Care for a kitten.  I guarantee, in the end, that kitten will make you happier than your writing, even if, from the beginning to the middle, your writing saves your life.

But what is your life worth?  If you have an idea that it comes down to being a success and you can say what that is, you are most assuredly wrong.  If you only have a compulsion to not not write, welcome to my world.  I can’t be wrong because I can’t be right.  Every morning with my coffee and steno pad, I’m a formless pulse, trying to be someone else, somewhere else, in my head.  And that doesn’t make a body solvent.  It doesn’t make people want to put your books in urns in the basement of a pyramid.  You’ll get paid by teaching or working for Bob the IT professional or washing dishes in the back of Harley’s Place.  And don’t complain.  You made your choices.  Complaining is for Bob, not you.  He doesn’t get to do what you do.

So you accept that you’ve made this writer’s bargain.  You’ve gone down to the crossroads and agreed that, in exchange for being able to live the writing life, you will never have a two-story house in the suburbs and drive a car that doesn’t look like a dirty toaster.  You will be mindful of your whining.  You will be grateful for this divine gift that makes you weird and ecstatic and keeps your head from exploding.  And you will get up day-in and day-out and sit at the desk and go out of body to that place where your characters may be earning their middle-class incomes and driving new cars and having break-up conversations over linguine at the Chez Paul.

Maybe you’ll be a horror writer.  Maybe you will attain your income goals.  But I suspect that in order to accomplish such a thing, you’ll have to get past those goals along with everything else and exist in a liminal space where all that matters is the writing.  In the meantime, you should know that cardboard inserts in your shoes can prevent your socks from getting wet.  And a place that serves bottomless coffee is a joy forever.


One Job

For every good writing day, I have 20 bad ones.  A good writing day is one in which I feel inspired to make progress on a piece.  But that doesn’t ensure that I will be able to finish it or feel satisfied if I do.  It doesn’t mean that I will think I did a good piece of work or that I will be able to trust that judgment over time.  All I know after a good day is that I felt good.  All I know on those other days is that I felt frustrated, uninspired, and aggrieved whether or not I produced pages, whether or not I think (or will think) that those pages are worthwhile.

Optimal conditions rarely exist for creative work.  There is always something getting in the way, some defect of body, mind, or circumstances that conspires to obstruct progress and generate despair and self-doubt.  The only answer is to keep writing, to admit that I can and will generate unsatisfying work, to avoid wondering about my talent, and to just get on with things.  As my trombonist friend, Mike Hickey, once said about being a musician: just keep playing.

Just keep writing.

No one feels they have talent all the time.  In fact, most people feel the way I do: it’s hit and miss, always a struggle, always an emotional upheaval.  If literary geniuses really do exist outside the marketing generated by a hypocritical and terrified publishing industry, they would, by definition, be critical of themselves.  History confirms that creative work is hard, even for the most famous and memorable writers.  And it can’t be genius to believe it’s always easy or that your talent will confer all the pleasures and none of the agonies.

Just keep writing.

I tell myself to forget the people who have advised me not to give up my day job; they don’t know and can’t judge.  Forget the family members and acquaintances who wanted me to reflect their own lack of talent and resented me for trying to develop my own; they can only see disappointing reflections of themselves.  Forget the graduate school competitors, the half-starved adjunct professors, the depressed self-diagnosed creative failures, the cynical postmodernists declaring everything already over; they’re all too emotional.  They’re like sick dogs.  And sick dogs don’t typically write fiction.  Don’t be a romantic.  Be methodical.  Cultivate a classical mind.  Stay dedicated to the work and just keep writing because all these feelings and emotional people will disappear.

The only thing left will be the words I’ve written down.  Whether there are many words or just a few is irrelevant.  The point will be that I wrote them and kept writing them.  In the end, that’s all I will have because the books will get put away on a shelf or recycled or lost.  The computer files will get forgotten or deleted.  What I wrote will be no better than a half-remembered dream.  Just as what I intend to write is nothing more than a flimsy possibility.  A trombonist is nothing without his trombone in his hand.  If he keeps playing, he’s a trombonist.

Nothing exists except for this moment and what I do in it.  So if I call myself a writer, I have one job.


You Don’t Need Product Placement to be an Artist

This is what I often try to communicate on this blog. Here’s Dave Grohl saying it from a musical perspective.


Here’s Why Denis Johnson Was the Last Truly Great Gonzo War Correspondent — by Jeremy Kryt

Johnson was “willing to place his lonesome ass in the way of seriously bad and scary stuff and then bring back the tale, told better than it’s ever been told before.”

Source: Here’s Why Denis Johnson Was the Last Truly Great Gonzo War Correspondent


The Writing Life Ain’t Easy, Kid

Today I’m thinking about how most people locate the center of meaning in their lives in their social identity, which is synonymous either with their career role or some caretaking role or both.  But the artist finds the center of meaning in the act of making art.  This is an important distinction to keep in mind, especially for me when I’m not writing.

When I don’t feel capable of producing writing, I nearly always get depressed to some degree.  My insecurities get stronger.  I start wondering whether I’ve wasted my life following insubstantial dreams.  Nevermind that I’ve already accomplished things my younger self could have never imagined possible.  It’s as if none of that ever existed.  It’s failure, failure, failure, failure, failure on repeat in my head.  And it never relents.

Of course, this doesn’t happen in productive times because, when I’m actually involved with my work, I’m not even considering other things.  At most those old insecurities are tiny thoughts, easily dismissed by the reality of the page filling up with words.  Writing is all-consuming when it’s happening.  When it isn’t, when I’m unable to move my mind into focus, I feel incredibly empty and worthless, which reminds me of something my first creative writing instructor once said: “Writers drink and use drugs probably because when they can’t write, they think they don’t exist.  And they will do anything to escape that pain.”  It took me years to fully understand what he meant.  But I don’t try to escape the pain that way.  I just suffer. 

No matter how much I publish, no matter how many stories and chapters and essays and posts I write, it’s never enough to make me feel satisfied like I’ve arrived in a secure, content, stable place in my life and work.  As soon as I write the last word of something, I’m already thinking about the next thing.  Only during those moments of actual work, when I can forget myself fully do I feel any respite.  

When I’m like a clear pane of glass and the light of my work is shining through me, I experience a kind of bliss, a satori.  Nothing is ever that good.  Drugs or alcohol can’t come remotely close because they shut down or at least reconfigure thought processes.  Writing, when I’m immersed in it, enhances all processes, all existing configurations of thought—even the critical and analytical routines that consider form and technique—and precipitates insights, perspectives, realizations.  This is far better than taking drugs.  These are the drugs of the mind.  And the only thing I live for is to be in that place, putting words on the page.  The rest of my life, actually 90% of what I do that isn’t writing, is preparing to write or recovering from having written so I can do it again.

This way of life emphasizes introspection and subjectivity.  It is not contingent on the opinions of others, permission from authorities or institutions, or any other sort of social frameworks external to my inward experience.  That is a wonderful thing, sometimes.  But sometimes the alienation I feel can be terrible: from friends, family, society, culture, what passes for normal life.  The constant pain of living in my own subjective universe and knowing that, while others may do the same, they can never truly share this experience with me, is very subtle but very tangible, especially when I’m depressed about not writing.  When there is no bliss, there is only emptiness and doubt, an inner stage devoid of actors, props, and background, all too easily filled with regret, self-criticism, worry, and the memory of past failures.  But that’s the life.  That’s its hard interior, even when it looks soft on the outside.  

It means I have to make a living somehow as well, whether though freelance work, teaching, or something else.  When I’m producing, that’s fine.  It’s easy to accept when you’re high on life.  But these needs, these ups and downs, having to be a responsible adult while also being this other thing, a writer, an artist, can make life quite difficult when the words aren’t there.  The thing that society labels “artist” the way people label “happiness” or “love” or “god”—using the term in an offhand way, while not truly knowing what it is or truly caring that they don’t—is the life of Persephone, half on the earth, half in that other place.

All jobs are hard.  All lives are challenging for the people living them.  This one, too.  Even those days when I manage to get it right.  Why do I do it?  Maybe I’m obsessed.  And I guess it’s something at which I’m reasonably competent.  And I like it better than mowing lawns.


Our Job is to Write

“Some people write for fifteen years with no success and then decide to quit. Don’t look for success and don’t quit. If you want to write, write under all circumstances. Success will or will not come, in this lifetime or the next. Success is none of our business. It comes from outside. Our job is to write, to not look up from our notebook and wonder how much money Norman Mailer earns.”

– “The Long Quiet Highway,” Natalie Goldberg