Thursday, March 3, 2011

Writing Ad Infinitum

Writing, like any craft, is something you do because you have to, at least in its most rewarding manifestation. Or, more generously, because you want to. This has nothing to do with writing for pay, for there’s little of that to go around. Yet, regarding writing for pay, no matter how good you are at it, you’ve got to get to certain unlikely heights or unquantifiable hype before a wide audience will read you, but even then, you don’t necessarily have to be good at it. Although it might serve you, the aspiring writer, in the long run, to improve at it.

After you’ve come to terms with the reality that you have to do it, the struggle is to probably get noticed; all you can do is work to make the best writing possible, all that you have control over is to challenge yourself. As a writer writes to be read by a number of people, you confront the transition of private to public, then, and decide, I am a writer. You recognize you want to connect with other writers, and eventually, readers.

These are wonderful notions in themselves, but far too idealistic to get you to the next step.

For years, you will rework a manuscript that you are convinced is publishable; it is not. After yearly disinterment and brushes with hope, you will rechristen it with a pithy, though enigmatic title, say, “Messenger” or, “The Adjective Noun of Proper Name,” ultimately dropping the definite article because it makes the work sound more professional, more befitting a work of literary art. You will find an agent who reads said novel twice in two years. (She has it in her hands for that period--who knows if she actually reads it.) Once, you will stay after work and retype the entire manuscript late into the night because you don’t have a copy in a file format you can print out from your workplace. In this marathon session that could put Kerouac to shame, you will inadvertently riddle the MS with errors you don’t have time to catch. You will insist on sending out bound copies single spaced, of your manuscript, until a knowledgeable friend tells you that there is something called “industry standards.” You will learn these and stop sending out unprofessional formats of your writing.

You shouldn’t expect anyone to take notice. You hope someone will read you and connect with your work, and conceive of ingenious, though mind boggling and time consuming schemes to make this happen. This requires a degree of marketing and selling to rival a fortune 500’s advertising campaign. You will send your work out and receive enough rejections to save the rainforest, or at least to wallpaper every square inch of your walls in the theme of “rejection letter boogie.”

You will submit to contests so often that you don’t even remember what you sent where. You will put so much extra money into this that you could have funded a writing year abroad where you could forget too much about a “writing career”. You will establish a rigorous system of sending at least one hundred and forty submissions a month and maintain a byzantine excel spreadsheet to track them, and then you will abandon it because it takes up too much writing time. You will send stories out when you feel like it. You will send stories out when you absolutely do not feel like it. You will stop sending stories out so that you can work on your novel, which will take one year, then two years, and longer. You will keep focused on what’s important, the work. Nothing else will matter, really, but you won’t admit this to anyone. You will realize getting published is sort of a great thing, and yet not always as great as you imagine it will be.

Once editors acknowledge and publish your work, however, you’ll find that publishing a short story is not enough. Why? It just never is. You want bigger rewards, bigger pay-offs, more kudos. This, if you are not careful, can give you an assumed rewards expectation which can lead to violent attacks of hubris, mislaid entitlement, and an all around general boorishness that will garner you no respect whatsoever from your peers.

A little reward will sometimes mean a lot. You would not have stayed with writing if you hadn’t improved at it (though that seemed to take years due to a stubbornness and cluelessness about following basic grammatical rules, something to this day you are occasionally defiant about, when you are not outright dubious), and you probably wouldn’t have continued if no one published anything you’d written. On the other hand, this is difficult to say: you’d already been at it for years with nothing to show for it when you finally decided, for the third time, that you’d apply to several estimable creative writing programs and go back to school to pursue an MFA, much to your family and friends' pitying and doubtful looks.

You will finish your MFA, after two years of self-flagellation and hard work, and get annoyed when people knock MFA programs as worthless, saying they produce lackluster writers who have a cookie-cutter approach to fiction. After your many hundreds of pages of theses, fictions, and musings, you are convinced there isn’t anything such as cookie cutter writing. There are boring writers and there are interesting writers. There are great boring writers and great interesting writers. You will hope that you are in the latter category (G.I.W.) Writing isn’t easy.

Maybe there are people out there who have done it effortlessly, but you come to believe most success is ninety percent hard work. You will say that in a generous mood; in a bad one, you’ll say someone with a great success just got lucky, and you’ll inadvertently rip a few writers out of envy (but where on earth does that get you, really?). On some days, you will contend with watching a crop of younger writers who you see gliding along as if in an easy self-sustaining clique that publishes its members’ work regularly and widely while your work is disregarded, when, in fact, your writing is probably equally compelling, worthy of accolades, and accomplished, if not, dare you say it, more so. But you don’t for once feel luck with what you do. You feel grateful for your patience and perseverance.

Things change; you progress. You work at writing long enough and you become proficient. Barring that, technology arrives and you discover the blog, where you can write (and publish!) any old thing you like, though you recognize the thirty million other blogs you compete with, and that yours is not so timely. You choose not to care--it’s an outlet to write on your favorite subject. Nor do you post seventeen times a day and link to every conceivable blog post with the slightest reference to your insightful topic. An added bonus of your blog is that you can write during the off times when you are wrestling with whether to switch your four-hundred page novel from past to present tense, though you wonder if this spontaneous and possibly frivolous decision will destroy two years of work.

For enough times as you have stories published, you’ve not yet had a novel published, and it’s not been for a lack of trying. But what you realize is that your personal vision of your work, and any kind of outside acknowledgment must be compartmentalized in order to continue through the silent reception you believe you are receiving. In other words, you have to banish such thoughts about even having external rewards from your thinker like an ancient yogi master, if you want to continue. As well as a novel is or is not going, the frustrating struggle to find an agent, or drum up the enthusiasm to keep working on the novel, is often at odds with the desire to have a readership. It can be too easy to feel embittered or ambivalent at your colleagues’ successes, even though you should take their arrival as a measure of you own success, or at least your proximity to it. Though it’s almost easier to consider disparities: how much less time (you believe) they’ve had to struggle, how readily agent X must have responded to their query, whereas all you received from said agent was a fifteenth generation xerox of a rejection letter so badly faded that trying to read the return address is like trying to decipher the Maya codex.

You will even harbor doubt about attempting to state your situation in anything other than cynical terms, as if you’re not allowed optimism; it will become difficult to maintain hope when you feel what’s really more appropriate is gallows humor, and a measure of downright crabby cynicism.

You have to learn to see yourself outside of much of this, and take solace in your own path for it has allowed you to reach the point when others will have already given up. You will not know how to give up. You are like an ultra long distance runner: your work makes no sense to most who are not themselves, running, and for anyone else, your endurance, dedication, and discipline can seem crazy or ill-advised for the presumed meager rewards that you may or may not receive.

You have to believe in and rely on your writing community, however obscure, that supports you unconditionally. You will have learned, against what you believed, that you can sometimes get by and even thrive on such support. Because at some point you did go looking for a community, which is maybe what was missing from your efforts those first years.

All you can do, finally, is the work, the eternal return to the well, cultivating the satisfaction and the inspiration you always have been able to, maybe more than should be humanly expected. Inspiration is not a matter of frequency, it’s about courting the fickle muse, after all; you count yourself lucky when she responds at all.

And, sometimes, in the midst of these pep talks, you’ll think, “But do other writers grapple with these issues?” To which you will offer your own resounding “Of course not, they’re focusing on writing!” But something tells you it’s okay, you do it the way you want, you always have anyway.