Saturday, July 18, 2015

How to be encouraging without actually raising any hopes

My name on Twitter is not my name; it’s ElectronWoman, an e-pen name I used in the blog before this one. I don’t use the ElectronWoman name for anything anymore, but I can’t seem to change it on Twitter without starting all over again, which is just too damn much work considering I’m on Twitter maybe twice a month, so fine, all Tweets henceforth from me shall be negatively charged. That was the reason for the name, you see, the negative part. One of the big themes of my previous blog was how to be a pessimist in a tyrannically optimistic world that insists on cramming positivity in your every orifice. Now that my blog is simply my name, the theme is slightly different. These days it seems like most of what I write about falls under the header (because I’m stodgy and still put things under headers and not hashtags): how to accept your life.

ElectronWoman was right about some things, you see. You do not get what you want in life just because you want it badly enough. I wanted, always and only, to be a writer, to see my books on the shelves of bookstores, to see them being read in public places, to have my writing be the center of my life and to get paid lavishly for it. Well, I’m a writer of sorts, but bookstores are nearly extinct, the only thing people read in public places are text messages, the center of my life is occupied by a number of different things struggling for balance, and as for pay, well, the good news is I haven’t made enough as a writer to worry about the IRS coming after me for undeclared income. I’m actually OK with all of this much of the time; I have too many other nifty things going on in my life to fret excessively about the disappointments in this one area. Sometimes, though. Sometimes I’m not so OK with it.

I just finished teaching at a week-long camp for high school students down at the university where I used to work. This isn’t tents-and-smores camping but rather academic camping, an unbelievably popular phenomenon appealing to overachieving parents and charmingly nerdy kids who would rather write poems and argue about Shakespeare than do naturey stuff in the woods, or whatever it is you do at tents-and-smores camp. (I never did either when I was their age; I mostly worked summers at my mother’s business, which sounds a lot more Dickensian than is true since “work” consisted of her giving me stuff to do to keep me out of her way and me listlessly doing it until it was time to get plate lunch at Zippy’s.) The course I taught was called “A Novel Idea: How to get started, keep writing, and learn about the publishing business,” and I called it that because I had a feeling it would get people interested. Not surprisingly, I was right: it was the most requested course being offered. 

This was good in that I knew I would have a motivated class, but it also made me feel weary even before I’d started planning my activities for the week. Here we go again, another room full of eager young aspiring novelists, dreaming the same dreams I used to have. It’s easy for me to encourage people to write; that part didn’t trouble me. But almost nobody who writes does so just for fun, just for their own satisfaction; we write for an audience, and that means getting published, and that means—well, I’m not even entirely sure what it means anymore because the world of publishing is changing so much. One thing will likely stay the same, though: a very small number of people will become the kind of writer I dreamed of becoming; the rest won’t come remotely close.

I did not want to say this to them (at least not on the first day); my goal was to encourage the writing but to be realistic about publishing without sounding cranky and embittered. Truth is, though, I probably could have been cranky and embittered and told them before I even introduced myself to give it up now while their minds and livers were still intact. Saying that the number of writers who make a living at writing could be counted on your fingers (with perhaps a digit or two left over for a rude gesture) discourages no one. Everyone thinks they’ll be the exception. This mindset is reinforced when people say “it’s mostly luck.” This is part of the gambler’s fallacy: when you think something is completely random, it gives you hope, no matter how long the odds, because nobody else has an unfair advantage over you and it could just as well be you as someone else. You never know! Except, here’s the thing: 1) That’s stupid. 2) Would that getting published were merely a matter of luck. It isn’t. The deck is stacked against you, heavily.

Of all the aspiring writers I’ve met in my life—and there have been hundreds—I am only personally acquainted with one who made it big the way writers dream of making it big, and it was definitely not luck that got her there. She’s hugely talented, of course, but then a lot of people are. More important to her success, she’s unbelievably hard-working; she reads and writes so much I suspect she’s either twins or a literary Terminator-like cyborg who never has to sleep or eat. Come with me if you want to read. A large part of this hard work has included getting her name out there in blogs, in Tweets, in literary and commercial publications, on a wide range of subjects, and not just the highfallutin’ stuff but also things like The Bachelor, which I believe she has live-Tweeted on many occasions. In short, she was already famous in writing before her first novel was even finished.

This is what you have to do, kids, to make it out there, or at least this is one way to do it, and it’s not a way most people can do it. There are other ways; you can be the offspring of publishers (Christopher Paolini), you can be a television executive with lots of contacts in the media world (E.L. James), you can write a spot-on grant proposal and get free money from Scotland to finish your book (J.K. Rowling). One way not to do it is to write your book and imagine you’ll be plucked from obscurity and flung into fame. Yet of course that’s what the kids in my class all imagined. Oh, they were a lot more savvy and sensible than I’m giving them credit for; they asked smart questions about agents, about self-publishing, about rewriting and editing. Several of them said they knew they weren’t ready to publish just yet; they looked at other writers’ works and realized they had a long way to go. One young lady even said this about my work, after I gave a reading from my novel. “I wish I could write like that!” she gushed. I was flattered momentarily, but the thing in my brain that uses my ego as a pincushion whenever it gets too inflated quickly sprang into action. And I wish I could write like about a hundred other writers I’ve read, I told her. What I didn’t tell her was It never ends, you’re never satisfied, and the chances are you never will be.

The problem with my saying all the gloom-and-doom stuff to them is that it would mean admitting something about myself. Yes, I have two novels published. They were published with small independent presses. I enjoyed writing the books, I enjoyed working with the publishers, and I’m thrilled when people buy and read my books. This is success. I wish it were enough. It isn’t always. When I think about this success I sometimes get the same feeling I do when I run a marathon that didn’t go the way I’d hoped and someone congratulates me by saying “You finished! That’s great!” I’m torn between a nasty retort Of course I finished, I wouldn’t have bothered doing this if I didn’t think I could finish and a more humble thanks for the reminder that just being able to do this thing I enjoy doing is pretty damn wonderful all by itself. And so it goes with writing. Getting a book written and published at all by any means is an accomplishment of sorts, but even if most people don’t write books or run marathons, there are still a whole lot of people who do, so congratulating one’s self for this starts to feel like those last days of elementary school where everybody gets a prize for something. Congratulations, your shoes were tied every day this semester! Great job, you properly raised your hand before asking questions! Way to go with writing your name at the top of your homework assignments! You’re a star!

So there it is. What do I accept? Do I congratulate myself for having properly tied the laces on my shoes even though I’m not running particularly well in those shoes? Or do I keep trying to meet the ambitious running goals I made a while back, before it started being less and less fun trying to meet those goals? Am I satisfied with what I’ve accomplished or am I giving up too soon? Am I giving up too soon or am I realistically avoiding chasing after goals that are unrealistic and—far more significantly—keeping me from enjoying the great things I already have in life? ElectronWoman would have said Wake up, ya moron; you failed. You aren’t the writer you wanted to be, and it was hubris to imagine you could just waltz your way past 26.2 miles and into Boston. If at first you don’t succeed it’s because you suck, plain and simple. But ElectronWoman is also the one who, despite all that dark-hearted negativity, went after those goals in the first place. Pessimistic people dream as big as anyone else—bigger, I’ll wager—to the point where the size of their dreams scares them a little and they allay the fear by facing it. What’s the worst that could happen? We fail. What’s the best that could happen? We succeed. What is most likely to happen? We wander somewhere in between for a long time, and we can call it succeeding or failing but it’s really mostly just living, just our lives, such as they woefully and wonderfully may be.

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