It was a Christmas gift.
A melancholy laugh? A wistful sigh? Maybe just a smile and a “Thanks.”
Not because of the whiskey, or the gift, or the lovely thought behind it, but because of the actual writer’s tears.
This road, since my first words went to paper, has been so twisty and endless, I can hardly see it with clarity anymore. There were vivid water stops along the way to be sure: the first story written, the first story sold, the first story published, good reviews, bad reviews, stories written with other writers, this and that, etc., etc. Thousands of stories and essays, poems and novels, plays, observations.
Millions of words.
It was a joyous road to travel. Putting words on paper was not only the best way to spend my time but, along with listening to and performing music, the only way to spend my time. I read constantly, as broadly and deeply as I possibly could, and then re-read. I took every book apart, sentence by sentence, word by word, and tried to apply those take-aparts, be they learning what to do or what not to do.
When I started writing, it was all about the writing…the story. I was discovering my version of the world, how it tasted and sounded, how it lived. All the way through high school and college and as I became a member of different writers’ groups in Denver, that energy and sense of epic discovery was with me.
There was a time, as a newbie member of a writing group facilitated by the legendary Edward Bryant, that I wrote a new story every month. Five-thousand words…every…single…month. It was exhilarating. Hell, there were editing sessions so hot and exciting, when I bashed and pounded, sculpted and polished, I was actually breathing hard and sweating when I was finished.
Though it was about the physical and mental act of writing and creating, it was also about readers. I wanted to be read. Maybe it was a need for confirmation of my views, maybe a need for simple affirmation of self, maybe I didn’t get what I needed emotionally from those around me so had to cast a wider net. Hell, maybe it was simple ego, as complex as that can be. Regardless, I needed readers.
Thus while I was perfecting my craft, learning to observe the world, to detail it and take it apart, I was also dreaming that, eventually, all the publishers in the world would tear down my door. I dreamed up a list of novel titles, I had a file of dedications in the order I would attach them to my novels, I carried a bevy of songs in my head I would use as a personal soundtrack to guide each novel.
Once I actually started publishing, the first story sold and published in 1994, I was ecstatic. I was almost giddy when I read the acceptance. It was from the Irish speculative fiction magazine “Albedo-One.” More sales and publications followed and eventually, I started being contacted specifically by editors and that was when I knew I was on my way.
It was the late ’90s and I was everywhere in the horror and speculative fiction world. Publishing in magazines and anthologies, giving readings to relatively full rooms, being asked to be a panelist at various conventions, being bought drinks by young writers who wanted to know the secret handshake. It was a giddy, heady time for me. Even when a pseudo-editor who didn’t particularly care for me emailed me with an “invitation” to her anthology. Her email said, I kid you not, “This is invite only so consider this your invite.” Quite the soft and cuddly conversation, don’t you think? Worse yet, she never bought the story I submitted.
But even that nasty invite-o-gram was a water stop on the road! If I was getting invites from editors who didn’t care for me personally but still wanted my work, could the major publishers be all that far behind?
Yet what I felt at the time, vague and inarticulate, was that maybe the whole thing had already started going bad, as slowly as a carcinoid tumor.
Because while I was doing well in terms of publishing, I wasn’t doing well in terms of self-promotion. It seemed, on the face of it, that I didn’t need to self-promote if editors were asking me for stories. But at the same time, I was almost obstinately unwilling to participate in the annual begging season, during which the entire speculative fiction community of which I was a member would lose it’s collective mind. All of us, writers and editors alike, would shotgun mass emailings to writers and editors both known and unknown, pleading with them to recommend a story or nominate a novel or otherwise cheerlead a collection or screenplay for the bevy of masturbatory annual awards.
I hated it.
On panels at various writers’ convention, each panelist would prop their most current couple of books on the table tent with their name on it. Their convention name badges were hardly readable for being covered with repros of their book covers as business cards or stickers stuck all over them.
I hated it.
In the last few years, that kind of self-promotion has morphed into a relentless Frankensteinian monster, where every tiny thing becomes fodder for the news feed or the status update. Every new anthology, every new book acceptance, every new magazine sale, gets hyped. Every signed contract gets hyped. Every cover and decent review gets posted and reposted or pinned to the top of the page. I’ve even seen, in a spasm of massive overthinking about connections, writers post news about other writers who’ve sold or published or tweeted something, because the first posting writer had previously been in a publication with the second posting writer and thus took the opportunity to bring that back to life under the guise of offering ‘Congratulations’ to the second posting writer.
I hate it.
And I hated seeing that, every day, my own FB feed was inundated with yeehaws and yippees and 100% emojis and thumbs up emojis because some writer or other had sold something here or there, or that they’d had an honorable mention in a Year’s Best, or sold to a Best Of or landed a deal for this or that number of novels.
That’s great. I am so happy for all those writers. Truly. I wish them all the best and success enough to fill their cup but all that dogged and ferocious self-hype just serves to both coarsen the process and to remind me that, when it comes to that kind of thing, I fail because I simply can’t stand doing it.
That knowledge grinds my psyche and my soul because, if self-promotion to break through society’s cacophony of white-noise to be read is foundational to being a writer, then wasn’t being a failure at it also failing as a writer? It seemed to me, from when I first noticed self-promotion in Denver in the early ’90s, through to today…the answer is yes.
I also detest, and always have, the business end of writing. As long as I can remember, I’ve hated researching new markets, making clean copies of manuscripts, creating cover letters (which involve a degree, although small, of self-promotion), mailing the packets out, and making note of when the rejection or acceptance came back. Keeping track of when whatever story went to whatever magazine drove me bananas.
When I started seriously writing novels and had to try and find an agent? Which agents politely declined any interaction based on the query letter? Then which agents, impressed by the query letter, wanted the first three chapters. Then which agents, impressed with the first three chapters, asked for the entire manuscript. Beyond that, a writer must know to whom, within each agency, they sent their packet because some agents like this kind of fiction and some agents like that kind of fiction.
I hated searching for an agent. I hated even thinking about searching for an agent. Hated asking writer friends if they’d recommend me to their agents, which most of them rarely did for fear that when, not if, their agent turned down their friend, their friend would blame them.
When I sold something, dealing with the business end almost became worse than not selling. Every project had a contract with all kinds of paragraphs and subparagraphs. I had to keep track of when something was going to come out, which started the clock ticking on when it could be resold (with proper ‘originally published in,’ credit). Or when it was supposed to come out, which started the clock ticking on when it could be reclaimed and resubmitted elsewhere. I had to keep track of which rights I’d sold primarily and when they could be resold elsewhere, or which rights hadn’t been sold or had been sold only to a single area of the world, or which this and which that….
I hated it.
Those dislikes, and my shoving them up under the dented front fender of my career and hoping the car got further down the road because eventually the water stop I’d been counting on would appear, got less and less amorphous over the last twenty years. They became clearer, like a fogged windshield warmed enough to dissipate the opaqueness.
Over the last fews years, I worked on an anthology series I created with another writer. He’s frequently a great writer and can get anything done anytime without any of the soul-searing to which I am prone. He’s a monster editor and an even better juggler, keeping quite a few projects perfectly balanced.
He and I worked this series, six short novels a year based on our created world, and it quickly became a hellscape for me. Immediately upon having the idea, which seems to have two different birth parents, we had to put the idea in good enough shape to sell to a publisher. Once that was done, we had to put it in good enough shape to get other writers to come play on our playground. Then we had to read those short novels and work those short novels and rework those short novels, over and over, until they were publishable within the world we’d created.
Don’t get me wrong. Those stories, and the world he and I created, were incredible. A great many of them I published green with envy that I hadn’t written them. And the two or three times I wrote for the series, I loved what my co-editor got out of me. I loved writing that series. But I hated working that series; the business work that had to be done to get it up and running and then keep it up and running shaded my heart. Truly, I hated all the promotion that had to be done to sell the individual novels once a season was underway. It was endless and grinding and mind-numbing and soul-deadening.
Thank God for my co-editor, who did more and more of the heavy lifting as the series went into Season Three. In fact, before Season Four, I told him I wasn’t sure I couldn’t do anymore. Once we got through Season Four, I was done.
I considered myself, and had for more than 40 years, a writer. Period. Not a business man. Not an editor or a carnival barker. A writer.
Except around the same time, the vague unease I’d had for a while cleared up and I realized, with great horror and no small measure of shame, I didn’t even enjoy writing anymore. This thing I’d birthed and lived with for more than 40 years was more and more alien to me, to the point where I actually became hostile to having to do the work.
Yet, because I had done this work, faithfully, for so long, I couldn’t not do it. So I ended up sitting at my computer, tunes playing, actively hating what I wrote; hating the characters and the story line and the pacing and then hating myself for hating the writing.
It was a helluva devolving spinning wheel.
What I eventually figured out, with lots of help from my wife and friends who’ve been there since day one, was that dealing with the tsunami of tangential bullshit that comes with being a modern writer, as well as royalty statements from a small publisher that never put much into its original writers and concentrated instead on the newest hip flavor, had bled all the fun out of being a writer.
I had been in the middle two short novels and the beginning of one I’ve wanted to write for years and I just faded…away…. I couldn’t open the files, I couldn’t see where the stories were going or figure out how to put a sentence together even if I did know where.
I spent long days and nights trying to get my head around this new concept: not a writer.
After 40+ years of “A Writer,” now it was the converse, “Not A Writer,” and I wasn’t sure how to think about that. It was a harsh truth. Yes, I had had some success, certainly more than the vast majority of people who say they want to be writers, but not as much as I’d wanted.
I worked out a thousand reasons it had never worked out to the degree I’d wanted: did I not have enough talent? Or not the right talent? Or did my disgust at self-promotion and business put a cloud over the purity of craft? Or just a bad luck of the draw?
Ultimately, though, none of those possible reasons mattered. In the practical universe, I was at another water stop. But this time, instead of watering up and getting back on the road, I stepped off. There were other roads snaking away from that water stop so maybe I’d take a look at some of those and see where I ended up.
I’m not really sure what road I’m on now, just that it’s not the road of the last 40 years. It’s a road where I don’t have to write fiction, where I don’t have to deal with deadlines and contracts or writers on FB shouting “Look at me! Look at me!”
Roads are only so long. Eventually, everyone has to get on to something else. That realization, the harshest truth of all, has been a long time coming. I’ll keep thinking about that as I drink off some of this Writers Tears whiskey and finish this written essay. Yeah, I’m still writing.
So maybe the truth is not “Not A Writer,” but “Not A Fiction Writer.”