Tuesday, March 24, 2015

Don't Be a Writer

Note: This was written to advise those thinking about pursuing, or contemplating a more professional trajectory into writing. Because, you need to know, if you didn't already, what it is really like.


The early days of a starving artist...
My dear aspiring writer, don't. Don't be a writer. This is not a job you should choose. If there is anything else you would enjoy doing, do that. This is especially true if you have remotely thin skin because you will have to defend your choice at every turn. You will have to defend your craft and your creation. This is because from the very earliest part of a writing career, you are constantly attacked.

First, everyone will tell you it is impossible. They will say it a thousand times. They will say only the superstars make it. No one, however, knows what makes a superstar, and when you ask these people how superstars become superstars, they will name someone who already made it in another field with a ghostwritten book about said field. The other true writing stars? They paid whatever dues all writers must pay and that process remains a mystery to everyone, even the stars.

Everyone will say no one knows what makes a successful book. In fact, this is one thing everyone agrees on. Family and friends don't know how writing can be successful. Agents and writers don't know what books will be successful. No one in publishing understands people's tastes. Shitty writers can make millions of sales while pure genius prose can be used as drink coasters for Big Gulps. So if you can't handle that level of unknown, just don't bother writing.

If you're impatient, you really shouldn't write. The submission process involves a painful amount of waiting. You have to submit to a thousand agents to get a read through if you are anything like the other millions of people doing the same thing. And these agents will send you letters, time and again, saying it isn't quite right. They aren't interested in repping a book they aren't totally passionate about, and your book just doesn't do it for them. They send these notes anywhere from a week after receiving your query, to never. You might never get a response at all and will have to infer that your writing just wasn't good enough for them to be your advocate.

Some people will say you should get a few stories published and that will help your chances. Maybe having a few published pieces will convince agents it is worth taking a chance on you. But you have to find the right home for your stories. You might read a bunch of magazines and think you found the right one, but your opinion doesn't matter. It's the editor's opinion that matters. And so you get rejected. Again.

Others will say, write some articles! And the process repeats with the addition of some head banging against either a table top, a wall, or both.

Finally someone will say, why don't you self-publish? But of course, self-publishing is looked down upon by pretty much everyone. You can't be writing good work if you self-publish, even though a lot of “superstars” go on to self-publish, and a lot of self-published authors go on to be picked up by traditional publishers (only after they have sold thousands upon thousands of copies under their own steam). And so many other people have self-published and have nothing to show for it. Your chances are slim, even if you follow every book marketing guru's instructions for success. After all, they have no idea what makes for a successful book.

Determined, you read more writing blogs. You read about the successes and failures of your superstars. You try to fit into the molds of different agents and publishing houses. You try to fit into the molds of the market. You make a thousand mistakes. You try again. You make more mistakes. You try again. You open a bottle of whiskey and chug half of it. You write. You lay awake at night with terrible heartburn wishing you knew what to do, that someone would mentor you to success. You rewrite. You think if you could just figure out the magical formula that mixes lead and snake oil you could get gold.

You write every day for months on end. You blog. You comment on other writers' work. You read. You drink the other half of the whiskey bottle mixed with Ethiopian coffee brewed in your French press, because this is what you have in your kitchen to eat. You have become the epitome of the starving artist. It happened some time between the first set of agent queries and one of the rounds of rejections from literary zines. You lose weight. You wear thrift shop clothes that make Macklemore proud. You only buy generic food from the grocery store, and at some point you will finally break down and go to the food pantry when your last bit of pride is stripped away.

But then, you get an email back. It is unexpected. It is a single website where you thought your work would fit in perfectly. They want to print it. SUCCESS! You got an article posted on a website besides your free blog! You're going somewhere! You're a real writer!

That iota of affirmation is all you needed to get through another series of grueling rejections of another piece of your creative soul.

The dream isn't dead. It just got a fresh shock back to life. But never fear, you'll feel this again. And again. Always just on the brink of death, you'll get jolted, pulled back in by that horrible temptress hope.

So don't be a writer. It promises a lifetime of psychological masochism. Be an accountant, or a paralegal. Be a mid-level manager in a large corporation. You'll have a regular salary and so much less psychic pain.

But if there is nothing else that you can do – if it is impossible for you to stop writing – then you must write. You can never be happy doing anything else. You will never be fulfilled. You will never have solace. You will carry the burden of creation within you and without the pen and paper, the keys and screen, you will explode. Or worse, you will rot, the stories inside their womb, dead, festering, spreading their necrosis across your spirit. It will affect every relationship. It will affect every interaction. It will mark every second of your life – with that horrible longing ache that comes when words must be written, when ideas crave expression.

No one will think worse of you publicly for becoming a writer. They will praise your courage and bravery – your commitment to the craft. They will tell you time and again how they always wanted to write a book but never had the time, the energy, or a single coherent idea. If you have completed manuscripts they will fawn over you. If you have published anything, even independently, they will gush over you, amazed they met someone, anyone, with enough discipline and courage to not only finish, but share their vulnerable creation with the world. They will marvel at you, that despite all the reasons not to be a writer, you chose it, and continue to, not because you are a masochist, but the very opposite; because you hate pain.

Because if you are a writer by birth, and do not write, your existence is sheer agony. In this case, it is much better to write, much better to subject yourself to that Promethean submission process. Then at least, there is some chance of relief. This is the curse of the writer, the burden you must bear if you are a writer. If there is no choice.

But, if you can choose, by all means, choose something else. This vocation is not for the weak of heart.

Sunday, March 22, 2015

Help Me: Alexis and the Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Weekend

What I can't lose
It started on Friday. Christian woke up with hives and swelling everywhere. His hands were swollen. His ankles were swollen. His eyes were practically shut. I called urgent care. They wanted to know about his breathing.

"It's fine."
"Okay, well then come in here."

We went, and through the course of check in, I find out our insurance has lapsed through one thing or another (auto-debit never went through...they never contacted us...whatever the case). Then it becomes clear, despite Christian's job (or because of it?), we can't actually afford our insurance premiums. This, thanks to our collected loans, and other responsibilities (which are small compared to most households, but that's all we can manage).

I have a melt down in the waiting room.

It ends up being okay. Only just. Christian takes meds. The swelling goes down more and more. The hives abate, for the most part.

I feel like something needs to change, but I can't seem to get any interviews for jobs I do apply for, that would make childcare possible. I can't sleep well, ransacking my mind for ways that I might actually be able to support us - paths that we could pursue that would actually make a difference for our family.

Fast forward to Sunday.

My son sticks a piece of a toy in his mouth and it gets stuck. It's awkward. It's hard to remove. He's freaking out. He's coughing. His face is turning purple. My mommy sense kicks in and I reach into his mouth and yank it out myself. He is shocked. He is horrified. He cries. He wants to nurse. There is no good place. My shirt is not really the best kind for this sort of thing. We're in the middle of the restaurant, completely exposed. Christian takes him for a walk. He comes back. He wants to stay cradled in my lap. He eats half a sweet potato fry.

He cries. He grabs at me, clearly wanting to nurse. I don't finish my lunch. Christian gets everything except our child, who I am carrying in my arms, across a huge parking lot. He's over 25 pounds, wriggling, kicking, crying, and all the while grabbing at my chest to nurse. I am just trying to keep him in the middle of my body so I don't throw my alignment off worse than it is.

We get to the car. It is hot. It is small. We cram into the back seat and miraculously he's able to latch. He gets distracted and starts playing with things. We relatch. He gets distracted. We relatch. I'm  sweaty and cranky and still in shock from lunch. He gets distracted again, and I make an executive decision and put him into his car seat.

Christian declares he can't drive because of his meds. Fine. I get in the driver's seat. I'm not totally aware of how I'm still upset, but I do what I have to do. This is what I do everyday. I make it work. I check everything, I back up. The car directly behind me is backing up too. I stop. She keeps backing up, but there is no way she can move her car enough. I honk my horn. She bumps me.

I put the car in neutral and the brake on. I get out of the car and look at our bumper. Our car is over 10 years old. Hers is too. There are no dents. There are no scrapes. I see no marks on her car whatsoever, though ours has some old ones from something I can't recall.

"It was just one of those things. I looked left and you looked right," the woman says. I look at the cars again and nod. I'm upset, but no harm no foul.

There's a loud honk from behind me. I look over and there is a car. i stare the driver down. She motions as though she wants to get through - between the two cars who just had an accident. She doesn't smile at me. She doesn't wave or anything. I get into my car and this driver has the gall to drive right between our cars, before either one of us has time to move out of the way. I had visions of chasing her down, of beating her window, of taking my teenage carkeys along her freshly washed California Prius and giving her a nice cursive message to immortalize the occasion.

"Thanks you fucking bitch!" These are the words I thought because she didn't know everything I'd been through this weekend. She didn't realize I had visions of losing not only my husband and best friend, but also the fragile financial security I have. She didn't realize that I had visions of losing my son to a piece of irregularly shaped plastic just moments before. She didn't realize that I had just carried this upset, frightened little boy, wriggling, and crying, at over 25 pounds, the distance of several city blocks. She didn't realize that I had just crammed into my back seat, so that same frightened little boy, could feel an ounce of comfort before being strapped down so he could be transported safely away. She didn't realize all those things, but she did see my car bumper get tapped.

I don't know what that Prius driver had going on in her own life, but I think she could have managed a few seconds wait time to allow a young mother a little less stress to an already stressful event.

So when I did finally get my car going, and make my way out of the parking lot and on to surface street, it was amidst utterly raw weeping. Christian offered to take the wheel, but I refused. I refused in part because I did not want to move from that spot. I did not want to get out of the car. I could not take my hands from the wheel, so instead, I wept. I sobbed until my throat hurt - until the sound was impossible, until it refused to claw from my throat. The tears continued to flow from my swollen eyes. I would sniff. I would take a few gasping breaths, and this was enough to allow that wracking sound from my throat again.

I cried so hard, so long, I started to cough. I started to choke. I calmed enough to breathe. I wept some more. I wept the entire drive to my in-laws' house.

"If anyone makes any kind of comment to me, I cannot be held responsible for what I will say back. I cannot!" I said as I turned down their street. Christian nodded.

"Okay. I understand. Just go straight to the guest room. It's fine."

I parked the car. I wiped salt from my cheeks - just salt tracks because of the drought. I got out, not looking back, not thinking. I went straight to the guest room where our son takes his nap. Christian laid him down beside me, whimpering and half asleep from the car ride.

As I lay there, nursing my sleepy toddler, I breathed deeply, my limbs trembling.

I can't handle anything else. I can't. I need a break - I need to catch a break. I don't have anything left. No patience. No resources. No stamina. I am running on empty. I am bare. I am raw. I don't know what I will do if something else happens. I don't know what else I can do besides what I am doing.

So I write this, raising my hands up, empty and asking...help me.

Tuesday, March 17, 2015

Ideas and Inaction: The 2 Water Dish Problem

Is that the right path over there?
For creatives, or starving artists, there's a problem in the realm of ideas. There are too many. Certainly that is my problem.

I wake up and have twelve different ideas by breakfast. Some of them I dream while in deep sleep. Others I discover in the course of getting my toddler dressed. Others I have while reading through my social media feeds. And then, when I have these ideas, I have to decide whether I should keep thinking about them - let them develop into something.

The process of vetting such ideas takes maybe a few seconds, but it always goes more or less like this:

"Oh shit! That would be an awesome story!"
"It would. It really would. People would read that."
"Damn! I could write that kind of fan fiction!"
"No I couldn't."
"Yes I could."
"No I couldn't. How could I get into that character's head?" Pauses while thinks through how that would work.
"Wait, yes I COULD! WAHOO!!!"

Keep in mind this happens daily. It happens daily all the while I'm working on several other projects. And this is not the whole day - this is just before breakfast.

You see the problem.

I don't have enough time to follow through on every idea. I can't. It is impractical. I have to prioritize. I have to decide which ideas are worth pursuing. Which ones would I enjoy? Which ones would benefit society? Which ones would be profitable?

This is the same problem creatives, like myself, encounter with jobs. As a creative, I am capable of doing a lot. I have the skills and abilities to make magic happen because I have this wild potential-seeking mind. I solve problems constantly. Ideas bloom, literally, in my sleep. I cannot keep up with them. So of course I do well in problem solving environments. I can do anything in theory, but that doesn't necessarily mean I flourish.

I could, for example, work in a 9-5 job. But, frankly, I might kill myself. I don't say that as a rhetorical device. Working 9-5 doing something that is busy work, surrounded by hundreds of cubicles makes me want to jump off a bridge. Really. There isn't enough variety. People are telling me what to do and how to do it, when those are the kinds of things I excel at on my own. It is soul sucking and does not make use of the extent of my gifts. So of course I would bang my head against the wall and need to take some kind of mood altering prescriptions just to survive.

That is not living.

But what about traditional jobs that do honor my tendencies? What about jobs that do allow me to make use of my crazy idea creation and vetting process? Where are they? What are they? How do I find these things?

The easy thing is to decide what I want to do and then find that.

*blinks while looking blankly*

Right. Remember how I just explained the different ideas I have? Remember how many I have every day before breakfast alone?! What do I want to do? How do I figure that out?

Well, there are the books by career counselors that can be helpful. But what if the required skills you need to do the thing you want to do are out of reach. What if, for example, I decide I want to be a professor for a day job and then, I am rejected by the doctoral programs that would essentially guarantee me such a position (or at least make it possible)?

That is a pickle.

So I end up staring down at my list of ideas, like my wild and crazy skills, wondering how I can cobble them together into a job.

I mean, I know. I know what job I want. What kind of success I want. I know that. I've got it in my head and I visualize it every day (read: comic convention panels, women's conference panels, writing workshops...the list goes on). But, the path to getting there is foggy. The ideas run fast and hard and I can see about twenty different routes to achieving the same thing. Which to choose?

It is like the dog with two water dishes. He sits there, staring at both, getting progressively more thirsty, never drinking. How does he choose? Which one is better? The answer is neither. They both have good water. Both will work. It is whichever one he likes. But the dishes are the same, he thinks. But they aren't. One is on the left, the other on the right. One is nearer the window, the other nearer his owner's chair. It does not matter which he chooses, except that one quenches his thirst and makes him feel good.

But I might regret not choosing the other dish!

Yeah...well...cost of business. All paths will reach the destination. Both dishes solve the problem of thirst. But sitting there ruminating about it won't do anything.

I am actually drinking water. I have actually four books that will definitely be published this year. Two are finished, but in revision phases. Two just need a few more chapters complete and will be done. That's kind of amazing. That means I will have finished four books while watching a toddler...since January. That's kind of remarkable.

I am definitely drinking the water here. I submitted pieces to magazines and got positive rejections (I just added a third to my group...) which means I'm getting closer on that front as well. Closer, but not there...yet.

But in the mean time, waiting for thirst to abate, I'm wondering if this is okay. If my time wouldn't be better spent doing other things. Should I use my skills somewhere else? Should I do something else? Should I have a day job outside of raising my kid? Could I manage that? I applied to a few traditional jobs, and I have to admit that I'm cautious. I mean, if I do not pursue my dream, my vision, part of me will die inside. It is that tension - the tension of giving up, of accepting defeat, versus continuing to battle, continuing the pursuit. The first is pushed by society at large (like, get real). The second is glorified (as in, "Wow! I could never do that! You're amazing!").

I think, no matter what, it is better to be on a path to achieving the goal than not. Not achieving the goal - the dream - is not okay. So I store my vetted ideas for later refusing to get distracted, continue pushing on the ones I've prioritized, and act as though I know what I'm doing. Which I don't. I'm just guessing here and hoping for the best. I mean, I think that's a pretty good idea.

Friday, March 13, 2015

Wild and Crazy Skills

Statue imitator?
What is the wildest and craziest thing you can do? I wondered. I asked. I got weird and entertaining answers. I started working on a companion workbook to go with my nonfiction book (both coming out in a few months...hopefully). It all got me thinking.

What can I do? What are the obscure skills I have? What angles can I fractal down to in order to analyze myself?

My experience includes, but is not limited to:
  • Cat wrangling and training
  • Toddler containment
  • Garbage repurposing
  • Daydream development
  • Witty one-line IRL microblogging
  • Surgical commentating
  • Globalizing the personal
  • Nap feigning
  • Militant self-discipline
  • Flexible time-management
  • Smart phone camera operation
  • Vocal impressions
  • Psychic interpretation
  • Meticulous bead design
  • Mud sculpture
  • Full body painting
  • Braiding
  • Pragmatic truth-telling
  • Thumb piano composition
  • Baby toy development
  • Interpersonal communication mediation
  • Immediate dance party creation
  • Impromptu public-speaking
  • Incessant challenge
Can I turn any of those things into a career? I mean, really. Not joking. Well, maybe a little. Okay, I'm totally joking, but if you came up with something that could use such random things, I would absolutely consider it. I just wonder if that is possible. Can you combine any of these things into a career? If so, what? And what are your weird skills and talents? Do you use them in your career? Tell me about it in the comments below...