Writers Getting in Their Own Way

Ernest Hemingway once famously said something profound about writing and being alone.  A lot of writers really glommed onto it.  They began to take themselves incredibly seriously and beat other people over the head with that little axiom.  Eventually, their friends got tired of hearing about how lonely they are, about how writing was easy, all you do is open up a vein and bleed onto the page.  They might have protested and said “You know, using a word processor might be easier.  Or even a pen and paper if you don’t like to do first drafts electronically.  Or so I’ve heard.”

Writers, like all artists often have a flair for dramatics.  They do all sorts of weird things as part of building their personas.  It reminds me a little bit of being a kid and deciding you were going to be famous when you grew up and since you just learned how to write in cursive, you were going to practice your signature over and over again until it was unique and the personification of your greatness and wit.  And so many a Trapper Keeper had been covered in variations of your name and Lisa Frank unicorns and fluffy kittens were smudged with blue and black Bic pen until you realized being successful has a lot more to do with hard work and putting talent to use that it does having a cool scribble for a name.

But there is a lot of truth to the cliche of writing being lonely.  A lot of the work you do is in your head.  A lot of what you produce winds up getting chewed apart, dissected, repurposed, recycled or just outright cut from existence as the creative process trudges on ahead.  I enjoy writing my blogs because nearly everything that you read here was written in one shot.  I might not have even spell-checked it.  It’s just raw.  Often my voice is captured here and the tone is honest if nothing else.  Unless I’m writing a blog for a customer and there is money on the line, I don’t outline.  It’s nothing as severe as opening up a vein, but sometimes I do speak too honestly and reveal too much.  It becomes more like a diary and overly personal or intimate than I probably intended.  But that’s what edits are for.

But I do digress.

Writing is lonely because you are doing most of the work in your head. A lot of what makes it to the page the first shot is garbage.  There might be seeds of wisdom or brilliance, but that’s what subsequent drafts are for, to winnow out the chaff and collect those grains, to process them, cultivate them, make a nice oatmeal or meatloaf.  Maybe some bread.  Maybe sow them in another field, cross-pollinated with some other strain until you get something better.

But really, it’s lonely because nobody should be forced to read a garbage first draft but the writer.  Not your mom, not your significant other, and certainly not your readers until you are dead and buried and they can marvel at the creative process long after you are too decomposed to cringe at whatever the hell it was you were thinking when you started your draft.

It’s lonely because by the time you are done with a readable draft, a lot of that work and brilliance is nearly forgotten because that was months if not years before.  It’s old news.  Even if someone did pat you on the back and say “WOW! This is great!” You would just shrug them off and say, “Oh that?  It was okay. You should see what I’m working on now!” Which suffice to say is another garbage first draft.

It’s lonely because when you are published, or they buy your work, the feedback you get is either an acceptance letter with a check, an invoice you have to submit, or teeny-tiny royalty checks, or the occasional review on Amazon where someone says something like “Nice story.  Sorta reminds me of GRRM without the sex or killing.  I can’t wait for the Winds of Winter to be finished! AMIRITE?!”  These short-lived little nods to your hard work have about as much dopamine hit as a “like” on Facebook for writing something stupid about a cat video.

It’s lonely because you feel like a fraud.  Authors are distinguished men and women with that look on their face, peering at you over their spectacles at a reading or book signing.  They are just so damned clever and honest.  Nothing like you:  The person who can still taste the Spaghettios they had for breakfast or the one who just stammered like an idiot to the barrista when they asked what your name was.  (It doesn’t matter what they wrote on the cup.  The important thing is that you produced sound and maybe words when they asked you a question.  They were laughing with you. Not at you.)

You’re a fraud because you aren’t Thomas Wolfe, Ernest Hemingway, Dorothy Parker, Toni Morrison, Kurt Vonnegut, Jonathan Safran Foer, or even Kitty Kelly.  So when people ask what you do, you tell them what pays the bills.  You say, “Oh, I’m an administrative assistant.”  It’s not what you are.  You are a writer.  You might as well have just told them “I watch funny internet videos and look at memes!”  That’s what someone does.  It isn’t what they are.

You wallow in self-doubt.  You feel like nobody else understands how writing a book is like painting a room with two artist brushes, and when you are done, it’s time to use those same brushes for a second coat.  And a fourth…  You might find yourself “blocked” not because of lack of ideas, but because what is the damned point of it anyway?  Making up stories that never happened for a handful of people who might never read what you wrote anyway and some of them will probably figure they could have done it better than you and they are probably right?

So, you withdraw. You stop being a writer and you get really good at laughing at memes.  You stop telling people you write.  You withdraw and not only are you no longer encouraging yourself, but you stop bothering to encourage anyone else, because what kind of friend subjects another human being to that kind of self-doubt and isolation?

Then you bump into some people one day at a coffee shop.  They didn’t know you wrote. You didn’t know they wrote.  You start talking.  You start getting excited about the creative process.  About making new worlds and characters and this crowd doesn’t consider the things you write about juvenile or insipid.  They think it sounds cool.  They like stories about vampires and monsters and heroes and to hell with the duality of Man and that Upton Sinclair bullshit.  They like stories where stuff blows up.  Not only are these people your audience, but they are your fellowship.

Writing should never be a lonely profession.  I think writers fall into that trap because our kind is far-flung.  We are frauds because we aspire to be important, rather than enjoy what we do.  Writers should band together and yammer about their tales and complain about rejection letters and encourage each other.

It shouldn’t be solitude.  It should be a celebration!

So, if you are blocked or frustrated or feel like your story sucks and nobody wants to read it, talk with some other writers.  Tell them, “I’m a fraud” and they will laugh with you, not at you.  Because we are all frauds.  Frauds that are having the time of our lives.

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Do Something Everyday That Scares You

When I first heard this it was on a YouTube clip of a transcript of a graduation speech set to music and video.  Man, those words just resonated with me at the time.  I heard those words on a day when I truly needed to hear them.  Then I went on with my life for a few years, those words left unheeded…until I hit a time in my life when I needed to hear them again.

Not to go off on a rant about divorce, but it is a horrifying experience.  Your whole world is ripped apart, turned upside down, and it is up to you to rebuild everything from scratch.  In my case, everything was an improvement.  Sometimes these sorts of journeys are difficult, but worth the benefits.  In my case, what I left behind was the end of a dark time in my life and what I gained was…salvation.  Right around that time, I listened to this again, and as much of a wreck as I was, it still resonated with me.  As with the song, I divorced at 40.  I thought this was oddly prophetic.  And now, everything scared me.  Only now, there was something I could do about it.  I had already done something which scared the hell out of me, which was to reclaim my life and sanity from an awful experience.

I had to start small.  Scaring myself at this point was doing something little like going out to dinner by myself.  Yes, it sounds cliche.  The recently single person sitting alone at a booth at a restaurant, grazing on corn chips and salsa, chatting with the waitress.  Feeling as though everyone is pitying you for being alone.  You feel alone and yet conspicuous all at once.  You worry what other people think.  Until you don’t.

When I was married, I didn’t get out much.  I certainly didn’t go to parties.  I didn’t get invited to social events.  I never traveled with other couples or even family.  I had been locked in the strange world that is an occluded marriage.  We socialized only with the nuclear family.  Occasionally inlaws. I had let 15 years of my life pass me by.  It would take a couple more years to let the bitterness of that fade.  I felt like I had missed out on so much, hiding in a bad marriage.  At the end of it, I had only myself to blame.  After a while of that, there was no reason to keep blaming.  But there were still things that were scary.

Asking someone out on a date was one.  Submitting pitches and queries was another.  Deciding to allow things in my life to change, to get out of comfort zones.  Telling my kids “No” was tough too, especially when some of the biggest things that scared me in my life was being told no.  You would have thought I would have gotten used to it, sending stories out to magazines and editors; when you hear yes, it almost smacks you in the face, the No’s are so abundant.  And talk about scary:  when you hear yes for once.  It’s like “What do I do now!?  They said yes?!  I don’t know if I can handle this kind of pressure to succeed!”  I mean, what the hell are you supposed to do with that!?!

Over the last three and a half years, I continue to push myself and everyday, I try to do something that scares me.  Most of the time it’s something silly like striking up a conversation with someone, or trying out a new route to a place I haven’t tried.  My old method used to be to visualize everything in my mind that could happen and then I would have some sort of idea what to expect.  Lately I have discovered that nothing good comes from this.  Either the reality falls short of your expectations horribly, or you have already set your boundaries on how much you get to enjoy something because you can’t go past what you have imagined. Oftentimes, the reality exceeds the fiction you have cooked up.

One of my favorite dates was a movie, people-watching in a downtown venue, playing air-hockey, and dancing to live music on the sidewalk outside of a bar.  Better than Prom, better than a lot of things; yet simple.  Easy, if I let it be.  The scariest part was just letting me be myself instead of some schmoozy over-complimentary version of me that annoys the heck out of even me.  It was scary.

I used to blame anxiety.  Anxiety was a crutch.  It’s like they say.  “Everything you want is on the other side of Fear.”

Lately, I have been querying publications to get rolling on travel writing.  It reminds me of the old days of submitting to fiction magazines.  Either you hear back from the editors, or you don’t and the answer is oftentimes “No.”  After a while of submitting, you wonder what kind of masochist you have become to set yourself up for rejection in this way.  Over time you start to figure out that the worst thing they can say is “No” and it’s not so scary.  A “Yes” opens doors, but in the meantime, you don’t have to let No stop you. It might be what you need to figure out a better way to bend, or to examine how you could have done things differently.  Just keep going, and keep challenging yourself.  Be open to new experiences.  If the idea of doing something gets your heart racing, then there is an excellent chance that is exactly what you should be trying.*

In three short years, I went from timidly eating dinner by myself to skinny dipping in a hot springs around strangers.  Hot air balloon rides. Mountain biking. And maybe worst of all, occasionally telling my kids “No.  You can’t have that.”

Scaring the snot out of myself has become one of my favorite parts of the day.  Nearly every time I have done something, it has been worth the fear and anxiety I have had to battle. Now eating alone is no problem, neither is mountain biking, kayaking, road-tripping, talking to strangers, making plans, reconnecting with old friends, asking strangers to take your picture, joining in on conversations, etc. etc. etc.rain

Pro-tips: Be kind wherever your travels take you.  Don’t be obnoxious.  Be open to good things. Put your shopping cart in the cart-corral when you are done.  Learn how to say please and thank you for every country you visit. And don’t humble-brag.  It’s better just to listen to someone else than it is to act like an experience they will never have is no big deal.  Part of good traveling is telling a good story when you get back home.  Good stories don’t ever make people feel inferior.  They bring us all along on the journey.

*Within reason of course.  Just make sure you aren’t hurting yourself or someone else.

**Sunscreen is advisable in nearly any adventure situation.