Wednesday, November 18, 2009

Writing and Balance

John McFetridge

Years ago I worked as a counsellor in a warehouse that employed “handicapped” people. Most of the people working there had grown up in group homes (most were labelled autistic) but a few were former street people and we knew very little about their backgrounds. One of the women I worked with, Joan, would sometimes get a dreamy look on her face and say, “You shouldn’t do heroin, heroin is bad,” and I’d agree with her and say, “That’s right, Joan, you shouldn’t do heroin,” and she’d say, no, you shouldn’t. And then after a pause she’d say, “It sure passes the day, though.”

Writing is a lot like heroin.

It can be terribly addictive and ruin lives. But it can also give you higher highs than almost anything else.

With writing, though, I think you can find a balance. I don’t think you can do that with heroin.

Some of this, of couse, is in response to Declan’s post last week. But it is something I’ve been thinking about and fighting with for thirty years.

In that time I have quit writing many times, but like a weak junkie I always come back.

I’ve quit other things in my life and never looked back. I used to play golf. I liked it well enough. There was a good social aspect to it, getting together with some friends, and in every round there was the, “one that keeps you coming back,” the one drive right down the middle of the fairway or the approach that actually landed on the green and rolled towards the cup. And then there were the 109 other shots that didn’t go anywhere near where they were supposed to.

For a long time writing was like that for me. I’d get a sentence or two and think they sounded right and then whole bunch more sentences that didn’t ring true (I read recently that kids don’t really get sarcasm until they’re around twelve and now I think that when I was able to write a sarcastic line and not have to follow it with, “He said sarcastically,” was when I started to feel I was on the right track).

But over years of frustration I often tried to write the kind of stories I thought would sell. I flirted with a little success. I wrote a private eye novel in the mid-80’s when I was influenced by Robert B. Parker. It got all the way to a couple of agents and one was even seriously interested but finally passed because she said the writing wasn’t literary enough to be a hardcover and it wasn’t hardboiled enough for paperback. I heard that same thing many more times.

I got sidetracked into writing screenplays, a venture I realize now was all about writing in a way you think will sell. You get advice, you get notes and you and follow them instead of following those couple of sentences you think are right (screenplays are tough because it’s expected you’ll write “sarcastic” over the dialogue. It should be a tip-off that the scene isn’t getting across the right information if you have to explain it like that but I’ve seen directors and actors at auditions put the weirdest emphasis on things so with screenplays, just use the shorthand).

So I went back to writing novels but this time I didn’t even think about selling them. This time I just wanted to get down the lines in a way that me happy. And that finally worked. I’ve managed to get a couple of novels published but I still don’t make more than minimum wage. I often think I made the wrong decision. Or really, the same wrong decision fifteen times in the last thirty years.

But that’s the balance I’ve found.

I tell myself it’s okay because at least I’m not doing heroin.


David Cranmer said...

John, this was a very inspirational post. Thanks.

Jay Stringer said...

great post, read it a couple of times.

Also now paranoid that i've maybe written 'sarcasm' somewhere in my newest project....

Dana King said...

"she said the writing wasn’t literary enough to be a hardcover and it wasn’t hardboiled enough for paperback."

Oh, yeah. I've heard that. Paraphrased, but basically the same. Definitely the same end result.

Bryon Quertermous said...

Ah, a debate I have with myself on an almost daily basis. It was nice when I was younger and I would just get a fun idea and write it without care for whether it would sell or not.

But I can't imagine quitting for good. I'd be an even more miserable person than I am now.

Mike Dennis said...

Wrong decision? John, you made the decision to follow your passion. And that's never wrong.

pattinase (abbott) said...

I started writing so late that it never occurs to me that I might derive money from it. It's freeing but also kinda sad. I'm the flipside of Bryon.