Wednesday, October 2, 2019

Why Write?

No, this isn't meant to be a dispatch from Eeyore moping about why bother in a world going to crap or anything.
But if you need an answer for why we must not despair, and must keep fighting:
Despair is a privileged act. The rest of us have to keep working lest we be ground into meat slurry to feed the beast.

I was depressed about writing for the last month or so. I put aside the manuscript I'm editing. I had a half dozen excuses. Who cares if I finish? My last book sold well for a small press publication, better than some big five imprint books, but the numbers are relatively small. Less than the attendance of some Bouchercons. It was dispiriting. I have bigger, better ideas! But they won't change the world, so why bother? I can write a story, but no one pays much. Why bother?

Because writing is supposed to be fun.

This gets lost in the toxic bullshit whiny humblebrag dysfunctional online writing culture, where we must gnash our teeth about how hard writing is. And yes, writing is work, and it can be exhausting, but in the end, it has to be enjoyable. At least in the same way that solving a puzzle, or exercise, or hiking up a hill to see a beautiful view is. Those are all work, but we enjoy them. If writing is torture, maybe you like pain. Not here to kink shame. (I nearly typed "solving a pizzle," and that's it's own puzzle, a sudicku, if you will).

Writing the first draft was fun. Editing it is harder, but should also be fun, when you see the results. The online culture of constantly seeing other writers' accomplishments, whether it's a word count or a major award or milestone, can make us forget why we got into this. And yes, I am coming from a privileged place. I kept my day job. I don't need to write. At all. It pays for the cat's vet bills, and for that I am very grateful.

The problem is being competitive when you don't need to be. I never thought of myself as competitive, I've always been more of a peacemaker, collaborative, a team-builder. Until I started fighting. That brought out a competitive streak that taught me my limits, when I trained with fighters going pro, and boxers from the Marines who turned my face into Rocky's at the end of the first movie. But I held my own, and I finished without a towel getting thrown. Then I went light with a UFC fighter my own size and got schooled. That's Keigo Kunihara. He playfully cracked my sternum. I lived, and I still train with people way above my skill level, and have fun doing it. Sometimes you have to learn to enjoy taking a beating and showing you don't quit.

Applying that to writing takes some pretzel logic, but hear me out. The struggle of writing a damn good story, like "Truth Coming Out of Her Well to Shame Mankind," which Library Journal called "stunning," is a lot like slogging through a tough fight knowing you will lose on points, but get to stand up there with the champ as the ref raises their arm. It was a month of work, and released to little fanfare—most anthologies are—but when I hear veteran short story writers tell me it was a breakthrough for me, I know it wasn't for nothing. (The fat check told me it wasn't for nothing, either).

Writing "We Got the Beat" for Murder-a-Go-Go's was no less a struggle, but in the end it was fun. When I read that story and get to "become" Artie, the girl who nicknamed herself after Artemis the hunter, part of a girl gang who kicks creep butt, the joy of creating her and the smiles in the audience are the fat check.

Would I have written it for myself? If no one would read it?

I've asked this question online, and most people say no.
But I used to write this way, for myself alone. It worked for Emily Dickinson. We've bought into the bullshit that a story's value is like a widget's in the capitalist machine. And it's not. Writing a story should be its own pleasure. This sounds like the talk from people who want stories for free, and I don't mean it that way. If we're in a capitalist economy, we should get paid. But that's not the point. The point is creation should be its own pleasure. Not the idle leisure of the gentry, but the childlike joy of creating for its own sake. We sold our finger paintings for a quarter, but we enjoyed making them. The candy money was gravy.

For most writers, that's how it should be. Please yourself first. Remember, you're a reader! Unless you're one of those bitter cranks who think everything is crap and "you're gonna show 'em how it's done," writing a story that pleases you is a good sign that others will enjoy at least some of it. Saul Bellow said, "A writer is a reader moved to emulation." I began emulating Harlan Ellison, Frank Zappa, and Alan Dean Foster. The internal editor is necessary, but can be the monster who throttles the baby in the bathtub, if it gets in the way of your voice. For example, I spent a lot of time on the voice for Bad Boy Boogie. And then I found an old unpublished story I'd written decades ago.

Guess what it sounded like? The voice I thought I needed to carve with the delicacy of alabaster. Before I saddled myself with worry, that voice came naturally. Other writers have said the same: they struggle with editing a paragraph and find the perfect addition, and then...see that it was already there, one paragraph ahead.
Don't get in your own way.
Trust your voice.
Enjoy writing.

flip off all the people in your life who make writing feel like a chore.

No comments: