Wednesday, March 27, 2013

The Writing Life?

I've long considered writing a post on this topic, but due to the delicate nature of the subject, I've always procrastinated. It's time for me to approach the topic of writing as it relates to a beginner, the origins of the writer, and the challenges he or she may face on a personal level.

I'm inspired by David Farland's latest post "Writing for Fun and Profit." Farland, a New York Times bestseller, is a masterful writer with a gift for articulating difficult subject matter far more eloquently than I ever could. The thing that caught my attention wasn't the subject of the post, though (I highly recommend all of David's writing, including his daily posts), but rather one small paragraph within. Hopefully, he won't mind me quoting:

"It's hard to be a writer because you have to be diligent and dedicated from the start. No one cheers you on in the beginning. Instead, you push yourself without fanfare. In fact, if you're like me, your parents will try to dissuade you, and many of your friends will tell you that you're deluding yourself into believing that you can make a career in writing. So it seems impossibly hard, often for years."

That, unfortunately, seems to be true for most of us. Occasionally a writer will come along saying something like: Ever since I was a child, my family was so supportive in my goals. My mother encouraged me every day, and when I finally self-published she went out and bought ninety copies of my book, landing me instantly on the Amazon bestseller list where I promptly turned into an overnight sensation...

Yeah, we should all be so lucky. Unfortunately, in my conversations with other writers and in following the blog posts and interviews of highly successful authors, I have come to the conclusion that almost all of us go into this with zero support. In my case, I was lucky enough to have a supportive spouse who believed (and still does) that I'm doing what I should be. My family? Friends? Not so much. 

When I was twelve, my mother went through my room and found my stash... of notebooks. She flipped through them and to her horror, discovered the collection of short stories I'd written about dragons, quests, and magic swords. She threw them all away, grounded me, and had me counseled by our church "elders" on the dangers of magic and fantasy. 

Years later, I finished the first draft of Shadow Born. It was my fifth or sixth novel, and it was the first time I ever finished a manuscript and thought to myself: This is it... this is the one that's good enough to be published. Boy did I have a lot to learn. I followed the formula for success, though. I let the book rest for a few weeks before going back to revise it numerous times. Then I approached ten close friends and family members whose opinions I trusted and valued, and asked them to be beta readers. They all enthusiastically agreed, so I printed out thousands of pages of paper, bound them into manuscripts, and passed them off with the promise that they would return them covered with red ink.

And I never saw them again. 

To their credit, I did get some feedback from two of those people, in the form of a couple brief conversations. I thanked them for their help, considered their suggestions, and ended up revising some of the things they'd pointed out. The other eight? Who knows. The feedback never came and they never mentioned the book again. Later, after I'd finished my revisions and spent several years trying to find an agent, I gave up and published Shadow Born on my own. At that point my father took an interest. He asked for a copy, which I happily provided. Two weeks later at a family dinner I asked his opinion. He matter-of-factly informed me that my book was demonic and he hadn't read most of it. He never adequately explained himself so I can only presume that in his opinion, since Shadowlords come from an alternate universe and perform magic, they must be demons . Or something like that. Or maybe, he just didn't like seeing my words in print. 

I have another good friend who loves my books. He's read them all and has a shelf devoted to them. He gets excited every time I mention that a new one will be released soon, and he begs for a copy. After reading it, he always tells me how much he enjoyed the book. Yet, in all these years, he's never actually purchased a book, or for that matter taken a few minutes of his time to write a review. Likewise, many of my friends and ex-coworkers will see me somewhere and ask about my writing. When they ask how sales are, I say something like, "Not bad, I sold 7,000 books last year." 

"Really?" they say, with their eyes boggling in shock as if I had just told them my wife had given birth to an alien. Then they go on with life. Generally, they don't ask where they can buy my books and they certainly don't offer to. Of all these dozens of people, I know of exactly one who has actually purchased one of my books. I suppose there's always the possibility that others have and didn't want to admit it because they thought the book stunk so bad.

Sadly, many people who approach writing seriously and try to make a career of it will face similar hurdles. These aren't the sort of things you can really prepare for. It's not an office rumor you can nip in the bud or a physical challenge you can overcome. It's a deep-down punch in the gut that takes the wind out of your sails, destroys your self-confidence, and makes you question your relationship with just about everyone you've ever known. In the end, if you make it, I suppose it also makes you strong. But it's sad that it so often has to be that way. 

There is one other dirty secret in the writing business, and that is the fact that a disproportionate number of writers seem to have had traumatic childhoods. This observation is completely unscientific, based only on the conversations, interviews, and writings of other authors. And I think it's the sort of thing many people tend to gloss over. The writers don't like to make a big deal out of it and journalists have no interest in tackling such a delicate subject. So you find comments here and there, and never hear anything else about it.

If it weren't for the fact that I had the same experiences as a child, I may never have made these observations myself. There's no doubt in my mind that my difficult childhood molded my young mind and personality, and helped forge me into a writer. I think in many cases this is true. Abuse, by its very nature, alters the way a person views the world. It's quite understandable that such a child looks deeper into the motivations and behaviors of his peers, and even the adults around him. So it follows that such children may disproportionately seek out careers that utilize these unique perceptions. And it also points toward an explanation as to why alcoholism seems to affect so many authors (another completely unscientific observation).

In the end, none of these things guarantee a person will become a writer of course, and these challenges may perfectly describe someone who's never even dreamed of writing a book. We are all unique and the experiences and insights we gain on our journey through life should be the ones we channel into our creative endeavors, whatever they may be. Perhaps there are authors out there who had a wonderful childhood in a warm, nurturing environment, and are horrified that anything bad could ever happen to a child. I hope so. I'd like to think the rest of us are actually in the minority. 

Ultimately, the important thing is that a writer must learn to face challenges, rather than hiding from them. If you've managed to complete a book, you've already proven yourself elite. The vast majority of wannabe writers will never get that far. They will succumb to fears, insecurities, and other negative thoughts and feelings. And if you've proven you can write a book, move on to the next, and then the next. Practice makes perfect. And If you really, really want to be a writer, you have to take yourself seriously, regardless of whether anyone else does.

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