Saturday, July 25, 2009

The Next Chapter: Thoughts About My Writing Life

Doesn't that image on the right bring back memories? Or does it?

I have a feeling that the majority of people who come to this blog once used a typewriter. I know I did, a manual one, and it had taken many years of determined longhand before I was able to reach that lofty economic and artistic goal. When I saw an ancient adding machine the other day it looked so like the old typewriters that I crossed over to it, oohing and awing, and ran my fingers over it.

Why? They weren't exactly fun to use. Pounding hard to get an even imprint, the type bars tangling together if I struck the keys incorrectly, spools of ribbon spilling out across the room when I tried to change them, the ink staining my fingers red and black...

Why does that make me nostalgic?

If you look at the previous post in this blog you will see three boys crowded together by a crumbling wall, looking at a book. This photo evokes a similar feeling for me.

It isn't a treacly nostalgia.

It isn't a treacly nostalgia. It's a blend of sorrow and joy, loss and awakening. I won't go into a long disclosure of why that is, but I will say that writing has been a rooting down for me, into the past, the present, and even the future, in terms of molding it in some small way - my own future, at least, if not the world's. It's been one of the often overlooked doors of perception that bring me out of my distracted state to fully notice existence - mine, ours - and my love for it. Writing is a link to times and people that I've known and loved, and others I can only imagine. It's a reminder of the brevity of life and the fact that I've caught up in one way to my grandparents and parents; I'm now one of the people who remembers a time that, for better and for worse, is gone.

Writing, reading, even typewriters, lead me to remember that I was a child just born, that I babbled at wallpaper, sat outside in a playpen and watched the world, was held by my parents, hit my head on the table when running underneath it. That I feared and was injured, loved and explored, hoped and despaired; that I fought, gave up, learned new ways. They remind me that some day my experiments will all be over, and I'll put my body into park, and turn off the engine. They prompt me to look around and see what is, instead of what I think I want to be, and to notice the wonder of it. And they cause me to consider others from the inside out, instead of staying lost in my own point of view.

I was listening to interviews today with Farley Mowat and Aleister MacLeod on The Next Chapter. (CBC Radio, rebroadcast from January 2009.) I love listening to writers talk about writing, and life, in a thoughtful way. It inspires me to write more, and to think about what I'm doing as a writer, and if it's what I want to be doing.

This last year, as the creation of Finding Creatures moved on to the publishing and promoting stages, has been an education, both exhausting and fun. I've spent more time trying in timid and often useless ways to promote the poor thing than I've spent writing anything new. (Yes, I've got some stories coming out, and have progressed a little on The Novel, but not as much as I would like.) I've helped other people with their books and writing and learned a ton more doing that. I read almost as much as when I was a child (and wasn't trying to be productive or useful). I've been connecting with writers and readers and LibraryThinging with gay abandon. This increased emphasis on every aspect of writing has been wonderful. My brain brims with bookishness.

My brain brims with bookishness.

It hasn't all been fun, of course. Sales are, well, teensy. That's okay. The point of publishing wasn't to make money (I'm not delusional), but to be read, even if only by a few people who get something out of what I've offered them. Most of the reviews, verbal or in writing, have been enthusiastic and that is rewarding. If you keep your thoughts and your writing to yourself for many years, as I have, you're never really sure if they would mean anything to anyone else.

Some of the reviews, though, have been less positive. The problem may be that the books went to readers who were hoping for desperate escapes, thrilling fights, worlds saved and destroyed, titillating sex scenes...and got quiet, thoughtful prose instead. As one nevertheless admiring reader said, "Your writing requires thinking" - not always a popular leisure activity for an over-busy and fatigued populace. A couple of people have said they felt distant from the characters - something others have strongly disagreed with. One young woman, who received a review copy through LibraryThing, said she couldn't get through a single story, that she wouldn't recommend them to anyone, that they completely sucked.

Hmmm. While this saddens me, I'm less stung by it than I would have been eight months ago. But I do wonder. Is it just a marketing problem? Should I be sending review copies to literary magazines - which I have assumed wouldn't be interested in the stories because of the speculative element - and forgetting about most genre sources? Am I painting myself into a corner by writing literary speculative fiction? Is there something I'm just not getting?

I do know that I miss working on my novel. I miss being immersed in that story and I want at the same time to finish it so that I can let my writing-brain rove to the next place it wants to go. Despite the occasional story and essay I've written in the last year, I miss having writing, not promoting and networking and other writing-related projects, as my primary focus.

In my interview with Irma Arkus last October I said that since I was beginning my writing career so late I didn't want to spend the time I had allotted to me in writing strictly genre fiction, which isn't my forte, but instead wanted to write what meant the most to me.

Of course, I could write what that reader above was looking for. I read it myself, when I want entertainment rather than something to Think about. But what most grounds me in the world? What is the juice in writing for me?

It's what I said above. Small and subtle things. The recognition of a leaf turning in quiet air. The song and flitting smallness of a chickadee. A tiny golden spider spinning down from my hat brim. The release of tension in a lonely human. Imagining some new way. The awakening of kin
dness. The softening of rage.

I love the earth and its people, be they spiders or mud or sunlight or child or wicked old man. These are the ordinary things I want to touch when I write, not the dramas of world-saving and gallant heroism. I'd have to refer to someone else's sensibilities to create action fiction. And I would have to remove myself from my own experience of life to do it, snapping the root hairs that anchor me to my work. What would be the point?

Or is that even true? What am I missing here?
What am I asking?

I guess that partly I'm wrestling over whether I'm doing the right thing by writing as I do, or whether I'm being self-indulgent. And I'm remembering what it's like to be a writer just in order to write, not to try to figure out marketing or worry about re
views or wonder if I'm doing the right thing. I'm thinking how lovely it is to just pull out my notebook and open the tap and let the words run over the ground and sink into the earth, nourishing my heart and the worms beneath me, if no one else.

Maybe I would be happier as an unpublished poet than a person who struggles to tweet...

Maybe I would be happier as an unpublished poet than a person who struggles to tweet when she'd rather roll over dead than blat out 140 character flashes every day in the hope of selling a book. (I only lasted on Twitter for a week, for that reason.) If I have only a few years left to read and write, do I want to spend them fruitlessly marketing my poor book, or should I let it take care of itself and go on to whatever's next?

This isn't really a new question in a way. I have a tendency to get caught up in jobs and leave living behind. So there may be no dichotomy at all. No conflict between writing as and what I want and attempting to get published, reviewed, and read. Maybe it's just that same old cycle again. Time to lighten the overcommitments, spend a few days smiling at leaves and insects and cats as I have been today, remember why I write...and to do it.

I went to a friend's book launch a couple of days ago. (I should really write about that...) It was wonderful. And yet, I felt tired. Who'd know that "being" a writer could be so much work?

On the other hand...yes, on the other hand...

Though there is something blissful about walking on a beach alone, thinking only your own thoughts and responding to the cries of birds, the drag-marks of crabs, the smell of brine, there is more to the story than that. I heard an interview with a man who went to the ends of the earth to be alone for many months so that he could delve into the spirit and come away enlightened. He was made to take a cat with him so that he could test for red tide by feeding the cat any shellfish he harvested. But the cat cried so much that the man became violent with him, emotionally at least, and still at the end of his time away he hated the cat and the feelings it brought up in him and the fact that the cat disrupted his trek to enlightenment.

While I was sweeping the floor this morning, noting the abundance of fluffy white cat hair and the very little else that was in my sweepings, and stopping to pet the perpetrator of that fluff from time to time, I remembered with irritation that man who thought he could run away from the world to find enlightenment, and who was so divorced from his surroundings that he showed only hatred to this cat.

My cats cry a lot, too. In my younger days I reacted to that with anger as this fellow did. Eventually I learned to pay attention to the cats. To show them affection instead of irritation and try to understand why they cried. The results have been fascinating and rewarding, and if ever I have had great spiritual teachers, these cats have been among them. To myself I lectured, while petting and sweeping, and sweeping the pettings, and then creating more, "If you want enlightenment, if you really want enlightenment, stay in the world, don't try to run out of it. It's in rubbing up against the things that make life difficult that you are shaped into something wiser, kinder, more generous than you were before."

The answer, as always, is to relax.

I hear an echo of that admonishment when I suggest that what I might want to do is move away from the fray of published life and write silent lines to myself and the trees. I'm just rubbing up against a new and rough-surfaced thing. It isn't a right, a wrong, a this way, or a that way. It just is, like everything else. The answer, as always, is to relax. And enjoy. And what I can't enjoy, forgive.

(Okay, computer. That's it for you today. Time to go out to enjoy the lanterns under the stars.)



Five Rivers Chapmanry said...

Or to use a paraphrase from Sting, commenting on the pursuit of his art: 'I'd write for the cat if no one else wants to listen.'
I concur. Write for the cat. Write for you. If nothing else at least it's honest writing, which is more than I can say about much that's published by the legacy giants.

Clayton Bye said...

Hi Casey,

You already know I'm a fan of your writing. I'm here to say YOU should also be a fan.

In my opinion, writers should always write for themselves, putting down words in ways that excite them, exploring what they know and speculating about what they don't. If they decide to put these words out for public consumption, then the writers--in fairness to their readers--should make the additional effort to entertain and/or inform. Those who do both well tend to be rewarded.

You do both things well. You're just having trouble finding the right audience, a challenge of proportions you're probably just realizing. The conjoining problems of proper distribution and of finding appreciative readers is THE CHALLENGE of a writer's career. Don't let it take away your enjoyment. If it comes to such a decision, of enjoyment over popularity, do what you love and the populace be damned.

Clayton Bye

Michael F Stewart said...

Hi, Casey, I think I saw you speak at a panel at Ottawa's Writer's Fest, in any case, a great post! And I'd agree with Clayton above - audience is the tricky business and that should be the job of your publishers.

Freebies are tricky - members on Librarything request the book not so much because they wish to read it, but because it's free. Many of the 'winners' will be more interested in a vampire romance than a literary piece. Librarything compels them to review so you're forcing people who won't like your book to review it early in the books life - that's setting yourself up for sure. If you've got a mainstream piece, then by all means use mainstream channels.

As for why I write - it's readership. For me anyways, if it doesn't work for my select audience then it's not going to work for me.

Joe Mahoney said...

I mostly just write for myself, hoping that it will amuse others. But I am reconciled to the fact that if I'm the only one who ever gets anything out of my writing, so be it. I may get momentary gratification out of someone else enjoying my writing, but I get thousands of hours of gratification from doing the writing itself.

I think of Vincent Van Gogh, who only ever sold one (or three, depending on who you ask) pieces of art in his life. Obviously for him it was about the process.

I do a bit of gun for hire work as a writer, for which there is a built in audience. Even then I'm writing essentially for myself, but within certain parameters. Instinctively I feel that if I can make it work for myself, then it will work for others.

I don't think this is the same as self-indulgence, because in all of my writing I am writing for myself but with the audience in mind. I make the prose and the plots as clear and evocative as possible. Self-indulgence in writing is when you write to please yourself at the expense of your audience.

And even that is okay, if you're will to pay the price.

A central question in writing (as in all life) is whether you require external validation. We all crave it; the trick is not to require it (or too much of it). It's how you yourself feel about your writing (and yourself) that matters the most. Everything else (sales, readership) is just icing on the cake.

My two cents.


C. June (Casey) Wolf said...

Thanks for the thoughts, folks. Good reminders.

"I may get momentary gratification out of someone else enjoying my writing, but I get thousands of hours of gratification from doing the writing itself." Touché, Joe. Very true.

Clayton, have you thought of joining SF Canada? We have a lively discussion list you would enjoy.

Cheers, all!