Friday, February 13, 2015

On Being a Writer, and other Silliness

It was eight years ago, around this time of year, that I put in my notice at SaskTel. I was going to be a professional screenwriter, and I couldn't have work interfering with my time anymore. I was going to do like Stephen King and many other writers told me was the only way to become a professional writer: I would devote myself to the craft, and write like it was a full-time job. In the meantime, my generous girlfriend, Suzi, had offered me a place to stay for free and buy me food.

Fast forward to last summer. I was not earning a living as a professional writer. My wife had been working to support me for years, and wanted the freedom to realize her dream of becoming a BodyTalk practitioner. So I took a job as a scheduler.

Photo Credit: Jennifer Sparrowhawk, http://kindredcities.tumblr.com/
It was good to be earning regular money again, but at night, my dark other would come and whisper things to me. So much for your great experiment, he said. You are not a professional writer, and therefore you are a failure. You wasted years of your life for nothing.

That voice in my head often tells me rotten things like that, so it's usually a terrible idea to listen to him. But it's hard not to notice, because the things he says are based in truth. I had set out on a quest to be a working writer, and I wasn't, so... mission failed, right? There are any number of intellectual arguments to counter this, but the voice that says, “You are a failure” is based in deep, unconscious emotion, and impervious to intellectual attack.

The mission isn't over. I'm still writing. I'll be headed to a week-long writing retreat at St. Peter's Abbey in Muenster in a couple weeks, in fact. I'm full of short stories and working on a novel. I still love what I do, so my dark other can take a hike. However, this is a good time for reflection on the closing of a chapter in my personal story.

What did I get from all that time without a regular job? Let me tell you, it was great to be freed from drudgery. I loved to wake when I pleased and go to bed when I wished. I was lucky that I got to taste that freedom in my prime, when most people have to wait until they retire. But there were also difficulties that I didn't expect. Believe it or not, having these obstacles actually made life as a freelance writer, and I hesitate to use this word, difficult!

It was Hard to find Motivation

Writing full time... in theory, it's an easy thing to do. There are any number of activities I used to fill my time. Aside from from actual writing, there are writing exercises which took me out my regular writing patterns and taught me to compose in different ways. Then there was reading, for learning the craft, for research, and for enjoyment. As a screenwriter, I could also just watch movies. I could blog. I could market myself.

So why is it that so many of my hours were sacrificed to dark goddess, Facebook? Why is it that so many quests were completed in Oblivion, Dragon Ages 1 and 2, Red Dead Redemption and Skyrim, while my own quest went unfulfilled? Why did I spend so many hours feeling bad about writing instead of actually writing?

Good question. It would appear that it is way easier to work when somebody is telling me what to do. I made lots of plans. I was my own boss. At one point I planned my days. I stuck to it for a week, but my habits slipped and I stopped. My dark other popped by and told me I was a failure for being unable to follow my own plan. I felt bad, and I wrote less.

How did I overcome this obstacle? I didn't, exactly. I slowly, slowly got better at working on my own, for longer periods of time. I also had to learn to stop beating myself up if I didn't hold my discipline, because some days, I couldn't. As hard as I tried, I couldn't wave a magic writer-wand and become disciplined. Over a period of years, I just kept trying, succeeding and failing.

In the end, I am not a model of self-discipline. I still love goofing off, ignoring my goals, and playing video games. But I also know how to write better, I know how to write more quickly, and I can spend an afternoon doing it without worrying if I'm doing it right.

I Hated not being Self-Sufficient

I was lucky during this period. My girlfriend, who would later become my wife, was my patron. She looked after my needs, so I never had to worry about my next meal like many of my starving-artist brethren.

But like them, I didn't make much money. Less than a year after I quit my job at SaskTel, I depleted the savings in my bank account. I had gone from being my own man to being a dependant. I was no longer a self-sufficient good citizen. I was a drain on the woman I loved. Quietly, I began to feel terrible about myself.

While I worried about my discipline and writing habits on a daily basis, my feelings of financial inferiority sneaked up and inflicted a more insidious wound. I was unmanned.

So how did I deal with this issue? Once again, I didn't really. I guess I got tired of it and got a job. And here I am. I'm still writing, but at least now I'm making some money. How long will I continue at this job? That depends on my own whims and the whims of fate. For now, I'm happy with the compromise.

I got Dopey

When spending so much time working with my right brain, and without the activity of a regular job to stimulate the left, I became imprecise. I spent so much time in my head that I stopped paying attention to the real world. And with these things, time became less important.

At SaskTel, I carried a calendar and cellphone with me everywhere I went. I always knew the date and time. As a writer, days began to melt together. I lost track of the date and the day of the week. Hours would drift past without me noticing. I forgot appointments and promises. I would forget what I was doing. Math got more difficult.

It seems funny to me that I should go from this state into being a scheduler, but life is odd. Time and the real-world have come back to me. And with my scheduling job limiting my life, time has become more important. My days seem packed with activity, even my days off. And somehow, I seem smarter.

Marketing was Harder than I Thought it Would Be

It will be fine, I told myself, I can do it. Marketing will come naturally. But when it actually came showing my creations to the world, for years I discovered that I couldn't actually manage it.

For a start, my self-esteem was in the sewer. How could I, an undisciplined, financially insolvent failure produce anything worth reading? I was inexperienced. Even if I had something worth showing, how was I supposed to interrupt the lives of total strangers and ask them to read my work? If my writing was bad, they would surely resent the time I wasted.

Coupled with this was the fear of rejection. When I first started writing, I thought I was good at taking criticism. But I wasn't. I would be devastated for days, weeks, months after I heard it. If I put my work into the world and heard criticism or even silence, I took it very personally.

This was a difficult one to overcome. But, unlike many of my problems, I think I've actually fixed this issue. The only way to break through this wall of fear was to actually do it. I did it cautiously at first, with short stories and screenplay competitions. I would submit my work one piece at a time and wait expectantly for the results. If my work did well, I felt great and did it again. If my work was rejected, I would be devastated and wouldn't submit again for months. But eventually I got used to the fear of rejection. It became easier to ask. I began to submit more frequently and it became easy. I've had two stories published in the last year, and I see no reason why there will not be more.

When I Wrote More, I Failed More

Part of practising writing is to become better. And this happened. I can say that I am a better writer than I was eight years ago. However, what surprised me is that by increasing my writing volume, I also increased my output of failures.

After abandoning a screenplay project because I could see it was going nowhere, in 2009 I started laying the groundwork of my Necromantic States of America project. I spent a year worldbuilding. Then I started writing my fourth screenplay. The process was painful. I put everything I had into it, and I told myself that THIS WAS THE ONE. I would sell this one. I would break out with this one. It took me two years to complete.

I submitted it to screenplay competitions and waited. The results slowly trickled in, and I began to see what I had long suspected: my inner critic had been correct. I had written something which, at the very best, nobody understood, at the worst, was bad.

I was heartbroken. My previous screenplays had finished well in the competitions. How could I have written something bad, something into which I had poured so much love? My dark other told me that I had wasted my life. “I'm thirty-six!” I told my wife through tears one night. “I can't afford another fucking three-year learning experience!” In the months that followed, I couldn't write at all. I considered going back to school for a career, and abandoning writing.

I didn't abandon writing, obviously. It was just as it was, a fucking three-year learning experience. And one of the things I learned is something I should have already known: they can't all be winners. Continuing to write increases my chances of success, but inevitably, I will write stinkers. And that's okay. That screenplay is still written, and one day, maybe I'll come back to it and improve it. Or not!

Being a Writer is Bullshit

As I mentioned before, I had ideas about what exactly it means to be a writer. A quote I heard in Throw Momma from the Train stuck with me, “A writer writes. Always.” I took that literally. I heard many writers, including Stephen King, say that you should write like it's a full-time job. Ray Bradbury told me to sell lots of short stories and make it big that way. Katherine Atwell Herbert told me, in her soul-crushing book, The Perfect Screenplay, to move to Los Angeles; it is the only way to be successful as a screenwriter. Writers worked in coffee shops. They drank tea and listened to CBC, and wore sweaters. All you had to do is try really hard, and you could be one.

I couldn't and didn't do these things. Yet my dark other used them as an excuse to skewer me. “You're not a writer,” it said. “You're a fraud. Look at all the time you've been given and you squander it. You'll never be a writer at this rate.” My preconceptions about being a writer became a way for my subconscious to torture me.

Sometime last spring, I came to a shocking conclusion: being a writer is bullshit. I found that I could just BE. If that being included writing, I was happy. Once freed from the preconceptions of being a writer, I could do other things like hanging out with my kid, like playing video games, like housework, or like getting a paying job, all without guilt. Why does it matter if I'm A Writer if I enjoy my life? I still write.

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This post was difficult. I had to revisit a lot of old shame and fear. But I think it was necessary to mark that time in my life and see its good and evils. Thank you for reading this far. Be sure that I'm doing okay, I'm feeling good, and that just because I'm getting a paycheque doesn't mean I've given up my dream.   

4 comments:

  1. Winner! I joke that one must write naked to be a successful writer. Emotionally, that is. Good writing, as with many things in life, comes from a place of being emotionally honest and vulnerable.

    Time NOT wasted. You did it! You got out there, submitted work, learned. Writers know you will be praised, crushed and ignored in various measures... but no one can take away your emotional outpouring of self expression, your product in the world.

    What is "good" or "bad" about your self expression? Is it measured by the likes of others? You have discovered the truth: what matters is emotional honesty with yourself, which results in being able to write universal truth.

    I suppose that if you want "to be liked" then writing to formulas and following techniques MIGHT matter. Give the people what they want. But writing truth, well, will be discovered and cherished.

    I am in my 25th year of writing a book/screenplay that I've never submitted. But I don't feel like I've ever achieved the emotional nakedness needed to succeed. Meanwhile I've been fully employed. Who should feel worse?

    I'll close with an old joke: "Did you hear about the actress? She went to Hollywood and tried sleeping her way to the top with the writer."

    Sheesh... even successful screen writers get no respect. It's almost like being a Bodhran player.

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  2. Yes, vulnerability is needed. I that's another thing I wish I had known about before embarking on the journey. But I suppose 8 years ago, if somebody said I had to be vulnerable, I would have listened but not understood.

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  3. Thanks for this, Jeremy. Although I never actually had the balls to give up earning a paycheck and just go for it, I'm with you. My biggest problem is being at peace with my job, so that I can use my free time effectively. How could I possibly sit down and write when my brain keeps me on this neverending quest for a job that will suck less, because if I am content I might actually be able to sit down and write. Stupid, right? Nevertheless, I've struggled with this one for years.

    Anyway, I just wanted to let you know that I found this to be quite a motivating read. Thanks a bunch.

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    1. Hi, Mic. It's great to hear from you after so long! I'm so glad you read my post.

      Several of my writing books have said that, for people with busy schedules who want to write, you adopt a policy of incrementalism. Make time to write for half an hour every day. Don't beat yourself up if you don't do it on a few days. Increase that time by 15 minutes the next week, and 15 minutes the next.

      One of the great things about writing is that when you put it down for awhile, it's always there for you when you get back, assuming you saved it. That means that no matter how discouraged you get, it's always waiting for you.

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