Sunday, September 23, 2012

The Dim Star

Before I get going - yesterday I blazed through Alison Bechdel's Are You My Mother? in about four hours. I know there are people who read this blog who have challenging mothers, and if you're one of them, get yourself to the library and put your paws on this book. I admit bias, because her Fun Home is in my top ten favorite books ever. But really. Read it. Epiphanies await you inside. (And don't listen to this sexist asshat.)

All right, so, today's subject. Remember how I said I went to the beach in part to see if I could make some biggish writing decisions? The one that was troubling me the most was which book to buckle down on: the [non-]horror novel or the KUFC book. For one or the other, I need to set a deadline and commit to it and get to work.

I could reproduce for you the dithering I was doing over these two projects, but I do not think it would make good reading. In short: the most significant attraction for the [non-]horror novel was an agent telling me it's an extremely saleable idea and she wants to see a rewrite if I do one, and the most significant attraction for the KUFC book was a heady and totally new blend of confidence and organization. The most sig. negative for the [non-]horror novel was having to write from scratch a book I'd already written and am a bit sick of, and the most sig. neg. for the KUFC book was fear (creeping terror, in truth) that I'd get to the end and be similarly fucked.

Trust me that there were many more things to consider and I've rifled them all.

Mid-last week I was so tired of worrying about it and wanted so much just to write that I opened up KUFC and started writing. I'd only gotten to about 9,000 words on it, which is really very little, before setting it aside. Last week I added 4,000. After my third day of work on it, I guessed that my decision was made.

I always have this impression that I'm committing a serious, irretrievable chunk of time when I commit to a book. The thing I always forget is that it's generally not true. No first draft of a book has taken me longer than three or four months once I stopped screwing around. Three months in which I did other things, too, worked and slept and ate and saw movies. At this point in my evolution I don't take two years to write a book. I just don't. If I could remember this, I think I could commit a little more easily to book projects.

At the reading I went to in July, there was a short Q&A after the actual reading part was over. A young woman in the audience asked Cheryl Strayed what she (the young woman) ought to do with the stories she'd written, and if Strayed had any advice for young writers. It was the last question answered, and Strayed kind of hurried through it, although I'm not sure she would have had a longer answer anyway. She said she had no idea what the young woman should do with her work. Her advice, though, was to keep writing, and to value the writing over the confirmation. I wish I could tell you those were her exact words, but I'm not positive she didn't use slightly different ones. She has written elsewhere about the distinct difference between writing a book and obtaining a book contract, very firmly delineating between the two, explaining that one does not indicate the other, noting gently that the quality of one does not confirm the existence of the other.

I've been tangled about this problem in the past. Many times. And I really couldn't transcend it. I couldn't see my way to writing exactly what I wanted and having faith that it's worthwhile. I could have done that if writing was the end in itself for me, but it only sort of is. Writing is the thing I want to earn money from, and that necessitates confirmation and acceptance and shaping the work until it's what the market wants.

I'll tell you, part of the reason that I slid into the decision to write KUFC first was because I think that it, too, is a very saleable idea. But outweighing that is plain old faith - I have more faith in KUFC than in [non-]horror. Yeah, yeah, because the latter's been rejected so spectacularly is surely part of the reason my faith in it is low, but mostly it's because I can feel the tension and motivation I'm pouring into every sentence of KUFC. It's faith that what I'm writing is worthwhile and it will find an audience eventually. The key is that it's not blind faith; it's born of practice, education, a lot of thinking, and a lot of reading.

I think I thought it was all or nothing, that you're either doing exactly what the market wants or you're doing exactly what you want. I wish someone had advised a grayer perspective. You know how there are stars in the sky you can't see unless you look slightly to the side of them, into the darkness? Yeah. If you keep staring up at the void and seeing what you need to see in it, but you keep in mind that the star is shining brightly just there, I think you'll find the right direction. The fancies of the market are that faint, elusive star that you can't look quite at or it'll disappear. It's way too unreliable to look at straight on. You need to keep it just to the side of your eye as you find your own destination.

I drafted some of this post two months ago, soon after I went to the reading and before I figured out this star thing, and at the time I asked this question: How do I keep believing that I can earn money from writing and simultaneously detach from confirmation and acceptance?

And in another way: How do I keep the faith about my writing dreams, and also find peace and detachment about rejection?

Although I've found a little bit of grace about the work vs. the market (and detachment from confirmation/acceptance has a lot more to do with my interior struggles than with the actual writing, I've figured out), I still don't have a good answer to this second question. I think the answer is that I just do.

But then why, professional writers who value the writing more than the confirmation, do you send out your work at all? In what spirit do you do it? I'm pretty sure that the personal blend of despair, wild hope, insecurity, towering arrogance, and resentment I feel when pushing envelopes into the blue metal box, or hitting Send, is the wrong spirit. And I want to know what the right one is. Writers who are successful and insist that the work is its own reward - that's what I want to ask them. If the work is its own reward, why seek publishing credits? To what end?

I'm sure they'd laugh and tell me I have so much yet to learn.

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