“Ambition is the last refuge of failure,” Oscar Wilde
“Never tell me the odds,” Han Solo
I’ve received interesting feedback on FXXK WRITING. Much of it from pros and amateurs in writing, music, and theater, lots of it good, some critical, and a minority have been upset, which I find bizarre. But I was also given a challenge from a friend who enjoys the column.
“How about answering: why do you continue to write?”
Gauntlet thrown, and raised!
My “why” consists of many parts, working in tandem. Be forewarned. This month’s contribution is something of a vanity project. No showbiz insight. No laws. No rules. Just one voice amidst the crowd. And it starts off with everyone’s favorite topic . . .
I’ve always been impressed with writers who have extensive bibliographies. They seemed to indicate a life that endured far past their years, influencing the world after they’d become dust. I’m also a historian, so I spend a lot of time recovering and recreating the lives of the dead. Both facts speak to my mortal coil.
Philosopher Ernest Becker’s macro thesis argues that the engine of civilization and its products (art, war, love, peace, etc.) is rooted in our need to deny the reality of our own death. The older I get, the more this idea becomes a deep drum behind my thoughts, as well as a side-effect from working with the dead. This is not an active part of the process. I don’t sit down and say, “Right-O, let’s pretend I won’t die by writing a story that will outlive my fleshsuit! One with a monkey and a vampire!” But I won’t deny the desire to “live after death through a body of work” is in me. And now . . . it’s in YOU!
Steve Tem wrote an essay about why writing revealed how he actually felt about many things once he crossed the threshold from preparing to write, to creating the work. I find myself drawn to this effect as a conscious or unconscious goal. Writing stories let me gain greater insight on how I feel and think about morality, ethics, love, desire, hate, life-and-death and, of course, PRO WRESTLING. Revealed are layers and depths beneath the surface of the conscious narrative. Which is a nice surprise: as the old scriptwriters used to say (taken from Robert McKee’s STORY): “If the scene is about what the scene is about, you’re fucked!”
Range of depth varies. Sometimes a story is just a story, and I’m fucked; but I like . . . those stories, too (keep your mind out of the gutter, perverts). The authors I dig tend to have both surface and depth running symbiotically as well (see Philip K. Dick, Jim Thompson, Megan Abbott, and Elif Shafak, for example), and I wonder how much of that was discovery or planning, or planning by the subconscious (which Ray Bradbury thought was the real motor of fiction). Best to try all of the above.
Short stories are a wonderful road on this journey. And before anyone thinks these tales always turn into literary or experimental or realism pieces, almost all involve the mechanics of commercial fiction, too. I love the iconography of pop culture, always have, and its mythological overtones still grip me. Especially in noir. SWILL magazine published my story “Lose to Win,” which I thought was just a tirade about working in sales for one day. Underneath that story was a bigger one, about abusing the ability to empathize with others; and how being driven by circumstance to do so breeds monsters. Sure, it’s a shitty-day-at-work-story, but not just that.
SHITS AND GIGGLES!
I find joy in creating stories, even the dark ones (hell, especially the dark ones), even the tricky ones. Each has its own level of difficulty. Some are easy. Some are difficult, but fun. Some are like yanking my molars out with chopsticks, but the effort is rewarded with the relief of a hard task well done (like a c-note from the tooth fairy).
I also find great joy in a variety of storytelling mediums: short stories; novels; essays; historical works (articles and books); columns (this one!); improv with teams and duos; and live storytelling on my lonesome. Each has different kinds of fun attached. Together, they become more than the sum of their parts. Abandoning the sole “I’m a writer of fiction, it’s who I am, it’s what I do” mantra ironically rekindled an interest in writing fiction. Variety, not monopoly, was integral to the recipe of shits and giggles.
Writing is difficult. Getting better is hard. That doesn’t mean it can’t be fun, but sometimes fun is not enough if you want to improve. Years back, I became competent at writing a particular kind of story. I wasn’t sure how to get better, but I knew writing another iteration of the same kind of story wasn’t the way. I had to stop my momentum of writing four of these books a year.
Getting better meant reading wider, finding joy in non-writing stuff, new storytelling stuff, and then returning to writing with a new perspective and tools. I experimented with form and genre and style. I learned to enjoy revision (though it ain’t easy). I’m re-learning how to work with hard critique. Abandoning my self-identity as a writer also gave my brain room to fail as I worked hard on new approaches. Being cool with failure, and learning to work with it, helped me improve. If you don’t fail every now and again, you’re not really trying.
Writing is labor. Labor should be compensated. I primarily write commercial fiction. I like commercial fiction (just not all of it). And commercial fiction has the benefit of paying more than many other forms (experimental, poetry, academic, etc.). I’m also poor, with zero job stability (USA! USA! USA!). Every little bit helps.
Short stories have been a sideline to thousands of dollars over fifteen years. I usually sell them for a few hundred bucks (small compared to non-fic, but that’s the biz). My indie novels bring in less, because I burned out on PR and production when my life collapsed in 2013, and thus lost two pillars required to make those works cash-intensive. But they do sell, and will continue to do so. And I can change their status as a priority, but other things dominate my horizon.
The sum total of my professional successes as a writer also allows me to find other work (teaching classes, this column, curriculum development, writing from RPGs, video games, etc) that also pays cash. I enjoy that kind of work, too. See also: Poor.
I take some pride in my body of published work. I’ve mostly catered it, not to fit the greatest demographic, but for me and had others enjoy them anyway. It’s a harder road in terms of selling, of course, but I know that fact. For these projects, the primary goal was other things (see above). Hunting for cash was at the end of the process.
I’ve written stuff specifically for money, too. Nothing wrong with that either. It has restrictions that other work doesn’t (if you don’t find them restrictions, awesome for you!), and I try and find the best way to create great stuff within the limitations and get paid. Sometimes I end up making things that are pretty damn awesome. Other projects are so limiting that they are pure killjoys, regardless of payday. So, I generate content and find opportunities accordingly, and get paid. Sometimes well, sometimes peanuts, but rarely on spec. See also: Poor.
PROVE THE MUTHAFUCKERS WRONG, RIGHT?
This is the unhealthiest driver, a bastard child made of ego and spite. It does not come from a “good” place. But, this column isn’t about looking solely at the good. There are a zillion other columns, blogs, and books for that, and I’m a little tired of the “all writers are awesome snowflakes” approach to viewing our craft, so, allow me to open the Pandora’s Box of my Id for a peak at the dark side.
At different times of my life, I’ve had people say something akin to “Ridler . . . you’re oneofthoseguys who’s gonna make it Big Time!” When I ask if they know how or when, I get a rim-shot (you know which kind, perverts). Musician? Historian? Novelist? Improv actor? BIG TIME??? I’m unsure why they say such things, but I suspect it’s my fetching personality, Latvian good looks, and rugged Canadian humility (RIM-SHOT!).
And, of course, “making it big” is code-words for “rock-star-like success where worry vanishes, wealth and prestige spring like a sexy Athena from the head of Zeus and straight into your Flying Tesla, and all you must decide is what act of genius you will unveil to the world that morning.” In short, it’s a “porn dream.”
When this has failed to happen at various times in my life, often without me aiming for it, the dialog switched from “you’ll make the Big Time,” to “why aren’t you Big Time?” and “You’re fucking up, Big Time.”
Why? Many factors . . . bad luck. Stubborn intent. Wasn’t trying. When I did, it was for the wrong reasons. Not meant to do Big Time things. Big Time only has so many spots. No idea how the Big Time works. Unable to game the Big Time without feeling like garbage. Writing novels about pro wrestling instead of elves and pretty vampires (though many love my fugly vampire novel) . . .
Also, when I’ve thought about success (not the Big Time), I wanted it to happen because I did good work over a long time, as if the system was fair. And it’s not. Hell, getting by is dangerously unfair. Big time? How about off-store and partially damaged Lean Cuisine from Grocery Outlet Bargain Market for dinner time?
Friends have left my life and traded up because of my lack of Big Time. If you think that stigma is easy to live with, then you were born made of diamonds, I guess. Such losses ate a good part of my heart, like battery acid on an already open wound.
Yet, I keep writing.
Well, all the reasons above. And one buried deep below.
In that burned out hole in my chest sits a punk rock kid in a boxing ring, two black eyes, broken nose, busted lip, kidney’s shot and liver shaking. He knows the odds are shit. Hell, the game is rigged. But he doesn’t care. Like a punch-drunk underdog, he keeps getting up, for one more round, one more shot, one more chance. He’ll keep fighting, money, marbles, or chalk, just to see how big the winner’s purse is when the final bell tolls.
And it tolls if I stop.
And I won’t give the shithooks who punched me on the way down an ounce of satisfaction.
Not pretty, is it? I agree. But it’s real. Cue my theme song.
Bet you thought it would be Metallica! PSYCHE! Ah-whoo Ah-whoo!
Dedicated to Gary Braunbeck and Bruce Holland Rodgers, for their inspiring essays and fiction. Like this piece? Buy Gary’s work here, especially To Each Their Darkness. Buy Bruce’s work here, especially WordWork