Friday, February 28, 2014

On Failure

I am a failure.

(Stick with me. My story gets better.)

February has always been a miserable month for me, and this one was especially so. Now that it’s (thankfully) the final day of that month, I’ve been thinking about all the ways I’ve fallen short over the course of my life.

In grade school, I stopped doing my homework because it was uninteresting, unchallenging, and silly, and I’d figured out that my grades at that level weren’t really going to impact my future enough to worry over. In high school, I did do my work, but I didn’t actually try. I made no effort to excel or distinguish myself. The after-school clubs were left unjoined, and papers and projects alike were completed like a recipe in the kitchen—one cup of hypothesis, three tablespoons of salient points, a dash of reference material, and bake. I was not engaged; I was a mass-production line.

It had always been assumed that college would be my time to shine. While the classes were far more interesting, I still did not put anything close to my best effort into my work. I dated a thoroughly unsuitable boy, bringing him home to meet my parents and ensuring many sleepless nights for them while they worried I’d keep him (I didn’t). My performance at school was perfectly adequate, but that was all. There was nothing on paper to show that I was intelligent, unique, and had something to offer the world. I did not go on to graduate school as I’d wanted, and I did not land a decent job when I graduated. It was several years before I had anything even remotely resembling a career, and I was only brought to it out of necessity rather than ambition.

While the official reason for my departure from that career was my children’s special needs, there will forever be a voice in the back of my head adding that another reason was that I sucked at it. It never felt real to me, and I was incredibly unhappy. I couldn’t be one of those moms who juggle everything, keep lists, vacuum more than once a year, and get up at 5 a.m. to do Pilates. In a lot of ways, when I quit my job to stay home, I felt like I was bailing on adulthood.

Since then, I’ve edited a pile of novels and published my own work. My royalties are abysmal. I do nothing to change that, make no effort to really market and promote. I even am seized with the impulse to apologize to those who have spent money on my books.

Sorry I suck. Better luck next time.

However. If I hadn’t lived the life I’ve led, so many things would have been lost. I never would have dated my husband if I hadn’t been so determined to date my ex’s opposite. I never would have been a parent who could respond to her children’s social and academic anxiety with compassion and understanding. I never would have been able to support my friends without judgment when their lives fell apart. I never would have learned how to engage and really try when the object is genuinely important to me.

I have unpaid bills, holes in my carpets, and missing plaster on my walls. My house will never be on the historical register. I may never be a successful author. My kids will definitely never be entirely “normal.” My middle-age spread has evolved into what might be called a hostile takeover of neighboring space. I frequently forget to floss. In the eyes of the world around me, I am a failure.

When I’m with my husband, it still feels like we’re dating. I still get butterflies in my stomach when he smiles at me. When I talk to my children, I see whole worlds in their eyes that no one else can access but them. When I help an author understand how to tap into a manuscript’s full potential, I feel a huge sense of accomplishment, as well as gratitude for the opportunity to be a part of that process. When I write, I am happy and focused and learn to know myself better. I stretch and challenge and grow.

Being a failure is pretty damn fantastic.

Thursday, February 20, 2014

Why is Writing so Hard?

My husband, bless him, believes that I’m talented. This means that he has trouble understanding why I haven’t written ten best-sellers already. “Just write it,” he says, blissfully unaware of the challenges that he’s waving aside so dismissively.

He’s not entirely wrong, of course. To write a book, there is a critical requirement that at some point your butt hits a chair and you write it. No matter what your “process” is, at the end of the day you must translate your ideas and imaginings to paper. However, there is a lot more that goes into the creation of a novel than that, and it is often these invisible considerations that make the task so daunting.

1. First, the writer must overcome “I-Suck-itis.” 

The split second that you start listening to that voice in your head that tells you all your ideas are rubbish and your writing is crap, you are done. While an inflated ego is not required, you do have to have at least a whisper of belief that what you write has merit and will appeal to someone out there. Because we all have good days and bad days, a lot of writing time is lost to those moments when we are grappling with self-doubt. Even disciplined writers with daily quotas have been known to meet those quotas by writing about how badly they suck. Often after a bad review or critique.

2. Next, the writer must address the limitations of an idea. 

You want to write a story about the caretaker of a creepy old house who must fight off four trespassing teenagers and a large talking dog? Great. What happens? How does the tension build? How will each character develop? What is the climax? In other words, just coming up with an exciting premise for a book is not the same thing as figuring out the complexities of plot and character that come together to bring that premise to life.

3. The characters. 

Non-writers do not understand that once a character is given life, its creator has about as much control over it as a parent does over a teen-aged daughter’s moods. Frequently, characters wander off in unplottable directions, and the author is left scrambling to catch up. These little surprises can often turn the story outline on its ear, stretching and challenging the writer to come up with new ideas and solutions. This requires a lot of thinking, pacing, and muttering to oneself. Hair-pulling and inarticulate growls can also manifest themselves.

4. Then there’s real life. 

Spouses and children expect to be interacted with on a semi-regular basis. Some attention to hygiene must be paid as well. Phones must be answered, taxes must be filed, and food must be purchased and consumed. Even if a writer were to be able to neglect all these things indefinitely, it would still be a problem, since we must experience these human interactions and activities in order to write realistically. So much inspiration comes from the small moments in our days that becoming a hermit to write a book is a self-defeating tactic.

I would love to be a full-time novelist, but it’s not feasible. Bills must be paid, and working as an editor makes that more likely to happen. When I’m not editing, I still have two special-needs children to tend to (sometimes three, if my husband is having a rough day). I do have a work in progress currently that I’d like to take a determined stab at finishing, so I plan to blog about that process periodically in the hopes that this may give me further insight into my own writing process. Also, I think some readers might find it interesting. Let's see how far my husband's "just write it" approach can get me!