As I type now, late to updating for the day and passing up a more substantive post I could have done, I find myself wanting more than anything to respond to… a tweet. As minor as it might be in the grand cosmos, there was something about this tweet I saw a few days ago that stuck with me. And no, I won’t post that tweet here, because I’m not trying to start shit. But I did feel the need to address something it brought up.
There are a few truths about writers that we have to accept almost universally. The first is that we’re usually going to dislike our old work, it goes without saying, and anyone who doesn’t dislike their old work has often either stagnated or is impressed with the fact it was readable back then. It doesn’t mean you have to hate it, you just can’t look at it as positively as you once did anymore. When you look back at what you did years ago, it’ll always feel a little embarrassing because you’ll see the marks of your improvement and wish you could have written it today instead of before you knew better.
The second thing is that even our most successful individuals happen to have some problems. The number of writers who are high strung, alcoholic, or just “out there” is pretty high. Not everyone, mind you, but there’s always some little voice that doesn’t quite accept where they are. J.K. Rowling released books under a pseudonym for a while after her success because she wanted to prove it was her writing and not her fame that got her where she is. Considering she’s the first author to become a billionaire simply from writing in the history of writing, it takes some neuroses to question whether or not you earned it. Unique as she is, she’s far from alone there.
And, because of those two details, the third thing we have to accept is that we’re always going to need find ways to cope…. So let’s go ahead and not crap on anyone’s coping mechanisms, okay?
Why So Serious?
One of the things I see get thrown around a lot is this idea that there are “serious” and “not serious” writers. Sometimes this is an accurate judgment – some people are genuinely following writing as a hobby. But the thing that bothers me is when the idea gets proposed that someone who is putting real effort into it isn’t actually serious. It’s a dismissal, a removal of people who haven’t quite matched your expectations, as if you’re judge, jury, and editor (who, frankly, may as well be executioner).
For most instances, it’s a subtle and unintended gesture. You’ll question if maybe someone might not be taking something as seriously as they should. But for others there’s this general sense of elitism that comes from putting words to the page that I could never understand. When did constructing a coherent sentence make us gods? I mean, sure, we craft worlds from whole cloth but it’s not like we do it in seven days… except that one time with Jules Verne and the cocaine wine.
But there are still a great number of writers today who, despite having their own issues, say things about others that just comes off as elitist. Mind you, I don’t mean when you’re punching up or punching at someone next to you, that’s fair game – we’re all technically competitors. I mean when you’re a semi-successful writer who says things like “if you don’t write [#] words a day, you’re not serious about it” or “if you’re not willing to cut people out of your lives, you’re not serious about it.”
What the hell? I’ve heard that last one more than once from middling writers and it never ceases to amaze me that there are people out there who think people are disposable like that. When those people did walk out on you, did you critique their dialogue? “Sorry hon, I know the marriage is over, but I’m not believing your speech. I couldn’t possibly have my head that far up my own ass.”
It’s true there will be people who have to sacrifice to make this writing thing work. There will be times when you have to take risks and the people around you may not approve of those risks. But to be so callous about it requires either being a real bastard or a poor communicator. And, seeing the profession we’re in, I’d hope you can understand why considering you a bastard is giving you the benefit of a doubt here.
Funny enough, almost all the time I see truly successful writers talk about how important the people in their lives are to them. A friend of mine is a real fan of Neil Gaiman and his wife Amanda Palmer and the two of them happen to post delightfully cutesy details about each other. It’s clear that they feed off of each other and inspire each other, and that’s a great relationship to be in. Not everyone can have that, but the kind of people who say you have to cut others out of your life are generally saying such a relationship just can’t exist.
In fact, being able to find outlets and ways to enjoy your life are tantamount. Life gets hard and it’s not always pleasant, so you have to find some joy even in the rough parts. It’s often said by successful writers that having the ability to laugh at your own jokes and laugh at yourself is important. We are incredibly tense as a general rule of thumb, so anything you can do to feel a little levity goes a long way. Everyone needs to find a way to vent and find a way to make things feel a little more right. Speaking as a chimp at a keyboard, I know it feels better when I’ve thrown shit on the internet once in a while at a couple deserving targets.
But hold, that thing I did right there? That’s a sign I’m not really a serious writer. Because apparently one of the things that can mark you as not being serious is being self-deprecating. Calling myself a chimp, implying that what I write on the internet might be shit, these things are marks that I’m just trying to provide myself an excuse for failure.
I know because I was informed of this over the last couple of days by that aforementioned tweet. It was spread around quite a bit, brought to my attention by a retweet rather than seeing the original. And, as I said then, I really wish someone would have told me I wasn’t serious before I self-published two books, because that would have saved me a lot of time.
The thing that bothers me about the concept is that it was told to everyone as one of those cookie cutter, post to facebook, self-help bullshit quotes that gets passed around like the greatest wisdom ever. “Oh, if you’re really serious, you won’t be down on yourself, saying things at your own expense, or collapsing into emotional issues.”
So then what the fuck was Stephen King’s problem?
“I am the literary equivalent of a Big Mac and Fries.” — Stephen King
Or how about this gem from Ray Bradbury?
“A conglomerate heap of trash, that’s what I am. But it burns with a high flame.” — Ray Bradbury
Or maybe this one from Grisham?
“I can’t change overnight into a serious literary author. You can’t compare apples to oranges. William Faulkner was a great literary genius. I am not.” — John Grisham
Now I would dare anyone to try to say that these aren’t serious writers. I would dare anyone to say that their self deprecation was a measure of their lack of dedication. I would dare anyone to say that they’re more dedicated than Stephen fucking King. He killed braincells because of the intensity of his dedication. He can’t even remember writing Cujo. When was the last time you did something productive while blacked out for weeks, perhaps months on end? You can’t remember doing that? Neither can King.
So what’s my point tonight? My point is that you shouldn’t ever listen to someone tell you that you’re not serious just because they don’t like the way you present yourself. If you’re really down on yourself, you don’t need to listen to people giving you more reason to be down. If you’re really seeking advice, you don’t need the advice that tells you that you need to pull yourself up by the bootstraps. If you’re really self-deprecating, embrace the crazy, it’s worked for a lot of people before you.
The only measure of whether or not you’re a serious writer is if you write, keep writing, and put it out there. If you can do those three things, feel free to talk shit about yourself all you want, because being humble and honest with yourself, but still going forward…
Is a great thing.