July 8th, 2008


The Terror That Flaps in the Night

I went to two writing workshops this year--my first. I sort of backed into this gig; I didn't go to Clarion or Odyssey or Alpha any of the other foot-in-the-door workshops. I didn't even take many writing classes in college--I only needed to be told point blank I had no talent or hope of being a writer three or four times before I gave up and figured Classics was a more solid career choice. [Insert wry grin here]

So it was all new--traveling to live and work with other writers I respect enormously for a week. There were good and bad points during both Rio Hondo and Blue Heaven--I might have wished for more time for composition at Blue Heaven, as the critique schedule was intense, and more casual discussion of craft at Rio Hondo. I would not give up the time I got with bram452, Maureen McHugh, tobiasbuckell, Melinda Snodgrass, or Paolo Bacigalupi for anything.

But at both workshops, I got really and truly depressed around mid-week. It was hard to shake; I only really cheered up towards the end.

See, being a writer is terrifying. Writing, writing itself, is wonderful and full of fire, at least for me. There's nothing I'd rather do. But the practice and business of being a writer horrifies and scares me, and at these workshops, there's a lot of time and reasons to think about it.

Between reading and listening to success stories and being inspired, I kept thinking--what am I doing? Why am I even trying with all this experimental shit? I struggled at both workshops to lift my head above water, to believe that I shouldn't, if I wanted to keep going, jettison what most people call pretentious and inaccessible anyway and try to write something at least a little commercial? After all, some of the writers there were my absolute heroes, and they're having great success not fucking around with structure and language until no one knows what the hell they're talking about.

It's not that I can't continue publishing what I'm writing now, what I am driven to write. Maybe not with NYC presses forever, but I have fair faith I can keep doing it in one way or another. But that isn't going to feed my future kids, it isn't going to pay a mortgage, it isn't going to give us any freedom at all, ever. If not for justbeast and his kindness, I'd have long ago had to be an office girl, since Classics does not provide so solid a career path after all. Let's be honest: it's highly unlikely I'll ever be on the bestseller lists, and this business is pretty fucking cutthroat these days. I wonder how long I have left to perform to expectations. The average career length is...short. Where will I be in five years? I wonder if I can make it that long. I wonder if it would even help to try writing something much more traditional.

And yet, I have to believe that the reason I've come so far in less than four years is that I am different, I have something to offer. Where is the balance between that difference and putting food on the table? Could I be more successful if I let go the recursive structures and complex language and dreamlike stories and wrote something else? I don't know. Nothing is assured success. And the fact that the question even bears asking implies that I am somewhat close to being able to support myself, that it's on the horizon, otherwise I wouldn't sweat it at all. But it got me really depressed in the workshops, because everyone's having these fears, whether their sales are better or worse than mine. And what they value in books was not always what I value--but what they value sells. Any workshop is full of vastly different skills, and that's all to the good, but it's hard to keep your own chin up amid all the competing opinions, rules, ideas. And my chin went way down, in stark terror that I would not be able to keep this up, that I was doomed to fail at the whole writing world, that the rest of them had something figured out that I didn't, came from an entirely different, success-stitched cloth, and what I loved to write would be the thing that doomed me.

Some heavy shit to deal with when surrounded by people in front of whom crying and spluttering: jesusfuck I just want to keep working would seem really weird. It's taken me weeks to come out of it, and I still don't have any answers, at least not solid enough answers to apply them in any real way. I learned a lot of things at these workshops, and those go gleefully, joyfully, into the "now I know better" bag, but the more esoteric, arcane aspects of managing a career trouble me deeply, and I don't know what to do, really. It's all very well to be a brave little toaster and keep on burning bread, but I want to support my family, I want to take care of people, I want to be massively competent and able. But we all want to make a living at this, so it's tiring to rail at heaven for a middle-class income. Ugh.

But I read things like nihilistic_kid's essay, and there's spark of thinking that somehow it's ok, that I can fail and at least I did let everything hang out and bleed all over my pages. At least I did my best.

But it's only a little ok. I'm still struggling with all of this, and unsure of where to put down my foot as I take the next step.
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Around the Dinner Table

Oh my god. justbeast's parents have the most amazing stories.

Tonight, over catfish and fried bread, we were treated to the tale of how V. as a very young man worked as a dolphin researcher on a barren island in the black sea, and how he and his fellow researchers were so hungry, Odessa being very far away, that they tried to catch one of the wild horses that roamed on the island by trapping it in their house. It ran around in circles wrecking everything until someone tried to catch it by the tail, at which point the tail ripped off and the horse jumped out the door. They also traded the gunpowder that they dug up from the bottom of the Black Sea aremoved from shells for milk and flour in town.

V. met T., justbeast's mother, because the university let the young biologists spend the winter on the medical school campus--sharing a room with the cadavers. T. was a medical student, working with dilapidated open-heart surgery machines that inadvertently crushed blood cells from time to time. In the summer, she returned with V. to the island, to cavort among pink-eyed phosphorescent shrimp and jellyfish. She arrived to meet him on a ship with crimson sails called Dream.


justbeast and pere adjourned to make coffee as T. began to talk about the old days in Russia. She told me exactly how a KGB officer would come and how they would get information from wives about husbands--so friendly, so innocuous: just tell us, we already know, it doesn't reflect on you at all. About living under Brezhnev--when he began, there was caviar in every store, but no one had any money to buy it, and when he ended, there was nothing to buy, but everyone had a full refrigerator, because everyone had learned how to steal.

But what killed me was how they talked about that barren island, and the stars, and the phosphorescence, about young men sneaking off with lovers into mosquito-infested weeds, about loving the taste of fried bread so much when you had had nothing all day, working in the sea. About how young they were, and how romantic, how little they knew about the world, that summer in the sea. And T. saying, as I poured my last vodka: all I ever wanted to bring with me to America was the smell of sea-grass on that island.

Life is so strange and beautiful and varied.

There are times when I am so grateful to know these people. 
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