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Liz
Posted on Sunday, October 26, 2003 - 01:52 am:   

It's a long question. Bear with me.

This has come up several times in the last few days, in conversations with various people. When the universe gives me a nudge, I tend to think: how high? So I think this is an issue worth addressing (and apologies if anyone else has raised it before on their board - I check out a lot of them, but not all).

The question is: why do we do it? Why do we embark on this writing game? Some of us struggle for years, not getting anywhere, wrecking relationships, keeping up with jobs of mind-numbing tedium because in some way, they allow us the freedom to write. Some of us are relatively successful relatively quickly, but the question remains.

This wasn't a question that I asked myself when I started out. Then, the whole goal was focused on one thing: publication, first of short fiction, then of novels. It was basically reducible to obsession, ambition and, in no small part, ego. It was about putting work out there and making a name. For me, this was achieved reasonably swiftly: I started submitting (not writing) work in 1998, got published more or less from the get-go, started marketing a novel 2 years later and sold it. The rest is history, etc etc.

When you first get published, it's an enormously big deal. Then you realise that the summit is actually just another foothill and the literary Himalayas tower in the distance, just as icy and remote as they ever were. Now that I'm on my sixth contracted book, I've noticed that the earlier ambition seems either to be subsiding or changing. I am still fairly obsessed with genre: I read a lot of it, and it will always be the 'home' genre for me. But the hunger has diminished, particularly in the short story region. I'm not sure whether it's just that I've achieved a lot of what I set out to achieve - but in that case, really, why should achievement mean diminution? When GHOST SISTER came out, I was over the moon to see my book with my name on the cover. With NINE LAYERS, it's more of a kind of quiet, more-or-less satisfaction. I don't get so wound up or freaked out by reviews or reader comments any more.

I am starting to stretch out, as mentioned on the 'writing log' thread, and I don't know whether this is an actual prompt from something inner, or just ambition taking a different channel. Maybe it's just an innate lack of total satisfaction with anything I do (in the writing sense).

I have been speculating that all this questioning might be due to the events of the recent year (bereavement), and that they have put the writing into perspective. I had an interesting conversation yesterday as to whether this was, in fact, right. If the writing is rendered less important, because of life events, is this actually a positive thing, or not? Shouldn't the writing become more important, because it's about life and the present, as opposed to death and the past?

There is still a great deal of stuff that I'd like to achieve - some awards would be nice, for instance. The focus is still there: I work hard and I enjoy it. But I can't help questioning my own attitude to publication. Unusually for a writer, perhaps, I am very positive about my own experience with the publishing industry, which has been pretty good in the USA and the UK. God knows, the industry has its faults, but I think I've been lucky. I find the apparatus that accompanies the industry to be soul destroying - the endless hype of building up, and then the tearing down, of some of the newer authors; the author-worship (this doesn't apply to me, but I know people to whom it does apply, and it seems to depress the hell out of a lot of the less ego-driven ones); the scrambling for awards and the log-rolling, in which I myself participate, and the need to keep comparing oneself (usually unfavourably, since most of us are, let's face it, pretty neurotic) with one's peers, the pretentious debates about What It All Means (this might be one of them, come to think of it), the bitching and the adolescent disagreements. This isn't a rant, by the way, though it might look as though it's shaping up for one. It used to wind me up something chronic, and now I find it just makes me tired.

Maybe it's just that, at long last, the real focus has finally become the writing itself. I'm surprised to find myself saying this, because I thought I've always taken a huge amount of care over what I write. But I can't help wondering whether I've been deceiving myself about my own priorities. An example: my mother still writes. She's in her late seventies now and she's been writing for something like 30 years. For ten of those years, she was regularly published, until a mid-list restructuring took care of that. My mum has always been sanguine about that, but she has spent the last 20 years writing. She's had one thing published in that 20 years, and only because I talked her into it. She gets a lot out of it.

I'm not sure where I'm going with this. If I stop getting published (and in spite of earlier remarks I hope to God I don't, BTW, because that's the living gone), will the hunger come back, a la vampires in the night? I think I will always write - like most of us, I don't think I can stop (and that's a whole other issue. Why can't I stop? Why is there this need that some of us have to externalise everything on paper or print? Why don't we have Writers Anonymous 12 step groups?) But I'm afraid of getting blasé and jaded as regards actual publication, and I'm wondering whether that's starting to happen. (Feel free to give me a slap as well, if you like, accompanied by a shriek of "I should have your worries, Williams!")

OK, over to you lot. Whydja do it?
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Jay Caselberg
Posted on Sunday, October 26, 2003 - 02:55 am:   

Yes, you and I have had this conversation and I've had it with other people as well. I'm not sure I know why. I'm not sure that my priorities are right and whether this is just some self-affirming delusional state or that any of this really matters.

I write because I cannot really consider not doing so. I have had the questions stirring in the back of my head, and sometimes they go public. All this just ain't worth it, being screwed by an industry that undervalues what we do, for a few crumbs along the way. And in that, I'm not pointing at publishers or booksellers or anything like that. I'm looking at the industry as vocation, at the long hard path that is like, in some ways, becoming an initiate, because on that path, we deny ourselves and enter into an entirely different mindstate in relation to the world. Most of us exist in some strange delusional ur-reality based upon our scribbled and self-validating religion. Is any of that really worth it?

The other question that crops up in my mind is whether it is in any way real? Where is the separation between business and creativity? Is there an underlying pattern that motivates and prompts success? And christ, most of us want success whether we claim to or not. Is there a rightness of time and circumstance that makes things happen, or are these just all excuses to explain away the circumstance?

All I know, in the end, is that if I don't write, the words tumble in my head anyway, so I may as well put them down and do something with them. I will continue to watch and observe and take inner notes, whether I put that down on paper or not. Maybe that's programming and if I stopped writing, that would go away eventually, but I don't think so, nor can I really consider that as a possibility.

I think the real challenge is never to become complacent. The way to do that is to continually stretch ourselves as writers, to take risks, to move into areas where we explore not only ideas but our inner selves as well, perhaps going to places we might not want to go or be entirely comfortable with. I believe we are always growing as writers, without necessarily being aware of it. You know, I know a couple of people who have made statements about having stopped writing because they have nothing left to say. I find that inconceivable.

In the end though -- and sorry for the meandering thoughts -- it comes down to the fact that if this is a profession, we still need to treat it like a profession, or a business. We need to have goals and rolling plans about where we want to be and how we get there. And in that business model we need to decide whether where we want to be matches our expectations of life. In that slightly-stretched analogy, there is the reality that businesses fail. Lots of businesses fail. Others grow succesful and many of those diversify along the way. Is there anything as mundane as a new product? You bet there is. Is there a market for that product? We don't know unless we try.
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Jetse
Posted on Sunday, October 26, 2003 - 04:17 am:   

Liz, here’s my two cents:

I’ve started later, and—luckily—don’t need to make my money writing. I’ve only made four sales so far, so I don’t even know if I’m much good at this. Nevertheless, I find it impossible to stop. While your question was “why did you start?”, I think the two are closely related.

Thing is, I had this urge to start writing much longer, but never gave in to it. Then, In 1998, I gave in to it and started with a short story. A first effort that—in retrospect—was strife with beginner’s mistakes, but once I had started I found I couldn’t stop. So I wrote for two years before I dared to start submitting—and made most of the beginner’s faults again—and it took another three years until I finally got that magical first acceptance.

Now I have this full-time job that has me travelling the globe, working crazy hours, and when I come home I found myself spending most of my free time writing (and reading, of course). The continuous flow of rejections did make me doubt, though. After two years of getting nothing but “No, thank you.” (OK, some encouraging ones, but very few) I wondered why I was wasting so much time on this.

Ideally you should do it for the art itself: but that’s only part of the picture. Writing for yourself alone is a kind of mental masturbation (or maybe therapeutical in some cases), but nobody lives in a vacuum, and writers need feedback, interaction and appreciation. I would be lying through my teeth if I said I wasn’t interested in being published. Then I needn’t bother with submitting all this material.

In any case: I didn’t seem to be getting through, and I seriously wondered if I had talent enough for this writing thing. Around that time, I had a British band called Skyclad over for the weekend in my house (they were on such a low budget tour that they couldn’t afford a hotel), and as we were determinedly drinking our way through my beer and liquor stock, we talked.

These guys (and one woman, George) had never made any big money from their music. They all had to keep their day jobs to pay the bills, but still they kept going: ten albums over ten years. So they knew about persistence. When I told about my frustration over not getting published, and mentioned that I was considering to try one more year or so and then quit this silly writing business, Steve Ramsey—the guitar player and a great mate—was rather adament I should not: “Jetse, you should not put a time limit on it. When it comes from here—” pointing at his heart “—like the music does for me, you simply cannot stop.”

It’s still the best single advise I’ve had so far. I didn’t stop, and am slowly getting somewhere. It’s also the closest I can come to answering your question: it’s an inner urge to express yourself—albeit as in writing, music, painting, whatever—and a certain pleasure, a kind of fulfillment that it gives that starts off the whole thing, and keeps it going.

Of course, you have to see it in a professional, business-like manner, too—as Jay put it—because apart from the artistic drive (for lack of a better word) you need the ambition to improve and compete with your betters (even if only to see how far it’ll get you), and the acumen to both present yourself and behave professionally. Without losing your passion, of course. Furthermore, with much more to achieve than you I might be hungrier, but what it comes down to is: it’s an unbreakable part of you, this urge to write. It helps you cope with life—it sure does for me—enriches it, and contributes to your happiness. It’s that extra thing, a completely useless survival trait, that still makes life a little bit more worth living.

That’s as close as I can get.
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Liz
Posted on Sunday, October 26, 2003 - 05:00 am:   

This is all extremely interesting. Jay, your point about complacency hits one nail, at least, on the head. I'm not complacent, but I'm afraid I might become complacent or, worse, stop caring. and I agree that the only thing one can do is to continue to stretch one's own limits. This leads into your point:

>You know, I know a couple of people who have made statements about having stopped writing because they have nothing left to say. I >find that inconceivable.

Agreed. Elsewhere, you mentioned Proust, and this is really the ultimate example of someone who closed off from experience (the cork lined room) and yet continued to write, because the room itself continued to be an experience for him, and also drove him back into his memories and the past. The only point at which one has nothing left to say is when one is dead and experience has (possibly, possibly not) stopped. Though I can see one reaching a point where one just feels that one is going to be boring the arse off everyone else and it's better to shut up now, I suppose.
But you made the point (as far as I can recall) that because our reality is huge, then our capacity to explore it is also vast.

I completely agree that you have to be as professional as possible, BTW.

Jetse, I like your point about the useless survival trait. But I wonder if it is that useless, actually (this is a whole other discussion about the role of the writer, which I'm reluctant to enter into here.)

I do feel very engaged with the thing I'm working on at the moment, which isn't genre, and which is directly experiential. I've never written anything for public consumption before which featured me, and presenting oneself as the central character of a narrative is an interestingly weird thing to do.

Just keep doing the stretching exercises, I guess!



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Laura *sneeze* Anne
Posted on Sunday, October 26, 2003 - 06:43 am:   

Liz wrote: "I do feel very engaged with the thing I'm working on at the moment..."

And that, I think, is the real point of the exercise.

Why do I write? Because it pleases me. (Although "pleases" may not be quite the right word. I'm not sure there is one in English, which is a rather pendantic language in many ways.)

Me? I keep at it because the act of fitting words together to explain a particular observation (be it mental, emotional, psychological or practical) satiates my brain and my soul all at once. What happens after the writing (the publication, the money, the fame and screaming adulation) is secondary and important only depending on other factors in your life at the time.

But then, my brain is pickled on sudafed and cough medicine, so this may not be coherent at all.

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Nick Mamatas
Posted on Sunday, October 26, 2003 - 08:38 am:   

Why write? Beats working.

Why continue? Ultimately, it is a kind of working. The system makes you work.

I'm sure cashiers, longshoreman, insurance adjusters, proctologists, and death squad members ask themselves the same question, though perhaps less publicly and less eloquently. "Yes, I'm killing a lot of unarmed peasants, but am I making a difference? Is it all worth it?"

The difference is that one doesn't have to sell any writing, ever, to consider onesself a writer, which makes the questions of worth and effort a bit more dear. I wonder how much of the energy spent on these questions emerge from the notion that "writer" is an identity rather than a(n) (a)vocation. Lots of people play blackjack, and can win a fair amount of dough, but few of them want to pursue it full time.
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Liz
Posted on Sunday, October 26, 2003 - 09:24 am:   

Laura Anne: sounds coherent to me, but I've been on sudafed for days...this satiation thing interests me a great deal. There is that sense of completing a jigsaw puzzle. Nailing down reality, perhaps.

>I'm sure cashiers, longshoreman, insurance adjusters, proctologists, and death squad members ask themselves the same question, though perhaps less publicly and less eloquently. "Yes, I'm killing a lot of unarmed peasants, but am I making a difference? Is it >all worth it?"

Ultimately, I suspect, I'm just seeking reassurance for a standard case of anomie. Happens to us all from time to time. Perhaps I should hang out on the proctology boards a bit more...
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jeff ford
Posted on Sunday, October 26, 2003 - 10:41 am:   

Liz: Read your posts here and then went to look up the word "anomie," which I was unfamiliar with. Though I didn't know the word, I know the feeling. I've come to your fiction only this year, through Poison Master, which was one of my favorite fantasy novels in a long time. For me, you have a really distinctive authorial voice, great imagination (the kind that is able to spark the reader's imagination into imagining, and a beautiful writing style. With all of these elements at work, I don't think there is any question that you are being true to yourself in the fictions you are writing. I also notice that you've turned out a good number of books in recent years. Sometimes I think, as a writer, you just need a rest. I don't know how close my experience mirrors yours but I had written a book every nine months since The Physiognomy came out and then with Mrs. C also worked on a book of stories that had a lot of original material in it. So when I started the next one, The Shadow Year, I was pretty much exhausted. I could have just blasted through it, but I was unclear in my head and had a lot of the same questions you are asking. It deals with very personal material, so that too was a factor. I passed the deadline on it by a year, and only recently have gotten going on finishing it. What I'm trying to say is I think your taking time to think about these things is a sign that you've lost nothing. You want to be clear about where you stand with yourself on the current project and currently in life. Caring about that is a major vital sign. I don't know if my relating my own experience has been helpful, but I hope it has. Sometimes we just need a rest or to take time and ask the big questions. I think that's normal. Picked up a copy of Nine Layers of Sky and am looking forward to it.

Best,


Jeff
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Liz
Posted on Sunday, October 26, 2003 - 11:36 am:   

Jeff, this is very helpful (and many thanks for the kind words - as you know, I loved Mrs C).

It's always seemed to me that life follows a kind of sowing/harvest/fallow cycle, if that isn't too horribly rustic. Sometimes they seem to come all at once, in different areas... I'm interested to see how the more personal material shapes up and what effect it actually has on me - it's been very odd, reliving a particular period of my life. Very interested in what you say about The Shadow Year.

I am definitely taking on board your comments about the time scale. For me, it's been a book every nine months since GHOST SISTER, plus short fiction, reviews (and, until the start of last year, a job). So I think a certain degree of wear and tear is kicking in. This isn't Evil Publisher, BTW, since it was agreed with my full collusion. What I've been in the process of doing last year is rebalancing, and that will continue.

It always fascinates me, though, what other people's writing schedules look like. I've just asked Jeff V about this in an interview.
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I have jeff ford
Posted on Sunday, October 26, 2003 - 12:10 pm:   

Liz: I'm definitely subject to the cycle thing. It's maddening at times how stuff can just be popping out of my head, really flowing like water and then at others I can hardly get it up to turn on the computer. And the frustrating thing is no matter what I do, there's no breaking through until my head is good and ready. The productive times are really super productive and the fallow times are really fallow, but because things get published on different schedules and for some it takes quite a while, it always seems like I've got something out there. Months can go by though where I do pretty much nothing, although I go and sit every day and smoke butts and type a few thousand words of drivel. But yeah, that cycle thing is where I live.
I've always had a full time job along with the writing, as well as kids and the usual rigamarole. I don't mind doing both the job and the writing,
because a;though I've had some very good years with the writing, I know the next could be bad, so I don't make enough to just quit the job. Maybe if I was single it would be different. Plus, I only do the projects I want to, that interest me. I don't have to write to make a living. I have nothing against anyone who does, as a matter of fact, I take my hat off to them. For me personally, though, I just can't write stuff I have no interest in, or where there's no personal stake. That would be a disservice to me and my employer.
I have a good relationship with my editor and publisher and pretty much always have. I like a lot of the editors in the field, find their comments helpful and they have given me good advice. I've found that a lot of the people in the book business are really into books and want to publish good books. That, of course, has to be tempered with the understanding that it is a business, but I'm mature enough to understand that.
I would think for yourself, and this is presumtuous of me to say, that all you need to think about is feeling good about the writing and writing. The awards will be forthcoming in your case, I'm sure. Your readership is already growing . The reviews are splendid, especially for this last novel. Sometimes i'ts hard to see this stuff from the inside when it's you. Speaking of JeffV, if you ask him, I was telling him the same thing about two years ago. Ok, ok, I know I've gone on too long.
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jeff ford
Posted on Sunday, October 26, 2003 - 12:33 pm:   

Liz: I don't know what I did with the signature in that last one, but "I have Jeff Ford" is not a name I normally go by. Although it may sum up my post. Jeez, what a klutz.
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Liz
Posted on Sunday, October 26, 2003 - 12:33 pm:   

No, not at all, as I said - it's interesting.

The cyclical thing really takes its own form and its own time. I've found that it's almost impossible to predict or govern: it is, to extend your own metaphor, very watery in that regard. I think you just have to keep your fingers crossed and hope that you won't suddenly strike a block in the middle of a contracted piece - although I must say that my own publishers have been very amenable in saying that they can extend if they have to. So far, they have not had to.

I'd find it very hard to write stuff that I didn't believe in. A friend of mine, also a writer, had to write online reports for a mobile phone company and that was pretty grim. I know a number of people who say that it would be easier to start stacking shelves than write to order for that kind of thing.

But thank you - as I say, I'm engaged with what I'm doing at the moment. These meta thoughts are rarely a bad thing, however. It's not a bad idea to come up for air now and again.
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Liz
Posted on Sunday, October 26, 2003 - 01:03 pm:   

Don't worry, Jeff - just a glitch, no doubt. I found out on Friday that a sizeable percentage of my emails were being filed in the 'delete' tray by my helpful server, including all from Jeff V, Jason W and my editor, and God knows who else. Bloody technology.
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I had Jeff Ford
Posted on Sunday, October 26, 2003 - 10:45 pm:   

And damn if he wasn't tasty!
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Liz
Posted on Monday, October 27, 2003 - 02:39 am:   

We're glad you enjoyed him.

Next time, try 'Jeff A La Orange', lightly sauteed first, with a dash of Marsala.

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