I’ve been feeling pretty productive lately. This morning I had an idea for a story, and managed to do some edits on a video for a friend before leaving for work. Last weekend I sketched out a very, very rough outline for the novel I haven’t started. I sent out my first manuscript (chapbook manuscript) to some more places. And all this around a really busy work schedule, too! I felt great.
Right up until a few minutes ago, when I grabbed a quick bite to eat in my office between meetings and logged on to Facebook and Twitter to catch up.
Suddenly, what had seemed awfully productive to me now seemed like pure laziness and inefficiency. This person wrote 3 million pages of a novel yesterday. That person stayed up all night long writing six essays for various prestigious publications. This friend was somehow interviewed by three publications while managing to read and review four books simultaneously and dash off a few dozen short stories and her sixth novella to boot. They’re giving readings! They’re planning readings! They’re selling books! They’re stacking up publication credits like cord wood! The as-of-late familiar feeling came rushing back, and I found myself panicking, thinking, I’m so behind! I need to catch up! I found myself thinking about pulling a few all-nighters myself (as if my old-ass body could handle that anymore), about all the books I still need to read, about the growing list of story ideas and the novel that I have no time for and the short story collection I need to put together–and then I glanced at my giant, mutating to do list for work and I was totally overcome by the whole thing.
Don’t get me wrong. I love knowing what my writer friends are up to and reading their stories. Facebook and Twitter are the best way for me to connect with them and find out what they’re working on and what new books they’ve got coming out. So it’s not the medium I blame, nor the promotion, which I engage in just as much as anybody.
It’s the whole entire system, particularly devastating in its loops and feedback. Destructive in what is reinforced. I found myself thinking, and not for the first time, I started too late. I’m too old, too slow, too lazy, too shitty at networking. Writing is a different game now than when I was doing it years ago. Back then it was a point of pride to nurse a short story or a poem like a glass of scotch, slow measured sips in between lots of good conversation with friends. Back then everyone was working on a novel, and it was their first, not their tenth. Back then, there was no Facebook or Twitter and hardly even email to check, a tiny fraction of what is now the web, and thus no reminders of the pressure of what your peers are doing. What were my peers doing back then? Same thing everyone was: hanging out, talking, drinking, reading, smoking, eating, going to concerts, getting stoned, and occasionally writing.
Yes, this is probably not the best way to become an actual writer. Discipline and focus and actual, I don’t know, output are probably good things. But it was just so much more laid back. There was a sense that you had time, lots of time, that everyone went at their own pace, and that was cool. It was more than cool–it was the way we thought writers had worked since writers began to work at all.
Now it’s publish, publish, publish, be constantly, constantly publishing, and better be constantly writing about your writing and talking about your writing and while none of that is inherently a bad thing (and it obviously works for some people) does it make anyone else but me a nervous wreck? I would suspect, yes, it does. And believe me, my output has not been slight. I’m very proud of how hard and how much I’ve worked to write, and of the stories I’ve had published. I’m very proud of my body of work so far.
But despite that pride I hate the way the modern writing world works. I feel endless, ceaseless pressure and I doubt I’m the only one. I suspect more people write flash fiction because it’s fast to dash off a story and get it published. I suspect people write shorter books as well as shorter stories, and don’t take the time to do the research and the editing and the soul-searching that should accompany any artistic endeavor. I suspect people send off stories that aren’t that great, or as great as they could be, because they are desperate to increase their output. I suspect some people dash off a first novel because an agent generally won’t take you without one.
I’m not suggesting that all of these things are true of all or even most writers. I know I’m guilty of some of them. I’m not suggesting that shorter fiction or flash fiction is bad, or that many first novels aren’t great. I’m just suggesting that maybe we’re making a lot of our writing decisions nowadays based on what we feel we need to do, rather than what we want to do or what we feel capable or even more, inspired to do. And I’m suggesting that maybe we’ve lost, or are losing, something important as a result of what isn’t done, what isn’t tried.
That’s why I’ve decided to say the hell with the race and the anxiety. For a long time I’ve been struggling with whether or not to go forward with the novel I have planned, which is an unwieldy and ambitious project, to say the least, and lord knows how many years it will take me to finish. I know if I don’t write something fast, I will probably be sealing my fate as a writer with no agent. This will not be fast.This will not be easy. This will probably keep me from writing or publishing on the same sort of scale that I have been, for a while. And it will not be an easy book to sell.
But that’s okay. Because I have to keep reminding myself that I didn’t have to become a writer. I didn’t start writing because I wanted to see my stories online, or my name pop up in someone’s Facebook feed, as nice as that undoubtedly is. I started writing because I love to write. I started writing for myself, and I’ve been the only audience for that writing for most of my life. I started writing because I love to read, and the great, often epic books that were my favorites should stand as models for where inspiration comes from and what it must produce. I’m not in competition with anyone but myself. And so who cares if it takes three months or three years to write my book, if I take my time in finishing my story collection, if I don’t have the books under my belt that some other people my age might? It’s all about my pace, my path, and I just need to keep reminding myself of that.
I picked up a pen when I was five and started my first story, a little thing about princesses who don’t need princes. (I’m sure I ripped it off of a story in Free to Be You and Me.) I’ve continued to love writing ever since, even when I wasn’t actively pursuing publication. And on the day writing starts to feel like a burden or a chore, I will put that pen down like it was covered in plague germs. It may be futile to try to completely escape the anxiety of the publication race. But I’m going to try. For the sake of what greatness may be germinating inside of my head, just waiting to be slowly born, even if it takes until I’m 95–I’m truly going to try.