The Ink that Broke the Writer’s Hand

At this point, I think it’s easy enough to say: I’ve been out of sync for a long while. I have tried recreation, rebirth, but unlike the Phoenix, I never emerged with a wildfire, merely a sputtering spark. A thousand new moments have made a thousand new me’s in the years since I devoted myself to writing, always pushing forward, always trying.

But this, I’m sad to say, is not a story of how passion and commitment pays off. This is reality. It doesn’t end well.

I have made creation my profession and my striving goal for 11 years now – not to mention the youth I spent before that idolizing, learning, scribbling in secret, courting my passion, growing into myself as a writer. It has, as long as I have lived, been the predominant force in my life – my creative spark and one of my few focuses. Others came and went, but never this.

If any of you have followed me over the years, you likely know I’ve never found things easy in spite of always knowing my life goal.

In 2007, I first began submitting my writings to magazines. In 2009, I first started submitting to publishers. I joined ground setting online institutions like OneStopPoetry, helping build communal sites dedicated to creativity, all while going through college and churning out story after story, poem after poem, and refining novels over and over again. I opened a Patreon. I started this website. I dipped my toe freely into everything which felt a natural fit for the modern writer’s journey.

Flash forward to today: I have written 7 novels, more than 100 short stories, and literally hundreds of poems, only the smallest fraction of which line this website’s pages, and those of its predecessor.

Rejection is part of the industry. It’s an awful part, but it’s part – a trial by fire through which you are supposed to learn, and grow, and inevitably weasel your way. Except the industry isn’t actually built like that. It’s not skill that determines who gets in. It’s luck – who sees it, at the right time, in the right context, how a particular word will make a five second pitch stand out more than another, that an agent doesn’t con you or mislead you, that market saturation doesn’t render an attempt obsolete through no fault of your own.

tenor

Society doesn’t value writing any longer. They tend to look at it as something anyone can do – it’s simply a matter of how grandiose the scribbles you desire. You’re expected to work without pay, submit for “exposure,” work countless hours with no guarantee. In the end, perhaps 1 / 100,000 writers will get anywhere at all, and most of those won’t get far. The idea of the creative, struggling genius is flouted as a dream for all to aspire to, and those who fall short don’t tend to be seen as anything more than not having lived up to what was necessary. The industry shrugs and moves on – there are, after all, a million others waiting in the wings. Besides, it’s just writing, it’s not a “real” job – focus on career and do this free thing on the side, just for you, yeah?

The isolation like a tumor festers and grows.

So I wandered. In college, I turned to journalism. The pay wouldn’t be great, but there would be benefits, a certain sink or swim adaptability that would assure that life would never be dull, and a chance to work on some real important stories that could impact a community or a nation. It also helped that it could potentially get a name out there and hone skill. Many a great writer has, after all, begun their lives in the journalistic trenches. I didn’t hold myself to any one form – I threw myself in and tried to learn as much as possible.

The Great Recession hit partway through college. The industry crumbled. What emerged in the aftermath was largely a contract gig, demanding advanced knowledge in dozens of areas and skills far beyond writing. Photography, Videography, Social Media, Marketing, Coding – journalists needed to know everything, work themselves into the dust for nothing, and do so with no benefits, barely a survivable salary, and no stability at all. One day you might be employed, the next not – no warning. Contracts don’t require them. And then the self-employed taxes would come on top…

So many masks came and went. It wasn’t easy, but I made it work, barely above water, working odd jobs on the side, never making anything to save. I bounced between papers, but the job hunt was nearly continuous, and fighting for them cutthroat – switch largely to robo-generated news, fire hundreds of journalists while new ones are emerging from school, consolidate the news into a few key corporations, and what you’re left with is a lot of people vying for the same few scraps.

But that’s fine, I said. I still had good days. It gave me time to work creatively – hours and hours spent on writing endlessly, missing so much to gain nothing at all. A few magazines picked up the occasional scribble. I self-published a three book series, because publishers wouldn’t touch it. Then I was told anything else that might be published after would be tainted by that fact. I wrote under pseudonyms, and still no headway was made. Seven books, plus the trunk stories every writer has and learns from, came and went. Nothing caught a publisher’s eye.

Success, this country has made clear, is a privilege, not a right. Not everyone is destined for success, not everyone has the natural talent or luck to rise above, not everyone chooses skills the world needs or has the money to invest heavily in others – and the “spend money to make money” notion is a crock meant to make the lives of the rich easier and leave the poor broker and more indebted.

In essence: not everyone is destined to be happy. You practice, you persist, and you age, watching others live and grow and enjoy such happy lives – and you fade away, realizing you have nothing for all your trouble.

Factor in depression, lack of means, and an unregulated society gone suddenly to a nationalist-authoritarian sort of feudalist nightmare – and you’re taking day after day of brutal beatings and getting absolutely nothing in return. “But the joy of indulging your passion,” some will say. “It’s just for you!” It’s not like that with any other career. Art is art. It’s a beautiful, passionate thing, but it’s still hard, grueling labor. You do it because you love to do it, sure, but you also do it because you want it to be seen. You want to grow, you want to be successful, and you want to be told your work is worth something. When it’s not, you adapt, you grow, you build on it. But after enough time, if trying again and again ever yields the same result, it breaks first your heart, and then it breaks your spirit.

For me, the last straw came earlier this year.

To preface: after a decade, for the first time last year I found an agent willing to touch my work. His name was Mark Gottlieb, of Trident Media Group. He’s a big name: a previous top Literary Agent on Publishers Marketplace in overall deals and other categories, lots of positive interviews, works with F/SF. He read one of the novels I submitted, professed his love for it, and offered to represent me. We had a rapid, furious back and forth by phone and e-mail.

Gott1

I was over the moon. Finally, I thought, I had broken in. This was my chance. I had done my research, and I was all for it. At his request, I attached a pen name to the work and got it ready to go. Oddly, he didn’t have any recommendations on changes, but I figured that would perhaps be more of a concern when publishers got their teeth into it.

Then the nightmare began. Months passed with no word. I attributed my antsiness to first time jitters. I had sent out a couple e-mails in the interim to address a few details on the book, but never got a response. After two months, I called, got no answer, then e-mailed to see where things stood, where the book had been submitted, etc. In reply, I got a single line response:

Gott2

Strange stuff, but alright, I assumed, perhaps he was just busy. Another 3 months passed. New Years came and went. I sent over another e-mail wishing holiday cheers and asking some questions about where we stood and industry developments I had heard about.

Again, that same reply: “No takers as of yet but hang in there.

Word for word, and nothing but.

Winter turned to spring, spring turned to summer. More than a year had gone by: no calls, no e-mail updates unprompted by me. Nothing but those nine little blue words. I wrote a last letter at this point, referencing Mark’s previous words and demanding to know what was going on. At which point, he broke the news that no editors had come forward, and that was that.

Gott3

By that point I had figured as much, of course, but that I had been strung along for so long…and then I saw what was being posted about him on QueryTracker. Certainly, he has a sterling reputation if you go to Google. But former clients and aspiring writers? They don’t seem as forgiving.

Gott4

Gott5

Gott6

Notice any similarities to my case?

That was the ink that broke the writer’s hand. Coupled with the closure of a paper I worked for as well, and the subsequent decline in paid work…my faith has never been lower in this industry, and in writing in general. Thousands of dollars spent on college, for nothing. Countless hours wasted – a life, in many regards. Yet for me personally, it means so many other things, and admitting it all is a failure that weights me down lower than any concrete shoes.

Life is supposed to be messy, but it’s supposed to have a goal for which to aim. In 11 years, I’ve never gotten an inch closer to that goal, only seen it slip further and further away. I feel those that say to stick it out are much the same people who in middle school, and high school, and college, and thereafter, told folks time and again: “Oh it’ll only get better!” only to inevitably do a 180 and add, “Those were the best days of your life. Never forget them!” without a shred of irony.

Detractors say it all comes down to willpower and how badly one wants to achieve. A lot of people – even otherwise well-meaning friends and family – meet such situations with a lack of empathy and understanding. They neglect that we live, assuredly for the worse, in the midst of capitalism, and it is made quite clear to us that nothing we do has value unless it earns – and further, surviving is quite impossible if it doesn’t. Those born with means can stick with art through wind and rain, and weather all opposition. The poor do not have that option.

It’s like with travel: we all want to do it, and there are plenty of people who will tell you that you can’t afford not to, but when it all comes down to it, the majority of us have so small a disposable income that we cannot afford to put things on hold long enough to play around with our fantasies – and it only gets worse, year after year, as the nation sinks further into debt and student loans, eliminates benefits and savings programs, and saddles families with an increasing need to work with and support one another just to survive. We barely have time to be individuals anymore, let alone engage our passions.

Which is exactly where I find myself now. To those that can still write, still create, still travel – whatever their passion may be – I applaud them. I am envious.

Yet every soul has a breaking point, and I have long since met mine. After more than a decade of work with nothing to show for it, I have gotten out of writing, and I am in the process of reformulating my life to find some new course that will keep me breathing.

This website will live out the year before it reverts to its WordPress origins. If anything else fills its pages, it will likely be little things, creative whimsies. No more updates or announcements or essays will come to pass, no more novel ideas down the pipeline.

It doesn’t mean I don’t love to write. It breaks me into a million pieces to turn my back on the only thing I have ever felt like I belonged to – but feeling like I belonged is much different from actually belonging there. I am just a number, at a time when we need voices to speak out against tyranny, to stand apart, to rally people to something more. I tried to give voice to the loss and pain. I tried to tell the stories to keep the dream alive. I tried to make escapism that would set us free from it all as well, however temporary.

I have nothing left to give, yet I must keep on, and I cannot let the machine consume me in the process. There are still people I owe that much. But where that leaves me…I just don’t know.

 

Advertisements

Literary Rogues in a Bardic Market

the_bard
The Bard by John Martin (1817) – AKA, “STRUMMMMM!”

There are those among us—flamboyant, extroverted souls—for whom marketing and self-projection and sharing is, beyond all shadow of a doubt, a real knack. Certainly, it’s something that seems to be paramount for the modern age of communication, even amongst publishers eyeballing potential writers.

I am not one of those people. I have never had that privilege.

Sorry, potential publishers.

In regards to those I meet and bond with, I make a fierce, dedicated connection. If it’s in my power, I would do it for them. Yet I do not connect easily. I wrap myself in thick cloaks and try to go through life covered up, lest someone see something they don’t like. I can ask questions and assail political and fantastic intrigue with abandon; turn the question around on me, and I introvert hard.

In that way, I may be a writer in a world which prefers bards.

This may also be why I’m the rogue of most adventures. I do my best work in the shadows.

Which is a problem, because stories unite mankind.

When I was just starting out as a journalist, I remember one of my first editors told me a fun fact about local journalism.

“Honestly, we could kill the headlines, kill the articles, and most people wouldn’t mind,” he said. “So long as you have the obituaries and the sports and the puzzles, people will keep coming back for more.”

linda-lithe%e2%95%a0un-darantha
Roguish Art by Linda Lithen@Darantha (From the Critical Role Fan Art Gallery)

All of human existence is based on interaction, on the notion of society—finding ways to work together. Some cave person somewhere woke up one morning and went, “Bloody hell, I’ve been living next to that fellow down the mountain for 10 years; he could have figured out the means to ride sabretooth tigers, and I would never know.”

Stories make people more real to us. They break down fear and hate and grow empathy. The person sitting in the coffee shop reading about the 80-year-old former air force pilot in town who died this week isn’t doing it because he’s plotting out which zombies might be best for his necromantic army—he’s reading the story of someone he never got to know in life, learning of the wife and children left behind, the opportunities for other human interactions and adventures yet to be told.

Of course, it’s harder for a story to be heard when you’ve no audience at hand, isn’t it?

Apathy breeds discontent. It breeds fear. We don’t try because we’re afraid of what might happen. We’re afraid of what people might say. Somehow, the stigma of trying and failing has become worse than doing nothing at all—no matter how dependent we are on the outcome.

In my case, the whole matter isn’t helped by a severe clinical case of depression (which, like so many other personal details, I don’t talk about all that much publicly). I expect the world to have struggle. We all should. But my own mind struggles with me—it plays up the bad and laughs in the face of logic.

Of course it’s bad, it’ll say. No one cares. But it could certainly be worse…

And when people ask, that little voice is right there to remind me of the people who turned away because they were sickened by that hurt and weakness, and tell me it’s better to suffer in silence than be true. “I’m in pain” becomes “I’m fine,” and I become complacent in my own destruction.

Some rogue, setting off my own traps.

In a way, it’s the same with writing. You get what I put out there, what you see—not necessarily what is. Thus, for many writers, for performers, for the lot, it can all appear so effortless.

It’s not easy. Not for me. Not for a lot of people. There are days nothing more than sheer necessity allow me the strength to muscle out of bed. This past month, in the wake of the disastrous election, I’ve found it particularly difficult to write. Nothing comes without effort—there are whole days I spend struggling to convince myself I should exist. I feel like I’m drowning, flailing in a dire attempt to gulp one more mouthful of air.

Some days are easier, some days grueling. I try to create because it’s intrinsic to my being. The need is always there, but it is agonizing to do in the face of my own innards.

I stumble.

I fall down.

I break.

I fail.

You don’t see that, because of that introvert tendency.

But you need to understand that I’m human. The same as the person on the other side of that counter, as the child sulking in the corner of the playground, as you. I’m over here trying to tell myself this doesn’t make me weak.

It just means I need to be better about accepting and fessing up to my human failings. If that doesn’t make me the most desirable catch economically, well…

I’m just going to have to keep fighting through the terror and doubt to keep on living anyways.