Sunday, October 25, 2020

Not All Salmon Get to Spawn

"Writing Dreams and Harsh Realities" is one of those writing essays I always come back to. I remember exactly where I was when I first read it. I'd just finished volunteering for a writing contest where people had eight hours to take a few keywords and a theme and write a story or poem around them. Then me and a few other judges would choose a couple winners in each category.

Our day had just wrapped up when I noticed the shimmering blind spot that means a migraine is imminent. Usually these start pretty small, and so I don't even realize what's happening. The effect is a lot like what you might get if you stared at a flash light and then started looking around. And so that's usually what I think is happening at first -- I think I must have caught a glare off something and I just have to wait the thing out.

But as the blind spot grew and my field of vision got steadily smaller, I realized what was happening. There was no way I could drive home until I could see clearly. Since it was a pretty day in September I found the porch of an abandoned house and sat down to wait things out. Either the blind spot would shrink and leave behind a small headache, or it would continue to grow until it felt like my skull was splitting in half and I'd have to call someone for a ride.

Fortunately, in this case it was the former. My vision came back enough I could read again about the same time I got a notification that Tim Waggoner had posted a new blog. I sat there on the porch of an empty house, vision cleared and head aching, and read Tim's post.

The essay is long, but it boils down to eight brutal truths about publishing. Things like "The world doesn't care about making your dream come true" and "Talent is not enough." I say "brutal," but really it's all stuff you probably already know. It's just that it's also stuff people don't like to talk about.

If you've spent much time writing, you already know there are a ton of people out there who want to take your money. Some of them even deserve it--there are great teachers out there, and great classes, and some really great books. There's also a lot of garbage. The ecosystem is such that a lot of successful writers seem to supplement their income by making money off of writers who want to be successful.

As a result, there's a tendency to downplay the harsh truths of writing. If you're selling a how-to book or an online course, you want people to believe it can help them get where they're going. It's a tougher sell if you admit up front that there's a lot of luck, hustle, and rejection involved. And it's next to impossible if you say something like this:

Just as the majority of salmon die during the course of their upstream swim to their spawning grounds without reproducing, so to do most people who attempt to develop a writing career fail. This is a fact of life (and death) and there is nothing that can be done about it. You can work your ass off, make huge sacrifices, do everything you possibly can to succeed at writing, and still fail.

Look. I've taken writing seriously since I was thirteen, and been publishing since I was twenty, and more days than not I still feel like I'm starting from zero.

Why do I keep taking swings at it? Why is this how I'm spending my time? Ryan Holiday was right -- you better know how to answer those questions, because otherwise you'll torture yourself with comparisons to others and feelings of failure and a million other pitfalls.

For me, the answer is pretty close to something else Tim wrote. Here's the rest of that section about failure:

But here’s the thing about the salmon metaphor. If you don’t try, you don’t know how far upstream you’ll be able to make it. Maybe you won’t make it to the spawning grounds – which for writers might be becoming a bestseller, winning tons of prestigious awards, having a vast and loyal readership – but wherever you end up, it will be a hell of a lot farther than you would be if you’d never started swimming.

The best advice about writing I ever received came from Pam Doyle, the teaching assistant who was my freshman comp instructor in college. She’d read a lot of my writing during the class, including creative writing I produced as my writing journal for the course. During our final conference, she said, “I urge you to take your writing as far as you can.” I’ve passed along this advice many times over the last thirty years because it’s the only advice that I’ve encountered that is absolutely achievable by every writer. If you try your hardest to take your writing as far as you can, wherever you end up is as far as you could end up. And since you have no way of knowing where that may be, if you never give up, if – as Dory says – you just keep swimming, you’ll keep going farther and farther. Will you get to the Promised Land of becoming a professional writer? Who knows? All I know, is I intend to keep swimming until I die, just like those salmon.

Does that sound bleak? I don't think so. It's what resonated for me four years ago on that porch of an abandoned house, and it's what still resonates with me today. Whatever this is, whatever I'm doing, I want to take it as far as I can.

Friday, October 9, 2020


It's been a long time since I woke up paralyzed, but this morning it happened again. In the dream someone had grabbed hold of my arm, and the guy was still there when I woke. Formless, faceless, grayed out like a phantom, but absolutely stopping me from moving a muscle.

I tried to wake up, or at least make a noise, but it felt like minutes of nothing. Even knowing my gray friend was only a dream, the sensation of being frozen in place was unsettling. And through the whole thing I kept thinking, "This is what I get for reading The Mothman Prophecies."

If you only know the story from the Richard Gere movie, you know a much cleaner, more linear version than what John Keel actually wrote. Keel's book is an unapologetic mess. Besides the infamous Mothman, the book is full of spook lights and poltergeists, UFOs and Men in Black who may actually be androids, giant birds and tulpas, and dozens of other things that don't fit neatly together.

Keel coined an umbrella term for all these phenomena -- "ultraterrestrials" -- and had his own theories about where they come from and what they want. But part of the fun of reading a book like The Mothman Prophecies is that it works so hard to resist narrative.

Things are sloppy. They're unresolved. A mystery wanders onto stage, gives a baffling performance, then wanders off never to be seen again. What's interesting here is that this is what gives these episodes a frisson of credibility. While fiction writers use tools like structure, plot, and verisimilitude to create what John Gardner called "a continuous dream," one that allows the reader to suspend disbelief, books on the paranormal sometimes follow the inverse of that formula.

For Keel, that means a lot of running around from sighting to sighting, talking to source after source, without it really adding up to anything. Most of the book is repetition. But this gives it the feeling of being an actual work of reportage. Keel is just chasing the story, and you're there with him as he finds the pieces of a repeating pattern.

I love reading books like this because they function so differently than fiction. Threads don't have to be tied off. B does not have to follow A. And Keel gets to be his own kind of contradiction, alternately fearless and terrified, skillful and hapless. In one of my favorite passages, he completely misses the Mothman because he can't find it fast enough through his binoculars. Anybody who's ever fussed with trying to get a good look at a finch on a birdfeeder understands the feeling. It's one of the most grounding details in an otherwise very weird book.

Currently Reading:
The Mothman Prophecies

Currently Listening:

Clearing Things Up

We're in the process of moving. It's going to take us a while, but as a part of all that I've spent the last few weekends trying...