Sunday, May 16, 2021

Retrospect

Author Tim Waggoner posing against a railing in a leather jacket
Tim Waggoner
Tim Waggoner's “Writing in the Dark” is one of my favorite blogs on craft, but this week's post was especially good. On the occasion of the blog's tenth anniversary, and Tim's fortieth as a serious writer, he wrote a retrospective on his career (so far) that I can't recommend highly enough.

Coming right after I read Charles Johnson's “The Way of the Writer,” which included an autobiographical section on his own path to writing, it was interesting to read Waggoner's account of his career. I don't think it's especially useful to try and compare the two. They're very different writers out to do very different things. If there is a lesson here, it's that there's no universal path. At best there are some practices that work for some people. As a student of the craft, you may find such practices helpful.

But even then, you have to test and evaluate what works for you, and watch out for how that might change over time. Part of the fun of Waggoner's retrospective is watching the world of publishing transform in just a few decades. 1982 to today is a long forty years in terms of technology. 

You know that, of course, intellectually. But watching the progression from Waggoner's personalized rejection letters from Amazing Stories to the emergence of trolls on a proto-social media platform to the breakdown of traditional publishing and the rise of the indies, all of it feels much more visceral. In many ways Waggoner's story is also the story of publishing itself. Some things have been lost and others have evolved, but either way there's no going back.

I think that's why these stories matter so much. Charles Johnson's story is as singular as he is. So is Tim Waggoner's. It's both who they are as human beings and how they function as writers that shapes the course of their careers in unique and surprising ways. And because they're both such good, smart storytellers, they know how to write about the singular in a way that makes it feel universal. The worlds they grew up in may be gone, but other parts of their stories endure.

If one of the secrets of life is to learn how to love your fate, then I think that's where stories like Johnson's and Waggoner's are helpful. Read together, and alongside other creative memoirs by artists, writers, and musicians, it becomes clear that there is no ideal path to success, and there is no ideal time to get started. If you're fortunate enough to be working at your craft for more than a decade, the floor's going to fall out from under you. You'll make serious mistakes, you'll have personal crises, and the world you were prepared for by parents or schooling or mentors may have ceased to exist by the time you venture forth to go meet it.

You'd be forgiven for tasting some bitterness there, but the sweetness is that you get to create your own life. Your story, whatever it is, will have its own shape and contours. It will be as unique and singular as that of anyone else (even if that sounds like a contradiction). Retrospectives like Tim's are a good reminder of that, and of the surprises you may still find ahead.

People Watching

On Wednesday, I went out to meet up with a friend and do some writing. We met at the Athenaeum, a historic building in Indianapolis designed...