Sunday, October 10, 2021

The Hard Question

EDIT 10/13: 
The original version of this blog included a discussion of Robert Kolker's "Who is the Bad Art Friend?" As more information has come out, I've become less and less comfortable with Kolker's version of events, as well as the discussion around them.

Suffice to say, I've decided to excise that part of the post. My points about stubbornness and persistence can be made without referencing a situation I'm unqualified to comment on.

This week, I read and enjoyed this interview with Ted Flanagan. At one point, Flanagan talks about what it takes to be a long-haul writer, and he draws a comparison to his experiences in training to become a Marine:

No one would mistake me for Rambo.

But I was stubborn, and I mean STUBBORN, unafraid of exhaustion, drowning, heights, physical and mental pain, whatever you could throw at me, so deep was my desire to be in this unit. They could kick me out, but I’d never willingly quit.

I think this same kind of stubbornness should be in the toolbox of every indie writer. I am blessed to have a book coming out, but I’d still write no matter whether anyone read a word of mine or not.

At some point in their careers, every writer has to stop and ask themselves why they keep going. Because no matter how successful they've been, or how much they've been published, those highs are just the tip of the iceberg, obscuring a literal truckload of failure and rejection. It takes a particular kind of personality to keep writing each day, knowing your daily work might be literal garbage. (Whether that mindset is stubbornness or insanity probably depends on who's asking.)

At any rate, when Flanagan says he'd keep at it no matter if he had any readers, I believe him. That's the reality for most writers, most of the time. But living in that place of rejection, and trying to find purpose in work that nobody cares about, is no easy thing.

Instead, it becomes very tempting to focus on other accomplishments. I'm as guilty of that as anyone, holding up other parts of my life for praise because I was so sick of being alone at the keyboard. Can't finish a novel? Hey, that's okay – announce you applied for an MFA program instead! Can't sell those short stories? No worries, my dude – just adopt a new dog and post pics!

But none of that allows you to escape the same difficult question: "Why do I write?" It's something every writer I know wrestles with, sometimes for years. And hell, it's not hard to see why: How can anybody look at a thumb drive filled with unpublishable stories and think, “Yup, this is it! This is what life's all about!”

Instead, faced with a lifetime creating things that no one will see, a lot of people – maybe even most – will pack up and focus on the rest of their lives. They'll go back to school, or start a family, or throw themselves into a high-paying career; anything that leaves a visible trace to prove they haven't been wasting their lives. None of these pursuits are incompatible with being a writer, but for some they're a whole lot more satisfying.

For those that don't pack it in, the writers who choose instead to keep plugging away with little to show for the effort, the rewards are pretty abysmal. Those writers get to keep answering the same hard question over and over: Why am I still doing this?

That's when the temptation to seek outside approval feels most compelling. But when you do a thing not for itself, but instead for the validation of others, you award them power over your purpose. You're asking them the hard question because you're afraid of how you might answer when you're there at the keyboard alone. But – and truly this is the hell of it – you're the only person who can.

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...