Sunday, November 28, 2010
‘I know it’s not easy to rid yourself of the notion that you need something important to commit to ... but the trick of life is to stop worrying about finding the perfect thing to commit to and commit to something, anything at all.’
--Merle Shain, author and broadcaster, 1935-1989.
Sometimes it’s the willingness to make a small commitment— when a big commitment just isn’t possible— that saves us. The longer you spend getting to know yourself as you wrangle with the empty page, the more you will see that some years are better than others. There are seasons in your life as an artist that are explosive, and the words rush onto the screen from your fingertips in a kind of furious bliss. But those seasons, for most, are the exception and not the rule.
There are other seasons— and sometimes they seem to stretch out in a rather unseasonable fashion— when the fits and starts of a once-reliable engine sputter out before taking hold. Momentum is like a dream from a more innocent time, one in which all you had to contend against was the cadence of dialogue— is it authentic?— or the color of your protagonist’s hair— can you genuinely relate to a redhead or does she have a short, brunette bob with the tips slightly longer toward the front, instead?
After you’ve penned your first novel, you feel you’ve scaled Everest and believe the industry is ready to toast your stamina. Hell, it’s finished. Surely it’s as good as the thousands upon thousands of stories which have already managed to make it into print. After the first revision comes the first submission. You’re shocked when the pass— even a provisional one— comes. So, you revise, again, and resubmit. And another pass comes and perhaps you start to wonder if you should shelve the project for a while. Or maybe you overhaul it.
Whatever the case, you are now in the thick of it— living the dark side of the dream. It’s the side that is often romanticized as being drenched in absinthe and smelling of cigarettes though the truth is far less sexy. Trying to break into the elite circle of publication is hard work, and if you’re really committed to seeing this thing through, you might even begin to hammer out your next manuscript while pitching the first.
And herein lies the rub.
Now you have industry feedback. Now you understand that you have to bear in mind truisms such as writing to where your passion meets the market— God help us. Now, you have tears. True confession: I cry when I query agents. I read essays on crafting the perfect pitch and the salt squeezes out of the corners of my eyes because the last time I wanted something so badly it was driving a hand-me-down Oldsmobile 88 and looking mighty tasty in broken-in jeans. At any rate, tapping out that next yarn after submission, for some, may not flow as easily. Mostly because whatever childlike enthusiasm you brought to the former project has been flattened a bit by its head-on collision with target demographics and branding and acceptable word count. The last panel of agents and editors at the conference claimed all you have to do is write the best novel of which you’re capable and let them handle the packaging. But the truth— you have learned— is that even before you’re signed you have to be both author and marketer, artist and salesman. And what can foster greater distaste for our tribe than to have to think commercial?
Scissoring to the proverbial chase, if you’ve arrived at the place where you’re all starts with no big finish— heck, no happy middle— then the key to mastering the maze, I hazard, is to make a commitment. It doesn’t really matter how you got a bit turned around, the vow to yourself’s the thing. And, ultimately, the promises you make to yourself are the ones on which you build a foundation. Then, a first level, next a spot where the windows go and, eventually, the drapes.
Think of this as my love letter to those of you who, at times, feel a bit small in the face of managing your careers in a seeming void. Being your own boss is both a wing and an albatross. So I say to you, today, do what you can— but do it every day. Whittle away at the slope one spoonful at a time, if a spoon is all you have for the moment. Perhaps, in the long run, it’s not about the glamour of having accomplished something big but the quiet dignity of having never given in— even when all you were capable of was 250 words a day. Until next time, dear reader.