“Any writing exposes writers to judgment about the quality of their work and their thought. The closer they get to painful personal truths, the more fear mounts—not just about what they might reveal but about what they might discover should they venture too deeply inside. To write well, however, that’s exactly where we must venture.”― Ralph Keyes, The Courage to Write: How Writers Transcend Fear
If you’ve wondered where I’ve been, I took a short hiatus to “ruin my writing career” and see where I wanted to go forward.
(I don’t want to discuss it here beyond I wrote a letter explaining why I wanted to leave the horror community, but if you’re interested in what happened you can always wander over to read it.)
It’s easy to forget why you started doing something in the first place, especially when it becomes a habit. Easy to become lost and start living for an auxiliary dream. Then a few years later you blink a few times, glance back, and realize you’ve headed in the wrong direction.
I had to remind myself these last few weeks that I didn’t want to be a writer so I could make friends on Twitter or get invited to readings.
I wanted to be a writer because books made me quietly explode on the inside. It was the closest I ever came to being on fire. Because despite how quiet and shy I was, I could become a girl like a bomb when I put down words, and in that way, I learned how to be brave. Because when I stood in the center of a storm as the sky darkened like a claw coming down to grab me, I wasn’t afraid. I was figuring out the way to put the sensation into words. I wanted to go deeper. I wanted to be a writer because I wanted to hold a tarantula at the zoo despite how much they repulsed me.
I felt dead, but the words inside me were alive. And through the writing, I became alive too.
I’ve come to realize it’s rare that something chooses you like that. It feels like destiny. I never made a conscious decision to begin to write. I started when I was 6, too young to really understand the magic I was trying to grasp. It reached down and pushed my face down into an epiphany. The devil and angel on my shoulders have always been in agreement. I am a writer. I’m bound to it, hand to foot. I become calm and energized when I write. I roll around in agony when I can’t.
Bubbles of blood float up from my dreams when I procrastinate for too long. The nightmares don’t stop until I write. I see myself old and crushed, the words unwritten continuously circulating in my body until they poison me. I’m sitting outside on a rocking chair during the apocalypse and I can’t even move my jaw to scream when the orange mushroom cloud overtakes me.
And when a sentence hits right it’s like standing at the top of a big hill in perfect fall weather and being hit by a cool breeze right as invisible angels sing in crescendo. It’s the alignment of a jagged puzzle coming together. It’s the click, lock, pop of executing a perfect dance routine. It’s cold champagne on a warm picnic blanket. The final
I don’t think I chose to be a writer. Because not wanting to live in hell isn’t really a choice.
But writing is not my career. It doesn’t end or stop at the point at which I’m making money. And it shouldn’t be influenced by the loss of sales or whether or not people find my work accessible.
If I wanted a career I could’ve been a veterinarian or an accountant. I could write articles on Medium about how to make thousands of money writing by writing about how to make thousands of money writing. (Choke on that useless ouroboros – it’s easier to make money when you prey on people’s hopes like a blood-sucking leech) I spent 5 years in the game industry as a designer before getting the opportunity to quit my job to write, and if I wasn’t a writer I would probably still be doing that.
Writing helped me become brave, and in reading the novels of people I consider heroes I found the strength inside myself to be able to speak truth to power. This was rarely a popular move. And in fact, it seemed the desire to be popular was antithetical to the goal itself. The people I admired were not the kind of people who were typically running writer’s organizations, going to conferences, and participating in writer lifts on Twitter. They did not hold their tongue because it was polite to do so. They did not make friends with everyone because they always knew the right things to say, how to hold their liquor, how to behave.
Harriet Beecher Stowe helped bring about the civil war with “Uncle Tom’s Cabin” by shedding a light on slavery. George Orwell’s “1984” took a critical look at political policy that suppressed free thought and allowed ordinary people to recognize the signs of totalitarianism. The King James Bible changed the course of Western Civilization and the values many of us hold can be traced back to this work. Anne Frank dared to write about her experiences during the Nazi invasion of Poland and exposed generations of people to the horrors of the regime first hand. Bukowski exposed the silliness of American working culture and dared to become a degenerate, showing the flaws of the things people often believed without critical thought.
My heroes got right up to the precipice of acceptable behavior and sometimes threw themselves over. Because the things that needed to be said were rarely what people wanted to hear, and the truth is not always met with open arms. People want to be insulated by lies. They want to believe they can make a million dollars by working three hours a week and praying to an effigy of Bill Gates. They want to believe that if they get praised by their friends that means their writing is good and important. They want to believe they are good without putting in the work. To go against those lies is like inviting yourself in through an open window and kicking over the turkey during a dinner party, and then expecting them to thank you.
To speak what you believe is true is to risk being disliked. To have people call you “an edgelord” or a “drama queen” or say that you’re “stirring up shit.” It’s easy to sit at the dinner table, tight-lipped, and ask for someone to pass the salt. But if you say that there’s something wrong with your cousin passed out drunk in the mashed potatoes, suddenly you’re the troublemaker.
But what’s the alternative? To shut up and sit down? To only write good reviews and use only the smile emoji? To write another turgid short story about nothing important?
And for what? What’s the reward you get for that? Just so you can totter from one writing group to convention to another so you can sidle up to your heroes, vomit their words back to them, and get invited to your friend’s literary magazines? So you can get your $20 check in the mail with your contributor copy full of bland crap that will be forgotten while it’s being read? Just so that you can have “friends” that would just as soon turn around and bite you on the back the second you say something that could be construed the wrong way?
Is that worth it to let the poison of the words unwritten inside of you become cancerous? To swallow your bravery so that you can feel safe?
I ran away from home when I was 19 because I didn’t want to live a dead-end life surrounded by abusive people who did not have my best interests in mind. I had to quit college. I was not allowed to take any of my possessions and was assaulted on the way out. I escaped with little more than my too big-jeans slipping off my hips (I had stopped eating) and a pile of Philip K. Dick books. Once you leave your family you’ll never be whole again. Not really. Even if you knew it was the right choice.
But I did it. All for the chance, the smallest chance, of having a life worth living.
Leaving a “community” of writers after leaving my family? “Ruining my career” after that? That’s nothing.
Of course, we live in a society where we have to monetize ourselves and earn a living. I’m in an incredibly rare position where I don’t need to at the moment because my partner does, and we are a team. I recognize that I’m privileged, and I get that everyone needs to eat, including artists. Sometimes that means painting Texas armadillos and roadhouse signs instead of the surreal landscapes made of cotton candy and melting volcanoes that inhabit your dreams. Sometimes that means writing tax articles for the Google SEO churn.
But I refuse to believe I have to sacrifice something that’s worth being said to be relatable or successful. Bukowski, Anne Frank, Harriet Beecher Stowe, George Orwell, Ray Bradbury, and most of your favorite writers did not compromise the truth. Contrary to popular opinion, most people don’t get on the New York Times Bestseller list by throwing together some bullshit. Twilight is often dunked on but Stephanie Meyer put her whole heart into that series, and it shows both in her interviews and the writing itself. And I believe it’s one of the reasons she was so successful. Not because people enjoy “dumbed down garbage.” But because she accessed a gothic fantasy that resonates with so many people.
True art is one of the few things that can’t be commodified because it’s recognizable for what it is, and fake gurus and slick marketing guys can’t fake the genuine thing.
And that’s one of the reasons people are so quick to try to suppress it when they see it. Why they’re terrified of it. And why being a part of a community or stacking up publications or having a nice website doesn’t mean you’re a real writer.
Only the writing matters. It has to. Otherwise, you have no chance to be great.
This letter was originally published in my newsletter, Teach Robots Love.Related posts
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