Sunday, January 11, 2009

An Awful Epiphany

Why do I write? What's the point? Really--what's the point? I'm actually asking.

It's a passion that has begun to consume me more and more--the desire to write, to paint scenes, emotions with words. Fiction remains the hardest medium for me. Personal essays (like some of the things I write on this blog) and, more recently, somewhat decent poetry are not as painful to produce. And I'm working on several short stories that may have potential.

Tonight I was confronted with a terrifying reality: my father, who has extensive experience with writing and publishing, read some of my recent work. He pronounced it surprisingly good. I asked him: what next? Write a novel, he said. I blanched. I can barely complete a short story--a novel is not going to happen anytime in the near future.

So I asked more insistently: how can I get my poems or short fiction published? He reluctantly imparted that, well, there is really very little to be done with such work. Other than The New Yorker and college literary journals, he said. there are very few venues for short stories and poetry.

The New Yorker is almost impossible to get into. Stern doesn't have a literary journal (another sore subject--don't even make me go into it, thinking about it makes me ill). And so I hit--smack--against a sinister, disillusionary wall. There is nowhere to go. All I can do is sit here.

So I ask again: why bother writing? Writing gives me pleasure, true, but I do not want my writing to be a nice hobby, something to occupy spare hours, documents to gather dust buried in computer folders, ever unseen. I want to reach out, I want to share. I want my writing to live.

I feel sick. My dreams trampled, spattered across the floor. My inspiration flees, whimpering, to hide in a cobwebbed corner. I churn out melodramatic metaphors with reckless abandon. I don't even care how badly written this post is. I'm flailing.

Why write?

There was a time when writing mattered, when dreams were attainable, when I felt safe in the knowledge that if I could produce decent work, it would eventually serve its purpose. I learned to believe this at a time in my life when many doors were opening. Subsequently, things changed, some of the doors began to swing closed, yet I held on tenaciously to the optimistic beliefs that a hopeful time had fostered, trying to stay true to the ideals I had learned.

But now I feel crushed. It was folly, foolishness, unforgivable naivete to believe that all I had to do was write. And now--I feel as though I dare not write, I dare not waste more precious hours in grueling, ecstatic labor only to produce work that will die unfulfilled.

Tonight, I am not a writer. Tonight, I am only a girl without a plan, without marketable skills, without a purpose. I have a headache. I quit.


Ezzie said...

I'm not sure I understand the negativity. While I'm often among the first to pleasantly mock writers and what purposes they may or may not serve, even a person such as myself will acknowledge not only the need for people who are talented enough to write but the desire for them as well.

I'm not a great writer, so excuse me for unorganized nonsense with a lack of clarity posing as organized sense:

1) Why do you write? For yourself? To spread ideas? For yourself but to share with others, as you say? To make money? For yourself, but to share with others, but you want to be able to earn a living off of it at the same time?

For that matter, what IS writing? What does it mean to be a writer?

2) Why do you limit yourself to poems and short fiction, or personal essays? This may tie into your previous post, where people seemed to take two extremes in the comments - you seem to be saying that you're only comfortable writing those types of things which are already perfected to an extent, that you have to figure out what you want to write before actually putting it down. Obviously, this makes writing all the styles you've stated seem to be goals which are achievable, while a novel or book are daunting in comparison.

Yet that's not how a book is written - you flesh out ideas and storylines as you go along, while perhaps keeping a basic plot consistent. Certainly it does not need to be completely thought out before starting to be penned.

Also, this is why there are editors. :)

3) More interesting is that you seem to have all the skills and knowledge to write a novel or book - if you can write short stories, you already have a book, really. Someone was describing to me recently how a certain book came about - it was essentially a number of essays expanded to fill chapters. Now, that was a non-fiction book with facts and different topics under a theme, so perhaps that's easier in a way, but the same mode applies to a book or novel: If you can write numerous short stories, you can easily weave them one with the other to create a richer, longer story.

4) Blah. You know you can do this, and are in more of a position to do this than most. Stop being so scared of the future, and take that - what was it? That groping step forward.

Anyway, on a lighter note:

I churn out melodramatic metaphors with reckless abandon.


the apple said...

Whoa. Okay. Take a deep breath. All is not lost.

I find it interesting that you are told that you possess talent and can really capitalize on it, but choose to give up when you hear that. Honestly, I think this post was a bit overly despairing - a single short story by itself may be difficult to publish, yes. It may be reality, but it doesn't have to be so terrifying and/or absolute. Are you only writing for publication? And not only that, but you mentioned that you've got other stories in the works. Can't those be collected and published together in one volume?

Besides, there is no reason *not* to try and get yourself published elsewhere in the meantime. The New Yorker isn't the only publisher of short fiction pieces. You could market your stuff elsewhere and see where that gets you. If you google "literary magazines" you get tons of hits for smaller literary magazines that accept fiction pieces (for example: this link). And who knows? Maybe you will be able to work your way up.

Erachet said...

Ditto to Ezzie and The Apple.

It's hard for me to understand why a compliment and the suggestion of trying something more difficult and daunting should elicit such a response. It's definitely overwhelming to think of writing a novel. Novels are intimidating things to approach if you're the creator. But they are certainly not impossible, especially for you, a capable writer. There's a difference between recognizing a thing's difficulty and admitting defeat before you've even begun.

Practically speaking, a novel is wider than a short story. But it is not harder. You should not confuse length with difficulty. It might take a lot more work because there is a lot more to work with, but that doesn't mean you have any less skill for it.

Think of it this way. A short story is like holding a magnifying glass up to something, or like having your camera zoomed way in. A novel covers a lot more ground. It probably requires a lot more stamina, but that can be built up over time. Don't worry so much!

SJ said...

To clarify: yes, I wrote this post in the midst of a panic attack. This is a great example of why blogs are dangerous--they allow the expression of shifting emotions with reckless immediacy. I try not to abuse my blog, for the most part, but in this case I will plead guilty to a self-indulgent post. I am not taking it down (for now) because even in the light of day, these concerns are still daunting.

Ezzie, Apple, Erachet, I very much appreciate your encouragement and optimism--though I'll admit that I still can't imagine ever being disciplined or focused or knowledgeable enough to write a novel of any value. It's a task I really can't face yet.

So that leaves me with the work I can do and have done thus far. The issue is not that I want to make a lot of money from it (money would be nice, but I don't expect any), but that I would like it to be read--or at least, I would like those few things that I deem worthy to be read.

I suppose, theoretically, it isn't impossible, with a heaping dose of persistence and immense confidence in my work. But I'm a writer, not an agent, and despite moments of affinity for my writing, I tend to doubt the quality of my work if I'm given a moment to think about it.

So I think for now I'll go back to denial and amassing anonymous documents. Yeah, that sounds like a good plan.

Anonymous said...

But you didn't answer: why do you write? If you can live without it. Can you live without it? (Only a writer writes about quitting writing. Non-writers just stop writing.)

Erachet said...

and despite moments of affinity for my writing, I tend to doubt the quality of my work if I'm given a moment to think about it.

Hmmmm, sounds familiar.

SJ said...

Anon - Why do I write? I write because words are the most powerful medium I have ever encountered. Writing is a medium that anyone can harness; it requires no expensive sets, no fancy technology, no special materials. And yet, this medium, innately democratic, possesses the ability to connect, to share and expose, to permanently alter lives and perspectives.

Something internal compels me to write. I have the desire, relentless, demanding, to set words to paper, to shape and create worlds of my own design, to frame the world I see through the lens of my thoughts.

Could I stop writing, even if I wanted to? I don’t know. With enough hopelessness and closed doors, perhaps the fire would flicker and die. Coming to one dead end after another, perhaps I would find it easier to give up than to persist, as time takes me farther and farther away from inspiration I once had. Buried by enough mundane concerns, any dream can disappear.

But am I giving up yet? No. I will keep trying as long as I can to push myself through the barriers that seem so unbreakable. I will try not to wonder, not to dwell on what-ifs and missed opportunities, not to compare myself into frightened insignificance. I will try to be positive, to write with my eyes closed and my inner eyes opened—and to believe that someday my writing will make a difference to someone.

Yair said...

If one's writing serves to help carve out aspects of one's self which would otherwise remain murky, undefined, and unproductive, it has served its purpose.

Like a good, provocative conversation, good writing for one's self can make one a more nuanced person, better capable of relating to others and helping guide them through life's difficulties.

So do not despair and think your writing must be published to be of immense comfort and aid to others. This is never the case. I've met many wonderful unpublished writers, and their deep self-reflection, honed through penmanship, has helped me more than many published works have.

And I'm sure I need not remind you that publication is a function of persistence, and not so much of skill. It took JK Rowling far too long to get what was certainly a quality book picked up. Chuck Palahniuk, author of Fight Club, wrote an entire book before that famous one, and was turned down repeatedly. So he sat down wrote Fight Club instead, got that published, and now it - and the first book - are bestsellers and movies. To crack the industry, one needs almost inhuman perseverance. Don't let that technical fact cause you to disbelieve in the quality of your own work - the two are not connected.

Ezzie said...

Dunno, I think that's one of the beauties of blogging, even if I never really get to take advantage of it: You can post those shifting emotions with that recklessness, and sort them out that way. It's often easier to sort something out when it's in front of you rather than stuck in your head struggling.

It's a task I really can't face yet.

Why not? Give it a go. :)

but that I would like it to be read--or at least, I would like those few things that I deem worthy to be read.

By whom?

Great response to why you write, though.

Northern Light said...

Though I wouldn't deign to speak for you, I'll tell you why I write:
to procrastinate, because it's easy, because it helps me sort my thoughts, because maybe it could mean something to somebody besides me, because a piece of me wants to be recognized. Here's why I don't write: because I'm afraid of being judged poorly; because I don't think what I write will be worthy or up to snuff.
The real and only worthwhile reason to write, however, is because you have something to say. That's it. If you have something to say, to communicate, you should try to do it. Because that's the essence of humanity--connecting a person's idea or emotion with another.

Anonymous said...

Isn't writing as much about a flickering, dying fire as it is about any strong flame? Don't you write, at least partially, because it is an antidote to the mundane? Do you think writing is always the result of inspiration? Can we expect that? Maybe it goes the other way around sometimes: the writing is a response to darkness, and inspiration the result of writing. You, the writer, then, are not a conduit for light but rather the creator of light. This type of writing turns author into alchemist and it is these writers that I think we, the readers, are most indebted to. Do you see yourself as conduit or alchemist?

SJ said...

I'd love to be an alchemist--but I don't think it's always a choice. When you write in the darkness there's a chance you'll ignite a spark, perhaps--but there's a better chance that you'll just wave your pen around blindly, resulting in a mess that no one should read. That doesn't mean it isn't worth trying...but it's a risk you have to be utterly committed to taking.

mink said...

Hi, sj! Unrelated to your post...I love the cows-- I really, really love the cows (we, um, didn't make it past cows to next track). There have been so many very, very old novelists... and very young ones.... and middle-aged ones. Don't worry: if your novel is in you, it will come out. You must have read Rilke's Letters to a Young Poet, but if you haven't, you really must! Hugs and pats on your soft head! Love!

Malka said...

So are you going to look into venues other than The New Yorker?

fudge said...

why did i not read this a million years ago?

there are other places to submit it to. talk to me sometime. we will TALK!

if you've finished ANYTHING, you're my new hero. how do you finish things? how do you do it?

eldon said...

why you write is not to make money, surely? isn't that something supplementary - good if it happens, but if writing is what you do, then too bad if no one pays for it?

it seems to me you can write very well. style is half the equation. you have style. not 'a' style, just that your post on why write was written well. poetically, even.

write on regardless. you will anyway. and to hell with blog paranoia, this insight into your so-called "panic attack" is what really good writers are able to do: reveal something personal that rings true for others. i think you've nailed it.