By Scott Baker
By Scott Baker
I've never had any trouble writing.
There, I've said it.
My current novel is 420,000 words-- oh, all right, it's actually 422,017 words. I cut it down from 435,000 words. You caught me. My last novel was nearly as long; the four before that-- one heavily illustrated by me-- add up to as much as the current novel, but in my defense the first illustrated portfolio/manuscript was begun when I was only three years old, when, apparently, I had less to say. I started the revised, second, expanded edition when I was twelve, however, so I'm only counting that one here.
Anyway, people who have so-called writer's block, in my opinion, either:
A. Haven't thought through what they really want to say. That is, they haven't teased a coherent thought out of the swirling mass of notions, feelings, facts, logic, intuitions, and half-baked ideas that the ever churning engine of the human imagination is capable of producing 24 hours a day, seven days a week.
B. They're made for a simpler, gentler life. Perhaps, gulp, they really have nothing to say. This is actually much worse than choice A.
Everything else is excuses.
Note I said I have no trouble writing. Getting published; well, there's the rub.
There's the rub. You're letting yourself off rather easily for a guy who published only one article 22 years ago, my inner voice is saying. Did I mention my inner voice is a mean son-of-a-bitch?
True story: I went to a writers' conference last spring. My first, and probably my last. Several things stick out in a day that went so badly I left before it was over, but here is one. I attended a seminar-- really a plug for an author and his publisher's promotional team of five (!) people. I'll call him He-who-must-not-have-worked-very-hard, or Hwmnhwvh for short, because why should I give him a free plug?
Say what you want, but at least the guy's published a book and you haven't. Shut up, Inner Voice.
Okay, so I'm sitting there listening to this guy ramble on in his aw-shucks style, and by the way, I'm sitting next to this absolutely beautiful young woman whom I've managed to chat up since it doesn't matter anyway because I'm married (and isn't that always the case?). I only mention that because I was trying to be on my best behavior as my neck hairs started to rise while Hwmnhwvh was talking about how he culled the lonely-girl e-mails and encounters from his hipster life to create a slice-of-his-life story, and twisted and imagined them, oh, maybe 15% to create a good-selling novel about the home-spun music scene and the people in it.
And not only that, but he managed to get five (5!) professional people to take their sought-after time from their frantic lives to promote him. Why? Because he's "so easy to work with." Unlike me, who, as my uncle puts it, has an "awkward personality." I didn't even know why I was boiling inside as I listened to him ingratiate himself to an audience of a hundred people, partly because I was self-censoring so as to appear nice and open to the beautiful young thing sitting beside me (whose name, I must admit, I have now forgotten, though she actually had an interesting story about the space program a few years hence. See, I can be fair). It wasn't until I tasted bile that I realized why I hated, loathed, and despised Hwmnhwvh so much.
Jealousy? Sure, but that's too easy.
No, here's the thing. Where's the imagination? Where's the ability to create believable, compelling characters on your own without resorting to plucking them from the abundant supply that happen to be mulling about in dark nightclubs? What happened to the sacred duty of the author to produce a compelling new world for the reader? As my writing teacher said, writing is all. He didn't say anything about holding auditions for characters. 99% of the people who write write about their lives and they really shouldn't. Most people's lives, my own included, are just not that interesting to an outsider. Maybe this hipster's is, but really, is he writing fiction, or just reporting as he did in his normal life?
Does it matter? my inner voice is saying. People want to read his work, whereas so far, yours isn't selling.
Yes, it matters. I'm still an idealist and I feel there is something sacred about the craft of writing. For example, in my novel, I had to imagine the mind, body, and soul of everyone from a ten-year-old Ojibwe girl to a 130-year-old shaman to a female archaeologist hiding her visions so people won't think she is schizophrenic like her half-brother, to a middle-aged black astronomer with an I.Q. at least thirty points above mine, to a Machiavellian Homeland Security director, etc. I sweated bullets. I painted myself into literary corners and clawed my way out of them again until my fingers bled, figuratively at least, in each of my 22 chapters. I researched Ojibwe history, astronomy, military intelligence, archaeology, paleo-linguistics, and so much more while the hipster was happily holding literary auditions and mixing and matching personalities while bumping up against a deadline that a publisher actually thought he was worthwhile enough to give.
Why can't I get a deadline? Someone who would tell me sternly, "You must produce by X date or you're in violation of your agreement." I'm the anti-procrastinator. I'm the guy in college who, when everyone else was cramming for final exams, would be strolling around campus wishing the term would end already, because I had completed my studies weeks ago. A deadline? Ha. I finished my last novel in two years, while holding a full-time job and being the primary caretaker to my dying father. And this guy says, "I started to panic because I realized I would actually have to write the thing and I only had two months to go." I saw his little novelette on sale on a table after I stormed out. It's a sweet little thing, really. It would make a good bookmark in my 1,109-page opus.
Oh, about father. Author of 22 books and hundreds of articles. In a different league altogether. Certainly way beyond me-- notwithstanding his saying I was a better writer-- and way beyond the hipster above, too. Here's the rub. My father, Stephen Baker, always said he would never write a book unless he was sure it could be published. A few chapters, sure. Or an outline. But darned if he was going to waste his time on something with no possibility of commercial success. At the time, I thought he was a bit of a sell-out, like the other advertising guys on Madison Avenue, where he worked for more than twenty five years. But, now, as the dust bunnies start to set up breeding colonies on my permanently shelf-bound stories, I see his point. I never meant to write for an audience of one, or even for a few friends and family who are more interested in finding out what makes me tick than in reading the manuscripts for their own sake. I long for the company of strangers. Strangers who will evaluate my work on its merits. That is pure. That is true . When did writing become about the author and not what is authored? Evaluate my work-- I certainly have enough of it.
Now, I am considering what I thought I never would. The dark and fetid world of POD and subsidy publishing. Where good work struggles to rise from the swamp of the mediocre and the simply awful. Where good agents and publishers fear to tread. Well, maybe the "good" part is too generous. Agents and publishers don't have to look there, as least not yet. It is still a buyer's market.
But if I am compelled to write, if I really have Writer's Spew, I also need to find an audience with Reader's Gluttony. Okay, I'm done complaining. This is the Writer's Burden, after all.
But, please, please, don't talk to me about writer's block. I'll be too busy writing.