Anniversary.

Saturday was my anniversary.

No, not that one. Ten years ago Saturday, I sat down at my husband's beat-up old IBM notebook and signed up for what was then called Stories.com.

People often ask me how long I've been a writer. I reply that it's like asking how long I've had brown eyes. That much is true: I was writing tragic Smurf fanfic at the age of seven, ludicrously overwrought poetry through my tweens, an awful science-fiction novella at seventeen and plays filled with angst through college.

But I wasn't a writer. It was just something I did for fun. Writers were people who had clout, who knew something special, who had agents that got their books printed up and put in bookstores. I just cobbled about some words for fun. In college I printed up a half-dozen copies of that terrible novella and gave it to friends for their amusement, and that was as close as I expected to come for publication.

To borrow a metaphor from Stephen King's On Writing, I thought that writers had Dumbo's magic feather, and thus they knew how to fly. I knew nothing. I had all these ideas bound up in my head and I put them down on paper and hid them where they wouldn't be seen by anyone.

Until 2001, that is. I'd been a journalist for a few years and interviewed a couple of authors, and they seemed like normal people. No magic feathers in sight. I'd picked up a copy of Writer's Digest and they made it look easy. I still wasn't thinking of getting published, but perhaps a little attention paid to developing my writing could be useful. The Muse kicked the walls and banged on the ceiling, and maybe I could get her to work for me.

There was this issue of Writer's Digest with Stephen King on the cover. The headline was, "Stephen King, on how to get ten pages a day." It was really just an excerpt from On Writing, but that's not important. Another article with its headline on the front was, "What's keeping YOU from success?" I cut out that cover, with King and those two headlines. Because getting ten pages a day meant writing every day, just like King. He writes every single day, including Christmas and his birthday, and that's what was keeping me from success.

I pasted it on the inside cover of my husband's laptop case. I started writing every day. The books and articles all said you have to write short stories before you can write a novel, so I wrote short stories.

And on June 4, 2001, I joined Stories.com and posted a short story. People came by and told me they liked it.

For years, Stories.com (which eventually became Writing.com) was my online life. I poured all my frustrations and unhappiness into bittersweet horror stories about grief and lost love and missed chances, and I put them up for a writing group known as the Writers' Circle to see. I posted columns, too - the opinions I wasn't allowed to write in my new job, what I called the Scarlet Letters.

A year later, I got an email from someone at the New Jersey Special Assessment office. They liked my essay about the importance of a college degree, titled "The Modern Apprenticeship, Brought to You by Bill Gates." They bought it for $75 and every New Jersey high school junior read it and answered five multiple-choice questions. It was my first sale. My husband shrugged. I photocopied the check before I cashed it.

Then DogEar Magazine (RIP) liked a weird vignette inside the mind of a boy who may or may not be a school shooter titled "Vertigo," and picked it up for this wild and wacky idea called an e-zine. The Murder Hole (RIP) bought my short story about a possessed teddy bear called "Jesus Loves Me." Thirteen Stories (RIP) really loved a creepy piece about a woman unpacking alone in what might be a haunted house called "Silent," and bingo! I was in print. In Canada, no less.

Through it all, there was the WC, commenting on my stuff, encouraging me in my work, giving me good solid critiques that helped shape my language and characterization. It was the original founder of the WC, Kit Tunstall, who introduced me to her editor at Ellora's Cave. That editor asked for an outline and writing sample on my idea about a serial killer stalking the patrons of a vampire-run nightclub in Memphis.

It was 2003, two years after signing up at Stories.com. They gave me 24 hours to turn in the outline. Then I had six weeks to write the novella. By then I was living in my father's guest room with my four-year-old son. The divorce was pending and I couldn't afford a single habitable dwelling in this town, but the boy had just been diagnosed with special needs and I couldn't leave town without costing him his services. I never felt less like writing a love story, but I was literally writing for my life.

That was Nocturnal Urges. No one was more surprised than I when it was a big hit, selling like crazy, winning the Darrell Award and finalist for the Prism Award. It became a three-book series, and I caught the eye of New Babel Books, which published Setting Suns - all those bittersweet short stories with a few new ones added in. It's still the book people tell me they like best.

It is now 2011. I have published six novels and three novellas with various publishers. I have all the work I want in the small press - I know I could write quasi-indefinitely and get it published.

Making a living is still up in the air. When I signed up for Stories.com, it was to develop my writing skills and do justice to the Muse kicking and screaming her way around in the basement of my mind. When I wrote Nocturnal Urges, it was to get out of the guest room and into a home for me and my son. I started touring so I could sell my books and supplement my salary as a reporter, since the boy isn't getting any shorter or less hungry. What once was extra spending money is now vitally important to our survival, thanks to the economy, and when the bottom fell out of the world, it hit my checkbook too.

I realized the anniversary when Writing.com sent me a little note: it's been ten years. I dropped by the old WC and of course, nobody's been there for almost a year. I'm the last post, in July 2010 when I discovered that one of our longtime members, TheCritic, had passed away. Cancer. There is a time for everything, and I guess the time for the WC has passed, though it still technically exists in Writing.com limbo.

It occurs to me that in recent years, I've tried to recreate the WC. I have a nifty writers' group called the Eville Writers; in fact, we meet tonight. An outgrowth of the local Nanowrimo group, we hold a write-in once a month to work and share how the work is going. I find it stimulating and useful... but it's once a month. What's keeping YOU from success? Every motherfuckin' day, man.

And there's my First Readers. A couple of times I've tried to write with the door open, to recreate that wonderful charge I had in 2004 when I dusted off that awful novella Sanctuary and rewrote it chapter by chapter for the WC. They told me what worked and what didn't, and when I slacked off they yelled for more and I got busy again.

My First Readers are great, but they're also busy. There's only a couple that have the time or inclination to read when I write with the door open. And frankly, the boulder is getting harder to push up the hill.

The Muse is absent.

Is it work now, where once it was play? Is it schedules and deadlines and release dates, with an eye to marketing and cover art, when once it was painting pictures with words? Is it the constant travel, the frustrations of trying to sell online, the alarming drop-off in sales that has taken place over the last few months? Is it feeling trapped in others' preconceptions (and prejudices) of who I am as a writer, while unsure of it myself?

I admit openly here what I've only talked about in private. I think about quitting.

I can quit touring. But then they won't buy my books. Big deal - nobody's buying this year anyway, right? But no touring also means publishers won't pick me up anymore; small press can't afford to publish authors that don't work to promote themselves. So I don't publish anymore. Without deadlines, the dust falls in the mind and the keyboard is silent. Quitting.

I did it once before. All through my youth, I longed for the stage. I was accepted into one of the finest theater training schools in the nation and struggled through three years of small parts and smaller paychecks. I learned stage combat and mind-body connection and method acting, and then I switched to stagecraft and lighting design and playwriting, figuring perhaps I was better meant to be backstage. Still telling stories.

In the end, though, I knew I wasn't good enough. Not good enough to make it, to survive... or to be worth the ticket price. I recognized that I had reached the limits of what my talent could achieve. And when the time came to take a bow and leave the stage, I left gracefully.

I wonder, as I look over ten years, whether the time has come to leave gracefully. When I say it to J, he growls at me and tells me I have more stories to tell. That may be true - probably is true. But why, then, is every word like pulling teeth? Why, when I know how the zombie trilogy ends for Sara Harvey (and it is awesome), and I know how Memphis will burn when the vampire revolt comes, and there's a coda to the sad tale of Dale Ramsey and his disappeared love, and my weary freedom fighters living under the sidewalks of Manhattan Island still long to see the sun?

Not to mention the best book I've ever written, a creepy and emotionally vicious ghost story about a woman who sees ghosts through the viewfinder of her camera in an Illinois river town that aren't nearly as terrifying as the ghosts she's carrying with her. When I finished that book, I thought, "This is the one. This is the book that gets people to take me seriously, break out of the pink ghetto and step up to a level where I can support myself and write what I want to write." And it sits on an editor's desk somewhere I won't say, gathering dust as it has for three years now.

For once, I'm not asking for advice or pats on the back or reassurances; I know if you're reading this, you've either read my stuff or like me personally, and I know your support is there. Believe me when I say that it makes a world of difference. This is something I have to work through and decide for myself. Nothing's happening right away - I have books contracted and commitments to keep. I honor them all and hope to find the joy in them that currently is lacking.

Where will I be ten years from now, on my next anniversary?

Tell the Muse to drop me a line. I'd like to talk to her about it.

Comments

  1. "Is it work now, where once it was play? Is it schedules and deadlines and release dates, with an eye to marketing and cover art, when once it was painting pictures with words? Is it the constant travel, the frustrations of trying to sell online, the alarming drop-off in sales that has taken place over the last few months? Is it feeling trapped in others' preconceptions (and prejudices) of who I am as a writer, while unsure of it myself?"

    Yes, it's all of that.

    And it's not you - it's the world... The world lately is a muse-killing place, for everyone. As much as "on paper" it looks like Dennis and I are doing well and slowly building a successful business, there are so many times it feels like we should just quit while we're ahead...

    YMMV, but there's a part of my brain that is firmly in focused survivalist mode, waiting for the next shoe to fall. It's tough to wade through that and keep juggling my increasingly complex life. It's really tempting to just say "fuck it, I can't handle this" and quit everything but the minimum I need to do to survive.

    What keeps me going is the knowledge that it would slowly kill me to do less with my abilities.

    Knowing the Muse, she's probably hunkering down in the basement like it's a fallout shelter...
    Perhaps she could use a new punching bag?

    ReplyDelete
  2. E, I sent you an email at Literary Underworld.

    ReplyDelete

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