Writerly Musings

I’ve been stalled on my writing for quite awhile now.  I haven’t worked on Solitude of the Tentacled Space Monster for a few weeks, nor on any short stories.  I pulled out "Burying Uncle Albert" recently with the intention of revising it for the fifth or sixth time, but since I did so, it’s been sitting untouched in my notebook.

The causes of this malaise are multitudinous, I think.  First, there’s the house thing; buying a house without being sure that our current house is going to sell anytime soon is stressful, as is the whole process of keeping the current house terrifyingly clean the whole time, just in case someone decides to swing by and take a look during the day.

Second, work has been crazy.  Since I went into overdrive a couple of weeks ago to build our time tracking system, I haven’t really slowed down.  I’m productive but I feel like all my creative energy is pouring into clever and well written (I hope) PHP code.

Third, my lungs just won’t cut me a break.  Typically, I’m fine for a week or so, followed by at least two weeks’ worth of flareup.  I’m getting over another one just now, one that lasted less than a week, so let’s hope it stays away this time.  Still, when you’re sick for a very long time, even if it’s just a mild illness, you begin to wonder if you’re ever going to feel healthy again, and that’s a depressing thought.

Of course, all those reasons are BS.  I’ve written plenty while under similar stresses, and sometimes even under more.

Mainly, though, I’ve sort of been reevaluating my goals as a writer.  I’ve moved past the notion that I will ever make a living as a writer (I know that there are some writers, like the otherwise sensible Bentley Little, who don’t believe you can call yourself a writer unless you’re making a living at it, but I call BS on that), because I just don’t think that’s going to happen, not without either upping my productivity to epic levels that preclude everything else in my life or achieving some sort of miraculously breakout novel that will shoot up to the top of the bestseller lists and stay there for months at a time.  Or going to Stephen King route and doing both.  While I suppose it’s possible that Solitude will achieve that level of popularity, it isn’t very likely.  And I just don’t have the energy to reach the level of productivity that would be required for the first option; neither the energy, nor, honestly, the creative juices.

Besides, my current job with the University provides much better health coverage than I would ever manage to obtain as a full-time writer.

Likewise, I don’t think I’ll ever be a major prize-winning writer; none of my stories will ever be nominated for a Hugo or a Nebula (because, frankly, I don’t write in the genre those apply to), and I doubt I’ll ever be nominated for a Bram Stoker award or a Pushcart Prize, let alone a Pulitzer or a Nobel (though a man can dream).  I’ve read a number of those prize-winning stories; and they’re either so good as to make my own paltry efforts seem faintly ridiculous by comparison, or they’re so obtuse that I’m convinced editors buy them and people vote for them for fear of looking stupid if they don’t ("Hm, this story confuses and puzzles me and I have no idea what it’s about; I’d better buy it, or people will think I’m stupid for not understanding it").  My writing is neither that good nor that esoterically incoherent.

In a way this is all kinds of liberating.  For one thing, I can discard that piece of advice I find in most of the writing books, the piece of advice that bugs me every time I see it: "Write to your audience".  Hah. As if you know who your audience is.

More importantly, though, this all lets me give myself permission to be more experimental with my writing, to explore styles and themes that I was afraid to before (even though I learned decades ago that "experimental fiction" is simply a synonym for "retch-inducingly bad".

So having examined all this and having discarded "Get Rich!" and "Win Prizes!" as motivations for writing (but still keeping them in the "Wouldn’t it be nice to…" category), I can focus on what I really want to do with my writing.  That boils down, really, to two goals:

  1. To entertain people; and
  2. To make people think.

I want people to have fun while they read my stories, to laugh and generally have a good time, but I’m also interested in getting people to think, primarily about themselves and about the way they interact with the world around them.

Does that sound pretentious?  I think it sounds pretentious.  But it really boils down to saying, "Here’s a problem this character’s facing that may be similar to a problem the reader might be facing, so let’s see if the character’s solution works for them or not; either way, it’s at least one idea."  Which doesn’t sound like much to me at all.

Now, having recently read articles about global warming, poverty, genocide in Africa, and so on, there’s also a big part of me that wants to interject some themes of social justice into my writing.  I’m never going to be an ecologist or a conservation biologist who goes out and figures out ways to restore endangered habitats, nor am I ever going to be an anthropologist who goes to remote locations to find ways to preserve ancient ways of life for endangered cultures. I don’t have a lot of money or time that I can throw at these global problems, though, and the same health issues that plague me today also prevent me from ever seriously considering the Peace Corps or even AmeriCorps.

So I figure I can use my writing talents to address such concerns.  The challenge, though, is to figuring out how I can work these themes in to the stories that I do write.  I don’t want to write yet more screeds about the dangers of global warming or how awful things are for the poor; scare tactics and the like just don’t work, I think; heck, recent attempts to turn global warming into a national security issue and play it as a threat as dire as terrorism have just resulted in increased cynicism about the topic.

Of course, there’s a third goal in addition to the others listed above that I want to reach:

3. Be read, and read widely.

Put this goal ahead of "making money", and, what with the Internet and all, all kinds of possibilities open themselves up.  I could distribute my writing for free on my website (I already distribute some of my stories there, though there seems to be very, very little traffic on my site), or make photocopies and pass them out on the street corners.  To be read widely, though, the stories still have to be entertaining, which means the quality still has to be there.  There’s nothing at all wrong with being entertaining, even though self-professed experts frequently downplay the value of entertainment.  I see this all the time on a horror related mailing list I belong to, where Stephen King is bashed on a regular basis while horror authors who are decidedly not entertaining are regularly lauded.

What it boils down to, I suppose, is this: I like fiction that both entertains me and makes me want to be a better person.  And so that’s what I want to do for others with my own fiction.

So I suppose the reason why I’m stalled in my writing now is that I can’t figure out how to do that.  Of course, there’s only one way to learn how to do that, though.  And that’s to just sit my butt back down at my desk and start writing again.

And, fortunately, I think I may have talked myself into it.

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