I guess since it’s happened before, and it happens to people far more talented than I can ever hope to be, it shouldn’t surprise me when it happens. But it still takes me by surprise and leaves me feeling a little shaken when I find myself in these circumstances.
I don’t think there can be anything worse then getting lost when you’re an artist. By that I mean forgetting your focus; losing track of why it was you were doing what you do in the first place. To all of a sudden find that the reasons and motivation that drove you to become a writer, a musician, or a painter have mutated into something you don’t like, I personally think it’s the scariest thing that can happen to a creative person, no matter what medium they work in.
The scary part of losing track of your original intent is that, at least in my case, is not even noticing it happening. When it happens to me I’m convinced that everything is okay and that it’s business as usual, until something or some things happen to show me otherwise. Of course, then it’s so stunningly obvious I wonder how I could have been so blind as not to see all the clues that were pointing to the problem. Twenty-twenty hindsight is a wonder isn’t it?
For the past seven months I’ve been writing about my quest to take a novel from its inception, or conception if you wish, to birth. At first it was a blow-by-blow account of my participation in the National Novel Writing Month (NaNoWirMo) competition last November, where the idea was to write 50,000 words within the 30 days of that month.
Once the month was over, and I had made the decision to carry the work to completion, I wrote sporadic reports on my ongoing progress. This included what probably felt like some pointless navel-gazing to some, but was all part of the process for me. Being able to think out loud like that was invaluable as it helped me to concentrate thoughts and keep focused on the intent of the whole project.
But there were others things going on at the same time while I was writing the story. I was continuing to write posts for my blog and the sites that I post at, including this site and Desicritics.org. and ever so slightly began to get some recognition for my work. Whether in the form of appreciative comments from readers (or less than appreciative ones, notice is notice), approval from editors at the sites where I write, clients approaching me to review work for them, or having other sites approach me for permission to utilize my work it was a new experience for me and I had to learn how to deal with it.
There’s part of me that has always had problems accepting compliments, so it took a while for me to catch on that people liked what they were reading, and that I might be good at what I do. But, in the end I had to believe it because enough people from enough places were saying positive things.
Now, show me someone who doesn’t enjoy hearing their work complimented? No matter how much we protest to the contrary all of us need ego stroking now and than. It’s all very well and good to say that you do something for the sake of doing it, but there is no denying the feeling of satisfaction that comes from knowing somebody else enjoyed it as well.
But there is a fine line that you have to be wary of, well more like a couple of them, but the key one for me is taking myself too seriously. Not that the compliments weren’t meant sincerely, or that my work wasn’t good, but it’s a matter of how I perceived myself within the context of writing.
Instead of writing because that’s what I wanted to do and I loved doing it, I was considering myself a “Writer” and writing for those reasons. I was allowing myself to become more important than what I was doing.
Like I said all the signs were there; wanting to finish writing something and get it published and over with instead of enjoying the actual process of writing being the most obvious; but I was too wrapped up in myself to notice. It took two events last week for me to realize there was something wrong.
I had offered to review a book for a person whose writing I like. She had contributed to a collection of short stories, essays, and poems that an Internet writing group she belonged to had self-published. I started reading the stories and looking at them with a critical eye, when I stopped and listened to myself.
I heard this pedantic voice I didn’t recognise making sarcastic remarks in my head. I felt sick. Who was that asshole? What did it matter what I, or anyone else for that matter, thought about what these people had written. This was a labour of love by people who still wrote for the sake of writing. How dare I even think that I had the right to be an asshole and shit on them and their work?
What made me think that I was in anyway superior to them? We were all in the same position, supposedly, writing because we wanted to, for the enjoyment of putting words on paper and trying to make something happen. I very awkwardly sent an email off to the woman who’d sent me the book and tried to explain what I meant and ended up just making things worse, by being too inarticulate and not really understanding what it was I was trying to say.
It’s all very well and good for somone to say “well they published it” and they should be prepared to accept criticism. Well, maybe, but not from me. This had nothing to do with the quality of their work, and everything to do with that awful, judgemental voice I heard in my head.
The second incident occurred when I was conducting a review this weekend. I spent a really wonderful two hours on the phone with Willy DeVille on Saturday talking about everything under the sun. Of course the primary focus was on his music and what kept him going. At one point we were talking about something or other, which led us into him talking about the way he and the band set themselves up on stage.
It was important that the band be able to communicate to each other, make eye contact on occasion, so that they could have fun. “If we’re not having fun, how can we expect anyone else to?”
Not very profound is it? but at the same time it’s the damn deepest truth that every artist should keep in mind. You can talk about the suffering artist all you want, but if ultimately, when you are in the midst of creation and you aren’t enjoying the process, you really need to figure out exactly why it is you’re doing what you’re doing.
Obviously it’s not going to be a laugh a minute, but if you don’t do it with at least love or passion in your damn heart what does that make you? It ranks right up there with baking as the oldest profession in the world. You don’t have to be paid to be a prostitute; there are all sorts of things you can sell yourself for aside from money.
I write because I want to write and I enjoy the act of writing. I like putting ideas down on paper and trying to express them in as logical a manner as possible. I love the potential that writing allows me for creativity and creation. I didn’t set out to be a “Writer” as a career, but because I’m happiest when I’m writing.
All of a sudden though I found that I wasn’t having fun doing the writing, I was enjoying being a Writer. Free copies of books and CDs to review, concert tickets, interviewing famous people; boy I must be somebody special. Even if I never said that aloud, it was there. In my attitudes towards others, towards their work, whatever, and it was all being reflected in my attitude towards my own work.
Hearing that awful voice in my head when I was reading a perfectly fine book of stories awoke me to the fact that there was a problem. Talking to Mr. DeVille on Saturday put the finger on the problem and told me what I had forgotten; what I had lost.
Perhaps some of you will think I’m making an issue out of nothing, that this is just more of the aforementioned naval-gazing, and who knows, you might be right. But we all need our own yardsticks with which to measure ourselves by and mine is the integrity of my intentions for doing something.
Maybe that’s because in the past I’ve done things for the wrong reasons, I don’t know. What I do know is that I’ve been wondering why the hell I’ve not finished rewriting the first draft of my novel, and why I haven’t started working on its sequel. It’s because I’d forgotten my original purpose in staring the project in the first place.
I had a story I wanted to tell, and I enjoy the process of telling stories, and somehow that got lost along the way. I don’t know when the intentions behind my writing changed, or for how long it lasted, I’m just glad I finally noticed.
I don’t know if anyone reading what I had written noticed anything, I hope not, but in some ways that’s not even the point. It’s all a matter of having to live with myself and ensuring that I don’t disappoint the critic who matters the most to me: me. If I can keep him happy I have a really good chance of writing something others will enjoy.