I'm just finishing up Stephen King's Song of Susannah, the sixth book in his epic Dark Tower series, and it's got me buzzing. The last part of the story gets pretty meta, and it's really hittin' me in the place where I live. A writer writes, but also, a writer publishes. I have so much good stuff laid down for these books I'm writing, but I haven't had the guts just yet to bear down and finish off the first one, and for about the ten-thousandth time, I’m thinking about why.
The book business has changed so much since i was a seven-year-old kid, writing my first short story (The Golden Earring - not the 70s era rock band, but rather a tale about an evil young girl menacing her family). As long as I can remember I've wanted to be known, to be a famous actor, or writer, comic book creator, rock star, or film director, but my hangups kept me from getting anywhere near the place where I'd have to actually find out if my work could pass the test.
I played trombone beautifully, but I rarely practiced. I made cartoons and cracked jokes, but didn't submit anything to anywhere or join a sketch group. I wrote songs and sang my heart out, but I didn't keep a band going long enough to play my tunes for a paying audience. I did a few auditions but hated the waiting, the rejections, the wondering if i was good enough to put up with all the failure. I studied film and animation, got all set to move to LA upon graduation and chase my dream of world stardom, then found a girl, got wrapped up in addictive love, and shelved that dream like all the others.
All that time I was writing. Video game treatments, screenplays, graphic novels, short stories, fantasy roleplaying game adventures, on and on and on, and yet I never tried to publish. I figured it was because of my insane fear of rejection, the same kind of fear that kept me from asking out the girl of my dreams in sixth grade and every subsequent girl after that, figuring no one really needed to waste their time on me until i had developed the bravado and confidence required to make it into adulthood. I always knew I was special - it was pretty obvious to me that I had a cute face, an imaginative mind, and my words sounded pretty when read out loud - and yet I shuffled my way through life taking whatever was offered, and trying to make peace with whatever it was that turned out to be.
And then one day I realized that I would never be a writer if I didn't create something and finish it. I started writing an action/adventure story specifically designed to appeal to my wife at the time, a romantic exercise that ultimately ended in failure. The whole time I was writing it she was cheating on me, so by the end of our marriage I had nearly an entire first novel that I didn't really want to read.
I never did finish The Heart of the Maya. I still love it, would in fact love to publish it one day, but as a hard sci-fi tale of Guatemalan drug lords and scientific discovery, it's fairly well dated to the pre iPhone era. And I wrote it to appeal to a woman that maybe never really cared whether I published anything or not, so it was pretty difficult to muster the motivation to polish it off.
Amidst all that unpleasantness I switched my focus to poetry, rap, and songwriting. I started a band (kind of), hosted an open mic, and even got published for the first time in a now-defunct literary journal (Wrist).
So what changed? Was I suddenly cured of the fear of rejection? Not hardly. I had grown hard somehow. Somehow I realized that I was good, that my work had relevance and purpose, and that I had things to say that were important. Instead of limply blogging into the universal void, hoping someone might witness my genius and elevate me to god status, I discovered this crucial bit of wisdom: if i wanted people to read my work I had to be it's greatest champion. I had to learn how to quiet the voices of self-doubt and neurosis and say unto the world: "shitty writers get published every day. It's my turn to be the world's next shitty published author."
And then suddenly, like a model dinosaur crashing out of an exhibit at the natural history museum, self-publishing tore its way out of the dusty backroom of irrelevance and became more or less the standard for new writers. Here I'd been, working up the courage to submit my work for thirty years, only to discover that gatekeepers didn't really matter anymore.
I still want to be published. I still want a professional editor to hack away at my manuscripts, still want to go on speaking tours, still want to get my stuff made into movies and become a household name, but for the first time in modern history a writer can do that stuff, and ALSO do whatever the hell he or she wants on the side and have some segment of the population take an interest in it.
I'm currently writing the first draft of the third novel in a space fantasy series that I love, based in a world (or worlds) that I created by accident fifteen-plus years ago, a world that's been fleshed out via my podcast, tabletop roleplaying game, and hours and hours of random daydreams, a world that I hope is one day as well known among nerds like me as Star Wars or Star Trek, and I don't know when or if they'll ever be published by a real publishing company. But I know more completely than ever before that I am a writer, and my work is worth reading.
I'm still afraid of rejection, and (for a few reasons too heavy to go into here) I still have a perverse subconscious unwillingness to complete things and be successful, but I'm fighting. I'm ready to be known and liked, or disliked, on my merits as a human being and/or as a writer, and I'm ready to succeed, or fail, whichever way the wind may blow.
I owe a huge debt for this newfound confidence to my beloved girlfriend, Kathy Cao, or as her friends call her, KC. She's one of the few people that have ever told me she loved my writing. In fact, I probably wouldn't be writing this post if not for her saying she'd like to read another one. Stephen King may have inspired me to write on this specific topic, but she gave me the ears to listen for the space where that direction might come through.
It feels real good to be with someone who appreciates my gifts and who has the warmth and kindness to say it out loud. It makes me wonder if more great writing would be happening if more partners were willing to praise their loved ones the way that Kathy praises me. It's worth a shot. Maybe there's something your loved one is good at that they've set aside for awhile. Maybe it'd be fun to see if they'd try it again. So go on. Shake things up a bit, why don't you? Maybe there’s a masterpiece in there just waiting to see the world.