Writing Through Guilt as the World Falls Apart

Even the title of this piece can’t help but sound both woe is me and Chicken Little, but even so, these lamentations are probably more justified now than at any time in recent memory. When have so many different forces coalesced to bring on both crippling anxiety and existential dread? Sure, there were periods when The End Of Civilization doubtless felt imminent, but those times seem like they were defined by a discrete number of reaper-wielding actors. The Nazis. The Cuban Missile Crisis. The Black Death. At least those events had the common decency to get in line rather than all going at once.

Our current situation is the result of a whole host of apocalyptic wannabees refusing to cast aside decorum and run concurrently, putting human civilization into what can only be thought of as the 2020 Gargantuan Venn of Shite. I’d guess it looks something like this:

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The graphic covers only the highlights of our current cock-up. Left out are murder hornets, a nuclear North Korea, Brexit, kids in cages, toilet paper shortages, lack of human contact, an imploded economy, skyrocketing unemployment, unchecked governmental corruption and grift, voter suppression, and what else? Oh yeah, the last Star Wars was a bowl of shit!* Anyway, a diagram that managed to include every issue we currently face would collapse under its own density into a black hole, destroy life as we know it, and…you know what? That doesn’t sound so bad right now. Sometimes you just need a hard reset, amiright?

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And all of this is simply backdrop to the trials every person faces in their own lives. Save for the profiteers and grifters who will hopefully be brought to justice in the near future, everyone has been negatively affected by most of the above. So for me to single out the trade of writing is only to highlight and not to exclude. I’m confident we are all quite miserable.

I’ve seen lots of declarations on Writers Twitter(TM) about how to approach writing during the End Times. Some say that we should relish this downtime and use it to dive into our pages, maybe bang out that trilogy. Others, the majority, offer support to those for whom creativity is not a light switch to be flipped on at the drop of a pandemic. Set aside that there are jobs, kids, family, money, and health to consider.

There is a sense, perhaps transmitted through the zeitgeist, that writers often feel guilty for just writing, struggling to write or, god forbid, complaining about it while things go to shit beyond the front door. Or maybe it’s just me. I was Catholic at one point. I carry guilt like others carry a bottle of hot sauce. And I’ll sprinkle that shit on anything.

Prior to the pandemic I was writing 500-2000 words most days. When it began, I think my initial reaction was optimistic, and probably in line with a lot of those in creative endeavors: wow, I’m going to get so much done. Reality, though, did not meet with the expectation. I’d turn my brain to its writing mode, and it would just turn itself back off. (Yes, I have a writing mode.) I tell it to think of story lines and ways to flesh out plots and it sort of runs in the background. If I get lucky, it spits out a bit of ticker tape with an idea.

I’m confident this is how everyone does it.

Over three months I managed to eke out three short stories. Folks have differing habits and outputs, and for me this was a considerable drop off. I was too anxious and stressed about the state of our world. On top of that, I felt guilty engaging in an activity that wasn’t going to help reform the police, end government corruption, or fight voter suppression. I battled the inane idea that writing is a luxury only to be undertaken when things are better. Which made me feel even worse. What does ‘better’ even mean? And ‘better’ for whom? Because just as it’s always 5:00 somewhere, the world is always going to be shit for someone, somewhere, too.

These notions are an unescapable pit, of course, and a feature of my own personal brand of neuroses. I assume I’m not the only one who engages in such reductions, though maybe I am. They sound ridiculous when confessed aloud. The things we choose to do are rarely mutually exclusive. Often, guilt at writing is really just guilt over not doing more when you think you should, or simply being unable as a function of resources, time, or access. I figured that out, and ended up doing what I could to help, and to salve my conscience.

Also at the root of this, at least for me, is the strange notion that writing fiction should be valued beneath other endeavors or trades. I always catch it twining into my brain wrinkles. It isn’t a new idea. Creative work is routinely undervalued, so it is no surprise that it rubs off.  It has played out with the visual arts and writing, but the case of music is the ne plus ultra.** I can still remember the push made by the music-for-free advocates during the Napster years. It was no insignificant percentage of people. And I was, for a brief time right after college, one of them. Music is art and art should be freely consumable. Ugh. A few years later, I began doing album art for metal bands, and for a very long time charged nothing for my work. So at least I was consistent in my romanticized vision for the accessibility of art. I did it for free not because the bands wouldn’t have paid, but because I felt guilty accepting money for it. I was infected by the idea that art was somehow different than other goods or services. I’ve gotten over that.

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The recent discussion about compensation for writers as an examination of the differences in book advances between people of different races, sexual orientation, and gender identity on twitter (#publishingpaidme), was illuminating in a lot of ways, including what seemed to me like shockingly low advances being paid for books by established writers. Obviously, advances are only part of the equation, so it’s important to bear that in mind. Deals can be structured to give extra weight to royalties. That said, only the very top tier of writers, which is a vanishingly small percentage, make enough money to quit their day jobs. So it’s easy to fall into the trap of feeling like our work is of lesser value. Money is only one metric, but we live in a society that runs on it, so escaping dollars as a persuasive test of value can be hard to do.

So there’s that. Regular infusions of guilt and questions of value that drew me into a writing slump in the opening months of our international nightmare. I ultimately came out of it in June, resolving to get up at 5:00am every morning and write for two hours (an idea I borrowed from Derek Kunsken, author of the brilliant Quantum Evolution books). Aside from my shock that the world exists at such an hour, I’ve been surprised at how well it has translated into regular output of standard first-draft quality. I’ll take it; and I recommend giving it a try. If I can get up at the ass-crack, so can anyone.

In addition to trying to keep my pages going, I have a debut novel coming out in September. Great timing!

My friend and author R.W.W. Greene, whose excellent novel The Light Years came out in February, posited that getting a second book deal may actually be harder than landing the first. I’m sure I’ll learn this truth directly in short order. Whether or not a writer gets a second book deal after their debut is, as a rule, greatly influenced by the success of book number one. Which brings me to the subject of birthing a book in the midst of categorical global collapse.

I’m already thinking ahead about just what this might mean for sales of my novel The Phlebotomist. Only a few months ago I reported with great and doe-eyed enthusiasm, about all of the steps I was taking to ensure the launch was a success. The signings, convention panels, author talks…

Lol.

Oh what a few months will do, eh? Now I’m looking to blog tours, virtual book signings/readings, etc. Absent empirical data, my gut says those will be less effective in getting the word out than the live stuff.Screen Shot 2020-06-24 at 7.29.42 PM

Yeah. On the bright side, book sales may be going up. Or down. Depending on who you read. Maybe—maybe since the movie and television industries are on pause, people will shift more to books. One can hope. Most are familiar with bookshop.org, which many are using as an alternative to amazon and it helps to support indie book shops.

Speaking of bright sides, some are directly attributable to the pandemic. I get weekly human interaction and inspiration from a virtual writers group. I’m guessing there are probably a lot of these now. Taco Bell Quarterly was giving away free tacos with proof of a rejection letter and is now offering up over “160 pounds of shelf stable meat, cheese, and fancy ass mustard” that they browbeat Hickory Farms into donating in support of their Young Writer’s Program. The expiration date-free pantry warmers are set aside for those celebrating their first publications, and I’m here for it.

I hope that everyone finds a way through the morass. I hope you and your families stay safe and healthy. And if you write, I hope that you are able to push the world aside for long enough to get a few words in.

 

*Or so I hear. I refuse to watch something unless it gets 100% on Rotten Tomatoes. Like What We Do In The Shadows. I’m sure that’s 100%. I haven’t checked. Don’t tell me if it isn’t.

**Been waiting a year to use this term, so flame away. (It means the ‘most extreme example of its kind’ in a dead language know as “Latin”).

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