Kath here. Please welcome John Vorhaus to our list of valued contributors. He’s the author of the hilarious novel The California Roll (I call it smartass fic) and the Killer Poker series. John has guest posted with us twice this past year (click HERE and HERE), and we’ve loved his funny voice and valuable insights into publishing. A successful screenplay writer, novelist and humorist, John is sure to bring a different perspective and plenty of laughs to WU. We hope you agree. Take it away, John!
I’ll tell you the truth, if everything were going great in my writer’s life, I wouldn’t be writing this now. But I’m currently facing a challenge common to many writers – maybe one you yourself have faced, or are facing now. See, my last novel, The California Roll, launched with great expectations (and to terrific reviews) last year, but just didn’t perform as well as I (and my publisher!) (and my mother!) had hoped. While I’m inclined to blame this on everything and anything from Kindle to sunspots, the fact remains that what I thought would be an effortless and important jump up the ladder of my career instead turned into something I’m too familiar with: just another battle in the war that is the writer’s life. While there’s hope for the sequel novel, The Albuquerque Turkey (more adventures from master con artist Radar Hoverlander), due out in March, 2011, the circumstances remain the same: It’s fluffing hard to be a writer these days. It’s a battle; worse, it’s a war. And it’s inspired me to share some thoughts on this subject of the battle and the war of the writer’s life.
I start by asking myself a question: Why do I write? Some multiple choice answers come to mind:
A – easy money
B – can’t hold a real job
C – just want my voice to be heard
D – just sort of feel like I have to
I can’t use Answer A – easy money – for that would tab me as either naïve, deluded or perverse, and I’m none of these things (okay, perverse a little, but whatever). Answer B has some merit, for having written myself into the corner that’s called the writer’s life, there’s really not much I hold in the way of alternative marketable skills. It’s not like I can sell cars. Answer C sounds good – I just want my voice to be heard – for that’s true, I do. But the real answer for me is D, I just sort of feel like I have to. Writing is my passion or, on dark days like today, my compulsion. For better or worse, I’m stuck with it. And I know I’m not alone. So not alone. You’re right there with me, too.
So many of us writers feel like we have no choice. We write because something named or nameless inside us makes us write. We often feel frustration because nothing we write seems to quell or quench the urge within. It’s like a virus with a low-grade fever and the antibiotics they give us are crap. So we answer D – just sort of feel like I have to – but we’re not necessarily thrilled with our selection, especially when the huge and fickle monolithic (Neolithic?) marketplace seems not to notice our efforts, honor our compulsion, or even have the decency to treat our virus.
Thus do we live with the constant struggle between the urge to write and the certain knowledge that (more) often (than not) things won’t go the way we hope. That’s the war, the writer’s war.
And war, as we know, is hell.
But writing isn’t hell, not always. Sometimes there are moments of pure glory, and without those moments we’d just walk away, no matter how virally inflected we were. Those moments are the addiction condition of writing; a have more/need more situation, where the more we write, the more we want to write and the more we want our writing to be recognized, lauded, or at least acknowledged. We don’t try to quit. We have no real desire to quit. Nor could we quit anyhow, not with the crap antibiotics they feed us.
Yet here we discover with the force of revelation the most important thing about about the relationship of writers to writing: a thing called choice.
Even though we may feel we have no choice but to write, we always get to exercise the choice of what to write. That’s the best part. That’s where the glory lives, as well as the buzz – the buzz of having the pure power to choose. This is an awesome power, truly a godlike one. Better, it’s a power that no editor, publisher, producer, partner, agent, loved one, critic, boss, reviewer, client, buyer or pet can ever take away. We might modify our choices to serve other people’s needs, or serve the market, but ultimately it’s our brain that’s driving our hands and bringing our words to life. Without choice, writing is just a thousand-yard stare into the endless void of an empty page.
Anyone can face an empty page.
It takes a writer to fill it.
So recognize your power – that marvelous power to choose – and own it. And believe me, I’m saying this as much to me as I am to you. Own it all. Own the right to start stories you don’t finish. Own the authority to create characters you later kill off. Own the initiative to try forms of writing you’ve never tried before. Own control over the most basic question, the only one that really matters, really: What do I want to write right now? Above all, own your right to be wrong on the page. Be confident in knowing that choices improve as information improves – and that wrong choices lead to right choices in the end.
We get to choose. That’s what makes us writers, and makes other poor jlubs people who sell cars. We choose; we discover and judge; we select. In sum, we create. By making choices.
Yay, us! No, seriously, yay, us!
The writer’s war is the struggle to make choices without going nuts. Without doubting ourselves, annoying ourselves, stopping or subverting or diverting ourselves. If we succeed, then we communicate our thoughts to others in meaningful ways, or even just fanciful ones. If we fail… sigh… we try again, because we’re writers and we can’t stop writing. But even if we succeed, we… sigh… still try again, because we’re writers, and being writers is just not enough. We not only have to start being writers, we have to keep being writers. That’s the virus, and there’s no known cure.
Bottom line: It gonna be a damn long war.
A war we often feel like we’re fighting alone. Writing, after all, is a largely solitary undertaking, and the problems we face (plot problems, money problems, confidence problems – oh, that list goes on and on) seem such isolated and isolating ones. But we’re not alone, not really. We share the company of everyone who’s walked the writer’s path before us, and everyone who’ll ever walk it next. If that assurance seems less than assuasive to you, please consider that there are tangible allies, too, and please consider me one of them if you will. I welcome your direct outreach at johnvorhaus at yahoo dot com, or through this site, or maybe our paths will cross at Starbucks. I might also respectfully point you to my two books on writing, The Comic Toolbox and Creativity Rules (from which some of these thoughts have been most shamelessly poached). My books – my own words – have helped me fight the writer’s war from time to time; I flatter myself that they might help you, too.
But you know what? Don’t take my word for it – take your word for it. Take your eyes off this page right now and put them on a blank one. Fill that page, and see if you don’t feel better about yourself – and know more about yourself – than you did when you began. If it takes five minutes, or fifteen, or fifty, it’ll be time well spent because nothing spells writer like words on the page. And nothing gets a writer high like exercising the power to choose.
And the way I see it is: if writing is my addiction, the least it can do is get me high.