Wednesday, May 20, 2009
This is specifically about writing, but I think the advice is pretty universal and inspiring.
I am at a crossroads, but any choice of road seems to lead somewhere I don't necessarily want to go. Here is my situation: I am 60. I have wanted to be a writer, specifically a novelist, since before I was a teenager. I struggled with this ambition because, I felt at least in the early days, I wasn't very good. I didn't sell a short story until I was in my 30s, and then to a "little magazine" for almost no money. Several years ago my "first novel" was published by a major house to good reviews and good local business; I learned just yesterday that 40 percent of the books remain unsold and the book will be remaindered at cost.
I gave up working outside the house 10 years ago because my wife has muscular dystrophy and I needed to stay home and care for her. This had a hugely negative impact on our finances, obviously, a shortfall I'd hoped to remedy through writing and selling books. Then, a few months ago I was diagnosed with cancer. Oh, not the "settle your affairs" kind of cancer, but the "treatment is going to change you forever" type that is like an echoing voice proclaiming my mortality.
I don't know what to do. If I write more books, they will probably just line up behind the others with my agent, or worse, sit in my closet, where my most recent book is stored. I am strangely not motivated about the cancer thing. Yes, I am meandering toward treatment, but, well, with less enthusiasm than fear normally provides. I find my thoughts drifting toward suicide, not serious contemplation, mind you, but consideration nonetheless. This latter thing is about purpose. I have lived my life for purpose, and I have reached a point where that purpose is becoming meaningless in an external, rewards-for-your-work kind of way.
So the question comes from a writer having a truly existential crisis. And Cary's response is brilliant. Here are a few choice pieces of wisdom:
I'm guessing that when you started out with dreams of being a writer, it wasn't unit sales that motivated you.
I say this because lifelong dreams arrive as dreams. That is their power. They have their own power and their own significance to us. It is the power and energy embodied in this vision that sustains us through the practical struggle that ensues. So when we feel, late in life, unable to summon the energy to pursue it any further, the place to look for that energy is in those original visions, desires and fantasies. That is where the motivational power is -- in the feeling we got when as a youth we set out to put our stamp on the world, to find our individual language, to paint our visions on freeway overpasses, to ignite passion in others, to blissfully hold suspended in our minds the worlds we envisioned, and to hear with unabated thrill the words that streamed through us like clear water streaming down the mountain.
The creative life is about such dreams. You now face serious medical and financial challenges, and increased unit sales would certainly help. But I wish to focus on your pursuit of writing as a personal quest. My hope is that by finding the strength to go on writing, you will also find hope and energy to conquer your other challenges.
But basically I believe your salvation lies in rediscovering the roots of your passion for writing. I suggest you begin a journey back to your creative roots. That is where your true, strong voice is. And that is what you need -- more than unit sales, more than awards, more than publishing contracts, what you need is your voice back. You need that fearless, questing voice of the adolescent in love with language and vision and story. Go back there. Do you have any of the first paperbacks you read? What might they be? James Bond? Sherlock Holmes? What comics did you cherish? Fantastic Four? Iron Man? Whatever those sources were, go back to them and try to re-create that wonderful, innocent thrill. Go back to them and reread them. Copy out passages longhand and feel their cadence again through your hand, through your pen. Let those early visions of heroes and villains fill your head again. Allow yourself the luxury of fantasizing again about being a famous writer. Write out these fantasies. Draw them. Make yourself a collage of images that represent your most cherished dreams. Use primary-process creativity to rekindle your excitement.
Remember the thrill of your own voice.