Miles Harvey, my thesis adviser at Northwestern, used to have a favorite saying during his workshops. “Sometimes you have to take the pretty little puppies out back and drown them,” he’d say as we debated the merits of one of our carefully wrought essays. What he meant was that sometimes you have to be willing to put one of your precious sentences out of its misery for the sake of the overall narrative. You might think a particular string of words is the most adorable subject and predicate ever set down in type, but it’s really just shitting all over the carpet and ruining your piece. His point, besides the black humor of a writer facing his worst critic, was that we shouldn’t get too attached to any part of our work because it was all subject to being euthanized.
Miles always pushed me to open up more with my writing, stretch it out and give myself more room to say things. He struggled with this himself, he said. He once told me he used to spend hours just to eke out a paragraph at a time while writing his first book, The Island of Lost Maps. I don’t know if I write this way because I started in the attention vacuum of the internet or it’s my natural reserve in real life, but I try to get my point across in as few words as possible (it’s no wonder I like Twitter so much). Concision can be good for quality control, and there’s a long tradition of macho American male writers punching out short, declarative sentences. But it also means I have to choose my words carefully. This gives me another convenient excuse for not writing. When I finally steal some quiet time to work with a half-decent idea rolling around in my head, I can still back out because I think I won’t do it right. It’s not laziness. It isn’t even failure. It’s perfectionism taken to its extreme, which is really just fear of failure.
I’ve had two good conversations with friends in the past week about where I can fit writing into my life now. For the past ten years since I signed up for my first creative writing workshop, I’ve harbored a fantasy that I could turn it into a full-time career. I went to great lengths to make this happen, walking away from a career in IT to be a stay-at-home dad/freelancer and signing up for full-blown graduate school to study the craft of creative writing, only to find myself back where started four years later. A cynic might say this all means I just didn’t have what it takes. I’m a cynic, but not not too cynical to know that it was really just a combination of life choices and bad timing. It’s hard to switch careers. It’s harder to switch to a career that is rapidly being rendered into a free service. It’s even harder to do it while supporting a family. And it’s impossible to pull it off during the worst economy since the Great Depression. That sounds like a lot more excuses, but to me it’s just the facts (I have to believe that to feel like this last decade of my career hasn’t been a complete loss). Both of my friends, simply by asking me how things were going and listening patiently while I spilled my guts, helped me get closer to the answer.
I’ll spare readers the whiny specifics, but what it comes down to is that I’ve accepted that I’m not going to make a living from writing, and I’m finally okay with that. I have a certain skill set in IT that people will pay me to use. I have a good, stable job within walking distance of my house that, when I’m honest with myself, I really don’t hate. It’s a good life and writing can always be a part of it, just as an avocation, not a vocation. I’ll write things because I want to, because it makes me happy when I feel like I have something to say, rather than writing things I think I should be writing because it will push me toward some vague career goal. This starts with finally deciding to heed Miles’ advice and stop being so precious with my words, stop being afraid of throwing something out there because it isn’t perfect, and start remembering that I can always try again if it fails.
I’m also going to stop apologizing for writing here. I’ve always felt like I was selling myself short publishing things here because it’s “just my website,” but it’s where I feel most comfortable, and the one place I know for sure that the people who care will read it. That doesn’t mean I’ll stop looking for opportunities to publish my work elsewhere, but my days of randomly stuffing manila envelopes with SASEs and filling out Submission Manager forms are probably over. If I’ve given up on writing things I think I should be writing, then I need to start writing things that make me happy. And that’s building something better here.
I know better than to promise a set schedule or word count, but my goal is to start writing here more often, with more variety and a little less precision. I’ve been enjoying Chris Jones’ new blog about writing lately, not so much for the writing advice, which is great, but for the sheer energy and joy he seems to be putting into it. In his first post he wrote, “I can’t help imagining the readers who might find their way here, but I’m trying not to over-hope things. Maybe something will come out of it; maybe it will prove just another stutter-step. It doesn’t really matter. For now, I’m just going to write, because that’s what I do, and it’s also what I am.” This blog has been a lot of things for me, and maybe this new dedication will be another stutter-step too. But for now, it’s what feels right.