Learning to Let Go
By Jeff Bowles
The first Wednesday of every month, science fiction and horror writer Jeff Bowles offers advice to new and aspiring authors. Nobody ever said this writing thing would be easy. This is your pep talk.
To tell you the truth, I never wanted to be a writer. So many authors–successful and unsuccessful alike–seem to have been aware of a certain literary calling from an early age. Stephen King began telling stories as a kid and never stopped. One of my personal favorites, Frank Herbert, creator of the Dune series, told his parents when he was little, “I want to be a author.” Adorably so, I’m sure, even if in basic syntactic error.
I had precious few moments like that. At the age of eight, I began an ambitious Star Wars fan fiction novel in which Luke Skywalker was forced to confront an evil dark Jedi clone of his poor dead Uncle Owen. I never got off the fourth page. When I was a teenager, I wrote about seven chapters of a complex space opera. But even though I showed clear aptitude, the process was long and boring, and I had better things to do, like playing music with my friends and spending hours on the couch in front of my PlayStation.
I didn’t decide to devote myself to writing until I hit my mid-twenties, by which time the life of a coffee-house-playing singer/songwriter had lost its appeal. Nobody listened to me when I performed. They were too intent on their dark roasts and shallow hipster conversations. I reasoned that even if I someday made it as a musician, I’d have to spend all my time on the road touring, and I’d just gotten engaged to a wonderful woman and had future plans to start a family with her. It made sense at that time to go after a new dream, and I’d always liked telling stories, even if I’d never demonstrated the necessary discipline to actually finish them.
Like so many young hopefuls, I was convinced literary success and stardom would be just around the corner. Ehem, they were not. What can I say? If you’ve been at this thing for any length of time, you know well the real hard work comes in the form of keeping your head down, applying butt to chair, and pounding out thousands of unsuccessful words before a single one catches the eye of an editor or an agent. Maybe you’re just starting out, in which case you might be wondering what the long-term odds of your success are.
Sad to say, but instant recognition is pretty rare. I know some very talented but also very lucky writers who hit it big their first time out. Ultimately, their jobs and their lives haven’t been made any easier. Sometimes the work is actually harder for them, because big success comes with big pressure. Each morning, they still have to make that basic choice: to write, or not to write. And that isn’t easy. Nothing about this job is. Anyone who tells you otherwise … actually, I seriously doubt someone with experience will tell you otherwise.
If you’re like me, your first stabs at storytelling were bad. Like really, really bad. I wrote at least thirty short stories before I snagged a single decent pub credit. I had a couple things working against me, and so did you. First off, I had to learn to write. And I don’t mean in the general sense; writing a blog post like this and writing a fully realized novel are two incredibly different beasts. That probably goes without saying, too.
Secondly, most of us have to build a name for ourselves slowly and over time. Many of your favorite authors didn’t get anywhere near success until they’d generated an incredible amount of published content (that’s published content; the unpublished stuff doesn’t count). The difficulty curve inherent to all this is enough to derail the majority of us. Everybody wants to write a book at some point in their life, but actually finishing one, submitting it through the proper channels, and receiving scads of rejection letters … well, may I just say, fresh meat, welcome to the great literary meat grinder.
At this point you may be asking, “What gives, Jeff? I thought you were going to give us a pep talk. This is more like trash talk.” Well, yeah, I guess it is. But it does no good to approach creative writing as a profession with anything less than a level head. You’ve got to know the odds. Or at least, I feel you should know the odds. The truth is–and this may seem counterintuitive–recognizing your likelihood of failure is just as important as having your writing dream in the first place.
I’m a dreamer by nature. Most creative types are. When I close my eyes at night, I’m just as likely to see book signings and red carpet movie premieres as blank white pages with blinking, unfulfilled cursors … taunting me, taunting me … the horror, the horror. Just because I recognized a long time ago instant success would never be mine doesn’t mean I no longer do what I can when I can to get there. Actually, and this is the important part, the slow and steady nature of my career thus far has allowed me to let go my prodigious and unproductive white-knuckle grip, helping me at last to relinquish just enough control so I could, say, have a life outside of my stories.
That’s kind of the point. Failure teaches us more than success. Failure hurts, no doubt about it, but it also heals. Failure is not a four-letter word. Count ‘em, seven letters, not even close. Nor is it some cosmic slight. Don’t be afraid to fail. In the grand scheme of things, there’s no difference between the careers of a thirty-year vet who hit the mark right out of the gate and a thirty-year vet who had to slowly build an audience with each successive work. In other words, it isn’t the destination, it’s the journey.
Here is your pep talk in four simple words: learn to let go. Seriously, that’s it. Let go of your need for recognition, for validation. Let go the desire for royalty checks the size of the annual Defense Department budget. Letting go doesn’t mean giving up. Far from it, in fact. Some very big writers love to spoil it for newbies. Gleefully, they hand out advice like, “If you can quit, you should,” implying of course this job sucks so bad you shouldn’t even bother.
I’m not that guy. I like to build people up. Learning to let go of your expectations, your insecurities and personal timetables, it’s actually a cure-all for life. The day-to-day of a writer really can be challenging. There are just so many lows, sometimes more than there are highs. You’ll have days you want to give up. Heck, you may have entire years or decades you don’t write a single word. So I find it’s better for the mind and the soul to consider writing a lifelong journey rather than a pass/fail vocation. Do you know what happens when you let go? You actually start enjoying what you do. Some time-tested philosophies think of this as living in the now, embracing the flow of life, or choosing to let the stream carry you rather than fighting its currents. It’s a healthy attitude to cultivate, especially when you’re in a creative industry that hands out disappointment like local discount car wash flyers.
Don’t give up. Don’t do it. And don’t let anyone, including yourself, tell you that you should. If you find you’re getting frustrated with your progress, take a break. That old chestnut, writers write, applies only to very unhappy people and very well-adjusted robots. Writers are just average folks, and like every other warm body on this planet, you need a life that’s fulfilling on more than one level. You know what you can do instead of pounding out words until you tear your hair out? Fall in love. Go see a movie. Have kids. Start a stamp collection. When you let go of the desperation, the incessant need to be somebody, you can be anybody, and that, my friends, is freedom itself.
You know who you are. You know you love to write. If you didn’t, you wouldn’t be here on this blog. So why not trust yourself? Trust life. Tell a story for the joy of it. One moment, one second, one word at a time. If you worry too much about the future, the next rejection, the next failure, if you obsess over the past and all the ugly moments still living there, you’re doomed to forever hate right now.
It’s okay to admit you’re no superstar. At least not yet. Trust me, it won’t hinder your ability to create awesome stuff. I’ve met some big name talent. Many of them feel imprisoned by their careers. The grass is always greener, right? So while you’re busy fuming with jealousy over their magnificent sales figures, they’re busy resenting you for what they perceive as your complete and total freedom. The joy of writing is in discovering what’s just around the corner. Imagine if a new entry in your favorite book series telegraphed its epic ending on page one. Wouldn’t that be disappointing? Life, like any story worth reading, works best when you don’t know what comes next.
So don’t try to predict the future. Live free, focus on today. And that’s your pep talk for the month, folks. Read ‘em and weep! Just don’t weep too hard.
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