Monday, February 8, 2010

Writing: The Career With a 20-Year Internship

I sometimes wonder if there is some pathological contrariness in my brain that sways me to a difficult path where easier or less risky options exist.  Certainly, everyone can think of a person in their life, whether friend, co-worker, or family member, who thrives on melodrama and enjoys the attention that comes with living a life of one sordid tragedy after another.  It is exasperating, because you know if that person would just put down the idiot ball and confront his or her problems rationally, many would likely be solved.  I never wanted to be that person, but in finding my calling as a writer -- no, that's deterministic language -- in realizing that writing is my passion and the highest creative goal I will pursue in my life, I fear that I may have doomed myself and my family to a needless purgatory.  They don't deserve that, so I am left frustrated, grasping for an answer and wondering if it wouldn't be better to just hang up my keyboard and go be a truck driver or something.

My internships during law school lasted the length of a semester.  A physician's internship and residency last a few years at most.  In academics and the sciences, a person who has completed a graduate degree is, at that moment at least, essentially as close to the cutting edge of that discipline as its most celebrated researchers and theorists.  A writer needs more time to master the craft.  While a journalism graduate right out of college can and does often find work writing in the media, to craft the kind of quality content that will lead to a genuine literary career, decades of work may be necessary.  (Most writers will not rise suddenly from poverty to lucre like Joanne Rowling.)  Economically speaking, spending half a working lifetime learning a craft seems like a pretty lousy idea!

The situation is even further skewed toward a lengthy apprenticeship in the fantasy and science fiction genres: nearly every major figure in the field published his or her seminal work later in life, often after retiring from (or prompting retirement from) an existing, unrelated career.  Terry Goodkind was a carpenter and wildlife artist before writing Wizard's First Rule.  Dr. Michael Crichton was a physician before hitting it big with The Andromeda Strain.  David Eddings, James Rigney (Robert Jordan), and Alice Sheldon (James Tiptree Jr.) were all retired from the U.S. military, and J.R.R. Tolkien was a professor and retired British serviceman.  A few notable names such as Frank Herbert and Robert Heinlein actually were journalists before finding enough success to proceed on their own tickets, while Ayn Rand was similarly a screenwriter and playwright selling smaller work to studios before breaking through with The Fountainhead, but the writer-all-along story is the exception here.  There is very little parallel in the fantasy or science fiction writing world with the doctor or attorney who grinds through half a decade of schooling and credentialing, grinds through six to ten years of heavy practice, has his or her first heart attack, and then settles back into a professional armchair to enjoy shortened golden years finally free of debt.

And the baffling thing is that people still want to be writers!  Worse, they seem to think they will duplicate Rowling's feat instead of toiling in obscurity for decades as Herbert, Rigney, or Rand did.  Writer Dani Shapiro, a professor of fine arts in California, cannily observed this seeming perversity in an article from yesterday's Los Angeles Times, noting:
[MFA grads] do not include insecurity, rejection and disappointment in their plans. I see it in their faces: the almost evangelical belief in the possibility of the instant score. And why not? They are, after all, the product of a moment that doesn't reward persistence, that doesn't see the value in delaying recognition, that doesn't trust in the process but only the outcome. As an acquaintance recently said to me: "So many crappy novels get published. Why not mine?"

The emphasis is on publishing, not on creating. On being a writer, not on writing itself. The publishing industry -- always the nerdy distant cousin of the rest of media -- has the same blockbuster-or-bust mentality of television networks and movie studios. There now exist only two possibilities: immediate and large-scale success, or none at all. There is no time to write in the cold, much less for 10 years.
Shapiro is either wrong for the right reasons or right because of what's wrong; take your pick.  Those successful authors I named from the fantasy and science fiction genres did write "in the cold" for 10 years or however long, but they eventually succeeded on the strength of their content.  All the others who pushed and prodded their way onto the mainstream shelves with an eye toward publishing and "the market" ended up as industry roadkill just as Shapiro observed they would. 

"Trust in the process," Shapiro taught the new generation of writers, but they never grasped her lesson.  And she wasn't the only one.  Hiroshi Yamauchi, CEO Emeritus of Nintendo Co Ltd., uttered a mantra meaning much the same thing thirty years ago: "Content is everything.  We will put all our efforts into producing great content.  Then we will have something we can sell."  Yamauchi was right, and in under three years Nintendo singlehandedly brought the American video game industry back from the grave of its 1983 industry crash.  Frank Herbert himself recognized the primacy of content when Dune became a blockbuster hit:
A man is a fool not to put everything he has, at any given moment, into what he is creating. You're there now doing the thing on paper. You're not killing the goose, you're just producing an egg.
Yamauchi and Herbert would laugh in the face of the person who expects there to be room in the market for his or her "crappy novel," to borrow from Shapiro's anecdote.  Why waste an instant pushing subpar material when effort, practice, and dedication can make possible an "excellent" novel instead?  Sure, Stephanie Meyer is raking in millions of dollars with pulp trash about sparkly vampires, but she is the exception that proves the rule.  Most subpar books that aren't cheap fad exploits are rejected by publishers, and of the few that see print, most languish on discount shelves until the market mercifully dismisses them.  Who would you rather be: William Hung or Garth Brooks?

Producing an excellent novel, of course, means mastering creative tropes, mastering characterization, mastering plot and pacing, and sharpening technical writing skills to produce compact, vivid prose.  It means having a broad imagination and enough patience and discipline to craft the entirety of a story and see it through to completion.  It means spending so much time developing these skills that an entire secondary career can come and go in the meantime.  Chuck Jones, the artist who brought you Bugs Bunny, once joked that every artist has 20,000 awful pictures in them -- best to get them out of the way early and get on to the good stuff.  What Jones meant, of course, was that through constant devotion to the craft, the artist's pictures improve to the point that he or she probably will be producing good material well before closing in on 20,000.  By immersing himself or herself in the craft, the artist accomplishes true and measurable improvement, and eventually reaches the point that his or her content is so good that sales seek the artist and not the other way around.

Jones' truism could be adapted for writing by saying that every author has at least three dozen novels in them that are absolute trash -- might as well get them written and over with and move on to the good material!  That is the position I am in now.  The few publications of mine that you see linked at the upper left of this blog are just a tiny fraction of what I have written, and are generally the best of it that I have managed to complete.  These, still, are not written at the capability level I know I can one day reach!  I also have a torrent of crud that I won't be publishing anytime soon or perhaps ever, and I have quite a few tasty morsels that are better but that I haven't managed to finish yet, so there is still more work to do.  I have been writing since 1992, and I have been writing with a serious notion of mastering the craft since 1999.  I expect it may take another decade before my writing is finally good enough to produce content that pays a livelihood all by itself.  And that's if things go well.

Is it fair to subject Steph, Allie, and Evey to such a waiting cycle?  Is it fair to put my daughters into a position where they may not be able to attend the best college that accepts them because the money simply isn't there?  Is it fair that my wife has to spend time working for middling wages instead of raising my daughters and having dominion over my household, as she will tell you she'd greatly prefer?  No, it really isn't fair, and that's why I still grind out a commute to produce documents for the government for a salary that serves as the Bahr family lifeblood.  One day I will either set it aside or actually reach retirement, and from then on it's going to be writing until the day they nail my coffin shut, as Robert Jordan famously quipped.  It would be so much easier if I were content to punch the clock every day until I walked away with a gold watch, and spend every night in front of a television set being told what to think.  It would be easier -- but that would deprive me of creative experiences I am unwilling to forego.  I guess all those other career opportunities will just have to wait for the resume of someone else.

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