A few years ago, I completed a draft of a young adult novel (because why not?). I wrote it during the winter trimester at my last teaching gig under the aegis of what is commonly called “the madman phase” of the creative writing process; i.e. I let it spill forth from brain to page without much interference. Inspired the entire way by the grandiose soundtrack to Interstellar, I had finally created something original. If nothing else, it was a relief to prove to myself that I had the discipline to see a project through to its completion. Except…I haven’t done that yet. So…why haven’t I done that yet? What makes a writing project “complete?”
I have modest ambitions of becoming a published author, which is the same thing as saying as a child that I had modest ambitions of playing in the NBA and/or being an astronaut (as a child, I let myself entertain* the possibility of pursuing both, perhaps even becoming the first intergalactic superstar after getting sucked through a golf wormhole while putting with Bill Murray and Newman). In other words, it’s unlikely, but wouldn’t it be cool if it happened? And, as in childhood, I’m not really interested in doing the work to realize this ambition. Becoming a published author is not only a fool’s task, requiring endless toil and patience and perseverance – and that’s just to write something, let alone try to enter the market, or look into what it takes to enter the market, or look into what it takes to develop the mental fortitude to withstand looking into what it takes to enter the market – it’s a practical impossibility. I want to have been published, but I don’t want to endure the journey to get there. Or rather, I don’t want to realize that I’m no good. That my work doesn’t belong on a book shelf. That it’s not worthy of other people’s time (outside of generous friends and former students who are strangely interested in what I produce). Which is why I’ve always appreciated Dan Harmon’s writing advice: prove that you suck, and then, get on with it. I have plenty of proof that I suck, so what’s keeping me from getting on with it?
I’ve accepted, intellectually at least, that life is a game, and if that’s the case, and I’m a character who enjoys writing, then why don’t I play that game and max my character’s stats out? Well, I was the kid who would frequently use cheat codes to gain infinite resources so I could just run wild without consequence. And I am the adult who prefers to move through the world in a way where I still don’t have to really think about consequences. Apparently, I want to be immune from life. And death. I get the game, but I want to play by rules that supersede the game (even though they’re built into the game’s design as well). With no cheat code to give me…I don’t know what exactly…I’m stuck being stuck. I keep telling myself that I want to revise this thing, and then I come up with (to me) great ideas for how to do that, and then…nothing. I write about writing instead, convincing myself that this will do somehow; that this is, in fact, a way of revising the novel. This is me crawling toward that maturity, of taking care of things that I supposedly care about. Maybe I don’t care, and I don’t want to admit that. Maybe I care so much that I’m afraid of losing it. Maybe I don’t want to complete it and then release it into life away from my care. It feels like a child that I’m being the Pillowman for.** Rather than risk its scrutiny as I continue to let it grow up, I can cut its life off here and protect it from danger and suffering. And by it, surely I mean me. I’m protecting myself from danger and suffering. If I never risk vulnerability, I never risk humiliation. If I just protect, I prohibit death, right? Right?
Fear of death? Really? That’s what you’re gonna boil this down to? Why the hell not? But if that’s true, then shouldn’t I be supremely motivated to revise and finish this thing, come what may? I have no control over outcomes, but I do control where I direct my energy. And so if I really think this thing deserves a chance to live, then I better start breathing life into it. I’m this thing’s oxygen.
What’s sad (but not real) is that should this thing ever really come to life, it won’t need me. It will discover a life of its own in and through other people. It will forget all about me. I will have nothing to do with its success. It will never be mine again. I housed it and gave birth to it, and for all my labor, it will repay me by never returning to me.
Hm. In other words, thank you, mom and dad, and any loving creator far beyond and deep within you.
*As you know from being a child, to entertain here means to believe with certainty that your dreams will happen. Heck, they practically already have, as far as you’re concerned. Why haven’t you been rewarded yet?
**Allusion to Martin McDonagh’s play, The Pillowman. It’s so tragic a story within the play that I hesitate to recount it. (That didn’t stop me from using it in my literature classes several years ago…)