So after years of planning, writing, fretting, emailing, scrounging for extra money, event planning and brainstorming, I finally did it—I self-published my novel, my baby so to speak, First Cause. On one hand, I can’t believe I really pulled it off; I wrote a NOVEL, a full length novel, almost a hundred thousand words, with characters and dialogue and a beginning and ending and some ‘action’ and relationships and scenery and all that good stuff. On the other hand, sometimes I wonder why I bothered in the first place; there are SO many books written in any given stretch of time, so many of them good, so many of them bad, and if you spend much time at bookstores or chatting with ‘creative’ people (don’t get me started on whatever the heck that means), you might realize that the quality, passion, integrity or even marketability of a work doesn’t necessarily correlate with whether it gets published, ‘goes viral’, becomes successful, or even makes more than a little bit of money. So part of me asks: why bother?
Well, there really are a few different reasons—some more interesting than others—but really, what I first said some years ago and what still holds true today, is I wrote First Cause because I felt like I had to. It’s as simple as that, really, but then again, what does that MEAN? For argument’s sake, I didn’t HAVE to do anything; nobody held a literal or proverbial gun to my head, I’m not religious so I wasn’t compelled by ‘god’, so to speak, I’m not really driven by a desire to ‘be a writer’ in some lofty, pretentious sort of way, and in fact, for much of the time it felt as much like a job as anything else just to finish the dang thing in a manner that was to my liking. For much of the time during which I wrote First Cause, I didn’t have a personal computer; this meant that my edits & developments were largely manual, and as such, I had to find ways to get computer time so I could add them to my manuscript. All of this involved staying late at work to squeeze in a few minutes of typing; carrying around a floppy disk practically everywhere; carrying around a big frakin’ stack of papers everywhere as well, because in order to edit or add/drop words or ideas, I needed to have my manuscript handy as a reference point; saving, borrowing, or scraping together money so I could afford to purchase computer time at a copy center or buy paper at 10c a sheet at the local library to print when I needed to (not to mention the fact that it was sometimes hard to get sufficient computer time at the library in the first place)…suffice to say, there were times when the whole thing was flat-out tiring, and occasionally even a bit discouraging. So back to the original question, why did I bother? Why did I feel like I ‘had’ to?
The first answer is that I happen to believe, and have been told, that I’m genuinely a good writer. As such, I like the idea of being able to live off my craft, so to speak, to sustain myself doing something that I’m not only good at—but enjoy doing. This relates to the second major reason, which is that while I believe I’m a good writer, I don’t write (or speak, even, despite the fact that I can be quite a chatterbox when prompted) just for the sake of doing so—in other words, I can’t manufacture it (so to speak). So when First Cause came to me as an idea, and I bounced it around and developed it and began to feel strongly about it, it began to strike me as a huge opportunity—to live off my craft, without having to manufacture my writing in a disingenuous or forced manner. And this leads me to the last element, which is one of the main purposes of the novel: I wanted to inspire people to think more, and to care more, and to become more interested in, the human condition. For a long time, my favorite books, movies, and songs have generally been in some way concerned with trying to consider the human condition in general, or more specifically matters of social justice or interpersonal relationships or internal struggle or personal or societal evolution; reading, watching, and listening to these kinds of expression always inspired me differently than most other things, and I have long wanted to come up with a way to make a similar contribution to the world or art, thought and discussion. The thing is, once again, I didn’t want to manufacture it—do it just for the sake of doing it—without it being in a way that felt natural, that I didn’t have to force, that I wouldn’t feel was dishonest or pretentious…and I didn’t want to give the impression that I was overtly copying the style, methods, or even structure of any of the creative or intelligent people whose work I so admired. So again, imagine the feeling of having all these concerns, but wanting to find a way to contribute to the greater creative and intellectual and spiritual good, and then coming up with something that—while certainly flawed and limited in some ways—I could really channel my talent and insights towards, and write in such a way as to hopefully be happy with, even proud of, the outcome, AND moreover to have a chance at making a living based on the strength of this work. And furthermore, drafting it and planning it and beginning to write it and feeling pretty good about it and getting some encouraging feedback about what I’d done thus far.
You see what I mean? After all of the above, once I’d gotten myself to a certain point, there was just no way I could let myself give up on it. I HAD to finish it; I HAD to do my best; I HAD to pursue it. Fortunately, I received a ton of support from a ton of people along the way—moral support, financial support, creative support, and plain old love and genuine respect. Every hug, every pat on the back, every encouraging email, every email or phone call that said ‘hey, I love it!’ or ‘hey, I love it but maybe you should think about this/change this/add this/answer this’, every bit of help editing…every bit of all of it helped keep me afloat when I doubted my odds, my stamina, my resolve, even at some brief intervals my talent. In the end, I couldn’t give up on all of that any more than I could give up on the story, or myself, or my ambitions, or my desire to find a way to provoke even a small bit of extra critical or empathetic thought in my friends, readers, or anyone else.
So then, once again, I HAD to write it.
As for anyone else who’s considering writing as a pursuit, I offer this modest bit of advice: first of all, ask yourself, seriously, why you want to do it. Then consider your resources, your reference points, what you want to say, and whom you can rely on for support (again, that support can come in the form of a few lent dollars, a friend in the publishing industry, a patient set of eyes and ears, or a well timed hug; they all might factor in at some point). Consider what you want to say, why you want to say it, how you want to say it, and I think it’s imperative that you really be thorough in questioning and challenging yourself in this regard (and most others, but I digress—somewhat). And remember one thing: there are no guarantees, the publishing business is not any more fair or just than the world at large is, and you must be prepared—emotionally, psychologically, financially, and circumstantially—for the possibility that your dream of ‘being a writer’ might not come to fruition. But at the same time, if you’ve done all of the above, and can honestly say that you’ve approached the matter with a clear mind, a good heart, a sound gameplan, a fair amount of patience, and some sense of integrity and sincerity and conscientiousness—then if only for all of those reasons, you should never feel silly or foolish or misguided for putting all of that good and potentially extraordinary energy toward creativity and trying to inspire people. You just might take off, and be a bright shining star on many others’ horizons. And if not, at least you can take solace in the fact that you gave it a good shot—and if you’ve done so, in good conscience, you’ll always have something to be proud of. You never know who might be inspired by just your effort, desire and conscientiousness—even if your words only reach a few.
The only shot that never goes in is the one you don’t take, and if you honestly commit yourself to your best effort and intentions, then it works or it doesn’t, but you’ll at least have something in which to take pride.
So that’s why I bother, and that’s why, maybe, so should you.
(Check out the follow-up companion piece, “Remember Your Life Raft” below; I figured it was time to finally put ’em together!)
“Why do I even bother” part 2: remember your life raft
Per my ‘why bother‘ piece, hopefully you’ve done the necessary questioning of your own motives and analysis of the merit and viability of your story, your idea and your process. The thing is, even if one has answered the question of why to bother, one still might find occasion to ask: what happens when you feel like giving up? What if you wonder why you should continue with such a risky, exhausting, occasionally humbling and/or humiliating mission as presenting your work to the world with any hope of living off of some combination of vision and craft?
First of all, I think it’s important to remember that this is by no means a ridiculous train of thought. Some of history’s most highly regarded successes were, at some point, either tremendous flops–or were given many reasons to question their merit or resolve. Allowing for matters of taste, and regardless of your opinion of what constitutes greatness of art, practically every genre of film or literature has books, movies, artists, actors and actresses, directors, musicians or authors who were rejected, panned, even ridiculed upon their debut. In the world of sports, there are examples of early failures who went on to greatness; Michael Jordan was cut from a basketball team as a kid! Mike Piazza, widely considered the greatest-hitting catcher in major league baseball history, was drafted in the last possible round–as a favor. Tom Brady and Kevin Durant, both perennial superstars, were practically lampooned by some scouts because of their physical attributes. The unfortunate fact is, sometimes greatness is beset by doubt and failure early on. In some ways, publishing is the worst for this sort of thing; the world of publishing and literature is, to a large degree, an undemocratic racket. It’s an odd combination of ludicrously mindless populism and ludicrously self-fulfilling elitism. Sometimes the world of publishing, especially self-publishing, can be discouraging, mortifying, and worse; you can’t play your way into the lineup, play your album at parties, hand out mixtapes and move people in minutes or hours. Which returns me to the point of departure: even if you’ve gotten to the point where you truly have a sense of (hopefully well founded) conviction in your literary craft, you’re still quite liable to feel like a hopeless, misguided dope from time to time. So what do you do then? This is an important time to remember whatever support you might be lucky enough to have, even if it seems slight.
I can’t stress this enough: if you have people who are truly behind you and alongside you through the process, this makes you fortunate in at least that measure. People who root for you; people who support you; people who want you to succeed; people who come to your events, buy your books, lend you money, give you feedback, tell people about you, do all of the things that good supporters do, be they friend or family or neighbor–they are huge; they do it because they like you, love you, admire you, pull for you, are impressed by you, maybe even envy you in a positive ‘live vicariously’ way. All of them are invaluable, even the ones that only come to one event or tell one friend or buy one book or express happiness for you just one time. Your success, or however far you might get, is the sum total of not merely everything you put into it, but also your fortune and misfortune–your good breaks and bad breaks–and it is absolutely not a meritocracy, this world of ours. Not the publishing world, nor hardly any other. And included amongst your fortunes, if you are so lucky, are all of the aforementioned: everyone who gave so much as an hour of their time, a dollar from their wallets, or an encouraging sentence from their mouths. If you think I’m being trite, remember this: there are countless people in the world whose dreams, talents and aspirations–no matter how potent, heartfelt, determined or inspired–fall on deaf ears, never see the light of day, or even worse, are met with unfairness, punishment, derision or worse. If you’re lucky enough to have had any help at all, cherish it and value every piece of it. And use it to keep you going. I’m not an advocate of living one’s life to please others–there are more than enough people who lead miserable, ‘successful’ lives for the wrong reasons–but there are times when it bears remembering that, if a bunch of other people saw fit to invest time, money, hope, or even kind words or encouragement in you, then perhaps your efforts are worth the investment. This brings me to my last point…
If you’re really lucky, and by really lucky I mean really really really lucky, you might have someone in your corner who not only wants you to succeed for many of the commendable reasons that people might want someone to succeed. If you’re really lucky, you have someone in your corner who sees your vision from close enough to the inside that they’re really invested in it, for something resembling the reasons you’re really invested in it. If you have anyone like that, that’s a treasure not to be taken lightly. Someone like that will help you flourish, help you become a better version of the presence you’re trying to be, and help remind you why it’s worth staying the course when you’re tired and discouraged. Bearing in mind the above, about hopefully not having to live your life under someone else’s auspices, this someone can also be, in a healthy way, someone whose faith and belief you don’t want to disappoint. Not because of fear of consequences or shame, but because their belief reminds you of the validity of your own belief. Part of this person’s unwritten task is to help you understand when you’re barking up the wrong tree; blind faith is not made of nearly as good stuff as well-founded allegiance. But if you have someone like that, then you also know you can trust it when they encourage you to stay the course…and then you’re really lucky.
But alas, I digress. The point herein, I believe, is this: if you believe your conviction to be sound, and you’re lucky enough to have any support at all, then don’t discount your good fortune. Use it as a life raft when you’re treading, and remember it when you regain your stroke.
To all my life rafts: Thanks.
And good luck to you, fellow swimmers.