A Passing Fugue State

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I’ve long been fascinated by stories of people who one day wake up and all of a sudden walk away from their lives, some of them never to be heard from again. I often wonder what it would be like to psychically awaken in some other place, months or even years later, and discover that the life I’d been living wasn’t mine, that it didn’t actually exist.

While my own recent experience hasn’t been anywhere near this dramatic, the realization that I’d been following a mistaken trail through my own personal dark forest was quite sobering. Since I was about fourteen years old, I’d always assumed I would be an author when I grew up.

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Nineteen, not fourteen, but still ridiculously young.

It was unsettling to discover that the dream of modest literary success was now and had probably forever been out of my reach. Things happen to people; for other people, things never happen. That’s just the way it is. When I mentioned this to some friends, they were appalled. Most advised me to keep trying; many offered helpful suggestions that nevertheless wouldn’t work for me.

Unsettling as it was, however, this latter-day realization was the wake-up call I needed, a cold splash of water in the face, the resounding slap that knocked me out of my lifelong reverie. I finally understood that I’ve been using writing the way addicts use their drug of choice: to detach from reality. As long as I was writing yet another novel, I was delaying the day when I’d have to face the fact that I am not and never will be a real author. As long as I could keep that delusion alive, I’d never have to descend into the cold hell of real, actual life and accept that literary success just ain’t that into me.

It’s like someone born without hands who insists they are going to be a neurosurgeon. No, sweetie; you’re not, and all the good intentions, all the hope and prayer and faith and that ocean of fervent tears you’ve been filling with the bucket of your delusions isn’t going to make one damn bit of difference. You can’t operate on the delicate machinery of the human brain because you have no hands.

You’ve already spent the bulk of your adult life in this elaborate game of let’s pretend. Let’s pretend I’m going to be a bestselling novelist; let’s pretend that after I’ve paid my dues and published a few things that my career will begin to take off. Let’s pretend that if I work hard and apply myself and keep learning and keep growing, eventually, some day, when the stars align…

No.

You can stick that feather in your cap and call it macaroni or anything else you like. Saying it doesn’t make it so. And despite what the New Age folks might think, the Law of Attraction doesn’t apply here. I don’t actually think it applies anywhere, to be honest. (Although it does sell a whole shit-ton of books, so there’s that. And DVDs, and self-actualization workshops, and weekends away in Big Sur or Red Rocks or Goa or wherever, walking around with jade eggs up your yoo-hoo and hobnobbing with all the knobs you could ever want to hob with.)

If you could think yourself rich and successful and beautiful and beloved, then every single one of us would have everything we want and the world would be a paradise – or a paradisaical hell. We’d all be wealthy and enlightened, and there would be no more war or famine, no pestilence or pandemics. We would regard all other forms of life as sacred, the earth as precious and inviolable. Instead, and despite all those lovely folk praying and meditating and chanting and intention-ing their hearts out, it just ain’t happening.

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If believing was all it took to be successful, then I would be the most famous goddamn author on the planet. Talent notwithstanding.

This wake-up call of mine impressed on me the futility of effort. Some things, it’s true, yield to gentle pressure. Avocados, for instance. Ripe bananas. Some other things require sustained and forceful endeavor. Weight loss. Opening that stuck drawer in the bottom of your desk. Taking the lug nuts off your left rear tire.

Then there’s the other kind of effort, the backbreaking, gut-wrenching, bulging eyeballs, veins-standing-out-on-your-forehead type. That last mile of the marathon before you breast the tape. The sort of really goddamn hard graft that after a while absolutely breaks you. The kind that sends you to the madhouse. The kind that destroys and devastates, that renders a once-proud and beautiful edifice into Eliot’s heap of broken images where the sun beats.

That kind.

If life were fair and the Universe just, then that kind of effort would yield glorious results. Trumpets would sound. Heaven would open and white doves would pour out. Angels would drift down and hover above you, plucking gently on the strings of their harps. A celestial choir would sing, bells would ring, and the fruit machine would align in that perfect combination of gold bars, guaranteeing payout. The slots at Vegas would belch out a Niagara of coins. You’d break the bank at Monte Carlo. You’d be rich and beautiful, successful and especially beloved of God.

You would be so goddamn happy to eat your daily dinnertime portion of rabbit food. Like all those pictures of women laughing with salad. (I hate salad.)

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But here’s an uncomfortable and inconvenient truth that the New Agers and feel-gooders and Oprah-lovers don’t want you to know:

Sometimes you can do everything right and still fail.

Sometimes you can plan the battle to the last tenth of a second and still end up defeated in the mud, surrounded by the corpses of those foolish enough to call themselves your friends.

I think it’s called ‘meeting your Waterloo’.

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Revise and Redact

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I spent nine months this past year working on a novel, the idea of which came to me in the middle of the night. I was so galvanized by the idea that I leapt out of bed and sat up until the wee hours of the morning writing the outline. I felt electric in my own skin, full of a fizzing energy that crackled in me from head to toe. I was ten feet tall and bulletproof. I could do anything. This was going to be such a great book. This would finally, after all these years, get my work noticed by someone. This was going to count.

Let me back up a bit. Twenty years ago this coming April, my first novel was published. I was 32 years old. Time enough, I thought, to start my literary career. I’d been writing since I was eight years old. It was the only thing I wanted to do – the only thing I could do, really.

When the German language rights got picked up by a big European publisher, I was ecstatic. It was going to happen. This time it was really, truly, going to happen, after all the false starts, after all the promises, after all the ‘baby I’m gonna make you a star!’ chats with shifty people in hot little rooms. This would establish me.

Guess what happened? No, go on, guess.

It got a handful of reviews. Nobody was very impressed. In retrospect, the book was and is pretty crappy. If I had my time back, I would have aborted it in utero and never let it emerge into the open air, but as they say, hindsight is always twenty-twenty. The big European publisher never brought out a German language edition. The entire situation sank without a trace. Eh, well, it was my first book, I thought. I’m still new at this. The next one has got to be better.

The next one wasn’t any better; in point of fact it was so many thousands of times worse. Another brain child that ought to have been aborted, or destroyed at the moment of its conception. An idea that seemed really great in the initial flush of inspiration but which, I quickly learned, wasn’t going to fly, mainly because I didn’t have the ability to pull it off. I couldn’t make it work. It got published – because of contractual obligations – but, thanks be to all the angels and saints, sank without even so much as a ripple.

Stupidly, I kept on writing. I’m dense that way. I figured all those inspirational quotes about ‘try, try again!’ and ‘follow your dreams!’ must mean something, right? Nobody likes a quitter! Don’t stop believing. You can do it! Don’t quit before the miracle! And all the other New Age, feel-good, Oprah-approved bits of popular wisdom. So I produced several more ill-conceived and badly-executed manuscripts only fit for lining the cat box. Some of these I deleted as electronic files. The hard copies I burned. I mean, I literally burned them.

You can’t imagine how grimly satisfying that felt.

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Several years afterwards, I put together a literary novel that an Atlantic Canadian publisher generously accepted. I knew the publisher personally; a lovely woman, we’d served on various arts organization boards together. I don’t know, maybe she felt sorry for me and wanted to do me a favour. It wasn’t because the book was so good. They assigned me a wonderful editor who ought to be given a medal for taking it on. She assured me it would win awards.

Nope. Not even a quiver.

So then I wrote another book. And another book. And another book. On and on, ad nauseam, I kept at it like a creature obsessed. After each failure I returned to the New Age feelgood Oprah-certified memes that told me to Never Give Up and Follow My Dreams and Be True To Yourself and The Universe Has a Plan For You. Surely, I reasoned, my luck had to turn sometime, right? So much concerted effort for so many years would absolutely show results, right?

Right?

Wrong.

So, fast forward twenty years – twenty years, mind – to the present day. My novel, the thing that had obsessed me for nine months or more, the thing I’d slaved over and worked on so lovingly? Well, nobody wanted it. Que sera, sera. It happens.

But it’s different this time. Because twenty years is a long, long time to chase a dream that in all probability is never, ever going to materialize. I always imagined that I’d have a career as a novelist, one of those people who puts out a book every year or two years. I wouldn’t necessarily be rich, but I would make a decent living. I’d contribute something. I’d be able to hold up my head.

Finally, after twenty years of useless effort, I have realized something: it’s never going to happen. I have wasted my time.

Hell, I’ve wasted my life.

See, I turned down well-paying jobs because working 9-5 would interfere with my writing. I couldn’t let anything get in the way of that. I was willing to be poor, if it meant I could be free to write. I willingly gave up life choices other people take for granted because I wanted – needed – to write. I got into endless fights with family and loved ones who didn’t understand why I was wasting my time and it’s only now, after twenty years that I realize they were right.

I was wasting my time. I have wasted my life chasing after something that is never, ever going to happen. Not to me, anyway. I have squandered twenty years trying to be the writer I thought I was ‘meant’ to be. And I don’t just blame myself. I blame the people who encouraged me, the teachers and friends, who saw some nascent ability in me and who urged me to continue. I blame the friends who enthusiastically praised the things that I produced. I blame the kind and well-meaning people who told me that I was really talented and if I just kept trying, something would turn around for me.

I blame my own stupidity, my pride and ego, that insisted I was a writer.

I’m not a writer. Writers publish. They make money from their work. My last royalty cheque was less than twenty dollars. Writers are talented, and that’s what sets them apart from the rest of us scribblers.

My biggest mistake? Assuming the little bit of attention I got in my early years meant I had talent. I don’t. I can gum words together to the extent of someone who writes used car slogans or the ad copy on milk tins, but that’s about it.

I’m not a writer. I’m a cautionary tale. For the love of God, don’t do what I did. Don’t be so blind, so egotistical; don’t believe the flatterers who tell you ‘oh this is so good you’re so talented’. I believed it, and look where it got me. I honestly believed I would some day ‘make it.’ I was that delusional.

The fact of the matter is, I will never ‘make it’. It’s not for lack of trying. It’s because, when you get right down to brass tacks, I am simply not talented enough. I have some talent. A little. Not very much. Certainly not enough to do anything with. I’m not like those other authors whose books receive critical acclaim, are made into movies and TV series, are adapted for the screen, translated into foreign languages. I’ve fancied myself one of them but the truth is I’m not and I never will be. Everyone who ever supported and encouraged me, I’m sorry. God, I’m so sorry you wasted your time. I’m sorry I wasted your time with my delusions. I’m sorry I wasted twenty years of my life chasing something that, for me, is as mythical as a manticore.

There’s a reason why I never ‘made it’. I’m not good enough. I’m not talented enough. I never was and I never will be. So enough of this ridiculous charade.

Tomorrow I am gathering up the reams of paper and the many electronic document files and I’m destroying them. I’m going to build a fire. I’ve chased this dream long enough. I no longer have the time or the energy to keep trying, keep hoping, keep working.

I’m tired now. And I’m done. It’s time to revise the notion that I’m ‘meant’ to be a novelist. It’s time to redact the woefully misguided part of me that insisted all these years that I could write. I can’t. And I refuse to waste any more of my precious time chasing after the impossible.

Move along, people. There’s nothing to see here.