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.

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Very Superstitious

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Superstitious describes a belief in chance or magic. If you’re superstitious, you may avoid walking under ladders, spilling salt, or passing black cats — all because you think they will bring you bad luck. … The Latin word that superstitious comes from is superstitionem, excessive fear of the gods. (Vocabulary.com)

I never thought of myself as someone who engages in superstition or magical thinking, but maybe I should revise that.

I flick spilled salt over my left shoulder. I touch wood for luck. If I speak ill of the dead I follow it with “God forgive me”, just in case they should decide to rise up and haunt me. I always go out of a house through the same door I came in. Does this make me superstitious? I’m inclined to say yes.

Intellectually, we know it’s silly to put much stock in old wives’ tales about black cats, washing your face with May snow, cracking an egg into a glass of water at midnight on a certain day of the year, and all the rest of it. But we still do it. For me, much of my personal superstition takes the form of magical thinking. Encyclopedia Brittanica puts it thus: “Magical thinking, the belief that one’s ideas, thoughts, actions, words, or use of symbols can influence the course of events in the material world.” This dovetails neatly with the old Roman notion of excessive fear of the gods: if I perform certain rituals and say certain words, think about things in a particular way, I will avoid the putative wrath of God(s). There is a very real fear that lies beneath our superstition. Like the old chain letters that used to get passed around in the 1970s, we believe something really horrible will happen unless we perform the necessary actions. You know, unless you forward this letter to seventeen of your closest chums, you will die of suppurating ass boils. That sort of thing.

My particular strain of magical thinking has to do with my writing – whether I’m doing it or not, how well I seem to be doing, what will happen if I don’t write. (Hint: something bad.) I can get some serious worrying mileage out of this, obsessing for days or even weeks at a time. Obsessing, ruminating, going over it and over it, like pacing back and forth on the same piece of carpet until it’s threadbare.

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This? This would drive me absolutely barking mad.

If I’m not writing, what am I doing? Nothing. Well editing, yes, and ruminating on things I’ve seen and read, and incubating ideas that might turn into new books and stories. I must write! I am obligated to write!

What will happen if I don’t write? Not much, probably. But my mind says otherwise. If I don’t write it means that I was never a real writer to begin with. It means my talent is dried up and anything I might have written, won’t ever be written. That’s it now. The bank is closed. The top of the bag is tight shut. No more goodies for you, my dear. You wasted what we (who? God? Aliens?) gave you, so now you can just suffer.  The fact that I’m a writer is my only claim to legitimacy as a human being. There. That sounds suitably dramatic, doesn’t it? But it’s true…at least my mind insists it’s true.

All my life, I’ve been A Writer. When I’m not writing, I am not A Writer. It’s like I’ve lost my identity or something. I’m not producing anything, not publishing or putting anything out there. My neurotic mind told me I wasted six months on a book I was writing, and it was supposed to be a mystery novel and then it wasn’t, and then it was something else. I just completely lost control of the material.

For a while. Once I put it aside and had a rest, I was able to finish that novel. It’s a rough first draft and not even within shouting distance of perfect, but I did it. And I’m glad I did. I’m glad I was able to put my magical thinking aside, to place it in abeyance while I did the work.

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It ain’t gonna write itself…

I have to write or else I don’t exist. That sounds nuts, doesn’t it? If I don’t write, then I don’t exist. I am  a non-entity. I imagine being looked at and people thinking, You’re a writer? Really? When’s the last time you published anything? And then thinking that I have to hurry up and write something really big and really good like RIGHT NOW just kneecaps me.

Don’t do this to yourself. Please. Don’t write because you think you have to, or because you’ll be forgotten about unless you write something riveting and mind-blowing right this minute. Don’t force yourself. Writing is work, absolutely. But let it be joyful. Write what moves you. Write what you feel you must. Don’t fall into the trap of writing something that will sell because Jo Blow down the road wrote a book about nasal mucus fetishists who get off on slapping each other round the face with a dead fish, and it sold to the movies for TEN MILLION DOLLARS.

Lots of rubbish gets sold to the movies for ten million dollars. A lot of it is crap.

Don’t write crap.

Hovering in the Doorway

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So now it is 2019, at least where I live, and freezing cold outside, with a fresh scour of powdery snow on the ground. Winter is a hard time of year for me, because in the colder months so much of life must be lived interiorly, within doors, instead of outside, where I’m arguably at my happiest. I think I must have been meant for sunnier climes, some region without winter, or at least a country where the coldest season still allows for roaming far and wide and taking long walks with only myself for company.

Winter is a time when unwelcome thoughts creep in and make themselves at home, when the succubus of self-doubt settles itself around my shoulders like a hellish mantle. These are the days when I feel like I’m hovering in the doorway of a house where there’s a party going on. I’m never sure if I’ve been invited – should I just go in? Maybe I don’t belong there. Maybe it’s safer to stay where I am, not risk it, just in case I might get rejected or end up hurt or something. Perhaps I should stick to the sorts of things I’ve written in the past, not try anything new, just in case it doesn’t work out. Just in case I fail. Or make a fool of myself.

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We have brought in the new year, Paul and I, with wine and beer and chocolate, which I think is an excellent way to christen any new endeavor, be it chronological or otherwise. An unlimited amount of a nice, crisp Chardonnay goes far to allay the creeping dread and sense of internal dullness one feels in winter. For me, the shortening of the days has always portended dismay, a worsening of my illness, but the lack of light isn’t the worst of it.

That would be the cold. We’re supposed to be a temperate marine climate here, but the word ‘temperate’ allows for a significant amount of stretch: at the moment, the wind chill is -21C and we are laboring under a blizzard warning. Being shut inside makes me feel restless and a bit panicked; to be honest, I feel like I’m imprisoned in a cage – in this case, a cage of ice and snow and frigid temperatures. Luckily, Paul is adept at recognizing when my agitation threatens to burst its banks, and will suggest I exercise, or mop the floors or clean behind the toilet.

Don’t laugh. Housework is wonderfully remedial.

We spent Christmas with my sister, who is a marvelous cook. I’m the oldest; she’s the youngest – and the only member of my family who has read (and praised) everything I’ve ever written. She has been my advocate for as long as I can remember, a wonderfully sensible soul with two beautiful girls and an open heart, and she reads my work, praises my work, praises me for having done the work.

That’s an incredibly rare degree of love and devotion. Moving into a brand new year, I’m enormously grateful to her.

Happy New Year.