With the publishing world in total tumult and eBook sales challenging print sales, with self-pubbed authors beating out “established” authors for big paychecks, and with agents or distributors publishing books themselves it is no wonder that many are reconsidering what it means to be a successful author. I’ve certainly spent a few whisky hours thinking about what I want to do and when I will know I’ve gotten there.
I suppose I am lucky that I know a few authors who have found success in the traditional world of publishing. On the one hand, it makes that seem all the more possible and accessible. On the other, it affords me a nut and bolts view of something that would otherwise be buried in the mists of rumor and firewall. Their success inspires me, but for a time, the success of my peers who I didn’t know or support would always inflict a kind of wound. If they were as good as me, than I wondered why it wasn’t me. If they weren’t as good a writer as I (in my objective opinion), I had to wonder how it happened to them at all, and what that said about the industry in total. Every writer I know has picked up a book and wondered how it ever got past the slush pile. This all can lead to a bitterness that does not help inspire the openness needed to be creative. I can’t say I am innocent of this; I’ve felt it all was pointlessness.
My day job allows me to see behind-the-scenes of many industries. I’ve had an access to the world of rock and roll that I would never have if left to my own social devices. I’ve seen big name bands, interviewed local bands and seen the rise and fall of both. I’ve met people I idolized in my youth, long after platinum status left them. For the most part, I was struck by how content they were, maybe peaceful. They’ve the seen the top of the rock and roll lifestyle and have lived to see beyond it. I suppose, at some time in my life, I would have thought this was settling for less.
At the same time, I can’t see much appeal in being a writer with superstar status like Stephen King or J.K. Rowling. Sure, there’s the money, but it seems the money comes with substantial limitations. The machine has to feed itself, and I don’t know if I have the inner consistency to keep it running. I wonder, I dabble, and I experiment. I have a hard time seeing myself in relation to other writers around me, not sure if it is narcissism, but I just don’t think about the outside world too much when I am writing. That’s the best part, as far as I can tell; the ability to create without the necessity of appeasing others.
I was out on a road trip, my day job makes me travel quite a bit and thankfully the state is small enough that it is not too long before there is some touch of wilderness within sight. The road is much less tedious when it isn’t fast food developments and parking lots passing by the window. One of the mainstream writers that has made a successful foray into genre inspired work, probably Glen Duncan, was being interviewed by a host, most likely Kerri Miller, that clearly had little respect for the genre. I listened with gritted teeth, probably out of some kind of masochism, and just got madder and madder at the state of literature. I have a hard time understanding how a successful book like The Last Werewolf will help my own goals and work.
As it happened, I was distracted by a forest outside of the window. It’s possible that Rush was on the radio when I switched stations, possibly it was “The Trees”, but that could just be my overactive imagination coloring memory. Anyway, I got to wondering how my experience squared with the natural order of a forest. Did I want to be the tallest tree? Did I want to be among the tallest trees? Did I want to all the other trees to wither and die so that I could stand-alone? The pressure of modern life felt like it was pushing me to want the other trees to fail so that I could grow, but that just doesn’t work in a forest. A forest needs the collective strength of the ecosystem to work, to thrive and to grow. A single tree is a lonely thing, perhaps a symbol of strength, but most likely a desperate and vulnerable way to live. You just can’t live if you remove all the other trees around you.
So, it is with writing. The market is what it is, but as a writer concerned with craft, there is no reason to wish for others to do poorly or fail. There is no relevance, because if I am taking the task seriously, I have enough on my hands to tell my stories the way I have to tell them. No one else can do that or take that. Getting upset by the success of my peers has no good end, it won’t make my writing better and it won’t bring me any closer to whatever golden ring I imagine may be out there.
I have experienced many changes over the last two years, mostly fuelled by my own health challenges. I’ve met the challenges well, but they have forced a hard and sober look at my life and my art. The fact is that I am most likely much closer to the grave than I should be, and I need to look seriously at what I can do with my time as a writer. I can’t honestly say I want to spend the time I have worrying and fretting about other writers, about the market, or about which critics may enjoy my point-of-view. I need to spend the time writing the best stories I can craft with the tools I have. No one else can help or harm that.
There is the success, I think. I have to understand that I am, at best, a tree among many others. Some are taller, some are shorter, but I must grow as I can. I must reach toward the open air, keep my branches clear of inhabited space, and be proud to stand amongst such a great and ancient forest.