It’s all about… something
For the last few hours I have sat in front of an open screen, staring at some of the seventeen thousand words I must critique before nine AM tomorrow. I have sat here, intending to crit, thinking about critting, allegedly critting, but critted I have not.
I must, it is clear, crit or get off the pot.
But in the meantime, a brief post about what Jeff Vandermeer has been doing. Jeff is our tutor in residence at Clarion South, which means morning sessions from nine to about one where we crit each other’s work, and then one on one sessions with each of us. It also means he squeezes teaching sessions in wherever possible, about the how and why and whence of writing.
He is an excellent teacher, and I am saying that during a six week period in which I have had extreme superlative fatigue. Excellent teachers don’t so much teach as stand there and move their mouth while amazing insights detonate in your brain. I can’t say he is the best teacher I have ever had, because it’s not a fair fight – he’s talking writing, the other guys had to talk about the pathology of the kidney. But I feel I could make a case that this is amongst the most valuable teaching I have ever had. Obviously the proof of that will only begin to emerge over the next few years.
And obviously the following is my understanding of what he was saying – I could have got it all wrong and he could have been saying “The building is alight, flee for your lives”. All errors are my own, as they say.
One thing that I got out of what he was saying was about selfishness, and the reason it was so important for me to hear it was because for me a lot of other people have said close to the opposite.
Writing is a fundamentally selfish career, and I think writers either turn to face that fact early on or are blindsided by it in later life. There is a continuum that stretches from being attentive to the inner voice all the way out to pathological narcissism.
The thing is, you rarely hear anyone in the writing community saying “It’s got to be all about you, it’s you, you, you all the way”, but you do hear people say the same thing in code. They don’t say it’s all about you, they say it’s all about the writing.
I could find half a hundred examples of this fairly easily. Writing must be the central focus of your life. You have to make space for your writing. Your partner will have to be supportive of your writing. You have to be a writer first and foremost. You have to dedicate everything to writing. Writing has to be the first priority. If you’re not writing every day you’re not a writer. If you want to succeed, you have to do this, and everything else will have to move out of the way.
The thing is, some of this is true, it’s basic work ethic. Some of it is just sensible.
But some of it does tend towards the selfish.
And I’m not saying all selfish stuff is bad, and we all need to heed our dreams, and even if we don’t follow our dreams to the ends of the earth (because we’ve all had some pretty fucked up dreams, like that one with the singing dinosaurs) – if we dont follow out dreams to the end of the earth we at least hang with them for a bit, have a chat, get to know them, maybe go for a wander. And it may well be if Shakespeare was a saint we wouldn’t have all that wonderful lust and rage and betrayal and all those look-at-me-girls iambic pyrotechnics.
But accepting that writing is to a certain extent selfish behaviour does allow you to understand what can go on in your life when you write. I don’t know how many writers divorce, I don’t know how many divorce between the first completed novel and the first published one. I know it’s more than a few. And I think that asking someone to either work longer hours or accept a precipitous and possibly permanent drop in income while you sit around glowering at the inside of your head is a big thing.
That’s why hearing Jeff Vandermeer was important. He has a subtly different approach. He is one of the two most professional writers I know personally. He is one of the two most successful. He seems a deeply decent man and he looks to bench press 180lb.
He is happily married. He seems to feel this is important. And he tells us that there are things we cannot expect our spouses to do. He says that there are ways in which we must support and continue to support other people. He tells us we can’t lie around being too tortured and languid to take out the rubbish.
It was almost inexpressibly comforting to hear probably the most successful writer I’ve been face to face with talk about marriage and morals in a way that made sense to me.
Because if always putting writing ahead of absolutely everything is what it takes to make it, if the only way forward it making writing the sole centre of my life, then I won’t do it. That’s not an option. It is not the life I am going to have. I have and will keep a beautiful wife. I have and will retain a good relationship with my kids and my family and friends.
And if that means I am destined never to achieve what I could have achieved if I’d only had the courage of my convictions, so be it. I’ll be someone who could’ve but didn’t. I’ll stay back here with the rest of the failures who didn’t have what it took to really follow their dream, who never really made an impact in spec fiction. Me and Jeff Vandermeer.
Anysway – next post is Jeff and the conjoined twins, which souonds a bit like an odd version of Tintin.
Thanks for listening,