Friday, November 02, 2007

Confessions of a Literary Streetwalker: Commitment

(the following is part of an ongoing series of columns I did for The Erotica Readers & Writers Association on the ins and outs and ins and outs and ins and outs of writing good smut)

I don't believe in talent. Sure, I think some people have a touch more hardwiring in their brains that lends them to be artists, musicians, scientists, and even lowly writers but I think that having this turn of mind never guarantees being able to utilize this towards a satisfying pursuit. When someone uses that word, 'talent,' I think of something that makes a person have a kind of special dispensation, a phenomenal leg-up on everyone else. I use an analogy to explain this supposed hypocrisy: just because you're a good driver doesn't mean you'll be a great driver - and not all great drivers started out being good drivers.

Maybe it's because I think of myself as a Liberal and believe that everyone is created equal, or they at least have equal access to making themselves a better person. I don't like the idea of someone, by virtue of luck (good or bad) having an edge over anyone else. I also think the idea of talent is what a lot of people use to give up on something. They put pen to paper and when it doesn't work out perfectly the first time, they toss it to the floor, saying, "What's the point? I just don't have it."

There is one thing, though, that's true of great drivers as well as great writers: commitment. To do anything well you have to practice, you have to get up and do it even though you'd rather do anything else in the world. It's easy to hang your hopes on tales of first story sales, first book sales, and think that such events are common, expected. But the fact is they are alarmingly rare. For every one phenomenal success, there are thousands of other writers who sit in front of their machines every day and work, work, work. Sure, those flashy first timers often deserve their praise and fat checks, but they often vanish as fast they appear. Without determination and a willingness to be there for the long haul, they suffer from expecting the next project, and the next project, and the next project, to be as easy as the first. Someone who's battered and beaten their way up, however, knows that for every five stories, only one will be any good – it's part of the game.

Here's another analogy. If you go out and just circle the track, drive the same car at the same speed, over and over again you may be a better driver but you'll never be Tazio Nuvalari. Writing the same story over and over, never stretching, never trying new things, will have the same affect. Same with writing page after page after page but not taking the time (sometimes very painful times) to sit down with your work and really, honestly read what you've been writing. Determination and commitment is one thing, useless thumb twiddling is quite another.

You have to look really had at what you're doing, to look at it and face the fact that sometimes what you're going to write is going to be crap. Some stories deserve to be thrown in the trash, but what separates the casual dreamer from the person really in pursuit of their destiny, is when you can look at what you've written and say: this is crap, but I know how to make it better.

Personal confession time. Does ten years sound like a long time? Sure, it might be an eternity if you're in a prison cell sometimes, but maybe only the blink of an eye if you're a parent watching a child grow up. For me, ten years is what it took for me to become a published author. I started writing very seriously just out of high school. Ten years later I sold my first story. Though I honestly feel that selling something is not the signpost of quality for writing, this was a defining moment in my life. Ten years of trying finally yielded results.

Nine years after that I have a pretty respectable resume of projects. Sometimes I think I took too long to get where I am, but other times I think maybe it would have taken much longer – or never happened at all – if I'd never sat down and done the work; word after word, page after page, story after story. Those words, pages, or stories pushed me along part of the way, but I believe publishing success came because I tried to be better, tried to improve what I was doing, and was willing to look at what I was doing.

Saccharine sentiment notwithstanding, I really do believe dreams can come true. It can happen, but it too often requires a huge amount of difficult, time-consuming, heart breaking work.

Is it worth it? Ten years is an awfully long time, true. But when I think of the stories I've written, the fun I've had, the things I've learned about myself and the world, I would do it all again in a second.

The choice is yours. But it's better to really, truly try, then pass on regretting you never even made a first step.


Anastasia said...

Geez, this is something that was good to read (for today, out of all days or one of 'those days'). Thank you.

My definition of talent varied over time, but has (in the past two years) solidified. Some think it's about producing new content, or being on the cutting edge of extremism. I can't say that I believe that every person is born equal, but at the same time I do think that individual experience develops one's affinities. A person may take to painting, sketching, dress design. I'm often torn between utilizing 'talent' and 'outlet'. I believe an outlet serves to blend mental schemes or observations about the world (the microcosm and macrocosm). I don't believe talent is about thrilling people from the outset, and wholeheartedly agree: it's about commitment to some larger picture, or long term view. There are times where commitment may take the front seat, but it all balances out in the end.

M.Christian said...

So glad you liked it! ‘Talent’ is such a weird word and in many ways it makes no sense. You can’t really say when someone has it or doesn’t – there’s no ‘talent’ gland, for instance. I dismiss it however for purely … well, I guess you could call it ‘ethical’ reasons: I don’t like the idea that there’s something some people have yet other people don’t that either keeps them from achieving an artistic goal or helps them get it. It also smacks of a kind of almost religious favoritism: you are a better person because you have ‘talent’ or you have ‘talent’ because you’ve done something special and magical in your life. I prefer a kind of Buddhist idea: that anyone can achieve artistic enlightenment. It just takes a lot of good, old fashioned work.