I’ve been doing these annual assessments for a while now and this weekend began wondering why. Maybe a way of marking time and keeping track. Not quite keeping score, I’ve never been much concerned with that. At times, maybe, but I really am not competitive that way.
I’ve also never been one for keeping a journal. This blog has been the most sustained attempt at something like that ever, but if it had all been about my life and what I did today or last week, it wouldn’t have made it much past the two month mark, which was the longest previous attempt at maintaining a journal or diary. I’ve noted before that I don’t consider myself very interesting and if proof of that claim is required, there it is. I find myself too dull a subject for continuous consideration.
Which has had the curious consequence of making my fiction difficult. My protagonists have pretty much all been, in first or second draft, the least interesting characters in their stories. I write by seeing through the eyes of the viewpoint character, which for that period means I am that character. My own lack of appreciation for any “special” qualities I may possess translates into a muffled persona on the page. I find myself having to go back in later and insert all the stuff that makes the character worth following.
But the secondary characters thrive under this problem.
Turning around and using that insight to look at my own life yields some…troubling observations. While wanting in many ways to be the hero of my own story, I give far too much, sometimes, to everyone else. They’re important, not me. My granting them that importance is both habitual and a desire that they see what I’m doing and reciprocate. I want my friends to be important so that when they then see me as a friend it must mean I’m important. It can be a tortured way of validation.
(And a bit too complex for any sustained reality—I have my friends first and foremost because I love them. How I deal with them is another matter.)
But it has gifted me with some very good friends and a workable framework for writing.
That assumes I’ve always done this, always used this, always moved accordingly. There’s a certain amount of disempowering going on regarding my friends, as if they had no choice but to accommodate my particular peculiarities according to the way I wanted them to. They accommodated me, sure, but on their terms.
As far as the writing goes…
I put out two new books this year, both of them collections. Gravity Box and Other Spaces is published by a local small press, Walrus Publishing, and a fine job they did of it. John Kaufman, a local artist, did the amazing cover. I’ve bragged about this before. What I would like to add here is that most, over two thirds, of the stories are new, previously unpublished. So far I’ve heard nothing bad about any of them. People have their favorites, their less-than-favorites, but no one has said anything negative about the word, which bemuses me somewhat as there’s a reason these stories have first appeared here and it goes to the question of career trajectories and choices and values.
The other is a reissue of sorts, The Logic of Departure, from Yard Dog Press. Yard Dog was an early supporter of my work. A micropress, they put out two chapbooks by me and a short novel as part of a series of “doubles” (two short novels back to back, like the old Ace Doubles). Logic… is a reissue of the two chapbooks along with a brand new story which I wrote to fit that particular background. They are loosely connected but all three share a theme of getting out, getting away, getting free. I’m very proud of these stories, this is a good collection.
I’m looking at these two books now and trying to understand how I got here instead of somewhere else. I’m looking at my shelf of published works, which now contains about 60 short stories as well as 10 novels. Twelve books.
Donna Tartt, in a career spanning about the same length of time, has published 3 novels and a handful of shorter works. She’s won a Pulitzer and is a regular on bestseller lists.
There’s no comparison between us other than the fact that we are writers who write for publication, which is another way of saying we want to be read by strangers and be, on some level, relevant to the culture at large.
I had plans to have closer to 20 novels out by this time, but plans are often like farts in the wind. You make them, they dissipate, sometimes you don’t even remember making them.
If I have a new recognition this year, today, it’s that I have no likelihood of getting anywhere close to those old plans anymore. I’m not being pessimistic just realistic. I have now turned 60. In most important ways, this means nothing, but importance is relative, and perspective is all important. I’m 60. I am now, in the estimation of my childhood, an Old Man. It’s just a number but I remember clearly wondering how it was possible people could live that long and still be able to walk. Some childhood assessments are difficult to shed and this is one that I find myself wrestling with now.
Sixty. As a matter of practicality, barring any kind of revolutionary change in the culture of which I am a part, I’m on the downslope. Most of my life is over. What this means to me primarily is that I don’t have the time now to have the kind of career I imagined for myself when I embarked on it. Barring something extraordinary, I’m likely going to remain a small-press author, publishing books a small audience will buy and read. A couple of years ago I was encouraged greatly about the trilogy I’d been working on, that it might open major publishing doors for me, and I had good reason to be encouraged, but as time has dragged on without a publishing offer I am beginning to conclude that my writing is simply not what major publishing wants or knows what to do with. If I could write it differently to accommodate whatever the disconnect is I would. (I’ve recently read a synopsis of a new SF novel which suggests strongly that certain elements of my Secantis Sequence have been imagined by someone else and will now inform their career, not mine. No, I’m not suggesting plagiarism in the least. Wheels get reinvented all the time. The resurgence of Space Opera flowered a couple years after my publisher began to implode and so none of my stories now get included in any retrospectives nor my name mentioned with those who are credited with this renaissance. Am I annoyed by this? Sure, but at whom should I direct it? It is pointless envy.)
There were supposed to be at least six Secantis novels by now and perhaps two short story collections set therein. As it transpired, I didn’t think the original three were viable to be marketed elsewhere and without them further novels would be orphans of a sort. I wrote one more Secantis novel and turned my attention to other things which have likewise been unwanted by the market. Since I do not know why it is near impossible for me to change the way I do them.
I have a supportive agent now. She’s helped quite a lot with the writing. She’s one reason I haven’t simply given up.
In a very real sense, this is a relief. I can now stop fretting about my career. It is what it is and, being as objective as I can be about something this personal, it ain’t bad. I can now write the next book or short story without the extra weight of wondering how it will “further” my career. I feel right now, today, that my career isn’t going to be what I wanted it to be. I could pick it apart and name a dozen reasons why—sure I made some bad choices, didn’t do certain things I might have, went with some ideas that were perhaps not as good as I thought they were at the time—but it changes nothing. I’m still where I am.
I went to the gym on my birthday. My right arm has been rather nastily injured lately, so I’ve been finding my routine truncated and often painful. I should probably not work out at all for six months, but by then I would resemble a bowl of mashed potatoes and I don’t have the energy anymore to start all over after that long of a lay-off. I’m stuck with what I have.
That said, I leg pressed 920 pounds. Ten reps. Not shabby.
For my birthday, they gave me a free smoothy, a very healthy one with blueberry and banana and whey.
I came home and found that Donna, my partner for going on 35 years now, laid out a birthday feast for me that just made me want to cry for happy. We ate, drank good wine, and watched an excellent film (The Hours) together. No pressure. Wonderfulness.
On those off-moments when I’m not obsessing over this or that, I have to admit my life is pretty damn good, and I’m just happy to be able to recognize that fact.
Even in my dotage.
Later this week I intend to write a post about my fiction. Time for a (self) critical assessment. Till then, thank you all for bearing with me.