Do We Really Need Them?

I had what Robert Fripp calls a point of seeing a few days ago when, after a long period of non-writing (which is different from not writing because non-writing always leads you to writing, though the path may be awkward and marred with potholes), I returned to the novel that I am hoping to finish.

The point of seeing, like all important life-defining moments, wasn’t inspired by a single event. Several incidents aided and abetted.

A person who “researched” me up on the Internet asked if my previous books were violent. I admitted that they were, and that, at the time that I wrote them, I found some descriptions of violent acts to be exciting and inspiring. Further, how a hero copes with violent situations in action stories can offer insight into character.

But I’ve lost interest in violence over the years, as my studies in history, psychology, economics and the martial arts have leaded to the inevitable truth: that living peacefully is far more skillful and necessary than a talent for target shooting, spinning back kicks or the vulgarly cruel bullying exhibited by a celebrity politician who will not be named. The art in the martial arts–as I have come to understand it after more than 30 years of practice–is how you restore harmony with the least effort. Ultimate mastery is in improving a situation without appearing to do anything at all.

The stories that interest me now are in how we build important things, how we hold together as a society and to what extent the moral action of an individual can redeem a lawless tribe and its corrupt leader. These stories build on a character type that I discovered with my first published novel: the person who asks naively, innocently and honestly, why can’t we obey the laws and behave decently? In the years between the publication of this novel and the one I’m finishing now, I’ve found numerous explanations for what anti-social behavior, but none of them answer my hero’s simple question, or excuse the consequences that anti-social behavior can bring.

So I assured the person who asked about my earlier books that I was no longer thrilled by perilous acts of derring-do, but added that my publishers were only interested in stories of that nature. The few among my handful of agents who expressed enthusiasm for non-violent, pro-social novels were not successful in placing them.

I’ve dwelled on such career calamities previously, and, long after this conversation ended, I began to see my writing life as confusion of desperate lunges, momentary triumphs that were NOT the result of hard work, brief epiphanies, mistakes, reaction to mistakes, a persistent failure to be a “team player,” vigorous attempts at team playing gone awry, betrayals from those I trusted and–most important of all–an unfulfilled need for approval from the imagined horde of readers and few people in the publishing industry who I imagined had the power to further my career and make it possible for me to write and publish the stuff I thought I was born to do.

As I’ve observed too many times, once you dwell in this place, you do very little. You find yourself in a victim’s cage, in which you eagerly tell anyone who would listen that you have been more “sinn’d against than sinning.”

Where do you go from there? As long as you’re a victim, you stay in place.

How to leave the cage. The most direct way is to ignore the past and just DO what you were born to do: jump in the swimming pool with the faith that, after the shock of cold water on your skin, you’ll get used to the temperature and continue.

The more difficult way is to go back and examine this past which–we know but don’t always intuit–is a fiction intended to support the present. Look for the spaces between the failures, mistakes, betrayals, reversals, embarrassments, things-you-would-have-done-differently-if-only, people-you-never-should-have-trusted. What do you see?

Survival–which, in the martial arts, is the preeminent goal. Anyone with any experience in the martial arts will tell you that you never start a fight, and resist powerfully any temptation to join one, because you can never be sure how the fight will end. Better to use your skill to make sure that you, and those important to you, suffer little harm. The means if you and your loved ones can run away from conflicts, do so, even if it doesn’t make you look good. Then, if you can, END the fight. Stop it in such a way that those fighting cease their hostilities and, if possible, move toward resolving their differences so that things don’t get worse.

So between all those ups and downs is that mostly (though never uniformly) sweet spot in which you wake up, live, experience things that may not be so easily typed as successes and failures, mistakes and achievements. You deal with other people. You let them deal with you and, if you’re a writer, you string words together. The mere opportunity to do that is vital: most people don’t write, except under duress. Others may dream of writing but never start because dreams come and go and, before they go, they always appear best while they’re in your mind. Begin to write them down, and OTHER things happen.

If those words do something to you, great. Sometimes I get a feeling when I finish writing that I’ve done something good and that, maybe, this mere, solitary act of creation has made the world a better place.  I’m sure there’s a medical, chemical, neurological or psychiatric explanation for this. As I’ve written previously, explanations–especially those that devalue what is important to you–aren’t to be trusted completely, especially if they cause you to stop asking questions. The history of science has shown us that what was a good explanation for one period became inadequate later. This doesn’t mean we should disregard science and its great gifts. It does suggest that we should become more comfortable with questions we cannot competently answer, than glib, authoritarian answers that stifle curiosity.

If the words do something to other people, that’s a mixed bag. I always like it when my wife “gets” what I do. It’s rare when she doesn’t, and when that happens, I’ll usually change things so that she does.

But I’ve tried, and failed spectacularly, to change my work so that EVERYONE gets it. When I was younger, I aspired to write stuff that EVERYONE would like. I thought those writers who became tetchy under editorial supervision were just spoiled brats that the world could do without.

Now I feel that there are times when you just have to say no. Yes, you should meet editors half way, give them the benefit of the doubt and do whatever possible to maintain a favorable relationship. They used to be the only the conduit through which publication and money flowed. But I’ve had enough editors to know that some of them change things for reasons that have nothing to do with the quality of the work, the space requirements of the publication or how much more they know about English grammar and usage than your humble narrator.

If the work is actually published, the money and the reaction (if any) is never what you expect. You may agree to terms in advance and wait as much as a year before you get a check. You may agree to terms and have the work “killed” for no fault of the work, and get a fraction of what you agreed upon as a kill fee. The publication may be sold, or go out of business, before you stuff appears.

Or (and this happens most often), the money you get has no realistic correspondence to the work you did. Some things are too easy. Most are too difficult. The money is, at best, ironic.

Many writers have problems with professional critics. I don’t, because I used to be one AND (I’m lucky here) the majority of my reviews were positive. As for the greater reading public, my work tends not to get the angry responses.

Alas, for the book business, my work hasn’t “sold” enough copies for me to be courted by the publishing courtiers. Now that websites exist that list the “official” (that is, the publisher’s) sales of every commercially published author in the last fifty or so years, an agent need only check my “numbers” to ask, would this guy do any better with a new book than an unknown author without a track record?

Thinking about sales figures returns you to the cage. In our time, if ten MILLION people buy a ticket, or a copy, or hit on a web page, stream and otherwise experience a work of art, the work and the artist can still be considered a failure because the economical system that rewards fees or royalties is in favor of the gatekeepers rather than the content providers. Over history content providers have received almost no compensation for their labors. A few, from Shakespeare to Dickens to J.K. Rowling and Sondra Rimes have, and thus, their success is an inspiration to subsequent generations who enter the field believing, quite correctly, that their best efforts should earn similar favor. We all work hard. We all expect hard work to “pay off.”

Sometimes it does. Most often, it doesn’t, and continuing to work–hard or otherwise–is the only alternative.

Now I have different alternatives. As much as I would like my work to have easy access to a publishing pipeline, that access is not obvious. I am surviving easily when health matters don’t intrude. I know a handful of people, my wife included, who respect what I’m writing and enjoy reading it.

So the point seeing was…who do I really need anyone else to finish this book? No. Why do I imagine that I do?

Because that cage, as awful as it is, is familiar. Whenever anyone brings something new into the world, everything changes.

Or has the potential to do so. That can bring the shock of cold water that can keep some of us standing on the edge of the pool, uncertain about what to do next.

I jumped in.