This business of becoming conscious, of being a writer, is ultimately about asking yourself, How alive am I willing to be?
― Anne Lamott, Bird by Bird: Some Instructions on Writing and Life
So we’re coming up on the sixth year anniversary of me first getting paid for a story – which is the point at which I mark my entry into the world of Professional Writerdom – and I’ve been taking stock of some things lately.
As usual, I was forced into it by my own mental health cornering me and yelling and gesticulating wildly until I finally paid attention. That’s usually how this goes. That’s how it went after I collapsed post-doctoral comprehensive exams, and it’s how it went a bunch of times before. I convince myself that I’m okay until it becomes extremely obvious that I’m not. So I’ve done some stock-taking, and the conclusion to which I’ve come is that I’m not okay, and some things need to change so I can work my way back toward the state of Okayness I should be in most of the time.
Cut because this gets long and pretty blargh-personal.
What really tipped me off to the fact that something is amiss is what the experience of finishing a book has become.
It used to be awesome. Used to feel great. Look at this big thing I worked so hard on; it’s done now, isn’t that awesome? Look at me, I don’t completely fail at this writing thing! I can at least do the bare minimum of what assuming the writerly mantle requires, which is to produce wordage. That counts for something. In those days I was immensely proud of it and I would take a week or so to recover and bask in the glow.
Then the glow started fading. Gradually, so gradually I didn’t really notice it at first, but fade it did.
Then, in the middle of writing my most recent book (Sword and Star, the final book in the Root Code trilogy which began with my debut novel Line and Orbit) I realized something: I’ve been writing books essentially non-stop for over two years now.
Like. Non-stop. Almost no break. I would finish one and jump pretty much right into the next one. The writing of several of these books overlapped. Two of them I wrote and then rewrote from scratch. Not all of them have gone anywhere. A couple of them have been shelved. A couple of them were written extraordinarily quickly. One of them dragged on and on for weeks after I was sure it would be done, not because my pace slowed down but because it just ended up being way longer than I expected.
I wrote the last fifth or so of Sword and Star in a single twelve-hour marathon session. It wasn’t joyful. It wasn’t fun. It was necessary because I was working with a tight deadline and I needed to burn through it, but it was goddamn agonizing.
I do think that as it is it’s a pretty good book and I’m pretty happy with it as a closer to this trilogy – though the last fifth of it is a wobbly blur at the moment – and I think once all the edges are smoothed out it might be a really good book. But those twelve hours weren’t good for me. As in unhealthy. Not because of how hard the work was but because of the agony part, and the death march part in the context of everything that went before it.
I finished it and I got right back to work on something else. There wasn’t any glow. There wasn’t really any pride. People were congratulating me and I was like yeah thanks but this is just another tick on a list and it’s just another pile of work now. Good work, necessary work, but work. More slogging.
I want to stress that I think this might be a really good book and I’m excited to get it out there and I think people will really enjoy it, and I realize that I’m probably also just too close to it at the moment and once I get some distance things will be better. But this isn’t one instance where I’ve felt this way. This is only the latest in a long, long line of them.
So I had an epiphany.
I don’t want to write books anymore.
Not forever. I want to write more later. In the future at some unspecified point. Maybe only after a break of a couple of months or so. Thing is, given the way I’ve been working, a couple of months is a long frackin’ time. And you know, maybe longer. The bottom line is that I’m totally burned out. I’m exhausted. I can’t do this anymore. It’s bad for me.
I’m not okay anyway. This last year has been extremely rough, though in many ways it’s also been pretty good: I got a bunch more short stories written and bought and published, I got some great reviews for them, I went to some new cons and some old cons and I made new friends and I built up relationships with existing ones and I generally had a fantastic time with that. I did write all those books. That’s not nothin’. I signed a three-book deal with the good folks at Riptide Publishing. That’s sure as hell not nothin’. That’s a lot of somethin’.
But if we’re coming up on the anniversary of when I started the pro writer thing, we’re also coming up on the one year anniversary of when I was told the departmental funding I received as part of my place in my doctoral program wouldn’t be renewed for the following year, leaving me essentially out of a job and with tuition to pay for on my own. That was a tremendous blow to my connection with my department, a connection which was already pretty frayed. It may prove to have been the death blow; I’m not sure yet. That lack of connection has essentially destroyed my more general connection to academia. I’m now barely engaged with the field in which I hold two degrees. I call myself a sociologist, in part because of how I conceptually approach the world and because I do possess that background of theory and research, but for all intents and purposes, no, I’m not a sociologist anymore.
I don’t honestly know what I am.
Unemployed, still. Some income, sure, but nothing steady. I don’t have that coveted Day Job. That’s obviously not so great in a financial sense, but it’s far worse for me in a mental and emotional sense, because it contributes to the feeling of being unmoored and drifting. In our culture we’re heavily socialized to identify ourselves with how we make use of our labor (see? I still can’t totally turn off the sociology). So who am I?
I guess I’m a writer. But I need to reconsider what kind of writer I am. I’m not where I wanted to be by this point. I need to reevaluate where this place actually is and what it means and where I might be going next. Because I don’t know any of that right now.
What I do know is that I’m not okay. I’m hanging on by my fingernails in a lot of ways. Things will be okay again; I’m just not sure of when they’ll be okay or the manner in which that Okayness will come.
And if I’m not okay, I don’t think I’m in a state where I can write books anymore. Especially not when writing books has contributed to me not being okay.
I need to do something else.
So as soon as the edits on these books are done – which will still take a couple of months, give or take – I’m on Indefinite Book Hiatus while I figure things out. It’s possible I will work on one during that period, but I would do it at my own pace and in my own time, with no expectations regarding when it’ll be done.
So what am I going to focus on? Short stories, for one. They were my first love and in many ways they’re still my greatest love: quick, hard jabs of creativity, massively exhilarating while they’re going on, generally energizing as opposed to draining. I’ve written some of my better stories in a single sitting that took only an hour or so. I need that again. A lot. Books have been crowding them out and that needs to stop for a while.
I’m also going to write fanfiction. In the last couple of months I’ve fallen back into fandom in a bigger way than I have in years, and in many ways it’s been marvelously reenergizing. Writing with really no stakes except my own standards, writing in which I can play in a way I just can’t with “original” stuff. I’ve been producing stories I’m immensely proud of, stories I think match anything professional I’ve done in terms of quality. It’s doing a lot to remind me of why I wanted to write in the first place. I started with fanfiction and moved into pro stuff. I think it makes sense to return there for a while and recharge.
And there are a couple of other projects I can’t talk about yet but which I hope I will soon.
So I’m backing off. I’m pulling out. I’m going back to basics, and I’m going back to the things I know I still love. And hopefully at the end of it I’ll return to the task of booking refreshed and ready to work and ready to weather the hard stuff and the painful stuff in a way that isn’t harmful to me.
I’m a writer. I do know that much. I’m a story. I need to find out what kind of story I really am.
I need to see what kind of story I’ll be.
you were raised on a promise to find out over time
better come around to the new way
or watch as it all breaks down here
under the pressure