It’s been a very strange journey, this life. I’m coming up on 50 this year, and looking back in bemusement is getting to be a common occurrence. How did I get here? What is “here”, anyway? Where do I want to go from “here”?
Big questions, with lots of tiny shrapnel subanswers. To focus on the writing shard of the question:
I started writing about as soon as I could read, which was ridiculously early in life. I have three siblings who wanted to show me off, and who prodded me unmercifully to be fantastically cool; they still like to brag how early I was reading and how fast I caught on to all things word related. They don’t talk about trying to teach me chess, however. Nobody likes to talk about that particular disaster. (Although I did get reasonably good at it in later life, when I finally understood that the horsies were not actually for chewing on.)
Teaching me to read that early may have been a bad idea, in retrospect. I do think I can be held up as an example of why not to press your smart kid to be great right out the starting gate. I was endlessly “helpful” in younger years, and since I read so fast so early, that meant I could walk up to deliver my paper to the teacher and stop on the way, after a passing glance at a classmate’s work, to tell them they were spelling something wrong.
Strangely, this did not make me popular.
I also developed vision problems at an early age, and as one of my defenses against being accused of cheating — again, I could glance to the side accidentally and see another person’s test answers in a split second — I routinely took my glasses off to focus only on my own paper. I don’t think that any teachers ever actually accused me of cheating, or understood why I had that particular tic (if they even noticed), but I always had that explanation ready in my mind as a defense if the topic came up. I even did this all through college. It’s evolved into a tic of taking my glasses off when I want to super focus on listening, so I don’t get distracted by random sights.
Anyway. About writing. Coming up on fifty, looking back in bemusement. Right. Check. Carry on.
When I was young, I wrote and wrote and wrote and wrote endlessly. I composed Moominvalley (Tove Jansson) fan fiction — I didn’t know that was the word for it, but I remember being entirely obsessed with writing new Moomin stories at one point. I was … eight? maybe ten? I believe I also went through a stage of imitating (very badly) Samuel R Delany (I read Dhalgren before I was old enough to understand half of it), Niel Hancock (once upon a time I loved his Circle of Light series, which I now find unreadable), and others. As I went into my twenties, my work was heavily influenced by the Jennifer Roberson “Tiger and Del” series, Spider Robinson’s “Callahan” books, Tolkien, Heinlein, Asimov, and dozens more. In my thirties… but you get the point. I didn’t just write a lot, I read voraciously.
(This has become less expensive per book but more expensive in the aggregate with the rise of ebooks. Since I routinely read an entire book in one sitting, I go through an absolutely absurd number of books over the course of a year. As much as I prefer print books, I simply can’t afford to fund my modern reading habit without leaning on ebooks as a primary source.)
Before ebooks, however, before the internet, before being able to ask people halfway around the world for help and advice and beta reading, I showed off my writing to friends and family. My friends applauded uncritically; my family frowned and said, mostly, “Why aren’t you writing science fiction, or, you know, literary stuff? Why this… this obsession with unicorns and faeries and magic?” But they were all proud of me for writing. They all encouraged me to learn new words, read new books, and acquire writing pen pals. All of which, of course, I did.
So, then, both writing and reading, for me, became inextricably linked with praise. With approval, admiration, respect. Seeking approval was a hugely motivating force for most of my life. However, I also internalized that asking openly for approval was a fast path to being labeled “egotistical”, “needy”, “whiny”, “precious”, and so on. I had to work out ways to get approval without being obvious about seeking it. Without even letting myself know what I was doing. Which … yeah. Yeesh. Ouch.
Recognizing that dynamic, not so very long ago, has been lifechanging. I’m now looking at everything I’ve done, over the course of my life, with a thoughtfully critical eye — not a harsh one, but a meditative “huh, interesting” style of lens.
When I landed a publisher, I thought I had arrived. I’d done it! This was it, this was my pinnacle, my proof, my validation. I had a good few years of absolute heaven — great support, fabulous encouragement, deeply thoughtful editing —
— then the publisher shut down just as I started work on the last book in the series.
I, of course, took it very personally, and began to question everything I’d ever written with this publisher, whether I’d been deluded all along. I was a failure, a hack, a fool. I made a few tentative attempts to get a new publisher as I worked on the final book (I finally placed the series with ReAnimus Press, which has been lovely to me, if not nearly as involved as the first publisher was — but that’s okay). I went to conventions and sold books and tried to convince myself people liked my actual writing, not just how attentive a listener I was. I talked about other people’s writing as a way of putting distance between myself and what I increasingly feared were terrible books that never should have been published at all.
My writing took a serious hit. I produced exponentially less each year, and doubted myself exponentially more. Other things were happening during that time that added stress to my self-image; I won’t go into that except to note that I was performing “Being A Good Person” for a lot of people, a lot of the time, and That. Is. Exhausting.
I’m not a bad person, mind you. There’s a world of difference between ordinary decent human behavior and Being A Good Person. If you’ve been there, you know.
So I basically … broke. I stopped writing. I stopped wanting to talk to people. I stopped wanting to do anything beyond basic survival. I went on auto pilot, doing required things, keeping myself just barely afloat, performing stability, reacting to stressful situations with escalating anxiety. I started many projects designed to haul me out of the pit, each of which flailed and failed pretty quickly, reinforcing that I wasn’t really any good at, well, anything.
It never occurred to me that maybe I was inviting the wrong people to these projects, that I was picking folks who, for various reasons, weren’t able to consistently carry their end of the load. Since I could barely support my own responsibility in any given project, I was dooming myself to failure from the beginning. And because I wasn’t taking into account my own need for approval and encouragement, I was draining my own precious internal resources in an effort to “help other people” who overall weren’t able or willing to help themselves, who weren’t able to or didn’t even think about supporting me in any given endeavor. (This does not make them, or me, bad people. Humans are complicated and stubborn creatures.)
As I said, realizing that I’ve been doing this has been fairly recent, and enormous. Imagine my astonishment at finally seeing the long, long, looooooooonnnnnnng list of items I didn’t even know I’d set up as my responsibility to fix. Because if I could fix these things, that meant I was A Good Person, and since my writing wasn’t getting enough praise, I needed to get that hit somewhere.
Never mind that the people I was trying to help rarely asked for my help. Never mind that most of them probably never wanted my help, and only accepted because I buried their objections beneath my enthusiasm and determination.
I spent so much energy on other people that I had nothing left for myself. Less than nothing. I wound up running on negative fumes, which meant I got spun up about politics and world events terribly easily and terribly hard. Which drained me even more. Which multiplied the viciousness of the cycle.
When I was younger, I wrote and wrote and wrote because I had no idea of the world around me. I didn’t know enough to care about folks down the street, let alone around the world. I didn’t have much of a social circle, and those I had were entirely okay with me writing all the time. I had abundant, passionate energy for all of my creative projects, enough so that disapproval or criticism didn’t entirely derail me.
I want that back.
I’m not interested in becoming a hermit, ignoring the state of the world, avoiding the news completely, only focused on myself and my needs. That’s not who I am (and besides, understanding and being up to date on the world at large is necessary for informing my writing). I do need to let go of fixing and helping and worrying over other people, no matter how much I love them, no matter how much I see so very clearly where they spelled something wrong, so to speak. I need to walk on by, give my paper to the teacher, and return to my seat without saying anything.
It’s so hard, realizing this. So hard to feel like that know-it-all kid in third grade again, not sure why people are snubbing me when I’m just trying to help.
So that’s how I got to “here”, and that’s what “here” looks like for me. Now for “where to go from here”, which is the shortest but most important bit.
My writing has to come first. My health, mental and physical, has to come first. I’m almost fifty. I’m no longer interested in being A Good Person. I’m interested in being me. I want to tell the stories in my head, and play with words, and let myself move outside the constraints I’ve imposed on myself.
I’ve withdrawn from Twitter almost entirely, and from Facebook. I’m trying out less stressful alternatives like Shuffle and Dreamwidth, and those are working out very well for me. I’m going to be shutting down various projects, bit by bit, and forcing a hard focus on my creativity. I’m going to schedule adult stuff for normal adult stuff hours — if I had a typical nine to five job, for instance, I couldn’t go to the grocery store or pay bills in the middle of the day. It’s time for me to put my writing back on the front burner, and to commit to what I love.
How long will it take to get more writing out the door? Who knows. I’m not writing for approval now. I’m writing because I love the story I’m creating. When I’m happy with it, I’ll release it to the public. Maybe you’ll love it too. Maybe you won’t. Either way is okay. I’m releasing myself from the pressure of I haven’t put anything new out in forever, that’s bad, they’ll forget about me, I should be doing something to keep myself visible. No. I shouldn’t. I really shouldn’t. I should just get on with what I’m here for, which is to create.
It’s an exciting and terrifying concept, but I’m already in motion and I’m not going to let approval-addiction stop me. I can do this. I have done it in the past, and I’m doing it again now.
I am, once more, the lion. I will hunt my life with the dedication of a hungry, battle scarred matriarch of clan panthera stalking a fat beast of prey. And I will succeed.