2015/11/09

How I Got Here: A Writer's Journey

journey
Photo by Neil Jones
I'm a professional writer. Some of my work is self-published; most of it has been published by other people.

A common misconception about writers is that our work is our brand. That's only partly true. The one indispensable element of a writer's brand is himself. Audiences like to know about the creators of their favorite works--as if a spec fic author's personal details could be more fascinating than the fantastical worlds he creates.

Nevertheless, I've been doing this for a while, and it's time I told the story of how I got where I am now.

If you just stumbled upon this blog, and this is the first post of mine you've read, you might be expecting saccharine author platitudes like "chasing my dream", "living my passion", and having an "important message" to share.

Those who've been reading me for a while know better. Whoever you are, welcome. Even if my experience can't teach you anything, I hope it'll at least give you some perspective.


Why I Write
Every author is inevitably asked why he writes. The answer is surprisingly--one might say disappointingly--simple, and it's true for the majority of writers.

That answer is: because I have to.

Am I alluding to an inner, artistic drive that moves me to create and makes me feel guilty if I don't? Yes, but that came later, after I'd already been writing long enough to make it a habit.

In a much more immediate sense, I write because I actually have no other choice.


The Road Well Traveled
There was no childhood oracle that foreshadowed the turn my life would take later on (if there's been any "turn" at all), and there was no great epiphany that set me on my current course.

NB: having your life foretold isn't always a good thing. A fortuneteller warned the mother of a close friend that her son wouldn't live past 25. Luckily, he's now in his 30s and doing fine. But living under what amounts to a death sentence, even if he didn't consciously believe it, had an effect on him.

Put me down as the product of a typical Reagan administration upbringing. I was blessed to grow up in an intact, middle-class home. I went to church, attended private schools, and ate meals regularly.

There were no life-defining crises. That's not to say that it was all sunshine and Ecto-Cooler.

I've always been introverted, and growing up I was seen as mature for my age--probably due to my large vocabulary. Throughout grade school I only had one or two close friends at a time--more like unofficially adopted brothers--and more often than not, I had to spend my free time alone.

We've arrived at the part where you expect the misfit daydreamer to find refuge in science fiction.

Nope. Truth be told, only in recent years have I become a regular science fiction reader. Except for reading the Dune series in high school, I was always more of a fantasy guy.

What I did do was find my mom's old paperback copy of The Hobbit when I was ten. It's still the only novel I've finished in less than a week. (Yes, I'm a glacially slow reader.) I quickly followed it up with The Lord of the Rings, and then The Silmarillion, which is still my favorite Tolkien book.

Now, Tolkien is awesome, but come on. I'm a child of the digital age. Did you really expect my primary exposure to SFF to come from books? I was grooving on Star Wars tapes, the original run of Star Trek: The Next Generation, and most of all, video games--especially the Final Fantasy series. Later in high school I'd transfer my escapist fantasies to pen and paper RPGs.

None of this led directly to writing. I would, however, wander around my block at home and the school playground, marinating in these pop culture influences--letting them merge and percolate and gel. I'd make up sequels to favorite movies, TV shows, and video games in my head; never writing any of it down.

I've always found it difficult to get enthused about things that most people around me find important. I couldn't care less about sports or presidential politics. I haven't watched TV in years. Technology for its own sake doesn't excite me. From where I'm standing, the difference between a smartphone and a toaster is mostly accidental. There are jobs I need to do, and they require the right tools. That's where the tools' importance ends.

The one thing I unreservedly care about is truth. It's like health: if you don't have it, you can't reliably get anything else.

And so it went for years. I've lost count of how often parents, relatives, and teachers told me during this time that "it doesn't matter what you major in, as long as you get a degree." As far back as I can remember, my grandma would eagerly speak of my inevitable college graduation. The image I formed of life was that at certain predetermined points things happened, and college was one of those things.


Divergence
The vast majority of the time, when the world holds something up and says, "Behold! The Next Big Thing! You should be duly, raptly impressed by this," I'm just not. My only strong social skill is high marketing resistance. I know almost immediately and effortlessly when someone is trying to sell me something.

In hindsight, that might be why I never had an answer when a teacher or relative would ask what I wanted to be when I grew up (another of those "inevitable events" that has yet to happen). My thought was always, "I'm me. I'd like to stay that way indefinitely. That's not enough for you?"

Turns out, the answer is "no". Utilitarian consumerism so dominates Western society that most people sincerely believe that others' worth can be judged solely on what they produce. They forget that the only reason anyone produces anything in the first place is to acquire things that can't be manufactured.

And that's how I ended up enrolling in college with no clear idea why besides that it was "expected of me".

You know the rest: graduating with a useless humanities degree; saddled with insurmountable debt; trying to enter the workforce while over-educated and under-experienced.

But lest you think I'm trying to shift the blame for my mistakes, what I came up with to solve my underemployment and crippling debt was to sign for a second tour of academia. There's no honest way to pass the buck on that one.

Somehow, I actually managed to land a job that held the promise of meeting my financial needs. I did well enough to get a promotion within my first six months on the job.

What I'd thought of as an answer to my prayers soon turned into a nightmare procession of gaslighting, kafkatraps, and intimidation that culminated in my superiors lying on a performance review to terminate my employment.

There's a monk's reward, though. Having been backed into a corner with my livelihood at stake, I launched an all-out battle for my career's survival.

In the end, I lost. But as I warned them, so did the incompetent sociopaths who took me down.

Most people talk about disillusionment as a bad thing. But if you think about it, the word really means casting off pleasant lies for sometimes uncomfortable truths, and that's always a victory.


Oh yeah, writing
If you're still reading, you're probably waiting to learn how I became a writer. Once again, the answer is simple. I started writing.

You want the secret to becoming a writer? That's it. Go open a new Word doc and stare at the blank screen for four hours. You'll either crack or start writing, if only to fill the unbearably empty page.

If you don't crack, then repeat the same process every day. In a month or so you'll develop a habit that will make you feel bad for not writing. That facilitates the process.

If you want to know why I became a professional writer, this pretty much lays it out:
  • I have a knack for language.
  • Building fantasy worlds is second nature to me.
  • I lack the skill and inclination to be an artist.
  • I have neither the skill nor the disposition to program video games.
  • A regular 9-5 job never appealed to me.
  • When I put in copious amounts of time, money, and effort to start a career anyway, it was detonated on the launchpad by paranoid psychopaths.
  • None of the people I turned to helped me--not even when it was explicitly their job.
  • The psychos were in tight with big wheels at a company that dominates my area. Exposing their incompetence leaves me with the choice of A) getting a guaranteed negative reference from a highly influential former employer, or B) leaving a fatal and otherwise inexplicable gap in my work history.
  • Facing a choice between A) seeking a defeatist lapse into sloth, or B) a pursuit that lets me hone useful skills while giving me a creative outlet, is no choice at all.
It seems like there's some truth to the old adage about windows opening when doors close. Providentially, I'd started writing daily before my job got nuked, and now this author gig might be the most successful thing I've ever done. That doesn't mean there isn't still a long, long way to go.

Which is good, because at this point I really can't stop.

It's been said that these posts are both inspirational and sobering. Very well. Let this post stand as an encouragement and a warning.

This is what it takes, aspiring authors. I have no stable career, minimal passive entertainment, and no social life to speak of (on weekends, I chat online for half an hour with a couple of other geeks, and one of us records it).

You can become a professional writer, but there are tradeoffs. There are sacrifices. It will probably cost you less than it's cost me. Now ask yourself: "Is this worth it?"

If yes, then open up your word processor and get to staring at that blank screen. May God help you.

Obligatory link to my book

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