Man, this place has been turning into one big, clunky obits column lately. Stay with it though, I’m making a different point this time.
Jay Lake was a widely acclaimed and fairly prolific sci-fi and fantasy writer. He won the John W. Campbell Award for Best New Writer in Science Fiction the year he turned 40, cranked out ten novels and literally hundreds of published short stories, and died today of cancer, just shy of his 50th birthday.
This isn’t another of those “personal reflections on death” posts that I’ve done for beloved pets in the past. I didn’t know Jay at all; my reaction on learning of his death was an “Oh yeah, that guy… I think.” I’ve not read his books; I vaguely recall quite enjoying some of his stories being read to me in the past, but I never explored him enough to call myself a fan. He’s remembered with admiration and respect by people whom I respect and admire. By all accounts he was a great writer and a fine chap, and my thoughts are with his family.
Some of my thoughts, anyway. Other parts of my brain are more self-interestedly and internally directed right now.
I’ve been saying for a while now that, whether or not writing is the thing I truly and honestly want to dedicate my life to and try making a career out of, I’m determined to at least give it a go. To spend six months or a year seriously putting the hours in, devoting myself to actually working on this as if it were something I were passionate about, and see where it takes me.
It may not work out, and I may just officially draw a line under it after a brief burst of effort. I might decide, you know what, it’s a fun pastime, there’s some pleasure to be had doodling a few paragraphs of a germ of an idea now and then, but it’s not worth making this The Big Thing. There are other things I’d rather be doing with the bulk of my time.
That could be the end result – but at least then I’d have tried. Not even having a go, to see if I could make a success out of it, is what I feel I’d regret most, years or decades down the line.
Sometimes I think this is a more intellectually honest approach to going about finding one’s vocation. Other times, I feel like I’m hedging, downplaying things, in case I try and I fail and I feel embarrassed at how much I talked about committing to my creative dreams from which I’ve now bailed out in shame and ignominy. Eh, I dunno. The point is, wherever it goes, I’m going to try and do this.
Starting, like, now.
I’d been putting all this off until after the move. We’ve been waiting months for the solicitors and mortgage underwriters – and all the other hordes of people who apparently need to get involved when you decide you’d like to go and live somewhere else – to get their shit together, and things are definitely making progress. But my plan to wait until I’m all settled into my nice new study, to arrange everything neatly once life has calmed down a bit, and then start working on the stuff I want to achieve with my time on earth, is a bullshit idea and I’ve always known it. This is the broken, backwards logic of people who buy exercise equipment and then start trying to induce in themselves a habit of regular exercise.
Smokers are more likely to quit successfully if they just arbitrarily pick a moment and say “Right, I’m done,” than if they plan for some point in the future after which things are going to change, and imbue that moment with significance (New Year’s Resolutions are the worst, you guys). Well, this is my arbitrarily chosen moment, somewhat inspired by Jay Lake’s passing, in a way that I hope isn’t crass or insensitive to connect to him. I’m not setting myself up as some kind of spiritual successor of his; I’ll consider myself gloriously lucky and undeserving if I ever approach his levels of success and productivity. This isn’t really about him, after all, and the eulogising should be left to those who knew and loved him.
But it so happened that he was the final domino which stirred me to action. Regardless of what prompted it, I think it’s about damn time. I’m convincing myself I’m busy making other plans, and meanwhile life is happening to me. So I’m starting this today. Because it’s not quite as good as yesterday, but it’s better than tomorrow.
It’s important to note that I still mostly suck as a writer. I might be able to decide spontaneously that I’m going to start trying hard, but I can’t apply the same resolve to instantly become good. I’ve got a lot of work and a lot of learning to do, and chances are good that the first results anyone will see of this bold, energetic, self-indulgent tirade about committing to this project, will be a few more badly thought-out blog posts a couple of hundred words long, and regular complaints about how I’m tired and everything sucks, none of which will in any way justify all this hot air.
I will be entirely with you as you inevitably ask: “Really, that’s it? You bluster about grabbing your creative energies by the allegorical balls, and this is the output you were so excited about?”
I’m going to write a lot of unremarkable shite, which should have everyone wondering if I wouldn’t be wasting my time less if I were studying for a qualification that might further my accountancy career prospects instead.
I anticipate that I will be asking myself that a lot, over the coming months.
And I’m going to keep writing it anyway.
Because what if I can fight my way through the amateurish quagmire of mediocrity, and make it out to the other side? What if, after putting in enough effort, I could eventually approach that glorious realm, that promised land: the world of being a writer who occasionally stops feeling like they don’t know what the fuck they’re doing, and whose output is total crap only like ninety percent of the time, maybe even eighty-five?
I can’t pass up the chance to at least try reaching for such a beautiful dream.
It starts here. I’ve read enough books and articles on procrastination and creativity to know all the tricks and mind-hacks, at least on an intellectual level, and I’ve made enough notes to remind myself of them whenever I fail to put them into practice (which will be always).
I’m going to get myself a notebook, so that I can always be writing wherever. And also, I don’t know, bigger pockets to carry it in, or something. Actually I can probably type on my phone as fast as I can scribble awkwardly on a notebook while hunching over to lean on my knees as I write. Scratch that one.
I’m going to stop letting thoughts go unrecorded, no matter how banal. Following through on the banal is how you nurture your capacity to pour out the barely above average.
I’ve deleted Candy Crush from my phone exactly two days after installing it, because I’ve learned for about the seventh time that I can’t be trusted to use things like that solely for passing idle moments which would not otherwise have been productively spent, without letting them turn into time-sinks of their own. (See also: Kongregate. Or rather, don’t, if you have anything you need to get done ever again.)
I’m going to have a grown-up and useful and awesome conversation with my wife, about adapting our shared daily routine somewhat around my new stupid obsession in a way that suits both of us, because we totally win at being married.
And most importantly of all, I’m going to reward myself for writing all this with a cup of tea and a biscuit right now.
And then I’ll come back and write something else. And so on.