Yesterday one of my online acquaintances/fledgelings who is fast becoming a friend had an unpleasant experience which brought to mind sideways and backward something that’s been percolating at the back of my mind for a long time.
First let me start with a story – years ago (21 years ago, to be exact) my family was living in Columbia, South Carolina and we were dead broke. Part of this was because my husband had been unemployed for six months, and hadn’t been able to get a job, since he had to look after me through a difficult pregnancy. Six months of paying your visa with your mastercard when you’re young and were barely making it before REALLY puts a dent in your finances. Then the birth of our long waited and worked for son was a three-day-nightmare ending in a two-surgeon emergency Caesarean under COBRA. The bills, when all was said and done, came out to 20k. Twenty one years ago when that was still money — heck, it was a third our debt on our then house.
To make things worse, it took me about a year to recover from the pregnancy, I had post partum depression and was neither physically able, nor emotionally capable of thinking clearly, much less finding a part time job or even doing little stuff (I started towards the end of our year there, stuff like making baby booties from tapestry scraps, and selling those at our garage sales for $5 a pair.)
Dan got a job almost immediately after I gave birth, but it required moving to Columbia. We still had our house in Charlotte and it took us more than a year to sell it. We had to pay for a place in Columbia. All we could afford was a house with no air conditioning. Yeah, it sounds like “uphill both ways” but on a normal day, not the three months that passed as winter, we woke and it was 104 degrees in the house. And Dan worked sixteen to eighteen hour days (It was that type of software shop) and we only had one functioning car.
I honestly think if it hadn’t been for its being South Carolina and there being cheap places to buy fish and vegetable stands by the side of the road selling excess zucchini, and if I hadn’t got help from my parents, we’d have starved to death. We did, more than once, consider going into a soup kitchen. Never quite had the nerve to.
As the year wore on and we worked out a payment plan for the medical bills, and I started being more able to think and do stuff, now and then, rarely, we could afford to go to Burger King. We’d get a burger for Dan and a grilled chicken sandwich for me, and we’d drive down the street to this really nice neighborhood and park in a place with a nice view and eat.
I’m no saint. I didn’t like the situation we were in. I got bitter very often. But it never occurred to me to envy those people (many of them our age) in the nice neighborhood. I liked the thought that even though I couldn’t and might never be able to, these people got to live in these nice houses, with these lovely gardens and not everyone had to slog along with me.
I didn’t think these feelings were that rare or that strange, but around that time I was reading about Eva Peron and there was a quote about how she grew up poor and the thought that there were rich people in the world infuriated her. I was shocked, not just at the naked envy but the fact the magazine doing the profile seemed to think of it as normal or maybe even a virtue.
In writing, G-d knows, I’ve come across tons of people who had a much easier ride up than I, and yeah, I do get bitter. Do I envy them, though? Do I want to see them brought low? Well, no. I do get very annoyed when they assume (sight unseen) that I must write much worse than them/be stupid not to have broken big yet (instead of suffering from a bizarre combination of luck and odd circumstances.) I get annoyed because even from my modest success, I can tell you writing, like all other careers, is not a meritocracy. Wait, like all other careers not dealing with vital stuff, like things that will explode if mishandled.
Now, I believe in traditional publishing (Baen excepted, of course) there is a strong element of political bias. Yes, I know, the OTHER side says that conservatives just don’t make it because they’re establishment and therefore not creative. First, it would be the first time in history that creativity is consigned to a political side. Second – REALLY? We’re the ESTABLISHMENT? Really? Only if establishment is defined as “people who hold no positions of power in the industry whatsoever, except a relatively small house we love to beat up on.”
Anyway, so I do think there’s political bias. Whether it hit me or not, I don’t know. There were ways around it, but some I couldn’t do and sleep with myself. (Or wake with myself. Waking was the hard part.) But I do know that BOOKS that got the fawning treatment had to hit the points they were looking for. (Yes, there is a way to tread the needle, I just never did it. By the time I knew enough craft to, I was in a permanent state of anger at having to do that, so it didn’t happen.)
But beyond that, there is luck. While I don’t think that my first publisher had me slotted for a long and fruitful career, I also don’t think they planned 9/11 to completely torpedo sales of my first book. I also don’t think that they planned to pay for a book dump, then have stores order only two, so most stores never unpacked it. And, of course, according to the push model then being used, that book and those numbers took me ten years to recover from, to get even to the level of “normal beginner”. (The name changes, though that house adores them, did nothing but make it harder for people to find me and for me to build a following. Jim Baen told me — and Jim would know — that the numbers go off the COPYRIGHT page.)
Even from my small amount of success, I keep running against unpublished or small press published people who are at least as good as I am. Yeah, sometimes it means that though their talent is great, they fail at something: submitting, sending out, application. BUT I don’t assume they’re idiots. Sometimes, it’s luck and life circumstances.
Anyway, all this to say I don’t precisely feel envy of people above me in readership and distribution. I want to get where they are, but I don’t want them to not be where they are.
Again, I’m not a saint, and I’m not bragging. It would be like bragging that I never wanted to eat live snails. It’s something left completely out of my makeup. I don’t want to bring people down to my level, though I often want to get up to theirs, and sometimes – mostly on my friends’ behalf – I get a little annoyed when people who have a lot with a lot of help think I’m a lower life form because I’m stuck where I am (or my friends are where they are).
But we’ve got – partly because of the idea of Marxist economics, I THINK, in which everything is zero sum and if you have something it means I can’t have it; but also because of this odd idea that seems to affect mostly boomers (no idea why) that anyone who succeeds is crooked and must be brought low – to a place in society where we glorify envy.
People are considered worthy, not because of how hard they’re working or because they’re decent people and good friends, but because they’re “disadvantaged.” I.e. they’re in a bad position, and this alone entitles them to bring others down to elevate themselves. And people who are successful – at least in all books and movies – are considered somehow crooked and evil because they’re successful.
I don’t understand this. I don’t think that a society as a society can survive this sort of upside down idea.
While we’ve always as a society been sympathetic to the underdog, now we’re sympathetic to the underdog qua underdog. Forget deserving poor. The most deserving thing is to BE poor, and the only way to remain moral is to never try to do better, never “sell out.”
This was brought to mind by friend’s experience. He is in a position, after a long time, to do something about writing a book he’s thought about for over ten years. He’s been talking about it a lot, as writers do with their early projects, and he’s just got told that he can only do this because he’s “lucky” and that therefore he’s somehow unfair for doing it.
Look, guys, I know what we all told Josh K. (And told him, and told him – runs!) about homeschooling, and I won’t say anyone can do whatever they have their heart set on. I know very well that any number of people end up in places in life for a time at least when NOTHING can be done, no matter how much we try or want to. And sometimes the time you can do it, never comes.
I was there the year after Robert was born. Between the depression and recovering (not least from six months on bed rest) there were days I counted myself lucky if I and the baby were both out of bed, bathed and dressed by two in the afternoon. And the days dishes got done and we had time/energy for a nice walk down the street were red letter days.
However, if there’s something you want to do ENOUGH which is not bound to a particular time (so, not like homeschooling! But a lot like writing) you can do it in practically any circumstances. Not all. But almost all. I did write – and send out – a novel during that horrible year. Note only ONE 90k word novel, but given what all was going on, not bad. It was my first personal rejection too. And the other novel I started that year eventually won me a writing contest, which sort of got me on the road to publication. At least it showed me I wasn’t delusional.
Now, I’m not going to say it’s easy to have a full time job or infants and a house you’re rehabilitating, or anything else and write (or do art. Or compose.) And yeah, some people have it easier than others.
But here’s one thing I noticed: once you start working on it and pursuing your dream (whatever it is), there will always be people who come out to attack you and go out of their way to try to stop you. Most of these people SAY they too want the same thing, but they just caaaan’t. Poor they.
However, I’ve lived fifty years in this world. I’ve seen a number of those people get their “opportunity.” Do you know what happens? They continue whining, sometimes finding the most transparent excuses for why they “can’t.”
Whining is a WHOLE lot easier than trying, and in our society it comes with its own crown of victimhood. Pah. And bah.
Don’t let these people get you down. They’re all wanna be Evita Perons, unable to be happy until everyone else is in the muck.
Pity them a little, if you’re a good person. Then run ahead and forget them.
The best way to live is to do what you can, work towards what you can’t (yet) and never try to pull others down to your level.
It’s what’s best for you. And over time maybe it will turn the culture around, too.