*I don’t normally echo posts here from Mad genius Club, because a substantial number of you read both. But I have a feeling this one is somehow important to echo. And it explains some of the stuff that’s been going on. – SAH*
The price for the gift is to exert the gift.
Have you ever realized that most of the depictions of magic in fiction are a decent description of the writer gift?
I mean, it should be no surprise to anyone, right? What else are we writers going to talk of? What else will we equate with magic?
Perhaps that’s not true — I don’t know — of writers who aren’t what we call “gateway” writers. I hear — but it’s hard to know for sure, you know, because fiction writers lie. It’s kind of what they do — that there are writers out there who function solely on the rational side of the brain. I have heard them in panels, on blogs, even in my own writers group, assure me that they come up with the plot, rationally, and rationally cast characters for it, and rationally pen every single word.
Maybe they do. I’m almost sure that is true for some of them, because I’ve read their books, and they are utterly and completely lifeless. Interesting intellectual exercises.
Sometimes, if the premise is interesting enough, they will carry you through. But you won’t say “Oh, I would love to meet so and so in that book.” You don’t remember someone’s passion or sacrifice. You don’t… The book is not about real people.
Don’t get me wrong, it can be diverting, but you come away detached.
… For some of us it’s not like that. And the choice is never between writing or doing something more productive with our time.
We can pretend. Oh, boy, we can pretend like anything. Catch me in a crowd of “we’re all professionals here” and I will tell you I can write or not write. And that if writing stops paying I’ll walk away and go do something else.
But you know? I lie for a living.
Writing is… Something I do, because I need to do it.
It is also something at which I was always good, as far back as I can remember, or at least since I started writing at six.
Am I saying I was publishable at six? Oh, dear Lord, no. Most of my writing then was, to be honest, bad fanfic (of Enid Blyton.)
The thing is, it was better than I had any right to be. I hadn’t done the work. I had no idea what I was doing. And yet… there was life there.
I no longer have those writings. Whichever remain have probably long since been eaten by rats in the family’s outbuildings. Heck, I no longer have my first novels written in the US. They were written in media I can no longer read. And that’s probably a mercy, because the current me, the person who actually knows how to tell a story, cringes and wants to hide at the things I do have. The clumsy, hasty introductions, the dramatic scenes that aren’t, and most of all, the stories that are utterly incomprehensible unless you are also in my head.
The weird thing in those, and from what my husband tells me — I don’t know — in my earliest novel written in English is the grace notes, and the things I was given for free: the characters that live on the briefest of descriptions, the emotions that shine through, the urgency, the… life.
I can see it, even through the cringy bits.
This was not something I learned. It might be something I can’t learn.
Sarah, how do you write characters? Well, they are in my head, and they talk to me. Not that I hear them, physically (Oh, dear Lord, trust me, this might make me a rarity among … for lack of a better term “gateway writers.”) but I feel them there. I know who they are. I know what they do in their scenes that aren’t in the novel. I know what matters to them, what’s in their heads when they wake up. I know them, either as close friends, or as the guys down the street. They’re themselves.
And that comes across.
The learning? The craft?
Yeah, you should learn that, but that is not the inexplicable gift. The craft is what tells you what scenes to show — even when they upset your characters (rolls eyes to the inside of head. Shut you. I don’t want to hear it.) — craft and practice are essential. Even the most gifted of artists is a mess without the craft side. And if you study and practice enough, the craft becomes part of the gift.
Look, think of the gift as fire you are given. It is just fire — and if you let it run wild, it will consume you, and leave nothing to show for it, but ash — and there’s nothing amazing in it. Except that you have it, without knowing how to make it. You were touched by the divine fire, and life pours out to your stories, but if the stories suck, it’s a waste.
So you study and work, and if you’re lucky and apply yourself, and sometimes rewrite and re-shape the fire, you have an immortal phoenix, shining through the centuries for all others. (Which btw, passes through being entertaining. Because nothing that people fail to love lives forever.)
The problem is that the price of the gift is to use the gift.
And the magic in most fantasy books warns of the downfall. There are many ways of killing the fire, the life in your fiction, the passion, the strength of your writing thing.
I always liked Mercedes Lackey’s Valdemar description of ripping your magic channels through by doing something you shouldn’t be able to do, and being left with a hurt/half-dead magic. Because that’s what it fell like when I pushed through a book I had to write, but which I didn’t want to. Forcing the gift into it left me sore and tired, and wondering if it would ever come back.
Yes, I do know. The working artist must have schedules and produce regularly. I’m not telling you otherwise. But I think there’s ways around it.
Usually the way I came back from that was to take a few months, read my old stuff, pick up an old thread, write some fun stuff.
Then came the year of homeschooling and writing six books, none of which I wanted to write for various reasons. That was fifteen years ago, and I forced it through.
Here I should explain that teaching, any teaching, pulls from the same place as writing.
That left me… dead. I described my writing after as “arid.” The grace notes, the fun stuff that just falls in wouldn’t. I’d have to reach for it, struggle.
Oh, there were exceptions. A Few Good Men came through, against my rational wish not to write it. (Look, it’s space opera, about a future USAian revolution, with gay male leads, and the world’s weirdest romance, for various reasons.) But it wanted out, and I wrote it in two weeks (if you count the six days I took off for urgent reasons.) Or I wrote it in a week and a day.
My autoimmune was acting up, and I felt like hell, but each day that week and a day I got up and wrote almost 20k words, and I wasn’t tired. I was flying.
And the Dyce books started out as drudgery, but they had a song of their own, and they ripped through me in about 3 days each. (Hush you.)
But in between books the recovery time was longer. And anything that didn’t have a force of its own became harder to write. A short story could take me two weeks, suddenly. And novels were started and floundered, which is why I have about twenty of them half written.
Forcing myself to finish one, just made me silent for months.
Now, some of this, don’t mistake me, was physical. Each of the last …. oh, 20 years in Colorado, my auto-immune has been worse, and my thought more muddled. I wasn’t sleeping, and I wasn’t functioning properly, and any treatment was a brief patch over the abyss.
…. I thought it was getting old. I knew some of it was burnout. The complete disproportion between how much I loved or worked on a book, and the result it achieved. My inability to influence cover or marketing, or …. any of it. And then my doctor told me that I was actually suffering adverse effects of altitude. Which led to trying to get the heck out of dodge fast.
(Despite everything that has happened politically, and everything I don’t like about my poor, beleaguered, beloved Colorado, I don’t think I’d ever have left without that. A part of my heart, a large one, will forever remain in the Rocky Mountains.)
I’d already started trying to do stuff for the burnout. Small wins pull you out of that, and the fact Another Rhodes sold amazingly was part of that, as was how well Barbarella did.
And three weeks ago I wrote a short story for LawDog’s Saints of Malta Antholoy, and yeah, it took forever, but it took forever, because I’d forgotten what it was like to have a voice come through. I’d forgotten and didn’t trust the voice that tried to sing through me, like an expert player through a disused harp. And so the poor story squeezed through backwards and sideways. The first thing I got was the last paragraph, and had to fumble in the dark, until I figured that out, and then had to TRUST the voice screaming to come out.
I don’t scruple to say that might be the best story I’ve written in the last 7 years at least.
And then, suddenly, I could feel it, the old flame struggling back to life.
… I no longer remembered what it tasted like. It was like… trying to speak a tongue in which I was once fluent but no longer really remembered.
I told a friend it felt like French. I used to be fluent in French and speak it without hesitation, think in it, as I think in English.
Now I can’t. I know the words. They’re there, in my head, but I don’t TRUST them, and so I never say them. I understand French. I just am afraid to speak it.
And that’s what was happening both in writing that story in finishing Bowl of Red (ALMOST , truly, almost. It’s been more mundane things that stopped it yesterday and today.)
I’m now, slowly, haltingly, learning the language of creation again. Letting the writing thing come through.
And I’m glad I got there before I read the last thing I tried to write before getting out of Colorado. It is a half finished novel, and I looked at it the other day. And I was scared out of my wits.
It was dead. Not bad, as craft, mind. But dead. LIFELESS. There’s nothing there. It’s a hunk of dead words. I can redo it, but I’ll have to start from page one and recast it.
I’d never ever ever have read anything of mine that was so devoid of life. I didn’t know I could write stuff that dead.
So… How did I ALMOST kill my writing thing?
I’m starting to get glimmers of that.
You can’t kill a writing thing by ignoring it. Eventually it seizes control and makes you write it.
But you can kill it by forcing it. By forcing it to write what it doesn’t want to, what it blatantly despises. (Note there are three books of mine I’ll never re-issue. Not unless substantially rewritten.) By forcing it again and again over and over to write and put life in what it doesn’t want to write or put life into.
Over and over again. Don’t play. Don’t enjoy it. Don’t give it time to recover. Plunge again and again into the battle, with your ever more battered little fire, till it’s all just ashes and nothing.
Heck, for all I know my physical issues in some part at least are part of this.
Because writing is part of who I am, woven through my being. And the price of the gift is to use it. But … not to abuse it.
So, does this mean I’ll write less?
No. I think I’ve figured what “re animates the embers.” I am going back to what I used to do. I read the old stuff. I find the threads that work. And I write experimental things I’m not sure will work, but feed my soul.
I try new things. I go where the life is, and stay there a bit. Even if sometimes I still have to force the harp to sing, when it wants to run off and catch butterflies.
I am now planning for built in periods of rest. Not rest in silence, but rest in letting the fire have its way a little, feed a little.
So it can grow anew.
It’s all still very fragile and tentative, as I grope my way back to where I was 15 years ago.
But two things I know: The price of the gift is to use it.
And: You must let the gift be its best and do the impossible now and then, or it dies off.
So. This is how I almost killed my writing thing.
And how the fragile, bloodied, almost dead thing is at last stirring anew.