Sunday, October 20, 2013

Trying to Not Write Crap

The problem that I’m having with my writing in particular, and my life in general right now, isn’t that it’s bad.  It’s that it isn’t good enough.  
A perfect example of how bad not being good enough can be are my Los Angeles Dodgers.  As has been repeated often enough throughout the baseball world, they had a horrible start to the year but turned it around in June.  They went from the bottom of their division to the top, ending with one of the best records in the majors.  They cruised by the Atlanta Braves, a team expected to beat them, and then got a chance to play for a spot in the World Series against the St. Louis Cardinals.  
The Cardinals were the best hitting team in the National League this season.  But over the first four games, the Dodgers held them to a total of four runs, an average of two runs per game.  That’s less than half of what the Cardinals averaged during the regular season, when they averaged 4.8 runs per game.  The pitching and defense were doing what they needed to do.  The Dodgers weren’t scoring enough runs either.
And it wasn’t even a matter of getting enough hits.  The Dodgers were hitting around .248 as a team during the playoffs.  The Cardinals were hitting around .198.  But the Cards were getting their hits when they had runners on base, and the Dodgers weren’t.  In the end, it caught up with them, and the St. Louis bats woke up to end the season for Los Angeles.  
They weren’t playing badly.  They just weren’t playing good enough, at some very key points of the game, to win.  
It sums up how I feel things are going for me.  I don’t think I’m writing badly.  I am starting to think, though, that I am missing something.  Key facets that I’m not getting right.  The numbers prove me out.  I have been writing to publish for about twenty-three years or so, give or take.  In that time span I’ve had two short stories sold.  If I were a baseball player, I’d have an average of .003.  
There’s a player on the Dodgers that I like a lot.  Dee Gordon.  Plays shortstop.  Good fielder.  Really fast.  But his batting average is around a hundred-something.  If he could hit around two hundred or so, it might be enough to put him in the lineup as the lead-off hitter.  Instead, he keeps getting sent down to the minors, and he keeps getting recalled to join the team when they think they might need someone to pinch-run for one of the better hitters late in a tight game.  
Dee is a good player.  Just not good enough to stick with the team.  
What makes this feeling so frustrating...  Well, the two things that make this feeling frustrating, are these: 
The first is the feeling of being so close, yet so very far away.  I’ve had at least one editor of a professional publication send me an email asking me to send my stories his way.  From the rejection letters and message I get, I know that my stories are getting out of the slush pile and are being read by people making the final decision.  But they don’t seem to be falling my way.  It’s like making contact with the ball, but grounding out or popping up all the time.  
The second frustrating part of feeling like this is that I’m not entirely sure what I need to work on.  It would be like going up to Dee Gordon and saying, “Get more hits!”  As if he didn’t already know that was the issue.  
I recall a story that J. Michael Straczynski, creator of Bablyon 5, used to tell at Comic-Con.  It was when he was a young man starting to submit his work for publication and wasn’t selling anything.  He discovered that Harlan Ellison, the famous science fiction writer,  had a number listed in the phone book.  So he decided to call Harlan to ask advice.  
The way Straczynski tells the story, the conversation went something like this: 
Ring...  Ring...  Ring...  Click.
“Uh...  Is this...  Harlan Ellison?”  
“Yeah.  Who is this?”
“Uh, my name is Joe Straczynski...  I’m a fan of yours--”
“Whaddya want?”  
“Well...  I’m a writer, and I’m submitting stories, but they keep getting rejected.  I was wondering if you could tell how I could get more stories sold.”  
(Pause, then..) “Stop writing crap.”  
“If your stories were any good, they’d be selling.  You’re probably writing crap.  Stop writing crap.”  
“Oh.  OK...  Thank--”
Telling that story has lead me into a quandary as far as this blog post is concerned.  Straczynski obvious overcame whatever it was that was keeping him from being not good enough.  I remember another thing he often says when giving panels at conventions: Never give up on your dreams.  
It’s hard to write that.  Because by writing it, I’m not letting myself off the hook.  And I think I want to be let off the hook and tossed back into the pond.  
When I write, I have two documents on my screen.  One is the blank page that will be whatever blog or short story or novel chapter that I’m working on.  The other is my “Word Palette.”  This is a document that I use to keep writing.  If, while working on the blog entry or short story, I get stuck, I will then switch over the word palette and start typing away.  I might write something like, “Why am I stuck?” or “This is wrong, it’s going no where, what do I do...?” or something else.  I often write the paragraph or page or sentence over and over again, in different ways, until it feels right to me.  
While writing this blog entry, after making two or three false starts to it, I wrote in my word palette the following: 
“And the moment I bring up the blank page, I go blank.  I don’t want to write anything.  I’m stopping now.”  
And I did.  I stopped typing.  I sat there.  I told myself I had reached the end of my writing career.  I was stopping for good.  I let that decision soak through me.  I tried to feel what that would mean for me.  Getting up at six in the morning instead of four, and still having the time to get ready for work and out on time.  
What I didn’t do was stop the timer.  I set a timer to measure my writing session and I write the time down in a spread sheet.  It’s my timecard as a writer.  I knew that if I turned off the timer after having written that line, it would be the end.  A phase of my life would end.  
But I didn’t.  I got the idea that I should at least post a final blog entry.  I would name it that.  “My Final Blog Entry.”  It made sense to me.  It would be the right thing to do.  
So, I wrote in my word palette, “Or Not” and started writing this entry, with the idea that it would be about feeling not good enough and that I had decided to stop.  
But then I conveyed the story about J. Michael Straczynski calling Harlan Ellison, which lead me to the other thing he said all the time, and having written it out I’m thinking now that I have to keep trying until I find away to stop writing crap.  
Damn it.  
It’s been said that writing needs to be its own reward, otherwise it will be too hard to keep it up when things aren’t going well.  I guess it can do that as well by being its own little coach, barking from the sidelines, “Just Don’t Write Crap!”  
OK.  I’ll try not to.  


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