.journal 2010.05.15

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Climbing the mountain

Now listening to: Orbital, In Sides
Now reading: Joanna Smith Rakoff, A Fortunate Age
Now playing: Wii Play (Wii)

Because of Mom’s deep love of all things Star Trek (at least all things pertaining to the original series), the family went out to see Star Trek V when it came out in the theatres.  Any of you who have watched the film, or know anything about Star Trek movies, know that it’s considered one of the least watchable in the franchise’s history.  In an opening scene, Captain Kirk is climbing a mountain while Spock watches nearby, levitating with the aid of hoverboots.  (If there’s a technical name for them, I’m sorry, but I’m not that much of a Trekkie.)  Spock relates to Kirk that he’s already failed to break the time record for climbing that mountain, and asks Kirk what possible reason he might have for continuing his ascent.  Kirk retorts with the rather famous answer George Mallory gave when he was asked why he wanted to climb Mount Everest: “Because it’s there.”

I was young when I first watched the film, so at the time it just seemed like a “funny line” to me, albeit one that for some reason stuck in my head more than it should have.  As I’ve grown older, I’ve come to appreciate the sentiment of the line a lot more, especially as it comes to creative work.  We were all put on this planet with unique perspectives and gifts, and I think we have a duty, whether to whatever gods and/or goddesses you believe in or just to everyone else on the planet, to use those perspectives and gifts to enlighten others.

For several years after I completed my undergraduate degree in creative writing, though, it was hard for me to do any kind of creative writing.  A lot of that was due to the fact that I had such a disastrous go-around with my first attempts to get into graduate creative writing programmes, although looking back on the kinds of things I was writing back then — both creatively and the stuff I was writing on here, which I’ve been cringing at as I’ve been moving old Website pages over to WordPress — it’s not hard to see why most of my applications got turned down.

Because the University of Toledo offered me a free ride through graduate school, albeit for a literature degree, I figured it would be best to pursue that avenue, and I don’t regret having done so.  However, between the demands of grad school, my increasing involvement in political activities, beginning my teaching career, and dealing with a series of upheavals in my personal life, my creative projects didn’t get that much attention, and that continued after I finished graduate school and focused on my professional career.  I would write a short story or a poem or a fragment of something here and there, but despite my best intentions, I could never sustain anything for any period of time.

A lot of that, I have to admit, had to do with immaturity on my part.  Even back when I was at Antioch, as wonderful of a time as I had then, it bothered me that so much of my education was pushing me towards some predefined idea of what the world and my contributions to it “should” be, an idea that failed to seriously consider, if it considered at all, the actual worlds and communities I and other students inhabited.  This continued to be a problem for me at UT, in my creative writing classes and elsewhere, and I think it continues to be a widespread problem in all levels of academia.  A large part of my teaching career is dedicated to trying to find ways to teach my students in ways that are relevant to their lives, and while I don’t always succeed, I think a large number of my students appreciate the effort I put into that.

When I was a student, though, I didn’t always deal with that problem in healthy ways.  I would try to make compelling arguments to my instructors that they needed to be more open-minded about the genres I and other students wanted to work in, and I think I did, and still do, have a good case in that regard.  However, a lot of my response to their feedback and instruction boiled down, more or less, to something like, “Well, this is the kind of stuff I want to do so I’m going to do it, and I don’t care what you have to say.”  Needless to say, that was not a healthy way of dealing with the problem, although given that I continued to pull straight A’s in all of my courses, I guess I let myself feel justified in doing so.

The end result of having to go through this process twice, first in music at Antioch and then in writing at UT, was that by the time I got that first degree, I was feeling bitter about the whole process.  As some of my more sympathetic instructors reminded me, I didn’t need to take academic courses in writing or music in order to create, and there were no laws saying I couldn’t create whatever I wanted.  The thing is that, with the exception of the odd spurt here or there, I didn’t create.  I let my frustrations about my academic experiences get the better of me, and my reluctance to write anything on my own was just as immature as the “rebellions” I staged against my instructors in my classes.

Over the past couple of years, though, time and distance seem to have helped me gain some wisdom about my experiences.  Although I think the problems plaguing academia I listed above still exist, I can see how poorly I dealt with those problems at the time.  Despite the fact that I didn’t write that much after my undergraduate career, I did a tremendous amount of reading — ironically enough, I don’t think I became a “voracious reader” until after I got my graduate degree in literature — and I have a much better understanding now of how different fields of literature work, and how to write in those fields.  I make no claims that I am now somehow “cured” of the problems that made me react in such poor ways earlier, but I think I have learned to deal with those problems a lot better than I did before.

I promised myself that this year I would stop the excuses and begin to write again.  I would find the time, I would find the things to write about, and I would not let myself continue to nurse old wounds from my previous experiences.  If I want to call myself a writer, I have to write.  I assembled kind of a reward system for myself and my writing, consisting of a Celtic calendar I use to keep track of my daily word count (for writing projects only, not journaling or blogging or tweeting), and I got all kinds of stars and stickers to “give” myself on the calendar for meeting certain goals.  Yes, I know how silly this sounds after I just wrote about being so immature, but the bottom line is that it works to keep me writing, and if it works then there’s no reason why I shouldn’t use it.

I wrote a number of short stories in January and February, and in addition to writing those stories, I’ve also been editing older stories of mine and sending them to literary journals.  Among the short stories I wrote was one that came from a strange bit of inspiration, although in hindsight I can see how a number of my interests converged in its genesis.  I thought I had a real good thing with it, and saw a lot of potential in it.  Looking back, though, it’s easy to see that I was reading Mary Gaitskill’s Bad Behaviour as I wrote it, as it was very compressed and I made the narrator way more sarcastic than she should have been.

As I was writing it, I thought that it might make a good screenplay.  I’d taken a course in screenwriting back in 2003, but I hadn’t worked in the medium since then.  After buying some books on screenwriting and educating myself on the genre, late in February I wrote my first full-length screenplay.  Although I didn’t get the language as punchy as it needs to be, the basic elements are solid, and I still have a very good feeling about it.

I wasn’t done, though.  As I ran low on short story ideas, I thought that I might take a stab at turning my screenplay into a full-length novel, something that had crossed my mind as I wrote the original short story.  There was another novel I wanted to write, one based on a short story I wrote back in my undergraduate days that I think also has a lot of promise, but this new story was fresher in my mind.  Again, I read up on novel-writing on my own, without the aid of formal instructors, and early in March I started work on the novel.

Yesterday I completed the first draft.  In the course of a little over two months I managed to write 117,819 words, a number that I’m sure I will carry in my head for the rest of my life.  As I got closer and closer to the end, I began to feel stranger and stranger about it.  I don’t think I’ve ever taken on a project of this scope before in my life, or at least not to the same degree of intensity, and when it was done I felt absolutely at a loss.  I was kind of a wreck, and even after a full night’s sleep and copious amounts of caffeine I still feel like the walking dead.

This is only the beginning, though, something I’m all too aware of from all the reading and research I’ve done these past few years.  First I need to let the first draft “rest” for a few months, so I can come back to it with fresh eyes later.  From my own experiences revising my short stories, I know that it will take me draft after draft after draft to get to a point where I can be satisfied with my writing.  I doubt I’m going to have anything I’ll be comfortable sending out to agents and publishers before the end of the year.

Even after that, there are no guarantees.  You don’t have to follow the publishing industry to know that the book market is hardly an area of growth.  Even assuming I have a stellarly-written book to shop around — which is a huge assumption — I might not be able to find a home for it because it’s not marketable, or publishing houses are looking for something different, or it’s not the right time or season for this particular book.  Even if it gets published, there’s no guarantee it will sell because the public is a very fickle and unpredictable lot.  (Just look at politics over the past ten years for examples of that.)  I’m not even close to the top of the mountain now, but I’m further off the ground than I’ve ever been before, and that’s kind of an awesome feeling.

I can’t let myself write just to try to be a famous author or to try to make money, though.  I won’t deny I’d like to get lots of money from the book (and possibly the screenplay as well), but if that was my primary concern then I should have just read the latest bestsellers, derived their formulas, and written something marginally different but largely similar to them.  Inasmuch as any creative work can be original — everything is ultimately derivative of something else, of course — I have to write what is in me, the stories and screenplays and poems and songs and so on that are of me, not what I think the market wants.  I have to write these stories because, to paraphrase George Mallory, they’re there, inside of me, and if I don’t let them out, then who will?

Even though I still feel completely drained, and even though I’ve just pounded out over two thousand words in this .journal entry alone (that’s one advantage of typing these up through WordPress, knowing the word count), as soon as I get this posted and all the links to it sent out, I’m going to go re-read a couple of the screenplays I’ve bought, and then get started on the second draft of that screenplay.  If I’m going to be a writer, I need to keep writing, regardless of how I feel.  (Yes, I took last weekend off, but I had good reason for that.)

Everyone take care and be well.  I’ll see you around.

— Sean

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