The Folly of Waiting on Destiny

When I’m up to my neck in work, as I am now with revisions for Oath of Blood, I find myself apt to lapse into fits of introspective nostalgia. Today it’s fond childhood memories of watching Sword & Sorcery movies on VHS and on late-night cable. It’s also memories of going to the used bookstore and finding the stacks of paperbacks that, thanks to the Sword & Sorcery boom that had come and gone in the ‘70s and ‘80s, fully opened up my interest in that genre.

For me, there’s little that can come close to the sense of unbridled excitement and wonder that came with discovering such things. Many pizzas were slain, many Mountain Dews quaffed, many a night spent till the wee hours of the morning engaged in the glorious ritual. I look back upon few things with as much fondness as I have for those times.

It of course followed, after so much viewing and reading, that I wanted to create my own worlds. And so I wrote. Since there were writers who made a living doing that kind of thing (or at least who had done it, back before people generally got tired of barbarians in fur diapers), it also stood to reason that I might have a chance at a career as well if I worked hard.

Which is all well and good—unless you screw it up like I did.

At some point I formed an image in my head of how things would go. The details were vague, as details in the plans of teenagers are wont to be, but essentially I would write awesomeness, find a publisher for it, and then commence a sexy adventure in which I spent the rest of my life immersed in both taking in and creating only what I wanted, homework and day jobs be damned.

Unrealistic expectations? Sure. But it was at least some kind of goal to shoot for and generally a more articulate statement of future intent than saying, “I guess I’ll go to college because that’s what you do.”

But somewhere, things stalled out. Maybe it was because I couldn’t fathom the distance between theory and execution, or because I was secretly afraid of failure, or because I went on to college because—hey, college: it’s what you do. Anyhow, the point is that while I envisioned this great writing adventure unfolding, it always remained just that: a vision.

Not a reality. Not even a plan-in-progress. Just a messy daydream that never got off the ground.

So why did I fail, for all my interest in the matter, to take the plunge? I’ve spent a long while pondering this, and in the end I feel I can really only attribute it to a simple and crippling error: I bought into the myth of the so-called writer’s destiny.

It’s an insidious little thing we may all encounter from time to time. Someone who adores our work (or maybe adores it because they adore us) slathers on the praise, tells us how good we are. They tell us we’re born to write and that we’re surely destined to be famous. And if someone else is not there to both dish out a reality check and to guide us, we may start to believe it. To feel it.

And that right there was the cardinal sin of teenage me.

Because I believed it was my immutable destiny to someday become a “real” writer (whatever that is), I felt I didn’t need to strike out on my own and slug it out, improving my skills and finding my niche. If I waited long enough, someone would recognize my genius and then swoop down and brain me with confirmation of the fact, opening up the pathway to greatness.

Except—they didn’t.

The years rolled on. Nothing happened. Hell, for most of them I didn’t even write. I was waiting, I told myself. It wasn’t my time yet. And when my patience with this was finally exhausted, I was no further along the path than I’d been at sixteen or seventeen. I had spent more than a dozen years waiting for the as-yet-unseen Writing Gods to bless me off and give me the sign, and in the meantime, I had done—absolutely nothing.

It came to me that if I’d been writing as hard as I’d been wishing all those years, I’d be phenomenally better. Probably published at least. Maybe even enjoying a little bit of that success I liked to imagine was fated to fall into my lap.

But I wasn’t. I was in a shit job and up to my eyes in crushing student debt. I felt like my life was an utter waste. And I realized in that moment that there is no such thing as a writer’s destiny. It’s a lie we tell ourselves when we don’t want to admit that the road is hard, the journey long.

If I could go back in time and beat one piece of sense into my own adolescent skull, it would be that there is no such thing as a born writer, a destined writer, an inevitable writer. There are stubborn ones, and hardworking ones, and—yes—occasionally lucky ones. But even the luckiest writers have a foundation to stand on, and you don’t get that hanging out, waiting for the action to come to you.

I still kick myself for those squandered years. I think of the enthusiasm that I had for the task as a kid, and then I think of all the years I sat with my thumbs in dark, damp places waiting for—I don’t even know what. I think of my current work, and I feel like there’s a million miles between the energy of then and the dogged persistence of now. I think, too, of what I wouldn’t give to bridge that gap. To have that spark back. To assail the page with youthful exuberance.

But those dozen years are an irredeemable loss. They are gone. Ash and dust on the wind.

And bearing that in mind, I say this to anyone who’s at that same crossroads that confronted me:

Don’t buy into the myth of waiting on your destiny. Avoid it at all costs. If you spend your time waiting for the holy heralds to come, you will wait forever. The road lies open, but you have to set out for yourself. No one will take your hand and coax you. No one will make it easy.

If you want to be a writer, sit your ass down and write. Write like hell and don’t stop.

Everything—everything—else is just set dressing.

Thoughts on “Respectable” Work

This week marked the tenth anniversary of my graduation from the University of Texas. Like all anniversaries, this one has provided me with the opportunity to reflect upon choices I have made, how they have influenced my life, and what value I have extracted from them.

In the main, such discussions, which I have had with everyone from my husband (while walking through the grocery store) to writers from other continents (via the internet) have centered around one clear idea: others’ expectations versus individual dreams and goals. Though I often want to imagine that I am the only one who’s been thus scrutinized, it turns out that there are quite a few folks who struggle with the age old battle of pressure—whether from family, friends, or society in general—to do something “respectable” rather than what truly moves them.

So today, because I owe you a blog post, my loyal horde, and because it’s important, I give you some thoughts on just that.

“When are you going to get a real job?”

“You can’t be serious. I mean, what are you going to do with your degree?”

“That’s nice, but what do you really plan to do with the rest of your life?”

“You know, nobody really makes it writing. Why not be a teacher or maybe an insurance agent?”

I’ve heard all of these before. Every one of them, in some form or another, has been directed at me regarding the (apparently) controversial and public topic of my pursuit of writing as a career goal. Yet they’re not unique to me, and they aren’t unique to writing, either.

What they are, however, is full of shit.

When someone says to me, “Say, Lisa, now that you have that Master’s degree, when are you going to…y’know…go get a real job?” they’re telling me that I embarrass them. I have this damn fool graduate degree that I haven’t used and that cost me too much money, and that’s nice to them—they can brag about it. But the fact that I do whatever work presents itself in the meantime to pay the bills while I focus on my writing rather than chasing an unfulfilling career elsewhere means they can’t use me in conversation the way they want. They’d feel better if I would just go do—whatever—as long as it wouldn’t make them uncomfortable.

But these are the same people who have never supported me in anything I’ve done that wasn’t staid, conventional, and time-testedly boring. I have told them, both in so many words and in nicer ways, to go fuck themselves. They have spluttered and flushed and let the rage they want to spew bulge in their eyes, and I have invited them to kiss my ass.

This has been profoundly liberating, because they are people, not gods, and while they may make much noise, they cannot hurl down the thunder. The worst they can do is remove themselves from my life, and even then, considering how they act—what is the loss in that?

I say all this because I dedicated a dozen years to making people happy. I did as I was expected to do, and I reaped the rewards of debt, misery, and a loss of sense of self.

If you are committed to what you are doing, be it writing, art, or anything else that moves you, do not fall into the trap of craving the acceptance of others. The cup will never be full, no matter how much blood you let into it, and you may rest assured that the hungry imps of disapproval will bleed you dry. Turn the cup over, walk away, be the master of your own fate.

Should you yet feel the sting of those poisonous little doubts that they have introduced regarding whether your goal can be important even when half the world thinks it’s not “real” or “respectable,” consider this example:

One of my favorite writers, Robert E. Howard, often faced this scrutiny. He lived and worked in a tiny Texas oil and ranching town (which really has got no bigger in the intervening decades) in the 1920s and 1930s, and most folks gave him a hard time because he wasn’t doing “honest” work. But  it’s said Howard made more selling his stories to the pulps than the town bank president’s salary, and in the heart of the Great Depression he was able to buy a car with cash money. Still, people harassed him for not doing “real” jobs or “respectable” work.

He tried many. If my memory serves, he worked for a soda fountain, for a department store, for a laundry service, even. He went to business college on his father’s insistence. But Howard persisted at writing, and he broke in—and stayed writing for the rest of his life. And though he died too soon at 30 by his own hand, in the years he did write, he created some of the most memorable characters Fantasy, and specifically Sword & Sorcery, has ever known, Conan the Barbarian among them.

I don’t think Howard ever really knew the impact he had on others, but there are countless writers who owe their inspiration to him and claim him as the fountainhead of their lineage. He had a real and lasting impact, and though many might have faulted him for his chosen vocation, he rose above them.

Maybe none of us will become a modern-day Robert E. Howard, but we can follow his example and rise above those who condemn our efforts. You can be the master of your fate, the captain of your soul.

Do so. And should anyone give you the least bit of a hard time, tell them to go to hell.

Of Deserts and Dead Sea-Bottoms

I am one of those people who finds meaning in ritual. Not necessarily a spiritual or religious kind of ritual—though those can certainly have their merits—but the word at the root sense of its meaning: the repetition of meaningful action. I find these sorts of things, when purposefully done, to have a refreshing and grounding effect on the psyche. They help to clarify things that have become clouded, to clear out the cobwebs that slowly and surely accrete in the corners of our lives.

One of the great mental cleansing rituals to which I subscribe is the vacation, and within the context of vacation, if I am to be traveling, the passing of the long hours with audiobooks. It should come as no surprise, then, that when my husband and I set out this past week for the deserts of West Texas in what was part research trip, part escape from the drudgery of daily life, we passed the time in just that way. Nor should it come as any shock that, being the sort of person I am (and, thankfully, the sort of person he is) we filled those hours with the adventures of Edgar Rice Burroughs‘ first hero, the peerless John Carter of Mars.

That, too, is a bit of a ritual—at least for me. I tend to associate the deserts of the Southwest with Barsoom, and any time I point myself in that direction, I am inclined to touch base with the part of me that finds so much significance in those stories. But I am (of course) getting ahead of myself. As befits the subject, there’s a long story that will make sense of why and how and when all that began for me—and why it still matters today, especially as concerns my own writing life.

Most fans of Edgar Rice Burroughs, and of his Barsoom books in particular, seem to have had the good fortune of discovering them when young. I’ve been told of those fans who, like Carl Sagan, spent ardent night-time hours as youths imploring the night sky to whisk them away to that Mars that should have been, and whose childhoods and spirits were colored by the romanticism and heroics of the tales.

Me? I was not so lucky. There were no dedicated science fiction fans to speak of in my family before I blundered into the genre, and I did not discover Barsoom—or Burroughs at all, for that matter—until I was an adult. Yet I daresay that the discovery, late though it might have been, was nevertheless timely and profound. To it I attribute a great many things, not least of which is the fact that this very blog which you have so graciously deigned to read even exists at all.

Ten years ago, give or take some days, I had finally found my way to the end of my undergraduate degree at the University of Texas. The details thereof do not really bear belaboring here, but suffice it to say that at the end of four years I was no more sure of what I wanted of my life than when I began. I had some vague sense, but like many things the young do and think, it was mostly ill-informed and not well thought out by any stretch of the imagination.

This did not occur to me at the time, however, so as soon as I had wrapped up the pomp and stupidity of graduation, I packed my car with what would fit, dispensed with what would not, and headed out from Austin to the deserts of southwestern New Mexico, where I had family living at the time. The reasons for which I ended up in that part of the country were, as I said, not well considered. To make a very complicated story both short and (mostly) digestible, the whole thing was a magnificent failure, and the winter of 2003 found me at last broke, dejected, and utterly disillusioned with my life.

One thing of which I had an abundance at the time was time itself, and to fill those empty hours I often did what I had always been inclined to do: read. Into my hands thus chanced a copy of A Princess of Mars. The cover painting by Michael Whelan had intrigued me, and as the book was both short and cheap, I figured it could do me no harm. So it became mine, and I sat myself down at the breakfast table one morning with a cup of coffee to see whether it had been money well spent.

The world promptly receded.

By the time I shut the covers and returned to myself, the sun had swung across the sky and lodged in the western hills. My coffee was cold, my breakfast long since forgotten. But I did not care. There, in the roiling heart of my dejected, self-pitying misery I had found something truly wonderful, something which had swept away the blackness of my mood and restored a bright fire to my breast that had been missing for many months. I passed that evening in wistful adoration of the night sky, and when I retired, it was to dreams of deserts and of dead sea-bottoms where one without Terrestrial purpose might find something of meaning in spite of the ways of this world.

Thereafter I sought what other of Carter’s adventures I could find. Regarding audiobooks, it was on a long desert drive shortly thereafter that I discovered cassette copies of A Princess of Mars and The Gods of Mars languishing in a truck stop on the clearance shelf. Until the tapes themselves wore out, they were a considerable part of my driving experience in that part of the world.

In the end, I returned to Texas to try my hand at other things, and though there were dark times in plenty, and though nearly everything for that decade since I left the University of Texas has been a failure, a false start, or at least less than I had hoped for, I have always found a curious kind of balm in Barsoom and in the travails of John Carter.

My training as a scholar tells me I should regard the texts dubiously. At a century old, Princess is fraught with things to make many modern readers flinch—issues of race and class and sex, for instance, and hints of other attitudes that now seem as hopelessly anachronistic as the setting itself: a dying Mars crawling with canals and dotted with the crumbling ruins of a bygone age of splendor.

Yet I cannot bring myself to consign Carter or Burroughs or Barsoom to the trash heap of literary ignominy, though all the very expensive parchments on my wall may resound with the displeasure of those towered spaces where they were earned. No—there is more to such stories, at least for me, than any problems they might present a modern scholar reading them through the fractured kaleidoscope of a modern critical lens.

Simple nostalgia? Perhaps, for these stories even now certainly still possess the power to make me grin like the fool I was when I found them. Yet also perhaps not entirely nostalgia. Though I have the eyes to see problems where problems exist, and while I can acknowledge them when and where I find them, the good far outweighs the questionable even now. The stories remain meaningful for me, and I can still cheer for Carter afresh each time I read.

I have other favorite writers, too, let there be no doubt: I love the dark, barbaric splendor of Robert E. Howard, and I keep frequent company with my favorite of C.L. Moore’s dark visions and Leigh Brackett’s hard-bitten anti-heroes. I have even been known to read a story or two on rare occasion that contains not a single sword fight or exchange of blaster-fire.

It is Burroughs, though, whom I credit with keeping the home fires of heroism lit for me across the stormy decade since I found him. In Barsoom especially I still find reason to believe that there are, as a matter of fact, things worth fighting for, goals worth pursuing at all costs, people worth challenging a very world to find. Though the whole fabric of my universe can go (and often has gone) utterly to hell, I still find refuge in those dead sea-bottoms and what they promise.

They are a tonic for the soul.

So it is that when I find my spirit needs refreshing, it is to Barsoom I return. And so it was that when the husband and I packed the car and swung the compass to the west on this most recent trip, we took Barsoom with us. The effect, at least for me, was as I had hoped. As the miles of highway rolled beneath us and green gave way to red and brown and ocher, I felt that old heroic impulse stir.

I will never be a John Carter; that much is certain. It is also clear to me that I will never be an Edgar Rice Burroughs. Even if I should achieve any degree of success, I will stand merely as a supplicant in that long shadow for however long I may live and write. Yet because of both I can still find it in me to believe in what I might be—and to challenge the world to that end.

This much is enough for me.