Note: I’ve been sitting on this post a while now, uncertain as to whether I should publish it. After a recent conversation, though, I feel like it has to go up.
Lately, as you’ll note from my first post of the new year, I’ve been struggling with the realities of this path I’ve chosen for myself. It has weighed heavily upon my mind that I need to simplify things, focus on my intended purpose, and, in a phrase, fuck around less and accomplish more.
While contemplating this a few weeks back, I found myself running into quotes here and there attributed to Steven Pressfield’s The War of Art, which I had never read, but which I had seen or heard mentioned by friends. What I saw suggested the book might be worth reading, so I inquired of others what they thought of it.
The responses ran along the lines of “It’s good; you should read it.”
So I did.
The War of Art was a quick and inspiring read, the business of an evening, as was the follow-up volume Turning Pro. Both struck a strong chord with my current mindset, getting right to the root of issues that, until then, had no name by which I could call them.
What I did not consider was that the information I read would immediately begin to go to work on my subconscious, posing questions I’ve been dodging for some time. Yet this it did, and the result of this was both profound and profoundly frustrating.
In short, I had a dream, and I believe it meant something.
That may strike you as overly woo-woo, I realize, but humor me for a time if you will. If nothing else, you’ll understand the madness that follows a bit better for your troubles.
In this dream, I’m walking down a dirt path somewhere fantasy-flavored. I’m reminded most of the grounds at the Texas Renaissance Festival, down in the section where the rune-throwers, palm-readers, and crystal-gazers have their stalls. But this version of the place appears to be a real village, not just a pretty façade.
Mr. Warlord is with me, and while it’s not clear why we’re there or where we’re going, we’re dressed for at least the appearance of adventure: blades and bright colors and a shiny smear of armor here and there.
I stop and decide to enter a tavern. Mr. Warlord isn’t interested, but he says he’ll wait. At the door, I am immediately met by a surly figure: a heavily armored woman with the look of a brigand about her—six feet tall, red-headed, carrying a battleaxe and sporting grim, red facial tattoos that remind me of a wolf’s head.
“You can’t come in here,” she tells me, and I’m struck with the sense that she’s in charge of the place. She’s not the tavernkeeper, though. She’s the head badass—or whatever.
“Why not?” I ask her. “You know I talked to you about joining up.”
“And I’m tired of your bullshit,” she replies. “I’m not going to take you seriously until you get one of these.” And she points to the ink on her face.
Immediately, I’m seized by fear. “I can’t do that,” I tell her.
At this point, Mr. Warlord opens up quietly, in that reassuring baritone of his. “Why not? This is something you want, right? So just do it and don’t worry about it.”
“But I can’t,” I tell him. “What if this doesn’t work out? Nobody will hire me with one of those. Everybody will know.”
“So don’t fuck it up, then,” says the woman with the axe. She is unamused, and she is headed back inside.
I turn to follow, to ask her what she means, but she’s already through the door, slamming it shut in my face. Briefly, I feel the crunch of oak on nose-bone.
Then I’m awake.
It’s 6:30, and Agnes is in my face, mewling for breakfast. I get up, dispense some squishyfood, and step out onto the back porch with a cigarette and a cup of coffee to contemplate what the fuck just happened.
Obviously, this dream didn’t come out of nowhere. As I said, I’d been reading Pressfield, reading him late in the evening before bed, and finding that his words gave me a lot to think about. And I won’t deny being hopeful for some kind of guidance from the universe.
So what was it? My subconscious mind, equating my writing-as-life dilemma with the wolf’s-head of the outlaw? The clue-by-four of the gods? (I could think of a couple who are likely to work that way, after all.)
Or is my muse a six-foot-tall barbarian woman with a battleaxe?
I’ll leave it up to you to decide that for yourself.
The point is that I read the dream as metaphor for my pursuit of the practice of writing, and as an answer to the questions the book teased out but didn’t resolve.
One of the big things—in fact, the big thing—Pressfield calls out in War of Art and Turning Pro is the idea of Resistance: those things we do, or which we allow to happen to us, that keep us from doing our chosen work. Resistance can be a lot of things, many of them negative. Procrastination, for instance, or listening to the insidious voice of self-doubt.
But Resistance can also assume a superficially positive form. I can think of many times, for instance, when I’ve ground to a halt on a piece so I could have more time for “research” (which inevitably meant going down the rabbit hole and never coming back up). Or, say, the years I spent in school, ostensibly to get better at writing, but during which I wrote almost nothing in my genre. Or “networking” or “marketing” online or whatever when I haven’t got a finished product to offer yet.
Or, you know, fastidiously posting to a blog.
Or—and here’s what kicked me in the teeth—even setting up a whole career that runs parallel to doing what I intend to do, but doesn’t actually intersect it.
Pressfield calls that a shadow career:
Sometimes, when we’re terrified of embracing our true calling, we’ll pursue a shadow calling instead. The shadow career is a metaphor for our real career. Its shape is similar, its contours feel tantalizingly the same. But a shadow career entails no real risk. If we fail at a shadow career, the consequences are meaningless to us.
Are you pursuing a shadow career?
Are you getting your Ph.D. in Elizabethan Studies because you’re afraid to write the tragedies and comedies you know you have inside you? Are you living the drugs-and-booze half of the musician’s life, without actually writing the music? Are you working in a support capacity for an innovator because you’re afraid to risk being an innovator yourself?
And the more I think about it, the more I’m convinced the freelance writing and tutoring gigs I’ve done for years, like the degrees they were born from, are things of shadow.
They kinda-sorta touch writing. But they aren’t writing.
And the trouble inherent in this realization is that I often place my freelance work first in my day, before anything else. After all, deadlines have to be kept. Clients must receive their stuff on time. Otherwise I don’t get paid, and I don’t continue to get work.
But none of that is me-writing-for-me. No amount of writing website copy makes my fiction better. No amount of cleaning up other people’s work gets my work finished and revised and ready for prime-time attention.
Another kick in the gut: my freelance work is, more or less, Resistance.
But because it’s Resistance with money attached (and writers are almost always in need of money), it feels like it’s a necessary thing. Of course you have to do it, and of course you have to do it first. You’ve got to deliver so you can get that paycheck, and you need that paycheck so you can…
…can what, exactly?
Well, pay bills, right? We don’t exactly live here on the charity of our landlord, and my internet connection is not a kind donation on the part of the cable company for furthering the arts. And there’s the cyclopean horror of student loans to consider, too.
Still, the thing that keeps itching in the back of my head is that I’m letting the freelance work rule me in a way it should not. I let it ride roughshod over the time I should be spending on my own writing, and if it takes all day, every day, seven days a week to keep the freelance clients coming back, then so be it.
I need the business right now, I tell myself. The writing can wait. Later, when things are better, I’ll have the ability to let it all go and focus on the writing.
But that sounds suspiciously like the justification I used to feed myself over my soul-suck of a day job. Or over staying in grad school when, half a semester in, I knew it was the wrong choice for me because it wasn’t writing in my genre. Or, before that, teaching school when I’d quickly realized that teaching was not my calling, because—again—it had nothing to do with writing in my genre and getting shit published.
It’s that kind of pie-in-the-sky, hopeful fairy tale you tell yourself when, deep down, you know you’re full of shit: someday is never going to get here. Someday will always exist at some numinous point in the future.
Deferring the hard work until someday is just a candy-coated way of saying never.
It’s Resistance, to use Pressfield’s term. And it is the enemy.
The Wolf’s Head
The biggest symbol that stood out to me in the dream was the wolf’s-head tattoo. Nineteen-year-old me, who was painfully literal and naïve, probably would have taken it as an omen that she needed to get an actual facial tattoo in that design, and that this would unlock some kind of secret, magic-spattered writing talent. Nineteen-year-old me was a dumbass. Thirty-four-year-old me is, thankfully, at least a little less so.
Older me is also a hell of a lot better at reading metaphors, and the first thing that struck me, upon thinking about the tattoo, was the use of the phrase wolf’s head, in older centuries, as a term for outlawry.
Becoming an outlaw back in the day was a big fucking deal. It wasn’t cool, and it wasn’t edgy. It meant that the protection of the law was withdrawn from you, and that anyone could kill you on sight with impunity. It also meant that no one was permitted to help you, lest they suffer your fate.
It meant being alone and utterly on your own.
In the dream, I feared getting the tattoo to prove myself worthy of Badass Bandit Woman’s notice. When Mr. Warlord’s dream-world stunt double encouraged me to go ahead and get it done, I balked because facial tattoos are obvious and permanent, so there would be no going back.
Specifically, if it didn’t work out with Badass Bandit Woman, nobody would ever hire me again.
(Apparently even my metaphors are painfully literal.)
Right now, the way I’m reading the situation, whatever the bandit woman stands for (my subconscious, my muse, the gods, the concept of writing full time, or whatever) sees my dithering over risk as an impediment, a lack of commitment. Because I’m not willing to take the plunge without knowing there’s something to bail me out, I’m not really committed, whatever I may think.
It’s not enough, it seems to be saying. You have to go all the way.
And going all the way, of course, conjures up Bukowski’s shade:
if you’re going to try, go all the
otherwise, don’t even start.
There’s a reason, I think, he called that poem “roll the dice.”
Anybody who’s ever gamed knows that when you roll, nothing is completely certain. Even a veteran can fumble. Even a rank beginner can score a crit.
(Not that Bukowski ever played D&D, but all dice are bastards in this way.)
The dice can help you, or they can betray you, but there’s never any way to know until you roll them. That’s the nature of dice. There’s no way to hedge your bet. Not really. Hedging your bet is a nice way of saying you’re not risking anything. Don’t roll, after all, and you can’t suffer the consequences of a bad roll.
But that also means you can’t reap the rewards of having taken the risk.
And the vibe I get from my subconscious, courtesy of the six-foot-tall woman with the battleaxe, is that I need to call my shot and roll the dice. Or else.
Money is the thing.
But money also isn’t the thing.
As it stands, we could get by if I brought in less from freelancing. It could be done. Granted, it would be tighter than I like, and it would be perilous, but it could be done. There would be some wailing and some gnashing of teeth, sacrifices, and discomfort.
But it could be done.
After all, we’ve survived dry spells when I had no work, or when I had only the tiniest tease of it, or when a much-needed shot of income fell through at the last minute. We made it through those intact. We did not perish. The world did not fall to ruin.
It just sucked.
The thing that’s holding me back, more than anything else, is fear.
Fear that something will go wrong, that we’ll need that money in a month when we don’t have it, and something terrible will happen as a result. Fear that writing won’t turn a profit, but I’ll have burned my bridges, and so I’ll be stuck. Fear that I’ll anger my clients if I tell them, “I’m very sorry, but I need more time for me right now.”
(Though, some of them are likely reading this, so I guess that cat’s out of the bag. Oops.)
Fear is the thing.
Fear of being alone. Fear of the wolf’s head, more or less. This dithering, I am increasingly convinced, is what got the door shut in my face in that dream.
But I know that now.
From here, it’s up to me to decide where this goes. Am I going to be a freelancer who dabbles in fiction to amuse herself, or am I going to commit—all the way—to being a writer?
I have a feeling I’d better decide sooner, not later. Six-foot-tall women with battleaxes tend to be remarkably short on patience.