I love writing.
I love the characters that pop into my head, and the stories they bring with them. I love the act of digging deeper and deeper into their layers, finding out who they are, listening to them tell their stories. I love refining their stories more and more, having them correct me until my imperfect fingers somehow manage to do their stories as much justice as they possibly can.
I hate, however, looking back and realizing that I spent the better part of the last decade writing things that nobody’s ever going to read. That is, after all, the primary function of writing: we write to be read.
The story ceases to matter if I (and a few other mentors, editors, agents, and friends) am the only one to ever read the story; the only one to fall in love with it.
And sure, there’s an argument to be made that each book you write is a better book, and eventually, someday, maybe, if you keep writing, you’ll write a book that’s good enough to be published. But the opposite is just as true, too: you can spend your entire life writing books that you absolutely love, attaching yourself to characters that are physically and emotionally a part of you, only to have nobody ever read them, to have nobody else ever care about them.
Like in the Brandi Carlile song:
“But these stories don’t mean anything
when you’ve got no one to tell them to,
I could spend my whole life doing something that I love, only to turn out to have it mean nothing. My whole life could end up meaning nothing, and there are so many less-painful ways to achieve that.
My family is your typical working poor/lower class White American family. You keep seeing, in TV shows and books, all of these families that visit museums and zoos together, who go to the theatre or concerts or the opera, who go on these big, long vacations that involve jet airplanes and luxury hotels. As a YA reader, I’ve seen families that do college visits with their teens, who encourage them to do extra-curriculars, worry about their schedules, who plan out their lives.
There aren’t too many families like mine in books (Dill’s mom and Travis’s dad in Jeff Zentner’s The Serpent King come close, as does Finch’s mom in Jennifer Niven’s All the Bright Places.) But, by far, the closest thing to my family in popular culture? The Bundys.
Dad, especially, had some of Al’s mannerisms copied, down to a T. But that’s a different story for a different day.
But that’s what the bar for achievement was, with my family. That was our ethos: Don’t grind yourself to death trying to achieve things that won’t work out anyway. Just go to school, get a job, and make it through the day. Don’t ask for nice things or expensive things, because you’ll just end up being disappointed in the end.
Most of the angst of my teenage years was trying to reject and fight against that ethos. Trying to make something more of myself. Now, nearing 30 and having achieved no fame, no fortune, not even a modicum of success, I wonder about the wisdom of having done that. There’s something deeply tempting about the prospect of giving up, about shutting down those higher hopes and dreams, packing them all away, and spending the last half of my life not struggling.
It’s the wisdom of Job’s wife (who, for my money, is the smartest person in The Bible): “Curse God and die.”
There’s something about giving up that strikes me as deeply logical: if I have already tried and failed; what are the odds that if I keep going, if I keep running on this hamster wheel, that I am going to succeed? That I am going to get anywhere? The best years of my life are already gone; it only goes downhill from here. Maybe I should stop trying to climb. Maybe it makes more sense to just stop fighting and let it be.
There are so many millions of people out there in the world, who do just that. They get a job that they’re relatively okay at, one that pays the bills and puts the roof over their heads. They make their car payments, are able to put food on the table and a 24 pack of Budweiser in the fridge. They go to work, they come home, they watch TV, and then they spend the rest of their lives waking up and doing that over and over again. And they’re perfectly content doing that.
Sometimes, I wish that was me.
I am exhausted, but I still have some fight left. I’m still willing to keep working toward, to borrow a phrase from Tolkien, “ a rumor of a harbor guessed by faith.”
Being a writer has taught me more about faith than being a Christian ever did.
It’s nonsense to believe that any of my passions will bear any fruit: that the writing, the acting, the music, any of it, any of the things that I enjoy doing, any of the things I wanted to make a living doing.
I’m not Richard Rodgers. I’m not Cole Porter. I’m not John Green or Taylor Swift or Amanda Palmer or Shonda Rhimes or J.K. Rowling or David Bowie, or Shakespeare or Maggie Smith or Lin Manuel Miranda, or any of the amazing people that I admire.
I don’t get to have that life; the kind of life where effort and hard work, coupled with talent and luck and connections lead to a creative payoff. If that was going to happen, I’d already have some kind of sign.
I have enough past data to extrapolate my forward trajectory and, like I said: it’s all downhill from here.
But such is faith. I’ll keep trying, for now. Even trying doesn’t make any sense.