The Ages of Writing

I think we all begin writing in an Age of Innocence, that period of time when you’re just discovering something fascinating and new, falling in love, if you like, writing for the rush of joy and of adrenaline when something – a phrase, a paragraph, a poem, a story – actually comes together in something resembling perfection at least in your eyes – or, if nothing else, something that’s coherent and consistent and that you wouldn’t be inclined to shove under your bed if anyone ever walked in on you doing it unawares. Something that you have the first basic inkling that you might, one day, become very proud of.

This Age comes in a series of levels and you get the gamut.

At one extreme are those who basically write for themselves alone, or perhaps a few very close friends or family members, and are perfectly happy with that.

At the other extreme are people who begin to feel an itch of wanting something else, something MORE, something *OTHER*, who begin to realize that all those books they so love reading have actually been produced by people not so very much unlike themselves, and start to wonder just how one gets to be one of those people. In other words, the first tiny tingling idea of the possibility of publication.

There’s a threshold. You inch up to it, sometimes you back up to it, often you hover at it for a long, long, long time – but if you’re the kind of writer who keeps on writing and who wants to be read, you slowly realize that you are in the nursery, that there are pretty pictures on your walls, that everything in the room that you’re in is safe and padded and pink and gentle and geared not to hurt you – but that across that threshold, outside that door, there is a world that is at once far more dangerous and deadly – where the games are real and you REALLY die if you die and you don’t get to sleep it off and wake up the next morning ready to try again – where the wounds hurt more… and yet where the joys are more incandescent for the simple reason that they ARE real and unfiltered and raw, where the things that are wonderful are the real things and not the toys, where you sink your hands to the elbows in the stuff of LIFE and begin to feel the texture of it, nubby and gritty and fragile like butterfly wings and sharp like broken coral and soft like moss on the south-facing side of trees – and there are mirrors which don’t belong back in the fairy tales, but which reflect back nothing except unadulterated truth.

And you stumble across that threshold, seemingly by accident except that you are aware at some deep fundamental level that you CHOSE to do it, and enter the Age of Achievement.

Not all of us do get here, of course. There are always those who are happy to write, and to continue writing, mostly for themselves and their own private reasons. But sooner or later a lot of us turn our faces like sunflowers to the great glowing sun that is Publication.

Some of it is driven by social and professional pressure, of course – the perennial question addressed to writers at parties, after they dare to avow the fact that they WRITE – is, “Oh, anything I would have read?” (Subtext – “Are you PUBLISHED?”… because, after all, if you aren’t published who are you kidding, right?…)

So – once you make the decision to submit your work to markets and to brave the chill winds of rejection that blow across the Publication Sea, you’ve kind of made another kind of covenant with your writing. It’s different from what it used to be in the Age of Innocence, when the only person you really had to please was yourself. Now, you’ve got other cyphers in that equation. You have the editors to whom you are trying to sell your work. You have the potential agents whom you are trying to lure into representing you to a higher echelon of editors to whom you are trying to sell your work.

And once you’ve cleared all those hurdles – and A LOT of us take a long time to do it – you have the last, the greatest, of them all. Readership. Sales. Marketing. And the realization that in too many ways the quality of your work – no matter how stellar your words are – plays second fiddle to the Grand Master of them all, and that’s the bottom line.

How many people are actually buying and reading your book? How many awards have you won lately? How many reviews did you get in places that MATTER, and how good were they? Do you have another contract in hand? WILL you, if your first book is deemed not to have done well enough for the bean pushers to make the appropriate sacrifice to the Grand Master Bottom Line?

This is where many authors go demented, poring over Amazon rankings and trying to figure out if anybody bought their book that day, scratching frantically for what works in terms of author-produced publicity and marketing efforts (“Do I have bookmarks made? Do I take out that ad in that genre publication? Do I talk to that person or this person to ask for a blurb of is that too pushy? Do I ask for an interview from that person or this person or do I sit back like a good little writer and wait for someone to ask ME? Do I do a performing seal act at conventions or conferences and make enough of an impression of being fun and zany and, hey, I’m The Man – hoping that this will stay registered on people’s minds long enough to remember my name when they next enter a bookstore – or do I cultivate a sensitive, polite, erudite, poised and elegant mien and hope that THIS has the same effect? What do I wear? What do I say? Yes, I keep hearing that word of mouth sells books – but just HOW does one get Neil Gaiman to word-of-mouth my book….?”)

It has repercussions in unexpected ways. You are now a writer with some experience, and this actually does make a difference because you can judge more accurately the level of your own work and know whether it’s good or not as compared to what’s out there. However, you are now also aware that there is so much out there, and you have to compete with an unconscionable amount of other people, all of whom are as good as if not better than you are.

The net result can be a complete grinding to a halt while you navel gaze and wonder if you really are good enough for this game, if you can live this life and still keep the stories alive in your head – and you find yourself missing that Age of Innocence, viscerally, the time that the stories were just yours and you didn’t have to worry about where the damn thing slotted in on the Barnes and Noble sales ranks or if you would be picked as the Daring New Voice of your generation.

You start wondering about what’s selling and what isn’t, whether your stories are merely adequate or really special, whether you’re EVER going to be “cutting edge”, and just what the hell does “cutting edge” mean anyway, and do you WANT to be cutting edge in the first place, and if you don’t does that make you a worse writer somehow? None of these questions mattered in the Age of Innocence. But that was a pure age, untainted by the world. You are now measured by other yardsticks. And sometimes it hurts, oh yessss, my preciousssss, it hurts bad.

But you live the life. And you learn. And you trudge the storytellers’ road carrying your life and your stories in a duffel bag, and sometimes you sit down with a fellow traveler or three at a roadside hostelry or you share a companionable fire in the wild woods where the wolves howl, and you dip into your duffel and the other guys dip into theirs and you exchange treasures along the way and you are all richer for it.

But eventually the road ends. And you come to a house which is actually two houses, sitting on the edge of two dimensions, with a door that can open into either one.

This is the Age of Vindication or the Age of Oblivion, depending on which door is open at the time.

In the house of the Age of Vindication there are lots of altars to lots of writers and the lamps are kept burning brightly – every time someone reads your words and sighs or smiles, the flame gets a little brighter, a little higher. There are offerings – laughter and tears, the occasional aged fan letter curling at the corners which tells a small story of how your words touched someone’s world, changed someone’s life, just a little. A few shekels to the side, the riches you accumulated over your writerly lifetime. Behind each altar, a shelf, and the light glistens on the spines of Books Eternal – words that were born in your mind and your heart and found homes in other people’s, reinterpreted, reinvented, re-envisioned through different eyes, but tagged with your name and your legacy forever more.

In the house of the Age of Oblivion, the altars are cold and dark, their gods or spirits or avatars gone, dead or asleep, forgotten. There is dust lying thick on what offerings there had once been, and there are cold ashes everywhere, and if there are books on the shelves behind these shadowed places they remain invisible, unseen, vanished.

And yet it IS the same house. And like Schroedinger’s cats, an altar can live in both at the same time – and it depends on the precise timing of when a visitor steps through the door as to which aspect they will see. Dead altars are forever being swept clean and new lamps lit to cast a pool of warm living light onto those books in the back that, yes, have always been there; the candles on the living altars go out all the time, snuffed out in passing drafts of cold indifference, their books cast into shadow. Today one, tomorrow the other, the next day perhaps the first again. You can’t tell. You don’t know. And there is no way to predict in advance.

This is the price you pay, in the end. The fact that you are doing this anyway, living this life anyway, without knowing where the road will end for you. Because, in the end… there is only one true light that matters, and you took that with you, long, long ago, when you first stepped over the threshold of the room where you spent the Age of Innocence. That tiny candle whose flame you nurtured and protected all through the years.

The flame that says, I Am Writer. I Believe.

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