Sometimes, two vastly different things can converge in your mind to bring you to one idea. It happened to me this past weekend.
I live in Houston, born and bred here. Out in west Houston, there is a reservoir. It's part of George H. W. Bush park. An earthen dam borders the east side of the park and it runs along one of the major north/south roads in Houston. The dam is not large but it is large enough to keep the park hidden from the passing cars and the drivers from the park visitors. That is to say, a passing motorist might look at the hill and wonder what's on the other side. To find out, you have to park, get out, and walk up the dam and look over.
I did that on Sunday, arguably for the first time in my life (or, at least, my adult life). I was surprised. Intellectually, I knew what was probably on the other side: trees, water, grass. But I never really knew for sure. I took my bike and wove in and around the trails. A couple of large ponds allow us city folk to practice our casting, couples can sit on benches and just be together, and birds are everywhere. I saw cranes and woodpeckers to name but two. There are a few places, deep amid the leafless trees where the sounds of traffic can still be heard but not seen. The sky was cloudless and the only thing above me was air and space.
What does all this have to do with writing? Everything, really. As I peddled up the dam, it was like a movie, with the reveal slowing expanding before my eyes. Before yesterday, I never knew what was over the dam. It took me getting out of my car, on my bike, and me peddling up and over to know what was there. One of my first thoughts was "How come I've never been here before?"
I’ve been pondering if the books I like to read are really the books I like to write. Still working on that answer. But one of the things I always think about is the business aspect of it. Not to disparage romance novels (aren’t they always the butt of jokes?) but a friend of mine and I agreed once that if we could make a living writing romance novels, we’d do it in a heartbeat. We love the writing life.
There’s a part of me that wants to write only those books I know has a good chance at selling: romance novels, easy-going mysteries, taut thrillers. But I read hard-boiled stuff, noir novels, and a rediscovered love of SF. Heck, I’ve even written my first western short story and I think it turned out okay. It was good enough that I, as the writer and first reader, want to know more. But it's all become discombobulated in my head. There is so much that I want to write that I find myself paralyzed about where to go first. (This is true of my current to-read stack but that's another blog entirely.)
Last thread before I get to the point: I read Dan Simmons’ writings on his blog. Recently, he’s discussed a how-to writing book, James Wood’s How Fiction Works. I have not read any how-to books other than Stephen King’s On Writing. Part of me thinks I can learn a lot by reading and writing and having my work critiqued by my writing group. But in the excerpts Simmons quotes and in my own short reading of Wood’s book, I wonder if there isn’t more I can learn. I don’t want to spend my time reading about how to write. That’s not productive. But I think I can learn from a few how-to books.
One of the things Simmons points out in his latest “Writing Well” essay is just how difficult the craft of writing really is, to say nothing of the business side. He points out some genre cliches that many successful authors use and that I’ve found myself using. Why? Because they’re easy. Simmons’ claim is that many modern readers have become lazy and writers have adjusted to this laziness. The end result is sloppy writing and sloppy reading, the literary equivalent of a eating a candy bar when you’re really hungry. Pretty soon, it’s like you never even ate the candy bar because you’re still hungry.
I’ve always had a clear-eyed acknowledgment of what a writing life would be like. It ain’t all muses and inspiration and stuff. It’s work. I learned that when I wrote my first book. Later, when a friend of mine complained that she got some negative reviews of her book, I would look at her, straight-faced, and say “But they bought the book. Who cares what they think?” Sure, you’d like for them to like the book enough to come back for the next and the next but that’s ultimately out of our control as writers. Basically, I thought, write pablum if the masses want pablum. As long as they buy it, who cares?
After reading Simmons’ essay and a few excerpts from Wood’s book, I stopped and realized something: I care. Why settle if I don’t have to? Whose to say that me or any of my fellow not-yet-published bloggers aren’t the next Dickens, Leonard, or Chabon? No one, other than ourselves. Up until now with my writing, I’ve been like the driver who never gets out of his car to walk up the dam and see what’s on the other side. Why not walk up that hill and see what’s on the other side? Why not strive to put the best on paper and see what comes of it?
What am I really saying? With my writing, I’m going to walk up the hill and see what’s on the other side. Unlike the hill I climbed on Sunday with its nice, smooth paved walkway, I don’t see my writing hill as smooth. It’s rocky, sandy, grassy, and, if it rains, slippery as hell. I’ll fall. I’ll slip. I’ll get muddy and discouraged. But I’m going to keep climbing and I’ll do it with my best work (my take on Dickens or Leonard or Chabon or _____). I'm going to look over the hill and see something I've never seen before.
Those of you still reading might start questioning my sanity: “Why *wouldn’t* I put my best work forward?” Well, if it isn’t called for, why go through the effort? I think I’ve realized that the effort is what makes writing a worthwhile craft. Leonard put forth the effort, Dickens, too, and all the others. How the heck can I stand with them if I don’t do likewise?
I never considered myself great. I’m no Dickens or Leonard or Chabon or _____. But I’ve never tried to be so how the heck do I really know? I don’t.
And I want to find out.