Tired and Down and Out

Tired? Me, too!

It seems that I’m tired all the time. I’ve noticed a small but significant number of posts recently from people saying that they’re stepping away from genre or from writing. This may be something that happens all the time but was just not something of which I was aware. But, just like when you hear a new word or an unusual name for a baby, all of a sudden you start seeing/hearing it everywhere.

You know where this is going, right?

I’ve felt worn down a lot lately. I’ve become tired of writing and editing in general and more specifically of the genre field for the better part of six months now.  It’s to the point where I do not enjoy reading genre and I barely enjoy watching genre. At least with watching it’s something I can do with my family so that’s still fun.

I haven’t gotten tired of reading genre to my kids. It’s fun to experience books again through their eyes.

But I rarely feel like writing. Once I get started I’m good and ideas flow on to the page. But it takes a lot of doing to get myself in the chair.

What happened?

I wrote a fair amount in genre in 2014 and 2015. I started using Trello to keep track of ideas and my progress as a writer. I buckled down on writing and got some words on the page. In August of 2014 I wrote six short stories, outlined the first book of a quartet and the synopses of the other three books in the quartet. Over the rest of the year I made good progress on a novel. NaNoWriMo helped me get a nice chunk of the novel on the page.

I attended my first writer’s workshop last summer so leading up to it I was finishing up my novel (it didn’t happen) and reading/editing my co-attendees manuscripts (happened to some degree but not fully). I continued to get short story ideas down and revised a few stories. I bought some software specifically geared towards writing and cleared my desk of clutter and made it a clean work space for writing.

I was energized coming out of the workshop but I knew that my novel needed major revisions. The main protagonist and antagonist didn’t have clear motivations, there was a lack of tension, and some of the major plot points were muddy and unclear. The good thing was I had a ton of great ideas from the workshop that would help these issues. The bad thing was I had too many ideas to know where to start.

I was overwhelmed. Since I had no deadline other than something arbitrary I set for myself I decided to set the novel aside. I needed a break from it. I continued to roll the big ideas around in my head, but I wasn’t making any real progress on them.

NaNoWriMo rolled around again so I dusted off a manuscript that was more than ten years old and started bashing it into shape. It is not genre. It’s two friends on a road trip. It’s very personal. I doubt that I’ll ever share it with anyone. So why am I writing it? I’m hoping to have that figured out by the time I finish it.

What does that even mean?

Who knows? Writing this book is very therapeutic. It doesn’t feel very complicated—we’re not talking David Foster Wallace—but I find that it suits me. I continue to have short fiction ideas—even revisions to existing short stories—so I open Trello and input my thoughts. I can’t bring myself to open a document to work on a story, but why lose the idea?

Mostly though, I’m just tired. I open Twitter and just feel this crushing weight as I scroll through what people are saying. Facebook is alternately angry and cats; sometimes angry cats. There’s a reason I’ve been reading about Mr. Rogers a lot lately. I’d given serious thought to deleting my social media accounts but there’s a piece of that I need for work and there’s another piece that’s people I want to stay in touch with so I kept it.

I didn’t write a post about my feelings because I’m not looking for sympathy but that’s what such a post would evoke in people. And then I saw more and more people talking about how they were tired of genre or writing or some such thing that they used to be passionate about. So I decided I wasn’t wrong in what I was thinking and that maybe I should share my thoughts.

So what now?

I’m keeping up with genre at a minimum. I’m picking up novels and short-story collections from authors I like. I’m not reading them. I can’t motivate myself to do so. I listen to a fair amount of short-fiction podcasts and I really enjoy those. I also devour literary fiction these days. I can’t get enough of it.

Maybe it’s just a change of pace. If I ate pizza at every meal I’d eventually get sick of it and want something, anything, else.

I haven’t gone to a convention since World Fantasy in 2014. (I don’t count the writing workshop or my annual day trip to Wiscon; if I don’t stay overnight it’s not like I’m at the convention) Before that I was attending at least two conventions a year if not four or more. That’s certainly given me a chance to view the field from a distance at the same time that it creates some distance between me and the field.

It’s not a bad thing. While I miss the people a lot I do not miss conventions.

I need to finish my road trip novel. I have to know that I can finish a novel. No matter how bad it is.

After that? Who knows, maybe some more poems!

My personal life

You may notice that I don’t talk a lot about my personal life here. Sure I talk about the fact that I have two kids, but I rarely mention my job or other things about my life. I have a steady, well-paying job that I love. I know that a lot of people aren’t that lucky. I work with a lot of amazing people. That plays a lot into my current feelings. There’s a big part of me that just wants to drop everything else and focus on my job.

Not that there aren’t issues with work. It’s a job. There’s going to be ups and downs. Right now one of my co-workers is out for an extended period of time so I’ve picked up his work in addition to mine. We’ve had a series of IT issues (which is my responsibility) that have been going on for months.

Even with all that this is the best job I’ve ever had.

My wife accepted a full-time teaching gig this past fall which meant that everyone in the house had to pitch in considerably more on maintaining the household. We all have less time together now than we used to but that’s the way life goes. Weekends tend to be running errands which isn’t always fun but you need food in the house.

We also recently listed our house for sale which adds a weird type of stress while you keep your house spotless and hope that some stranger likes it enough to buy it. You know, because there wasn’t enough other stuff going on.

It all adds up. It adds up mostly to me being tired and not motivated to do more than turn on Sportscenter and fall asleep waiting for highlights for my teams.

The Life of a Writer is Not an Easy One

James DeVita as the writer Trigorin; Laura Rook as the aspiring actress Nina
(c) 2014 American Players Theatre; Laura Rook and James DeVita

A few summers ago I was finally able to cross off seeing a Chekhov play from my bucket list. He’s a writer I want to know more about and I’d missed some earlier chances to see his work on stage. I was thrilled to get the chance to see The Seagull at the American Players Theatre (APT). The company at APT is as good as any you’ll see anywhere (Terry Teachout of the Wall Street Journal calls it “the finest classical repertory company in the U.S.”). I’m woefully under-read as far as Russian literature is concerned so I had no idea what the play was about*. It’s not the first time I’ve seen a play at APT without knowing anything about it and it won’t be the last. But it was the first time a play spoke so directly to me about the plight of being a writer and of the creative process.

At its core, The Seagull is the story of a young man—Konstantin—trying to live up to his famous actress mother—Arkadina. His extremely critical mother wants him to be an actor but he wants to be a writer. Throughout the play people ignore him and his work because they’d rather talk about/be around his mother instead. They also don’t understand the risks he takes as a writer trying to invent a new type of play. This takes the natural inclination of the writer to lambaste their own work and exacerbates it to the point of being suicidal. When you think it can’t get worse, his mother shows up with her new lover—the famous writer Trigorin.

Every character in the play struggles with unrequited love. You really get to see the full force of Chekhov’s talents as a writer in this play. He often has the characters speak around the issue at hand. It’s maddening but in an compelling way that pulls you through each act waiting for things to resolve. My favorite part of the play, the part that made me sit straight in my seat, was in Act II. It’s when Konstantin’s love interest Nina—who is infatuated with Trigorin—tries to have a conversation with the talented writer only to have him rebuke her with how arduous his life truly is:

Nina.

Your life is beautiful.

Trigorin.

I see nothing especially lovely about it. [He looks at his watch] Excuse me, I must go at once, and begin writing again. I am in a hurry. [He laughs] You have stepped on my pet corn, as they say, and I am getting excited, and a little cross. Let us discuss this bright and beautiful life of mine, though. [After a few moments’ thought] Violent obsessions sometimes lay hold of a man: he may, for instance, think day and night of nothing but the moon. I have such a moon. Day and night I am held in the grip of one besetting thought, to write, write, write! Hardly have I finished one book than something urges me to write another, and then a third, and then a fourth—I write ceaselessly. I am, as it were, on a treadmill. I hurry for ever from one story to another, and can’t help myself. Do you see anything bright and beautiful in that? Oh, it is a wild life! Even now, thrilled as I am by talking to you, I do not forget for an instant that an unfinished story is awaiting me. My eye falls on that cloud there, which has the shape of a grand piano; I instantly make a mental note that I must remember to mention in my story a cloud floating by that looked like a grand piano. I smell heliotrope; I mutter to myself: a sickly smell, the colour worn by widows; I must remember that in writing my next description of a summer evening. I catch an idea in every sentence of yours or of my own, and hasten to lock all these treasures in my literary store-room, thinking that some day they may be useful to me. As soon as I stop working I rush off to the theatre or go fishing, in the hope that I may find oblivion there, but no! Some new subject for a story is sure to come rolling through my brain like an iron cannonball. I hear my desk calling, and have to go back to it and begin to write, write, write, once more. And so it goes for everlasting. I cannot escape myself, though I feel that I am consuming my life. To prepare the honey I feed to unknown crowds, I am doomed to brush the bloom from my dearest flowers, to tear them from their stems, and trample the roots that bore them under foot. Am I not a madman? Should I not be treated by those who know me as one mentally diseased? Yet it is always the same, same old story, till I begin to think that all this praise and admiration must be a deception, that I am being hoodwinked because they know I am crazy, and I sometimes tremble lest I should be grabbed from behind and whisked off to a lunatic asylum. The best years of my youth were made one continual agony for me by my writing. A young author, especially if at first he does not make a success, feels clumsy, ill-at-ease, and superfluous in the world. His nerves are all on edge and stretched to the point of breaking; he is irresistibly attracted to literary and artistic people, and hovers about them unknown and unnoticed, fearing to look them bravely in the eye, like a man with a passion for gambling, whose money is all gone. I did not know my readers, but for some reason I imagined they were distrustful and unfriendly; I was mortally afraid of the public, and when my first play appeared, it seemed to me as if all the dark eyes in the audience were looking at it with enmity, and all the blue ones with cold indifference. Oh, how terrible it was! What agony!

I think this monologue captures that sense of how the writer is constantly trying to capture the world around him, trying to remember all the allusions he sees so that they can be used later. It makes you distracted in conversation and sometimes useless for activity. I never have such good thoughts about story as I do when I’m doing anything but writing. The trick is getting from your thoughts to the page with enough time to remember what you thought. For all his success it almost seems a burden to Trigorin. But he wouldn’t choose any other life:

Nina.

But don’t your inspiration and the act of creation give you moments of lofty happiness?

Trigorin.

Yes. Writing is a pleasure to me, and so is reading the proofs, but no sooner does a book leave the press than it becomes odious to me; it is not what I meant it to be; I made a mistake to write it at all; I am provoked and discouraged. Then the public reads it and says: “Yes, it is clever and pretty, but not nearly as good as Tolstoi,” or “It is a lovely thing, but not as good as Turgenieff’s ‘Fathers and Sons,’ ” and so it will always be. To my dying day I shall hear people say: “Clever and pretty; clever and pretty,” and nothing more; and when I am gone, those that knew me will say as they pass my grave: “Here lies Trigorin, a clever writer, but he was not as good as Turgenieff.”

And there it is. The self doubt. No matter how famous or successful or talented you are there is always that piece of your mind that thinks (knows?) you could be better. That what you’ve done isn’t good enough. That someone else is better. But there’s a compulsion to write and create—as Chekhov writes, “Hardly have I finished one book than something urges me to write another, and then a third, and then a fourth”—so you keep on no matter what your brain thinks because at the same time you can’t stop yourself.

If you haven’t read The Seagull, you should. The whole play is about creativity and struggle and love and family. So much wonderful stuff. If you get the chance to see it, even better.


* I know, it’s odd to have something on my bucket list that I don’t know anything about, but that’s the way I roll. That’s why it’s bucket-y, right? There’s no point putting things I’ve already done/experienced on my bucket list, is there? For what it’s worth, this summer I was able to check off seeing a Tennessee Williams play from my bucket list and I didn’t know much about his oeuvre going in either.