Getting comfortable in your writing shoes
Comfortable doesn’t mean complacent. If you hike or climb mountains, you know that new shoes often hurt and need to be broken in before a major trek. The wrong kind of shoes and the wrong size shoes are often worse because the shoes have to match what you’re doing. The same thing is true of writers, figuratively speaking, because while genres and styles have a lot of things in common, each requires an approach you need to be comfortable with.
Depending on which survey you look at, romance, action/adventure, science fiction and fantasy usually sell the most books. Unfortunately, some of the sub-genres in those groupings aren’t carried on the coattails of the most popular books.
For me, that means magical realism–which is what I write–is down at the 2% or 3% range of sales. Obviously, the the size of a writer’s audience will skew the figures for individual books, though J. K. Rowling discovered that as Snape said to Harry Potter, “fame isn’t everything” affects authors asd well as wizards. (Her fans hated “A Casual Vacancy.)
For me, “comfortable writing shoes” work best with magical realism. They work as poorly for other genres as wearing flip flops or high heels in the world series. To some extent, finding comfortable shoes is part of the journey to being comfortable with oneself. I’ve always wished I could be fluent in multiple language, play a Bach toccata and fugue on a massive pipe organ, water ski all the way across the bay and back without falling off, and knowing how to repair my own cars. After many years of discord about these things, I had to accept that they weren’t me.
I love writing and reading magical realism, but that doesn’t mean I haven’t wished I could turn out a great romance or spy novel from time to time to support my magical realism habit. But I can’t do it even though I have enjoyed many spy and FBI-related novels over the years just as I’ve enjoyed a lot of recordings of Bach over the years. But liking something doesn’t always translate into being good at it–though, it’s a nice start.
The hints and signs about our authentic selves are available for us to see early on, but we either don’t recognize them or actively deny them. Growing up, I spent most of my time out doors or reading about magic. These interests are closely linked in most magical realism. I learned more from nature than I did from school, especially my literature and other English classes. I was a fish out of water in those classes because the approach to writing and the great classics of the written word seemed counterproductive and false to me. I was the worst student in English classes and the most likely to openly defy the teachers.
I had one wonderful writing teacher. He didn’t give us theories, he asked us to write, and then we talked about what worked. This is how most of us learn most of what we know. We try things out. We experiment. Some things fail either because we don’t really like them or aren’t skillful in those areas or are just incompatible with them. Other things work. Finding out why they work is a Nirvana-like experience. You want to shout YES!!!!!!!!!!!!. Learning in this teacher’s class was about the only worthwhile course I had in my English minor in college. In that class, we focused on pure storytelling rather than on an approach better suited to a doctoral dissertation in literary or communications theory.
Like many others, I spent time trying to fit in because when you’re the only one in the class who disagrees with the teacher’s approach, it’s hard not to cave in to the pressure of the rest of the students and the system itself.
Now that I’m not in school–or teaching in one–I don’t have to answer to those who support the system. I can write what I want to write and wear the kinds of shoes and attitudes that fit my chosen genre. I’m comfortable with this now, though I certainly wasn’t comfortable with it in high school and college because I was a rebel when it came to the course syllabus and (as they call them) the expected “learning outcomes.”
I guess it comes down to the fact that I’d rather be happy than rich and I’d rather be comfortable as myself and as a writer than being part of the crowd making the scene at popular parties, bars like the fictional “Cheers,” or being the guy all the girls want to dance with. Life would have been so much easier if I’d figured all this out 40 years ago. So would my writing.
If you’re a writer, you probably know what you love to write even if nobody wants to buy it or Oprah doesn’t call or MGM doesn’t option your novels for movies. If you love writing fiction that catches on with huge numbers of readers, then that’s a mixed blessing. Financially, you’ll be secure, but as Snape said, “fame isn’t everything.” Fame tends to get in a person’s way and keep them from wearing their most comfortable shoes.
Malcolm R. Campbell is the author of the recently released novel “Eulalie and Washerwoman,” a folk magic story set in the Florida Panhandle in the 1950s.
Speaking of shoes, Campbell still wears the climbing boots he bought in the 1960s even though his knees really complain if he tries to climb anything higher than an ant hill.