Writers write: that’s what we do

I don’t know whether writing is an addiction, a calling, or just one job out of the many we could have chosen. The down side to writing novels is that if one doesn’t become famous or sort of famous, there’s no money in it. I often wish I’d become a freelance writer with a lot of magazine and newspaper writing opportunities.

I’d be earning a living with my words even though it wouldn’t be James Patterson, Dan Brown or Nora Roberts kind of money. Since I write contemporary fantasy and magical realism, it’s a paradox that the money I did make from writing came from writing computer documentation and help files. I can be intensely logical when I want to, so my user manuals were always well thought of.

The thing is, being intensely logical isn’t the real me. In fact, though I often rely on it, I’m not a fan of logic because I think it gives us an inaccurate picture of the world. While I was working on my novel-in-progress today, I thought of all this.  I thought, “why do writers have to write” and “There must be another occupation that pays better.”

Like being a grave digger, maybe.

I thank the writing gods and the muses that I don’t want to write poetry. Good Lord, there’s a thankless task, more thankless than writing novels. I admire poetry, but really, I can’t write it and don’t ever buy books and magazines filled with it. I grieve for the poets.

But I also mourn the fact that writing novels is partly skill and craft and partly a popularity contest. If your name is James Patterson or John Grisham, you make money no matter what you do. Everyone else is ignored by reviewers and bookstores and don’t really want to tell friends they write novels because they’ll say they’ve never heard of them.

Early on, I wanted to work for the railroads. That would have been a much safer choice. I like trains, I really do. I was once a volunteer at a railway museum. Most of us there were jealous of the people who worked for Amtrak or the freight railroads. Whether they loved their jobs or not, they made a living wage. Writers don’t. But we keep writing because, in many ways, writing is not only a lot of fun, it’s a career we can’t do without.

So, maybe writing is an addiction.

But, it’s a fun addition once you realize there’s not going to be any money in it anymore than few of those who play little league baseball are going to end up playing for a major league team and being selected for the All Star Game.

If you’re an aspiring writer, I know this post doesn’t sound very encouraging. As Patti Smith acknowledged in M Train, writers are bums.  So, it’s best to know that’s the reality of the biz at the outset.

–Malcolm

 

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The time at the tone is: NOW

“If I write in the present yet digress, is that real time? Real time, I reasoned, cannot be divided into sections like numbers of the face of a clock. If I write about the past as I simultaneously dwell in the present, am I still in real time. Perhaps there is no past or future, only the perpetual present that contains this trinity of memory.”

– Patti Smith in “M Train”

Writers are seldom in real time. We’re writing about yesterday or years ago and we’re writing about tomorrow and aeons into the future, creating time machines with words. If I’m sitting in a room in the purported here and now and you walk in and sit down in a vacant chair, you may soon observe that I’m not really there; I’ve gone deep into the past where time and space are so real that I can taste her breath in my mouth while noticing that the color of her lipstick matches the color of the dawn’s “sailor take warning sky.”

Patti Smith follows–figuratively speaking in her own time–the gurus who postulate an “eternal now.” Interesting, perhaps true, but that concept doesn’t help us get to work on time or remember when to feed the cats. Time used to be all mixed up before the railroads created time zones at high noon on November 8, 1883. Before that, time was a roll-your-own approximation of the sun, moon, stars and custom. But, you cannot run a railroad–other than the Polar Express–through roll your own or the eternal now.

As the New York Times said looking back at the date and time in 1983, “Some citizens grumbled about ‘railroad tyranny’ and tampering with ‘God’s time.’ The Mayor of Bangor, Me., deplored the change as an ‘attempt to change the immutable laws of God Almighty.’ The Indiana Sentinel lamented, ‘The sun is no longer boss of the job.'”

I’m reminded of the verse in Isaac Watts’s old hymn “Our God, Our Help in Ages Past”:

A thousand ages in Thy sight
Are like an evening gone,
Short as the watch that ends the night
Before the rising sun.

That verse made quite an impression on me the first time I sang it in church. I felt small, awash in an almost-timeless universe, awash in the power of my own thoughts and words to take me away from the “now”–as defined by the railroads–into fluid moments so far away most people have forgotten them or not yet imagined them.

When a writer writes, the time is always now or, if not now, whatever we say it is. From time to time, I ask people, “Is it yesterday yet?” Nobody seems to know. They haven’t yet noticed that the right creative thought and/or the well written book will take them into yesterday with or without clocks and time zones.

I guess people notice the eternal now when they read and become lost in the story. Writers are always lost in the story, and I think that’s a blessing even though it plays hell with temporal appointments ruled by clocks.

1960 movie poster

When I read H. G. Wells’ novel The Time Machine, I thought what a wonderful invention that would be, this long before “Star Trek” invented the “temporal prime directive” stating that the people in our time couldn’t tamper with the people in another time.  Science fiction writers love playing with the notion that if a person simply strolls through the past, his/her presence there might change the world. What would happen to you if you accidentally killed your great great grandfather?

If there really is an eternal now, then the answer to that question is probably “nothing.” For years, writers have wondered if a time machine might make it possible to “go back” and save President Lincoln. Some say that, had he lived, reconstruction wouldn’t have become the hellish mess that it was. A character in Stephen King’s 11/22/63 figures out how to return to Dallas on the date in question and save President Kennedy. The world resulting from that was a horrible mess, darker than the dark ages. As it turns out, playing God is dangerous because we don’t know what God knows in the “evening gone” since Lincoln and Kennedy were shot.”

Yet, when we write, we are playing God. Sometimes I wonder if our play is confined to the pages of our novels. Perhaps our stories have impacts we can’t imagine and will never know. Best we can do is hope that our muses keep us on the straight and narrow so that we always write the right thing when the time is right.

–Malcolm

Malcolm R. Campbell is the author of magical realism and contemporary fantasy novels, a fact that shouldn’t surprise you after reading this post.