It’s 2130 on a Saturday night, and I’m alone in my apartment, in front of my laptop.
I can’t shake the feeling that there’s some amazing party, filled with fascinating people, somewhere nearby. Artists and intellectuals and adventurers, all mixing and charging the air with stories. I wasn’t invited.
It’s a familiar feeling, one that took root in adolescence and never left me. These are the wages of growing up a nerd. I figured it out for the most part, but there’s always the lingering tracery of social anxiety, echoes of years spent struggling to make friends, to date, to find a rhythm in a world that seemed built to embrace others. Even now, I spend my life with one foot rooted in two very different social circles (the generally conservative realm of military/law enforcement, and the relentlessly maverick culture of speculative fiction), and rarely feel fully at ease in either.
I think it’s that feeling that, at least in part, drove me to write. My subconscious conjured an image of a fabulous party, filled with other writers and publishing types. A place where I could walk in the door to a chorus of cheers, the “Norm” moment, where guard could be let down completely, where there was only shared vocabulary and a fluid ease that would make the jitters go away. There was a social circle that would be the payout for all the rejection and worry and sweat equity I poured into my books. When I talked about it with my brother, I simply described it as “that.” I wanted to have “that.”
All I had to do was get a book deal. I would break out of the world I knew and set up in some secret corner of the social fabric, a backstage pass to the world of writers that I just *knew* was out there, even though I had never seen it before.
Rereading this, it’s ridiculous, embarrassing even. But it’s true. Some part of me believed it, and I’m grateful it did, because it was a powerful motivator to lock on and put down the blood needed to get where I wanted to go.
I have a friend, a former Navy SEAL who later parlayed his singular fearlessness into a social life the likes of which would make Hugh Hefner blush. Once I became a pro writer and moved to New York City, he railed at me to join the party. He held up the fictional character of Hank Moody as his vision of the writing life, was so disappointed that wasn’t what I was doing.
But by then, I was already learning the truth.
There is no party. Not beyond the hour or two at a con or publishing event where you get to show off for a shining moment, bask in the accolades for a few minutes, fan boy gush face to face over someone whose work you admire but never hoped to meet.
And then it’s over, and you’re left with the work.
I met the other pro writers. I met the actors and publishing pros and poets and painters and new media pioneers. I got to see their secret faces, the ones I knew they didn’t show the audiences at panels and during interviews. They looked pretty much the same. Pretty much like mine.
They were busy people, raising children and keeping their home fires burning. They were working and worrying and trying to build a career. The international book tours that looked so glamorous were exhausting treks where they lived on unhealthy restaurant food, got entirely too little sleep and missed their families like crazy.
And there was always the work, hovering over their head like the sword of Damocles. The relentless feeling that no matter what it was you were doing, if it wasn’t writing, then it was slacking.
In the end, I was the same person. I had books to write, I had promotion to do, but nothing else had really changed. I came to slowly realize that the reward for the work was the work itself, the knowledge that it’s a thing well done, a thing that is hard to do. A thing you wanted and strived for and made happen.
I wish someone had said that to the younger me, the aspiring pro, warned him that the magical world of the artist that he’d been picturing wasn’t real. I wish someone had told me that it was the work, that the highs would be brief and bright and over, and then it was the grind.
I wish they had told me, because there will be times when the grind itself must be the thing that drives you. You have to love the effort divorced from the result. It’s a tough concept to wrap your head around, but you need to. I struggle to do it all the time, but when I manage it, it sees me through the inevitable stretches where inspiration is faint and distant, where there is nothing to be done but do your time at the keyboard. I’ve often said that “I hate writing, I love having written,” but the truth is that I’m starting to move past it. Not always, but in fits and starts. There are moments when I’ll be head down in a story and come up for air only the realize that for once I wasn’t thinking about what other people would think of it, I was lost in trying to make it perfect.
And that’s sublime.
Because writing is your job, and this job has a night shift, and a weekend shift. It’s merciless, and your boss is a tyrant. Your customers are fickle, demanding. If you let them down, they will eat you alive.
I wish someone had told me, so now I’m telling you.
It’s the work. That’s all there is. There is no That. The party you imagine is happening. It’s full of gorgeous and fascinating people.
But it’s not the artists. Not the ones who are changing the world with what they create. They’re busy. They’re tucking in their kids, they’re taking the clean dishes out of the washer and stacking them neatly in the cabinet. They’re putting the mail on the counter with a sticky note reminding them to take it to the post office tomorrow.
And then they’re tiptoeing into their offices and firing up their laptops, or heading into their studio and confronting the canvas. It’s Saturday night and it’s late.
And they’re working.