There is no That

By June 22, 2013Comms

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.

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Author Myke Cole

Myke Cole is an American writer of history and fantasy who leverages a lifetime in military, law enforcement and intelligence service to take you to battlefields, real and imagined.

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Join the discussion 39 Comments

  • Jonathon Side says:

    The first part, about being sure there’s a party going on and all? I can relate to that. I feel that. But I’ve been following some writers on Twitter for a while, and I know they’re not living a Hollywood party, it’s not a glamourous thing. But still, they go to events, they host things like the recent Writing Excuses Retreat, and still I think, wow, I wish I was there. With people who _know_, who understand, who might actually listen to my crackpot ramblings about storytelling and fantasy, and who may even have their own thoughts to share.

    Maybe one day. If I ever write something.

    • Warpworld says:

      Jonathon, those writers you see on Twitter felt their own “Wow, I wish I was there”, when they were starting out. I guarantee it. In fact, I bet many of them never imagined they would ever be “there”. They just worked their tails off and slowly, page by page, they got there. Luck will always be an element of success but luck means nothing without (a lot of) hard work and perseverance.

      And you don’t have to be a big name author to find those people who understand you. You’ll find them anywhere that writers gather. Maybe it’s time to start writing?

      Also – another fantastic post, Myke.

  • YasmineGalenorn says:

    Brilliant. And spot on. There are SO many things I wish I had known before I got published. Reality checks are damned good–handholding won’t cushion the reality when it hits. But being prepared, well, that does wonders. 🙂

  • Kelly Palmer says:

    I love this. I haven’t published yet, hell I haven’t even finished my first manuscript, but I understand this. There is that illusion…that thought that one day the slaving away into the wee hours of the morning will be over and you’ll be at a fabulous party with other intellectual people talking about fascinating things. But the truth is, I now see, that the work never goes away. If you’re doing this for fame and parties, then you’re in the wrong line of work. You write, or paint, or act, or create in general, because there is something inside you that has to get out. If it doesn’t it will destroy you, if only in that you will never truly whole until you complete it.

    Thank you for writing this.

  • Michael Coorlim says:

    The closest I can think of to That are the networking parties. Last night I went to a screening of a film, then spend hours drinking, talking, laughing, and swapping anecdotes with the director, cast, crew and influential members of Chicago’s film and theater scene.

    There was a big part of me that hadn’t wanted to go. Yeah, I wanted to be working, but writing is so much more than working. Most of the time the opportunity cost for these other activities is too high, Most of the time you ARE better off writing, but I’m not just swapping stories, I’m collecting characters and scenes for potential books, and my work in progress is continually on the back-burner of my mind.

    A writer is never truly not working.

    On top of that it takes effort to maintain a healthy work/life balance. I’m a workaholic when it comes to my writing. It’s my drug. And like any addict, I react poorly when interrupted, lashing out and declining any invitations that take me away from my keyboard. And that’s not healthy. So I make myself make the time to get out, to get away, to refresh and recharge.

    To live. That’s the one thing that makes me the writer I am; the life I’ve lived. If I stop living I stop growing, as a writer, and as a human being.

    So find That. Or make That. because there are slices of it that make you a better writer.

  • John Anealio says:

    I never really thought about it in terms of going to parties, but I have thought about doing this to gain respect from my peers and to rise up the mythological ladder of success. What I’ve been thinking about lately, is that it’s never enough. It’s never enough respect, either from the people who already respect you, or the people who you desperately want to respect you. It’s never enough success. You want to sell more, perform at bigger venues, land bigger opening spots, etc.

    I’ve been working pretty hard to change this default way of thinking for myself and just focus on enjoying the work. Before I had any success, that’s what I did and I was happy about it.

    We can’t really control the level of success/respect that we achieve. And that can make us pretty miserable. But we can control how we do our work and the quality of it. That’s what will ultimately fulfill us. [At least I hope:-)]

  • debsiobhan says:

    I’m not a writer and have no ambition to be one. I think this feeling is transcendent to any profession and is simply part of the human experience. It’s about belonging.

  • Kameron Hurley says:

    I published a book, and then a series, and then won some awards, and found out I still felt like a failure because I didn’t sell “enough,” didn’t make “enough” money or didn’t win “enough.” So I changed my goals from “publishing a book/making a living writing” (because I do both, really) to “write a better book than the last one.”

    The feeling still rears its head sometimes, even though I’m much happier now. My third book was my best book, but sold the least. It’s hard to be OK with that, even knowing I achieved my personal goal of writing a better book than the one before.

    You have to make your own version of success in this biz, one you have some control over, or you’ll go nuts.

  • Chloe Neill says:

    Thank you so much for sharing this–and for being honest about the the brutal fact that sometime writing does not feel good. Fantastic to hear there’s a light on the other side. 🙂

  • Bryan Roberts says:

    This is a great post and something I think I’ll print out and put by my desk. It echoes what has been said by Stephen Pressman and his “War of Art.” If you’re not familiar with it, you should be. Thanks for the reminder and the pep talk. And yes, now I have to go pick up your book. 😉

    Keep slogging.

  • Philip Harris says:

    This is a great post and it came at the perfect time for me. I’m going to have to add this to my list of “things to read regularly”. Thank you.

  • Eric Christensen says:

    This is a common theme on the Nerdist podcast: the idea that happiness/satisfaction/being-comfortable-in-your-own-skin is necessary before fame and fortune. Otherwise, people chase fame and fortune, mistakenly believing it will fill that hole inside them. And when they make it big, and the hole is still there, well, that’s when bad things happen.

  • AC Leming says:

    You speak the truth so eloquently. Keep it up. And give yourself a break.

  • Lynda Hilburn says:

    Wonderful post. Thank you for writing it. I see myself in your words, except I’m still at the “I hate writing. I love having written” point. It’s good to know it’s all still in process.

  • I never really thought about writing for fame or acknowledgment, for me it was about having a voice. When I went deaf, I truly believed not only had the world became silent, I had too. When I write I’m not deaf, I can hear and be whatever I choose through words. One of these days I’ll actually make it into something more, because in the end “that” grind and those words have a voice like no other.

  • John Pitts says:

    Thanks, Myke. I think this is something you have to experience to understand. I believe we are told this by those who came before, but the words don’t have the same context until you climb that first event horizon and discover that what you thought was a mountain is really the foothills and the mountains will take you a lifetime of work to scale.

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