Met up with my friend Daniel Polansky the other day. Our meetings usually involve a.) drinking and b.) bitching about one thing or another, but I guess I must have tipped the gripe scale even by our standards, because he turned a tipsy eye my way and said: “Spin in the other direction, Myke. We are the stories we tell ourselves.”
We laughed and drank, and to be honest, I forgot what the hell we did after that, most likely because of the drinking.
But the thought stuck with me. Because the truth is the story that I tell myself most of the time is one of uncertainty, and loss, and defeat. When friends call me on this, I’ll trot out the Defensive Pessimism (it’s a real cognitive strategy, folks) flag, or cover up with “Ah, it’s just griping, it doesn’t actually effect anything.”
Except, you know, when it does.
Writing is the dream of my heart. It’s the only thing I’ve truly wanted to really succeed at. Sure, I love my military career, and I enjoy my service in law enforcement, but the truth is that if I had to give them up to further my writing career, I would do it in a skinny minute.
Keep in mind that I don’t want to be my own publisher. I don’t have time for that shit. I don’t want to kickstart and copyedit and drop-ship and design my own covers. I want to write the best book I can, and then have a large corporation take 85% of my profits in exchange for handling absolutely everything else. And it’s a seriously tough time if that old-school, traditional, New York house style publishing road is the one you want to tread. Consolidation, layoffs, brick and mortar stores closing daily. Publishers acquire more and more selectively. Sales forces take out fewer titles. Stores surrender more and more floor space to toys and games. Article after article is published lamenting the death of writing as a viable way to make a living. Success seems so capricious. I have always clung mightily to the idea that cream rises to the top, that GOOD books will eventually find their audience and great success. The holes in this idea are proven again and again and again. Kim Kardashian’s book of selfies. 50 Shades of Gray (yes, I read it). The godawful Left Behind series. Blockbusters, all.
You ever read The Life of Pi? (I’m about to spoil it here). The book is ostensibly exploring the protagonist’s commitment to religion, despite his losing his entire family in a shipwreck when he was a small boy. He tells a wild story about surviving the shipwreck in a lifeboat filled with zoo animals (most notably, a savage tiger, who he eventually befriends). When he’s finally rescued, investigators suss out the truth: the animals are stand-ins for his mother and the ship’s surviving crew, who were actually with him in the lifeboat, and who all died horribly before his eyes.
After hearing both stories, the investigators press him to fess up and commit to which one is true. The protagonist answers that either way, the facts don’t change. He was shipwrecked, he suffered, he lost his family, and he was rescued. So, which story do they like better?
The one with the animals, one of the investigators answers.
“And so it goes with God,” the protagonist says.
We are the stories we tell ourselves.
Writing is HARD. The odds tend strongly toward failure. You can never rest on your laurels. The industry is in turmoil. It’s a tough row to hoe, and it’s not going to get any better. But if you want to be a writer, you have to write. Those facts won’t ever change. You can’t control the industry. You can’t control the readers. You can’t control the economy. You can’t control the capriciousness of what sells and what doesn’t. You can only control the work. You can only cling to the belief that if you write an amazing book, it will find success.
Are you an artist relishing the chance the stretch your limits and make great art that reaches people?
Or are you an idiot wasting your time scrabbling at the keyboard while the industry dies around you?
Are you a bold artist, or are you kidding yourself?
Whichever narrative you believe, the facts don’t change. The work doesn’t change. The odds are just as long, the slog just as hard.
So, tell me, which story do you like better?
Pessimism is at best, self-agonizing and at worst, self-sabotage. There are worthy projects I would have thrown in the trunk if I’d told myself the wrong story. There are skills I wouldn’t have bothered to learn, people I wouldn’t have bothered to meet, angles I wouldn’t have bothered to try.
You can’t change the landscape, but you can give yourself some peace, and maybe the will to keep going.
We are the stories we tell ourselves.
Tell yourself a better one.