Tuesday, August 15, 2006

Mission Impossible (and perhaps the best joke ever...)

“A signed first edition.”

Evilkev opened the book and started to read the inscription. “Sandra, the most patient woman in the world. I appreciate all the support. Simon Kernick.” By now, he was laughing. “Boy, you can tell he doesn’t know you because if there’s one word that does not describe my Bear, it’s patient!”

By that point I was smiling too. It’s true. The only ‘patients’ I was born with were the ones in the hospital.

I could blame it on being poor as a kid and always wanting what others had, or on being the baby of the family, always striving to reach the same point my sister was already at, but in truth I’m just an impatient person. In a way, I consider it a good thing. I set goals and work my butt off to achieve them. I’m driven.

SW Vaughn posted something that got me thinking about this a few weeks ago. The crux of the post was, “What’s your brass ring?” What will it take to make you happy?

To be honest, I couldn’t believe anyone said they’d ever be happy.

I know myself well enough to know that it will never be enough. Oh, sure, you might kid yourself into thinking X or Y will be, for a while, but deep down you know it won’t be.

You start off with the goal of writing. That takes discipline. Then there’s the goal of finishing a novel. Don’t get me wrong – I applaud great short story writers because I struggle with them myself – but writing a novel is a whole different ballpark. When you complete one, you’re a novelist. In my own head I went from a wannabe to someone who could actually finish a book. And, in fact, in reality too. I could query a manuscript at that point. I knew I was capable of completing a manuscript.

But then it isn’t enough just to finish a novel. It has to be a good novel. Maybe even great, but that’s not a word you’re letting your brain form. You want to make it better. You want to write another novel and make it better still.

Of course, at some point, you actually decide you want to see your work get published…

And then it still isn’t enough to be published. You want to get good reviews. You want to be nominated for awards. You want to sell well. You want to win some of those awards.

You see, I know already that I’ll never be satisfied.

I heard someone say once that if you’re happy with where you’re at spiritually, you can die.

I’m not going to go anywhere near that in terms of a discussion and whether or not I agreed with the person, but when it comes to writing there’s a bit of truth in it. This is certainly something I’ve heard Val McDermid talk about – the pressure on yourself to write a better book.

In fact, I know I’ve referred people to it before, but Val sent out a newsletter earlier this year, in which she shared some of her struggles writing The Grave Tattoo. It was a nightmare. I really was beginning to wonder if I had lost it. If I had come to the end of the road as a writer. But again, the deadline was looming and so I tried to get the book down. It felt like walking out on a high wire without a safety net. And the first time, I fell off. I got about fifty pages in and I panicked. I would sit for hours staring at the screen, trying all the tricks I knew to kick-start myself. But nothing worked. I crashed the first deadline with embarrassing aplomb. I'd never been late before, had been scathing about the irresponsibility of authors who messed everyone around by not delivering on time, and here I was, being scathed by my own words.
I was so embarrassed about the whole thing, I pretended it just wasn't happening. I was nonchalant when asked about the book, insouciant about its potential delivery date. It was awful. I wasn't sleeping properly, I was avoiding other writers and I felt like a fraud.

Now, Val has something like 24 books to her name, as well as years of experience in journalism behind her. If there’s one author I know who shouldn’t feel like a fraud, it’s Val.

But I think this marks the difference for me, this is the attitude that sets certain writers apart in my head and makes them the ones I look up to. All the authors I truly admire continue to strive to do better. They never rest on their laurels.

What they’ve achieved is never enough.

To me, I think this is what it is to be a writer. A writer, simply, must write. It goes beyond sales and money – it’s a part of who we are. ”I’m working when I’m fighting with my wife. I constantly ask myself, ‘How can I use this stuff to my literary advantage?’” - Art Buchwald

Evilkev has been reading Suspicious Circumstances this week. It’s the first time he’s read it in two years, since I wrote the first draft on it. I keep asking what he thinks and he keeps telling me it’s good.

This is why spouses are useless as critics. Well, unless we’re talking about housework, cooking or time management. Then he’s a great critic.

I know my editor (who is probably cringing right now) told me that the worst was over. Not much left to address. From here, it should get easier.

Not to worry.

Telling me not to worry would be like telling a shark to stop swimming. The only way that’ll happen is with death.

Yes, I’m obsessive. It used to be enough to be getting published. Already, now it isn’t. It has to be the very best book it can be. What if so-and-so doesn’t like it? What if I’ve missed something critical?

You tell yourself, contractually, you don’t have final say over the title or the cover and much is out of your hands.

But you still worry about it all anyway.

Believe me. I’m one of those people that, told the sky is blue today, would go outside and look to make sure for myself.

My advice to you is that, whatever goals you’ve put in front of yourself for your life, your career, add another one. Make it a goal to actually take some time to enjoy each achievement. There’s nothing wrong with taking a moment to smile when you’ve overcome an obstacle, or cheer when you’ve experienced victory.

And if you find someone who teaches classes in how to appreciate the special moments of life, can you give me their name?

John Gooley writes some pretty amusing poetry. Stop by, check it out, and welcome him to blogging!

My thanks to my friend Linda for this one!
I am writing to say what an excellent product you have! I've used it all of my married life, as my Mom always told me it was the best. Now that I am in my fifties I find it even better! In fact, about a month ago, I spilled some red wine on my new white blouse. My inconsiderate and uncaring husband started to belittle me about how clumsy I was, and generally started becoming a pain in the neck. One thing led to another and somehow I ended up with his blood on my new white blouse! I grabbed my bottle of Tide with bleach alternative, and to my surprise and satisfaction, all of the stains came out! In fact, the stains came out so well the detectives who came by yesterday told me that the DNA tests on my blouse were negative and then my attorney called and said that I was no longer considered a suspect in the disappearance of my husband.

What a relief! Going through menopause is bad enough without being a murder suspect! I thank you, once again, for having a great product.
Well, gotta go, have to write to the Hefty bag people.


s.w. vaughn said...

Thanks for the mention, Sandra!

I am now finding out that there is no such thing as a happy writer. We've just started edits on my novel (finished chapter three yesterday... I think... after three go-throughs!!) and I'm learning so much that I need to apply to future novels.

I think you're right. If the goal is to die happy, I'm going to live forever! Woo hoo!

(Love the joke!)

Sandra Ruttan said...

I hear you SW! Die happy? As if! I hear you about meticulous edits.

angie said...

I guess happiness happens in small, usually unexpected moments for me. The best are the ones when I get an idea and it starts unfolding - the faster the better. Sometimes they happen when I'm writing and have that zen thing of being totally lost in the process. It was the same when I painted. Sometimes it feels like I'm just part of a conduit for the story or character and that's the best feeling/state of being ever!

There will always be the striving, the self-doubt and the pressure to improve. And it's always easier for me to get lost in that part than in the small moments of happiness. So yeah, I try to celebrate the good stuff, but it's usually something sort and quick, 'cause I can't wait to see what happens next.

Sandra Ruttan said...

Angie, it is always nice to have that spark of an idea.

Then you start writing and reality sets in.

Gabriele Campbell said...

What would make me happy? To have enough money to buy all the books I want to buy and travel all the places I want to go. And maybe get my NiPs finished and published. :)

Julia Buckley said...

Oh, here's another thing you and I have in common. And here's a quote for you from John Jay Chapman: "People get so in the habit of worry that if you were to save them from drowning and put them on a bank in the sun with hot chocolate and muffins they wonder whether they are catching cold."

That's me.

Sandra Ruttan said...

Gabriele, I envy you. Although lots of money to travel and read would be nice.

Julia, LOL! Love that quote! That's me, in a nutshell.

Flood said...

There’s nothing wrong with taking a moment to smile when you’ve overcome an obstacle, or cheer when you’ve experienced victory.

Truer words were never written. I also think it's important to go through the human experience and feel the negative emotions as they comes to pass. But I've also learned that feelings lie, so while you can let them seep through you, they might not be the best criteria for making choices.

Sandra Ruttan said...

Flood, that's an excellent point about emotions as well. I think you really get that if you read Val's newsletter, because she had such a hard time with The Torment of Others, which just won the Theakston's and is one of my favourite books by her. How she felt about writing it didn't keep it from being an awesome book.

Unknown said...

The sense of achievement you get having done something is great, but it's fleeting. Happiness is a chemical high and that goes sooner or later too, but I think you can feel fulfilled if you enjoy what you're doing - if it really is about the striving as much as the attaining.

I'd like to say that's what I get from writing and sometimes I do, sometimes the writing itself is exhilarating. But other times is painful and frustrating and surely the path to happiness can't involve that many re-writes?

Sandra Ruttan said...

"surely the path to happiness can't involve that many re-writes?"

I bet there's many an editor who's held their head in their hands and moaned as they thought this!

One hopes - hopes - the pain of rewrites lessens with time.

The key to happiness is learning to enjoy wherever you're at right at the moment. Problem is, you have to learn that all over again every day.

Very noir of me, I know.

Anonymous said...

My day job (while I await literary greatness) is as a counsellor for people who have had catastrophic accidentes or illness. Their lives are pretty much in the shitter and they would give anything to be back to "normal." Doing this job teaches me that happy is fleeting. I shoot for contented. Contented-good.

Sandra Ruttan said...

I venture to say contented also almost as elusive as happy, Eileen!

But don't worry. Literary greatness is coming!

Christa M. Miller said...

I know where you stand on having kids, so I'm not "hinting" obnoxiously when I say that for me, having a child taught me much about both patience and happiness. And often that they go hand in hand. I have to be patient when my son is discovering something, and then I realize how happy it makes me to be in his moment.

In fact, his process of learning has really helped me. He is very much like me in that he wants to get things right on his first try, and he will get VERY upset and scream "I can't do it!" - which would be annoying if I couldn't relate so well. So we're working on patience and enjoying achievement together!

Christa M. Miller said...

Oh, and I think impatience is entirely temperamental. I am a firstborn and grew up pretty middle-class. And I don't throw fits when I can't get a phrase right, so I know the kid isn't imitating me. He's been a perfectionist pretty much since day 1!

Sandra Ruttan said...

Oh Christa, I've worked with a lot of kids. I've learned a fair bit about patience. And it is different when the child isn't yours - your threshold isn't quite the same. I see that even with my sister's kids. Of course, in the context, there was a reason Simon wrote that to me, and it was valid. Actually kind of sweet of him to say it, but still, certainly in the career spectrum, I've very driven and never one to sit back and slack off too much.

Daniel Hatadi said...

I think the trick is to learn to enjoy the process. But without a goal, why bother with the process?

To question your training is only to train yourself to question.

Zen Monk Hawaii

WannabeMe said...

I'm with Gabriele. My happy place is a huge room with wall to wall shelves of books and a nice little desk with a computer, and a massage chair to sit in so I can stay and type as long as I want. =)

Sandra Ruttan said...

Daniel, I think you just summed up the dilemma.

Dana, I'm glad you have a happy place. I think I'm happy when I'm sleeping. Maybe.

mai wen said...

I totally agree with you Sandra, I think one of the things that makes writers great is that constant drive to do better and achieve more. Look at Stephen King, he's a compulsive writer, accodring to him, he can't Not write, and he's hugely successful, not just by commercial standards, but by any personal standards you could conceive of. Yet he keeps writing.

I guess that's the huge interest in Harper Lee, did she not have the drive to achieve more? Was "To Kill a Mockingbird" such a success that she was satisfied for life? Or was she too fearful of failing after such an awesome and unexpected success? Very intriguing indeed.

I also totally agree with you that spouses are not good critiquers. All I ever get from my hubby is "It's good!" accompanied by an encouraging smile. But maybe it's better that way, it keeps the tension low in our household, which is a good thing. It's nice to have that person to be first to read your story and feel safe about it. They do mean well, those spouses of ours! :)