Sunday, March 2, 2014

How to become a professional author in 183 days*

I'm having trouble determining which one I am in the story about driving my father's car through a flood: am I the empty-minded teenager, or the immobile Chevrolet? There's a fine line. Neither is doing anything, neither is going anywhere. But only one of them is capable of initiating action; the other will potentially sit forever, dead of ambition, waiting to be acted upon.

I would like to believe that in my present months-and-months-long malaise I am the teenage boy, that my mental dullness is just a temporary state. It would make sense; he and I are pretty similar after all. We're not the exactly same, of course. The nature of cellular generation means he died away quite some time ago. Mostly. We've got the same teeth. And we've got the same tendency to go into intellectual hibernation when faced with things we don't want to do. We become stupid in the face of adversity. He didn't want to go to summer school; I don't want to deal with homesickness and endless British winter.

Woe to us all that more of life's challenges aren't as easy to overcome as a waterlogged starter. Drive your dad's car into a bit of your favourite creek and the only thing you have to do is sit and wait. The problem fixes itself. Unfortunately, most challenges are more complex. I feel I have sufficiently proven that a writing career is an example of such a challenge. Despite having done nothing creative for more than a year I am faced still with a distinct lack of literary acclaim.

I am partially capable of recognising the flaws of my behaviour –– the connection between my inaction and my unhappiness in terms of where I am in life. But I find it incredibly difficult to respond. I feel stuck in neutral these days; very little is being produced in that tiny space between my ears. And whereas that boy with my name and teeth enjoyed similar inactivity whilst lying in the summer sun, I can't say I'm having as good a time droning through day after day in the endless wet-grey of Wales. 

As I say, mostly I do not think. But in tiny moments of clarity I feel deeply frustrated. I know this is not where I want to be. I do not want to be sitting still. I feel the sudden passage of time and feel overwhelmed and completely defeated by the absence of accomplishment within that space.

Setting goals

Jenn and I have been talking a lot about goals these days. It started as an offshoot of her deciding to do a 98-day Burn the Fat Feed the Muscle challenge. She is trying to win us a trip to Maui. Yeah, I know. Diets with catchy titles. Or, indeed, diets in general. I spent many years living with a professional dietitian and take a generally dim view of such things. That's not to say, though, that I didn't sign on to do the challenge with Jenn. Who doesn't want to go to Maui, after all?

This particular dieting regimen is delightful in its vagueness. It seems to be a modern version of the Think Method so fervently promulgated by Prof. Harold Hill, with the emphasis being mostly on one's state of mind. Sexiness is as much the result of mental fitness as it is physical, or so the thinking goes.

There's a load of CHEESY INSPIRATIONAL ALL-CAPS BALLYHOO to wade through from that point, but what I basically drew out of the experience is this: it's a good idea to write out one's goals, identify the relevance of said goals (i.e., why something is important), as well as when one expects to have accomplished these goals. And thereafter one should perpetually remind oneself of the goals and assess the steps being taken toward achieving them.

Almost instantly I expanded this thinking to apply to my overall self –– not just my physical ambitions but my personal ones. I wrote up a 3,500-word document creatively titled "What I Want" and included in it far more than my desire to somehow transform myself into Ryan Reynolds. I included in it my desires to move back to the United States, to be debt-free, to travel more, to become fluent in Spanish, and on and on.

Though perhaps originally rooted in the peddling of diet snake oil, I found it to be a surprisingly useful exercise. I took all of these overarching ambitions I have and placed them within a 5-year time frame. Whereas previously, they had been things with no beginning or end; they were just things I told myself I wanted to accomplish. And through this exercise I think I've come to terms with the fact that I don't function particularly well with that sort of indefinite time frame.

There is a theory that the amount of time it takes to accomplish a given task will expand to meet the deadline for said task. An induced demand sort of thing. And certainly I've found that to be true in academic and professional tasks. Giving me three months to write an essay meant it took me three months to write, despite the fact that the essay could have been written in a fortnight.

Before doing this little goal-determining exercise I had a wealth of ambitions to which I had attached no deadlines. And –– surprise, surprise –– they are ambitions toward which I have made no real progress. No end dates has resulted in no start dates. And that has left me with an overwhelming feeling that I am a failure. Because the only known in that situation is the knowledge of an ambition not having been realised. I didn't have an idea of when I expected to be fluent in Spanish, only the truth that I am not fluent right now.

Not just a writer

Because I've lost the ability to be succinct you will almost certainly have already figured out where all this is going: my desire to be a professional author.

Note the sudden use of that term: "professional author." I'm pretty sure I've not used that before. Instead, I've preferred the less specific, more romantic title of writer. But perhaps the reason I feel I've failed as a writer is that I haven't really identified for myself what success is. How do I know I am or am not a writer? What does that mean? What, actually, is the goal?

It's difficult to be honest about creative ambition, especially as pertains to its financial side. I feel uncomfortable saying I intend to be a "professional author" because that sounds more a career choice than the ethereal, soul-connectedness, "my best friend is a book" bullshit that writers seem morally obligated to promulgate. Because, yeah, sure, if I can't air guitar I don't want no air at all; I do feel compelled to write, to tell stories. And if no one ever pays me for those stories I will continue to tell them regardless. It's what I do, yo. It's who I am. And within that, some unspoken Code of the Writer makes me terribly unwilling to admit that getting paid to do it is actually a pretty high priority for me.

Also, there is the deep cynicism that runs through me as regards the likelihood of success. With financial success in a creative field there is a greater element of praying to the fates than in, say, engineering. If you are someone who has studied and worked hard to become a chemical engineer, it's a solid bet you will find a lucrative future in the field of chemical engineering. Whereas if you are someone who has studied and worked for years and years to perfect your voice it is far less guaranteed that you'll end up a pop star. No one ever tells an aspiring accountant that he should have a backup plan. Grandmothers don't tell their grandsons to get real and stop chasing the silly dream of being a business administrator.

I can digress from this point into a long discussion of the fact that my cynicism has increased exponentially since moving to Wales, that something about living here has robbed me of my ambition and fight, but I won't. Suffice to say that it is a cynicism that contributes to my unwillingness to use terms like "professional author". There is an element of fate –– things I cannot control –– and I feel silly saying "I will be professional author in five years" when I know full well that I cannot guarantee such an outcome through my effort alone.

But, I've decided it is something I really should be saying. So, using the language of the CHEESY INSPIRATIONAL ALL-CAPS BALLYHOO I am telling myself that I will be a professional author. Because simply telling myself I want to be a writer hasn't produced.

The next step in the process, of course, is determining what I mean by "professional author." I've been paid to write in the past. I've even been paid to write a book. Doesn't that make me a professional? Well, yes and no. It means I have written professionally but not that writing is my profession (clever word play for the win). So, I've decided that what I mean is that in five years, writing books will be deliver no less than 50 percent of my annual income.

Day 1

Now that I've established when I will be a professional author and what, exactly, I mean by that, I need to tackle the issue of how to get from here to there. Which, of course, is a whole hell of a lot more difficult. I don't really have an answer. I don't know the steps; I can't even really imagine them. So much of becoming a professional author lies within unknown unknowns territory for me.

I mean, honestly. How do you do that? How do you become Barbara Kingsolver? How do you become John Jeremiah Sullivan? Well, write some stuff, obviously. And do your damnedest to make it good. But that's only part of the process. There are all these other things I need to do that I haven't fully grasped.

I have decided that I am going to put the full of my effort into figuring out what those things are, and doing them. Over the next six months I am going to make sure I do something every single day toward accomplishing my goal of becoming a professional author –– a solid act that can be pointed to as a real step forward, the same way an exam or course might be pointed to in the steps toward becoming an executive. And I am going to document each of those days on this blog. 

That works out to 183 days, stretching from today, Texas Independence Day, to the U.S. holiday of Labor Day. They are two dates that connect me, in a way. The Texas link is obvious, but Labor Day I associate most with being the final day of the Minnesota State Fair. So in those two dates you have the mix of myself, the mix of the places that fuel my desire to be a professional author. In part so I'll have greater freedom to visit them more frequently. 

Is this whole thing cheesy and stupid? Yup. But, hey, we're all going to die. I suppose it's better to die trying.

Today marks Day 1 of my effort. And the step I have taken is this blog post: laying out my plan, getting it all firm in my head, and putting it on the interwebs to make it harder to back down from. As I say, I don't want to be the car in this story –– the thing without initiative. I want to be the teenage boy, with a head full of dreams and belief and a whole lot of girls to kiss. Let today be the day I turn the key.


* Or possibly quite a bit longer.


Anonymous said...

I really like your story No Va. It makes me think that you could write an interesting book where each section is framed by the main character's mode of transportation. (It certainly seems so for your own life.) There might be several stories in some sections and other sections would have just a few.
Anyway--that's just a fan's feedback. It sounds like you're ready to reach out to more writing professionals for feedback. All the best!

Chris Cope said...

I actually like that idea. It seems the gestation period for ideas with me is quite long, but can you drop me an email so that if I ever do use the idea I'll know who to credit?