Saturday, July 12, 2008

Hypothetical Dream Killing

The lovely Nathan Bransford recently posted an interesting hypothetical question... more interesting was the response by the writers who participated in the mammoth comment section... he asked:

Question #1: Let's say there was a seer who could tell you definitively whether or not you have the talent to be a published writer. Absolute 100% accuracy. But. If the seer person said no, that's that. Final answer. Would you want to know?

Question #2: If the seer person said no, you don't have the talent to be a published writer, would you still write?

First, the responses:

I think, if any of you actually missed the post, it’s worth your time to go look at the writers’ responses in Nathan’s comments section. Not that I’m negating or arguing with any of them, I just got stuck on the fact that so many people could not stick to the hypothetical premise. I think it’s because that premise came very close to some of our deepest fears. What if I really am not talented enough for this? What if I’ve been spinning my wheels for years, years of my life that I can’t get back and I’ll never be any good? What if I’m a failure?

Second, my response:

Well, what if? I thought the same thing, you know... think it every time I re-read something of mine that I thought was damn well-written, and see all of the flaws on second or third or fiftieth inspection... what if? Well, let’s take it a step further and answer his question in the spirit it was intended... the hypothetical spirit, the one that can’t argue the seer’s accuracy or fudge the outcome in any manner.

Question 1: Yes, I would want to know... for the same reason I found all of my Christmas gifts before Santa came... the same reason I found out the sex of my children... we were doing the ultrasound anyway, why the hell should my doctor know and leave me in the dark? So, yes, 100% accuracy beats the hell out of ultrasound (otherwise my daughter would be named after my father)... so yes, I’d want to know...

Question 2: Would I still want to write? Brass tax honest answer – No. Should I give you a minute to gasp and wring your hands before I continue? Okay, at least I’m honest, and I don’t think everyone is... but I do feel the need to elaborate here, just for the sake of it.

I’d love to write some poetic ode to writing, that it’s in the journey not the publication, that it’s in my blood and I can’t for all that is holy, live without it... all true, but I’ll digress... would I, knowing I will never ever make a living from writing novels, continue to spend every possible moment of my time, carrying my notebooks to get in a few sentences during the kids’ swim lessons, staking out the computer during their library time to hunt up research on agents, publishing, writing queries, how to negotiate contracts, and all of that gobblidy gook that’s a necessity for a professional writer but not nearly as fun as actually writing? Would I continue to flow through the rough draft, revel in the revision, and sweat through large portions of the edits for two or three hundred pages? No, I think you’d have to be a masochist to follow all of the steps knowing it will never sit anywhere but on my own damn desktop.

I’m sorry. No. Now, what would I do?

I would likely mourn for a very long time. I’ve actually done this once before, so I know there is an active mourning period in retiring a dream. I’ve mentioned in blog before that I originally wanted to be an artist and studied drawing and painting up to college... I was in my senior year of high school when I realized I didn’t have that talent... no seer, I realized it myself. It was a quick, lightening flash moment, when I realized that that spark, the one you see in great, beautiful, moving artwork, I can’t do that. I’m proficient with shapes and lines, my technique is passable – I cannot make it breathe... I don’t feel anything when I look at my own drawings... I can see the flaws and well drawn lines, it will never breathe.... some people can do it – if you can’t, no amount of training will give you that particular gift. I do still draw and paint... I even do portraits for other people occasionally, but I’ll never pursue it professionally.

If I knew beyond a shadow of a doubt that I’d never reach publication with my writing, I would likely continue to write in journals, and send long windy letters and emails... I would probably blog, I’d definitely do something literary, because I can’t not... but I would get to cut out all of the angst that goes with the business end of trying to sell my creation... would I write a full length book in that state? Maybe, but it would be completely up to my own whim and enjoyment, and that push is less aggressive than the one that’s striving for a goal.

Then I’d find a new dream. Life is more fun when you have a vision, a goal... and I am a person who needs goals... I need to be working toward something... I’d venture to guess I’d want to work somewhere in publishing or maybe teaching. I can’t envision a dream of mine not having to do with literature or art of some kind... that doesn’t mean I won’t enjoy writing, but you have to strive professionally as well as spiritually... when they match up it’s wonderful... but if they don’t, you still have to keep going.

Okay, guys... how about you? Do you have an answer to this one?


Stephen Parrish said...

Well said. I was surprised at how many people answered yes to the second question, and I didn't believe any of them. Private notes in a journal? Sure. The draft of a novel, followed by another, and another, and another, and another, and another, when no one is going to read it? Hello?

Merry Monteleone said...

Hi Stephen,

I thought the same thing! It's too, I don't know, overly romantic. I love writing. I think you have to love it to even consider going after publication... but I'm not going to paint it as roses and light... and I'm certainly not going to knowingly work this hard for the rest of my life without ever achieving my goal...

And I think, at least a few of those commenters were lying... either that or they're a little crazy... writing for fun, great... but a lot of writing isn't fun, at least to wind up with a completely polished manuscript...

Then, too, so many people started confusing the hypothetical seer with agents and editors... not the same thing.

As in my artist example, the only person that can truly tell you if you have that spark is you.

Erica Orloff said...

Hi Merry:
I think the answers reveal a consistent state of denial of some people. I.e., MOST writers, MOST of them, are very content with telling themselves the deck is stacked against them, NY publishing is all in who you know, it's a numbers game and harder to win than the lottery, and so on and so on. And that is ALL true. But . . . the fact is MANY, maybe some number that's close to all, or pretty high, may not, in fact, have the talent. Pure and simple. They can practice and they can hone it, and they can do that for years, but in the end, it may simply be beyond them. And whatever part of writing is simply a spark--they don't have. And I think you're right, the hypothetical question is hard for them to even wrap their mind around because they are so invested in the former scenario (i.e., that it's mostly luck and they have the talent just not the connections). Again . . . not to say that isn't true for many but . . .


Anonymous said...

Oh, I was going to say Stephen blogged on this....never mind.

I agree with you, Merry, but maybe it's just that we're alike that way. I need a goal. I mean, forget that I'm stuck with the I'm-going-to-wait-til-I-have-time-to-write-my-novel mindset (thank god for Clarity of Night short story contests). If I knew that what I hoped to write would never be published, yeah, I'd find something else to do.

As for people sticking to a premise - that is one of my biggest pet peeves. I mean, tangenting is one thing in a fun post, or general conversation, but when you're trying to make a point -

wait, what was I saying?


Hope you're having a lovely weekend!

Ello said...

I absolutely agree with you. But the reason is because life is short and if I really don't have a talent that is worth nurturing, I'd like to find another one to nurture instead. I'm surprised also by how many said they would keep writing. But then again I'm a total realist.

Merry Monteleone said...

Hi Erica,

Yes, I think that's probably it - it was too hard for many of them to answer the hypothetical because it comes too close to what they're afraid of... and then, the hypothetical question was whether or not you had talent, which is not the same as a simple whether or not you'll be published...

I think in writing, that spark is somewhere in the voice. It's not just in telling a story concisely... where it goes from technically good to talent, I couldn't name exactly... but I know it when I see it.

Hi Aerin,

I think it's a balancing act... at least when you're starting out. While I was writing Raskin's, there was always the reader in the back of my mind... he went with me through the edits, how will this sound to the kid reading this? How will this sound to the agent/ editor? It's there, but it helps me stay focused.

Since I've finished that one, I had to let it go from my mind... you do the research and work and send it out there - but then you have to find something new to obsess over - another story and character, some short work maybe.

At this stage, not finding a publisher for Raskin's could happen... it's a reality I have to look at because a lot of authors can't sell their first or second novels.. but hopefully if I get to that point, I'll be wrapping up my next and excited over the prospects for that novel... but if someone came down and said, "This book will never be published" when I first started to write Raskin's... like you, I would've said screw it and found something else to do... so maybe, for us writers and the people who will one day read us, it's a good thing there are no seers... and the determination of talent still rests with us.

Merry Monteleone said...


But the reason is because life is short and if I really don't have a talent that is worth nurturing, I'd like to find another one to nurture instead.

Beautifully put. I'm totally with you there.

Anonymous said...

I would want to know. Christmas gifts I can be surprised by, but I like to know about life altering decisions. And if I was told no, I'd keep blogging. And writing in my journal. But that's definitely it. I'm not a masochist. :)

Colleen_Katana said...

Interesting...I think I would still write, but discontinue writing books and novels, etc. I'd continue blogging and working on various articles. Though, it would definitely take me a long time to get back into writing after experiencing such a harsh blow.

Merry Monteleone said...

Hi Jerseygirl and Colleen!

How have you guys been doing?

Non-masochists unite!

(wonder what kind of google searches that's gonna pull up...)

WordVixen said...

I would want to know. Why? Because my biggest obstacle in my writing is that I want it to be good. The first time around

But, I think I would actually write more if I knew I wouldn't be good enough to publish. Because then, I wouldn't just be afraid of producing a Rabbitania, I could through Rabbitania into my historical romance if I wanted! I could use my productive time for things that I would get paid for, and writing would just be a fun little side journey. I'd probably do NaNo just to prove that I can write to length, even if it was crap, and I'd no longer feel guilty when going for weeks or months without penning a word of fiction.

However, editing? Wouldn't happen.

Merry Monteleone said...

Hey wordvixen,

You make a good point - so many of us are so afraid of failing that it halts us from trying... or one agent pointed out that she thought a lot of authors sabotaged themselves by sending out queries when the work isn't yet ready because that way if they got rejections, they could always think, 'well, it wasn't really by best effort...' lightening the blow.

I could see where knowing would be creatively freeing.... though I think I'd still go through heavy mourning first.

The Anti-Wife said...

What you said!

Mom In Scrubs said...

Since I've never written for anything but fun and inclusion in a great community, I can't speak to this issue exactly as it's put out there. I can relate on other levels, however:

I CAN tell you that I am not a big fan of surprises, either. I think knowledge is power, and I'm a power-junkie! More knowledge, MORE!

I identify with you on the art thing... it was my "talent" at one point, too. I knew early on, though, that I paled in comparison to some, and that if I could find those kind of people in my little hometown, there were a LOT more of them out "there." So I bagged it.

I have since combined my artistic talent with my love of cooking: whammo, cake decorating! A hobby, yes, but I'm absolutely certain I could make a living at it if I so desired.

I'm lucky: I have found my calling in my career. I am using a talent there every day - my brain. The rest of my talents I horde, giving them at MY discretion and thus keeping the pleasure factor in it for me.

Merry Monteleone said...

Hi Anti Wife,

Great to see you back around the blog-o-sphere.

Hi Mom in Scrubs,

I can't decorate a cake to save my life! But I love watching people who can.

I do still sketch, but it's really just for me, an outlet kind of thing... and I think anyone who gets to work in a career that they love is both blessed and lucky... but I also think we make our own luck.

Thanks for chiming in and always good to see you

Mary Witzl said...

Sigh. I would want to know, and for the reasons you gave.

But if I learned that I would stand no chance of being published, I would still write. Why? Because I would be in denial. I am arrogant enough to assume that any such prophesy would have to be in error -- that I will get there some day -- that anyone slaving away as I have just HAS to publish something. I agree with Ello that life is short, but this is the one talent I want to nurture. I keep gardening even though I KNOW the damn slugs are going to get 80% of my stuff.

Pitiful eh?

Sun Singer said...

Sure, I would want to know, and if the seer said everything was hopeless, it would be a big relief and worthy of much celebration.


Colleen_Katana said...

Hello back at ya stranger! Been a while huh? I've been well, how about you?

Zoe Winters said...

I'm really not sure how to answer this. Because i believe talent is overrated. I believe persistence and drive are more important factors.

When we talk about talent it seems like we're talking about something innate. But I believe most people, have the ability to improve their skill level. Whether or not they can be one of the "greats" who knows, but I really think most people eventually, given enough time and practice, could produce work at least equivalent to the worst of what's being currently published.

I also think "talent" is completely subjective. So it's inappropriate for someone, seer or otherwise to say "you ain't got it and you'll never have it."

But hypothetically, i wouldn't want to know. I would want the seer to mind his own damn business, because I'm busy trying to write.

And yes I would still write. I think people who listen when other people tell them they don't "have it" don't have it. not because the other person was right, but because the person who cannot persist beyond the naysayers no matter how "official" they may sound, really doesn't have what it takes.

And I think it takes something much more important than talent. When I figure out what, I'll let you know.

Merry Monteleone said...

Hi Mary,

Absolutely not pitiful... it's honest.

Here's the thing with this little exercise - it's hypothetical and therefore, not plausible. Listen, I read tarot cards for fun and I've gone with girlfriends to see psychics for a night out diversion... I'd never stop writing because one of them said so.

The hypothetical can't match with reality... and anyone who's pursuing publication knows that determination trumps most everything else.

Hi Malcolm,

Long time no see - how have you been? I don't know if it'd be cause to celebrate, but it would certainly allow time for a little vacation.

Hi Colleen,

I'm glad you've been doing good... I'll drop you an email soon - sorry I've been so out of online contact lately.

Hi Zoe,

Actually, I agree with you - who was it that said, "Determination and perseverence are omnipotent"?

It's a good point you make because even the most talented writer in the world won't ever succeed if he or she doesn't keep trying... and even the most talented will meet with rejection. There are a lot of very brilliant people that never meet with success because they don't have the drive.

There is no seer, in reality, who can convince me to stop. I said in an earlier comment, the only person who truly decides whether or not you have that spark is you. And yes, it's subjective. Look at the books on the market that are selling well - not all of them appeal to me, does that make them less worthy? No. It just means it's subjective.

I do think talent is important, but it's also hard to judge. And I do think with hard work any writer can improve. But I think there is an innate something in some writers' voice, that spark... that ear for the flow of prose. So I don't rule out talent, it's there even if intangible - but you're right, work ethic and determination trump even talent, because without the drive, no one will ever see the work.

Thanks for playing. I know, this hypothetical was a bit difficult to answer - but that's the fun in the exchange.

Zoe Winters said...

hehe thanks for the thoughtful reply. I'm blogging about this tomorrow cause it lit a fire under my ass, lol.

Merry Monteleone said...


I look forward to it! I'll stop by and check in with your posts - the kind that derive from lit fires are usually the best ones.

Shelly said...

This is a fun hypothetical... and also frightening! I don't want to be told I'm not good enough. But then, if I am really not good enough.... yeah, I'd rather know.

As to the second question, I would still continue to write some, but only the "fluff" pieces. I'd blog, maybe, and other stuff like that. But as far as the agonizing type of writing — the rewrites, the wrestling, all that, nope. I wouldn't keep that up. Non-masochist here.

Merry Monteleone said...

Hi Shelly,

Were your ears ringing? I stopped at your blog last night, but for some reason it wouldn't let me leave a comment - I kept getting an error code... I'll try again today.

I'm with you - I'd rather spend my energy on something more productive if I knew for certain writing wouldn't ever go where I wanted it to... thank God no one can ever tell me that for certain.