“WHAT’S the WRITING PROBLEM here?” – Charles D’Ambrosio, in many, many workshops
“Don’t write because you want to get something out of it.” – Natalie Goldberg (paraphrased)
“Why haven’t I sold out? Ha! Believe me, if I could sell out, I would.” – Kate Christensen, in seminar
Lately I have been frustrated with my flighty brain. I’ll work on one story with joyous vigor for a morning. The next day I’ll abandon it, moving merrily on to another blank Word document. It makes me worried for if and when I potentially have kids: will I forget about them so easily? I picture myself traipsing merrily through a daisy field, my dozens of babies squalling untended in the woods. (I’m not sure why my subconscious is so fairy-tale-ish, but I’m rolling with it.)
Either my smartphone has rendered me attention-deficient, or I’m just not interested in what I’ve been writing. Whatever it is, I miss the stick-to-it-ive-ness I had in high school.
In my days as a semi-prolific fanfiction.net author (no shade!), I wrote multi-chapter, very detailed narratives. Most of them involved Trinity (from the Matrix – okay, shade is acceptable here) in some kind of perilous situation. I could not stop imagining what was going to happen to her. I seriously almost failed Algebra II because of Trinity.
But maybe I’ve always been writing to get something out of it. I can’t be sure, because of the way fanfiction.net is structured. For the uninitiated: writers there generally release fanfictions in installments, or at least they did when I was fifteen. Readers can leave a comment after each chapter. Pieces’ success, or popularity at least, is measured in number and quality of reviews. Occasionally these are like mini-workshop notes, professional and full of honest, measured feedback. Occasionally they are as simple as “Yay moar plz!” or as willfully cruel as “You are the worst writer that ever wrote!! Dead worms on the sidewalk are more thoughtfully considered than this piece of garbage is!!”
(Those are known as flames. It is not good to be known as a flamer, at least not on fanfiction.net.)
I did not receive many flames, thankfully. (This was before the days of trolls.) My reviewers were enthusiastic, punctuation-philic, goofy, occasionally British teenagers. I thrived on their attention. I may not have been sure where to sit in the cafeteria at school, but on the Internet, I had dozens (okay, a dozen) people semi-eagerly awaiting my next installment.
And they dropped hints, telling me what they’d like to hear:
- Looks like things are heating up for Trinity. Trapped with Agent Smith in a mental hospital, yikes! I’m glad she still knows her jujitsu! -Bagpipes 5k, 8/19/2004
- Oh you are evil, giving Trin/Adele hope that she’s “only” trapped in the Matrix again! Can’t wait for the rest, and if she really is in a pod I hope poor, freaked-out Neo’ll come get her. -Kitsune-chan, 7/11/2004
- Ooh yeah! I mean like y’know…through it! Like things get back to relative normality, Trin gets back to the Neb, her & Neo get back to kickin outrageous ass in the matrix & makin outrageous lurve in the bedroom! What i really mean is will everyone have A happy ending? and if not then can i please have some shirtless Neo? -Diplodoofus, 7/04/2004
My reviewers wanted badly for the happy (-ish) couple to end up together, for Trinity to discover that the mental hospital was, in fact, a trap set by the machines, for the crew of the Nebuchadnezzar to bust her back into the Real World. At least canon-wise, I gave them what they wanted, though I did add an either-or ending that would have made Ethan Canin cringe:
“They’ve brainwashed you. I was afraid of this… Whatever you’re thinking, it’s not real,” Morpheus says firmly. “You’re dehydrated.”
“But that’s what I would want you to say!” she sobs inaudibly, her face rumpling. “Maybe I just went crazy again – I’m really Adele – my parents are watching me talk to them right now –”
“What’s the bastard done to you?” Neo yells.
And so, which is it? The lady, or the tiger?
– “A Mad, Mad World,” 9/14/2004
Some reviewers were maddened by ambiguity – “ah ah ahhhhhhhhhhhh, I’m going crazy! helllllppp,” wrote a person named MAD on 12/23/2011 – but I think they were mostly satisfied, in the end. Sure, Trinity had no objective way of knowing that reality was real, but at least she wound up with Neo, even if they were doomed to reside eternally in a haze of clunkily-written dialogue.
As a writer and a human, I like making people happy. I know this is both and is not an admirable trait, that it can lead to a lot of evil and demagogue-following, but I can’t help it. I have to ask myself: why haven’t I just tried to write something that will sell absolutely as many copies as possible?
- I am not sentimental enough to write a Twilight or 50 Shades of Gray. Neo as played by Keanu Reeves has more depth and feeling than Edward Cullen does. (I prefer to think that Trinity finds his wooden-ness endearing.)
- I am afraid to discover that I am not as creative as Stephanie Meyer. My friend David and I spend a lot of time sitting on my porch trying to come up with the next hit children’s book plot, partly as a joke and partly for real, and the best we’ve gotten is Sexy Cowboys. Which I think quite frankly is a) out of our expertise and b) has been done. In, you know, Westerns.
- I pretend, but I don’t actually know how to relate to a) teenagers or b) adults. Children? Way, way out of my league.
- If I DID write the book that includes all the things I like (a captive heroine, horses, mountains, secret passageways, witty talking dragons, ambiguously evil sorcerers, a devilish blonde prince, a master of the sword who turns out to be incredibly handsome, a Cave of Healing, and artistically ripped garments), I am afraid that someone would buy it, publish it, illustrate the front with penciled cover art, and then I’d pick it up in some out-of-the-way bookstore and experience the sudden realization that not only was it derivative, it didn’t even sell well.
And that is I think my greatest fear: to both sell out and suck at it.
My greatest hope, though, my secret writer pipe dream, is to become a lady version of Neil Gaiman: the man who has sold millions of copies and yet somehow remained entirely himself. Maybe more himself. Neil Gaiman can do whatever the fuck he wants. If he came into my house and demanded I make him brunch, I would do it. Neil Gaiman gets free comic books and wears a trench coat and does spots for 89.3 The Current. Neil Gaiman guest-stars on The Simpsons, for God’s sake.
But then I pause, because isn’t the wish to become a well-known fantasy author exactly like Neil Gaiman but a woman, derivative? And isn’t it writing to get something out of it, not writing for its own joyous sake?
Maybe I should just hire someone to stand over my shoulder and constantly shout encouragement in my ear.
Or hell, maybe we’re all just hooked up to machines anyway. Really no way to know for sure.