From the outside, folks, it’s been a rough month for writing.
My husband (along with thousands of other hardworking writers) suffered gutting losses a few weeks ago when the cloud-based screenwriting program Scripped finally collapsed under the weight of its own incompetence, taking about a decade’s worth of collective writing with it.
My husband actually lost very little when compared to some others. Always diligent about backing up our little growing stock-pile of pilots and spec scripts, husband managed to rescue everything but a couple of short film scripts. A ridiculous level of good fortune when you take into consideration the sheer volume of intellectual property that has been lost (and, quite callously, will never be retrieved.)
But it’s difficult to find yourself fortunate when what’s been lost is something you were on the brink of finishing. Suddenly, the quirky, bright, funny little short film we had planned to spend our summer shooting was gone from beneath our fingertips. As anyone who writes can understand, husband’s still not up for tackling the complete re-write of a script he’s spent more than a year on, and we’re left floundering, a little broken-hearted, for a new summer project.
I also seem to be striking out with the submissions lately: Two rejections so far this month, with a probable third coming any day now. At the very least, I know that my super-cool Lovecraftian horror story of Japanese- Canadian internment during WWII will not be appearing in the new all-women Lovecraft anthology Dreams From the Witch House. And that my kick-ass urban fantasy tale of a sewerage worker battling magical beasties in a hopelessly crumbling and outdated London sewage system will never see the inside of Evil Girlfriend’s Women in Practical Armor anthology (apparently Evil Girlfriend and I disagree as to whether a level C protection haz-mat suit may be classified as “armor”.)
Not long ago– not very long at all–the cumulative effect of all these setbacks would have been to send me into a coma of creative uselessness. I would have spent all my waking hours wondering if I would ever write again, and consequently, would never have written again.
But what I thought when staring down a Witch House table of contents that did not include my story of a ten-year-old internee was: “Huh. Didn’t I write that story just a few months ago? For a totally different all-women Lovecraft anthology? By a totally different press? In a totally different country? Gosh, there are a lot of Lovecraft anthologies out there.”
And when I learned my sewerage worker’s story wasn’t going to be published just yet, I remembered suddenly that she should never have had her own short story at all. That the band of hard-edged, radically self-sufficient young squatters she teams up with to scurry around the bowels of a supernatural London are infinitely more important characters. The sewerage worker was merely the newest addition to a London they’d been inhabiting for years. I had, in fact, had a whole urban fantasy work about squatters and squatting rattling around in my head for nearly a decade.
The stories you write to avoid writing other stories!
But all of this got me thinking. Perhaps all being an honest-to-God pro writer is, is getting to a place where rejection feels so commonplace that it no longer fully occupies your thoughts, even in the moment of facing the rejection letter. Perhaps all that separates the Working Writer from the office-worker who writes occasional stories, is an understanding that ideas are not rare or delicate things.
Because good ideas, in fact, are plentiful. They’re durable. They’re re-usable. They can, under the right conditions, be forcibly created. And a writer who actually writes has to learn that pretty quickly if she means to keep writing. Writing, as a job, requires a kind of throwing around and a swapping in and out of ideas that just isn’t possible if we clutch every idea we ever have to our bosom and declare there’ll never be another one as bright or as glittering or as clear.
This myth of rarity is really what trips us butterfly-headed creative types up. Like the myth of Pure Art, the myth of rarity paralyzes our creativity at precisely the moments when the act of creation is most necessary. Ideas are everywhere. EVERYWHERE. And if you were clever enough to stumble upon this one (yes, this beautiful brilliant one they didn’t want) then another one is not far from you. Ideas by themselves, even at their most brilliant and pure, are only ever semi-precious.
Perhaps what truly needs to go is this artist’s conviction that good ideas are a kind of fickle spirit that settles on us. We’re human. Our brains are specially designed to seek out and recognize good ideas. The truth is, a Working Writer goes digging for ideas. She deliberately puts herself in situations that produce ideas, and then she shamelessly, greedily, pragmatically mines the results. Some of the best, most beautiful things in the world are created from the ideas we make ourselves have.
We need to trust in the capacity of our brains to keep producing ideas, to keep changing and tweaking and re-contextualizing the ideas we have in order to create something new. We need to trust that the creation of ideas can happen just as reliably and frequently as the rejection of them.
A fellow writer recently felt at a loss when the periodical that solicited her for an article didn’t seem to love any of the ideas she came up with. “I don’t really know what they want from me,” she said. Really, how many times in our careers do we writers utter that self-defeating lament. Well, obviously, I don’t really know what they want! Obviously! What can I do if they don’ t want what I have?
To that fellow writer, to myself, to all of us: What they want from you is one more idea. Then one more. Then one more. Then one more after that. They want everything you can throw at them, and then some stuff you didn’t know you had. Go on. Go digging. Dig yourself out a good idea! We’ll be in the mines right along with you.
So, folks, I guess what I’m saying is that it’s definitely been a surprising, difficult month for writing. I’m looking forward to digging out a glittering new short film with husband, and I’m busily tweaking those two (or three) sparkly little stories to be used elsewhere.
A bad month? Honestly, I don’t really have time to know. I’ve got to get back to work.