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FXXK WRITING: DO IT—TWELVE LESSONS FROM TWENTY YEARS IN THE ARTS | LESSON 11: CONSOLATION PRIZES

September 2019  marks the twentieth anniversary of Jay’s decision to become a writer. His gift to you all this celebratory year is DO IT – Twelve hard lessons on learning by failing, succeeding by accident, never giving up and saying FXXK WRITING all at the same time. You’re welcome!

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What are the rewards of being a writer?  Continued and exponential success are rare,  so, over twenty years I’ve come to find other aspects of my vocation as joys unto themselves. For many, these would be consolation prizes, the bronze medals, the participation certificates. What losers collect and celebrate to hide their failures. But most of our losers in this game, so it may be more honest to view these victories as unexpected gifts in a career that was doomed!

DIRECT CASH: I’ve made direct money from writing, including a five buck check that bounced (fuck you, Pill Hill Press), as well as thousands of dollars for novels and five-figures with fellowships. But most of my publishing projects ranged in the 50-1500 buck zone. I’ve done dozens of interviews, articles, short stories, and more to generate pockets of cash. When I was below the poverty line, they helped feed me. When things got better, they helped me support others.

FRIENDS: While most writers are misfits, not all of them are like you. So I count myself lucky that I’ve discovered so many great and talented and bizarrely well-read nuts in this field who I can laugh with about the joy of Godzilla soundtracks and shitty contracts and weird agents and the good, bad, and ugly of the industry – all while still loving fiction. Becoming a writer led me to friends who have saved my more than once. I’ve done my best to return the favor. These are gifts worth more than a six-figure deal and a movie option, all of which can vanish with a phone call or pandemic. As Tricky Dick Nixon knew -when you when, everyone calls. When you lose, only your friends call.

ENEMIES: You can’t be friends with everyone, though. And within the writing community are a thousand different flavor of shithook: narcissists, racists, misogynists, predators, bullies and con-jobers who prey on the young and naive; morons who give advice that will aggrandize their singular experiences as gospels for success; and, lest we forget,  sales and marketing bullshitters who convince people their dreams will come true with one more workshop, elite workshop, secret elite workshop, private workshop, etc. Recently I’ve had friends turnout to be abusers and dropped them and spoke out against them. Cost me a book deal. I have zero regrets. Following your “dreams” requires swimming in shark infested pools with those who feed on the desperate. Know your enemy, know yourself, and don’t be a shit.

OPPORTUNITIES: Because I had a professional skillset and moderate success, I received opportunities to teach writing and to edit. This has created a much more successful wing of my career. I’ve taught writing to adult audiences, high school students, corporate clients, and for years I’ve taught creative writing for the good folks at Google. I’ve edited manuscripts and been hired to be a beta reader for a New York Times bestseller. I’ve also written for educational products, role playing games, and video games from time to time. I’ve also edited beginner novels so bad they’d rot your gums. I enjoy all of it!

EXPERIENCES: While reading about writing is boring, being a writer can take you into weird and freaky experiences. There was the gentleman at one of my lectures who really wanted me to read his novel about a race of groovy cat-people who all lived on a planet called Poly and had sexcapades quests all night and day (sadly, I had to decline due to total lack of interest). I received a fan letter from Harlan Ellison for a review of mine that trashed his early porn novels (where the late Ellison lamented, “great writing, but did you have to be so cold?”). As a slush reader I was able to buy a story quickly to support a colleague grieving the loss of a loved one.I’ve found my novels in the Mall of America, and signed them without anyone asking to see my identification. As a guest instructor at a conference, I watched in horror as a NYT bestseller bemoaned how 9/11 had ruined their debut book tour (the POC in the audience and a Vietnam Vet in my class all cast their gaze at the floor until this idiot speech was done). I’ve applied to dozens of bizarre writing gigs, like creating scripts for a hologram club show in Vegas about the Rat Pack (my script focusing on Sammy Davis Jr., the most talented member, was so hated the contact replied like a toddler, “My boss has told me to stop talking to you”). I’ve watched three of my biggest influences fade into death, illness, and obscurity while I continue to champion their work. I’ve had a mentor who gave me hardcover copies of his collections and provided a blurb for my own work completely ghost me. A student who served in Iraq came home broken, racist, and traumatized, and used writing to try and make sense of it – until he found meth worked quicker and deadlier to kill his suffering and troubles and vanished.

PURPOSE: I wrestle with writing as a part of my psyche. When it dominated my identity I almost went mad. But negating it completely has also been destructive. I keep circling back to the idea of vocation. While I am not religious, I have felt “called” to create stories my entire life – with music, with improv, with history, with fiction. Right now, the fiction-side of my vocation is singing with a clarity I have not felt in years. In a desperate time of so much suffering and hate, it has provided a lodestar to follow in mornings plagued by bad news and crushing mental health concerns. If you read the autobiographical works of Henry Miller, Charle Bukowski or Dan Fante, you find moments where their artistic output roars out of them, and when it whispers. In my life, the roar jumps from history to fiction to performing, and without warning. Right now, it is firmly entrenched in fiction and novels and both are giving me a joy and purpose I’ve greatly missed.

Cash. Colleagues. Adversaries. Adventures. Vocation against the hardship of reality.

These are consolation prizes worth fighting for.

Jason S. Ridler

Jason RidlerJason S. Ridler is a writer, historian, and actor. He is the author of The Brimstone Files, and his latest historical work Mavericks of War was called a “visceral read that is also an important piece of scholarship” by Pulitzer-Prize winner Richard Rhodes. He is a Teaching Fellow at Johns Hopkins University and teaches creative writing at Google, Youtube, and for private clients.

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