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FXXK WRITING: DO IT—TWELVE LESSONS FROM TWENTY YEARS IN THE ARTS | LESSON 12: SPARKS

CW: MENTAL ILLNESS, DEPRESSION, SUICIDE

 

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!

* * *

I’ve done my best to write more uplifting and instructive columns for an entire year. But sometimes you must drink bitters so that the dime-store lemonade tastes sweet. So, buckle up—here be trigger warnings on mental health issues, perhaps best summed up in the excised line from a Nobel Prize acceptance speech:

“There is no lonelier man than the writer when he is writing. Except the suicide.”

Ernest Hemingway

The worst thing about being a writer isn’t the pay or the unfairness of success or how hope pollutes expectations. It’s the silence. There is toil, creation, investment and refinement, strategy and other considerations, then the final launch into the cultural marketplace—a marketplace that will ghost you at its leisure.

I hate silence. Silence means you are out of control. Silence is a prelude to disaster. Silence means you’re dead. Silence breeds monsters named hope, pride, expectation. So you ignore the silence with more creative work, the one thing you can control. But silence can’t be ignored forever. And it takes many forms. Contracts fail to arrive, agents refuse to send your work without a seventeenth revision, payments are bad or late or both, important people don’t call back. We keep tossing pebbles down a well hoping for a splash. When we are greeted with silence, we make more pebbles. And for what? In twenty years of writing fiction (ten years on short stories and ten years on novels), the discrete and direct returns have been negligible. Books published. Short stories published. 50,000 hours of labor for an extra $20 a week if the check doesn’t bounce.

It is easy to look at such accomplishments and conclude that you have wasted everyone’s time, including your own. The opportunity costs are enormous. Twenty years learning how to do something that, at every stage of my career, could seem like a waste. When I was published 14 times in one year, which required 243 rejections, my dad did the mental math and was aghast. “The odds of doing well are terrible. Are you sure you want this kind of work?” I went gung-ho on Kindle books and had thousands of people download free copies of the first novel in my new series, but trifling sales followed. I was almost thrown off Goodreads for soliciting 500 honest reviews, which helped me sell 20 copies of all three books: my best terminal success. When I finally got a publishing deal and busted my ass to make it sell, I ran out of steam and saw hopes of a new contract turn to cinders.

If that time had been spent learning UX design, basics of electrical engineering, coding, getting a second MA in project management, administration, or library science, wouldn’t it bring me more success and joy? Couldn’t I have just found a better line of work and then farted out the occasional short story and reached similar targets and had a 401K? From a rationalist perspective on my career, the money is awful, the opportunity costs vast, and there is no proof of sustained effort equating to material success. Where is the upside?

Ignore the creative enrichment and consolation prizes I mentioned last month. There is a harder benefit to be discussed—the role of writing in how one derives meaning in life.

Because it isn’t a hobby. It’s not a pastime. It’s not solely for personal satisfaction. It’s not a job, even if writing is labor. It is more than these individual elements. And because of that, it has a stranglehold in many writer’s lives on the topic of meaning. I’ve found great joy and stability in welding “writer” to my identity, and great relief when I abandoned that title and just wrote as part of my life. But recently, the role of being a writer has added a new layer of meaning in my existence. Caution: sad story ahead (please no emails, I’m good, but I need to make this point without it being trauma porn).

For over a year, I’ve fought against suicidal ideation (passive). I’ve had days and weeks and months of my brain trying to convince me that everyone would be better off if I drank Draino or otherwise walked into oblivion. I did all the things, took all the stuff, but it was a slow recovery. But among the dark thoughts tangling my life was an insight. In Man’s Search for Meaning, psychoanalyst and Holocaust survivor Viktor Frankl noted that in the death camps some people endured. Others, consumed by the horror, lay down, expelled their bowels, and died. Such deaths are complicated, but Frankl’s research uncovered a factor that made a large difference between those who were killed and those who expired. For many survivors, they had something meaningful in their life that the Nazis could not steal, something they could look forward to in the future—a clock they put together in their mind, hoping to make it real; a loved one they wished to see again, whose memory was kept in the one place the Nazis could not invade; a hometown, a game, a job. There was something meaningful in their mind that proved true in the work of Nietzche, paraphrased here: “A person with a ‘why’ can endure any ‘how.’”

Doped and depressed, writing was a lifeless task. All of the concerns from the first part of the article were loud, clear, and convincing because they were all true. So much time lost, so little gained in a world that finds value in power, money, and security. I had struggled for years under the poverty line. Buried in the morass of zombification and suicidal daydreams, writing seemed meaningless, my career even less. If I stopped writing, no one would miss me. A mediocre therapist offered me one insight. “You’re right. You’re compromised. You can’t do what you’d normally do. So, why not accept that and see where the writing takes you?” Suicidal, medicated, and depressed, I had nothing to lose.

I wrote. Slowly. Terribly. Like learning to ride a bike in your forties. It was shite. There was no Act 2. Characters changed accents midstream. It needed monstrous revisions. It was angry, lusty, ugly, a character story of someone spiraling into unethical waters, the story of a good person who fails to combat his worst nature and exchanges tragedy for a brief moment of power. It’s among the ugliest things I’ve created. But my mind was ugly. So I followed the ugly for months. I woke up wanting to die but often got out of bed because I had to get a page done, to see something new, something I created that didn’t exist, and it became part of the road out of ugly. Every time I sat down, the darkness in my mind received sparks. No roaring fire, no maelstrom of genius, just sparks. But sparks seem bright in the dark, and I followed them day in and day out as I worked through meds, therapy, side effects and more until I found some kind of stability.

Then, COVID hit, and American racism and violence against BIPOC communities returned with a vengeance into the national dialog for those who had chosen to ignore or dismiss it. It felt useless, paralyzed, and compromised against such national horrific tides. I supported protests as much as I could, blared my own Klaxon against hate to audiences refusing to believe racism still existed, and I let the sparks grow in the dark. Two novels completed in less than two months. Both are ugly, salacious, mean, and revel in their foulness—as if I was vomiting my disdain for the human race into art where there was some sense of control, even if it was only fiction.

Killing myself is off the agenda, but I’m no fool about its capacity for a comeback. Or of the role that fiction has had in my recovery. There is no normal. So challenges and opportunities abound. So, even though I’m a never-was trying to be a has-been on the comeback trail, to quote Art Bergman, and any commercial success may be another pebble down a well, I march on. Because I still have something to say. My sparks need lit. And there is enough time for cold, dark silence in a grave not of my own making.

And that may be the only wisdom I really have to share.

Keep sparking.

JSR

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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