I’m down in Nanaimo for the holidays.
When I arrived, my brother picked me up and we went to the grocery store to buy some chicken wings to cook for dinner. I was in high spirits, because I had picked up the proof of my new book that day, and it looked good enough that I couldn’t tear it down. Usually, when I pick up a new work, any sense of accomplishment is dashed to the dogs, while I spend hours picking apart every small little flaw. It can be toxic way of looking at things, but at the same time, it gets results. However, this new proof looked good enough that I actually felt something akin to pride surging through me; I had completed a collection that was over 200 pages long. I had written a book. I had done the thing. Sure, I had self-published it, and around 30% of the work contained within was previously published, but it was a book that you could flip through, and it looked good and felt good under the fingertips. It would fit in on a shelf with other pieces of literature. It wouldn’t be out of place beside other poetry collections. I felt accomplished for a second. This was the first book. I was on my way. Not towards money, or fame, or any of that bullshit, but on my way to being a “serious writer,” that most unobtainable of goals.
At least, that was how I felt until I went to go buy chicken wings with my brother. As we perused the shelf that contained all of the chicken parts, and found nothing that looked like wings, I noticed a familiar looking guy farther down the meat counter shoveling ice into an empty display case. He worked there. We approached him to inquire about whether or not any of these chicken parts were actually chicken wings, or some other kind of chicken appendage, and it was then that I recalled how I knew him. He was from my old journalism days; we worked at the same paper. He was the best copy editor I’d ever seen, and his strength with the language was peerless. His writing was even better; it was poised, well researched, and yet phrased simply enough that a layman could both learn something and enjoy the writing. The subjects he was writing about then were mass media manipulation, fascism, electoral reform, corruption, and global politics; well tread ground, but at the time they didn’t seem to be subjects making as many headlines as they usually did. He didn’t fear monger when he wrote, merely informed. Every time I read one of his articles I learned something. Myself, I was busy trying to hack a sports section into some kind of shape, and being new to the whole enterprise, I probably wasn’t all that great at it, but I was learning, and reading his articles and watching him copy edit was a big part of the process.
To say that seeing this great writer shoveling ice into a display case at a grocery store was demoralizing is an understatement. It completely deflated me, and erased all the feelings of accomplishment I had gathered from my proof. If he, a writer ten times as educated and skilled as me, was doing this job instead of working at some prestigious paper, or magazine, or publishing house, then what hope was there for my little fucking poetry book and me?
I asked him if he was still writing, and part of me hoped he answered in the negative, therefore confirming that he had retired his literary gifts and that this new path had nothing to do with the writing side of his life. He told me that yes; he was still writing, and trying to go pro with it.
We parted ways, and I wished him good luck. I didn’t mention my poems, or any other writing I had done in the last four years. It didn’t seem the place or the time.
He was on my mind the rest of the night. Was that my future? Did it not matter how hard I worked? Was I doomed to have a stack of self published books at home sitting on the kitchen table beside a collection of nametags and hairnets from various bullshit jobs that I used to pay the rent in an attempt to delude myself that it would all be over soon? If he hadn’t made it yet, when he was so beyond my skill levels seven years ago, then what hope was there for me? Would I soon be there beside him in a meat section smock, hairnet firmly affixed as I stuffed pre-packed dishes of chicken hearts, and pork links into a small display case somewhere in Nanaimo? All the while thinking that the next poem, the next novella, the next post, is going to be the one that does it, is going to be the one that gets me out of here, is going to be the one that frees me from this and shows everyone that I am a serious writer, that I am to be taken seriously, and that my art is so worth paying for that I would be able to quit this job and do it full time.
I think that way now, and I don’t even work somewhere as dire as the fucking meat counter.
I write because I love it. I would do it regardless. However, there is always that part of my brain that thinks hopeful fluffy thoughts about it leading to a respected and famous career. I mean, that’s not the scope of my entire life most days, but it’s a nice thought, and I challenge you to find another working writer who feels absolutely no desire to have that outcome happen to them. I think there’s a legitimacy that comes from having your work read and purchased and enjoyed, and even though the inciting incident is personally motivated, once you cross over the threshold of the notebook, or the computer page, and put that piece of writing out there, there is a desire for respect and feedback that hopefully one day leads to something resembling a “literary career.” (Whatever your own personal definition of that.)
Yet, what if that never happens? What if you write endlessly, only to wake up one day in your midlife and realize that nothing you’ve ever put out, or created, has ever netted you anything but a small feeling of personal accomplishment, and some notes from your Mom on how talented you are? Is that good enough? At what point do you give up on the things mentioned in the above paragraph and just try and live with less? I’m sure there are breaks that happen now and again, and some people are lucky enough to knock it right out of the park on first effort, but if you’re one of the people still out there on the grind, is there an expiry date?
When do we move the goalposts on our dreams? When does it no longer become feasible to, “reach for the stars!” or one of the many other middle school poster phrases, and instead to adjust our thinking to more of a “reach for ten feet above your head,” approach? Those of us with literary aspirations are usually a well read and realistic bunch, so at some point we might have to come to terms with the fact that the struggle is over, and we didn’t get the outcome we wanted.
I’m fighting to stave that off. I imagine my friend at the grocery store is doing the same. Personally, I believe the way to keep the fight alive, to keep the dream alive, is simply to keep writing, to keep working, to keep grinding out idea after idea in the hopes that the dream stays alive with each new project and piece.
That way, you’ve never lost, or failed, because you’re still working on it.