By Shawn StJean
In part this post is a response to my friend Emily McDaid’s ruminations awhile back, Why Do We Do it?, http://emilymcdaid.com/blog/12/why-do-we-do-it and to anyone feeling a similar crisis of spirit over your chosen, unremunerative path.
I’ve been teaching English for 22 years, and every Autumn I find myself reviewing whether I think it’s still worth it–okay, so I’m a bit early–it’s been a tough year.
My best students are often the most concerned about their grades. I always tell them, “Do your best, and the grades will take care of themselves.” To me (who was a college student myself for 10 years,) this referring them to a higher standard seems so clear. But from the undergraduate perspective, and given the pressures and competition of the job market out there, I can empathize with their concern.
Now, as an Indie author, try this one on for size: “Do your best, and the sales and reviews will take care of themselves.” Seems hard to swallow, right? Yeah–now we can really feel my undergrads’ point-of-view.
‘Cuz writing is no more about making money than going to college is about grades. College is about learning, making friends, drinking too much, sleeping in the wrong bed, finding out excuses won’t work anymore, doing your own laundry, not eating right, throwing a frisbee, flirting, and. . .learning. Writing is all of that, too, and more (I’m fairly certain they still offer courses in writing, so it’s no coincidence.)
Writers have a higher standard to uphold, and that makes us a bit freakish. The Amazon reviews will be unfair, the good ones mysteriously vanish, sales slump or never start, favors go unreturned, the blog doesn’t get enough hits, it never ends, and it’s all so much damn work.
You aren’t writing for fame and fortune. You aren’t. If those things are in the cards for you, they’ll come like the pot that boils, unwatched (I love to mix metaphors. Take that, corporate editors!) You’re doing it for a dual-higher purpose. One: You’re doing your mite to keep literacy alive on our small planet. Once we lose it–the ability to communicate at a level above the blurb, to ponder our purpose in words, to think in other than cliches, to access the records of our own fitful past, to force those dormant neurons to fire into life so that our heads actually hurt from the brain growing, a useful pain very few human activities can produce–once we lose those, we’ve lost civilization. And we don’t want to find out what replaces it–worse, we don’t want our children to find it out for us.
Purpose Number Two: You’re writing because you are a freak. Somehow the latent and preposterous belief that everyone possesses–that, deep down, you really are special, a unique if garbled snowflake–is actually true. Why else would you pursue such a pathetic risk-vs.-reward-ratio, against all the common sense that pushes most of the human race to their toolboxes, spreadsheets, trucks, plows, cubicles, and secure paychecks, every day? Face it: you’re a mutant, an X-Man. There’s a screw loose.
And you can think of your reward for reaching toward a higher standard this way: When there’s an errant nail sticking up above the hardwood floor, will the carpenter raise the entire floor to meet it? What will he do? That’s right–he’ll drive it down, to the level of all the other nails. It better have a hard head.
But my feeling is, if they’re going to beat on your head anyway–and they will, ‘cuz everyone’s a nail–you might as well go down hard, and bend, or work your way out again, your best way.
As Thoreau once insisted, it’s not enough to be a philosopher, or even found a school and think better, if you can’t live according to your wisdom. And if realizing that pursuing money is not going to improve your life, but will actually hinder your progress, isn’t one of the first steps in reaching a higher standard, then what in Hell is? (I paraphrase).
To put it another way:
If you’re a freak like me, Wave your flag
If you’re a freak like me, Get off your ass
It’s our time now, To let it all hang out
So shout if you’re a freak like me, Don’t apologize
They can’t hold you down, You were born to rise
It’s our time now, to come out -Halestorm