This is really the longest undercover humblebrag I’ve ever written and, thus, you should regard everything I say after this paragraph with some suspicion. Possibly some annoyance with me, as well.
At the same exact time, this is also an explanation of how I took some of my own advice and found my way back to a place of joy and fun with my writing and my career.
I’ve been deeply lucky to enjoy the career I wanted since I was a teenager. I set out at thirteen to become a writer, sold my first story for money at nineteen, and sold my first novel at twenty-four. Twelve novels, sixty-six short stories, and some award nominations later, I’ve seen my work translated into eighteen different languages. A good chunk of my yearly income is from fiction; the rest, from some freelancing.
And yet, despite all that good fortune, as I started 2017, I was flirting with just … stopping.
I was burned out.
I found myself browsing office job listings. Or I would open a manuscript and just stare at the pages numbly. I refused to play Civilization VI because I knew I would never come back.
I was out of gas.
In my first draft of this little letter, I wrote five hundred words about why I was out of gas, but they all boil down to this: they were problems I would have wished I had, when I first set out to become a writer. Yet, when you run out of gas, it doesn’t matter how you got there, you’re there in the doldrums. In risking writing for money, or for getting it out to a wider audience, there are a million different ways to find yourself on empty.
And it doesn’t change the fact that it is a scary place to find yourself. I had been the guy who wanted to be a writer, who loved to create, since I was thirteen. To suddenly feel that drive fade away for the first time left me feeling like a fish washed up on a beach, and that the tide left me without my even realizing it was heading out.
I’d had many ups and downs since my first story sale at nineteen. But through them all, I always had a plan and wrote my way forward through it.
Now I had to wonder if I would ever swim in that world of creativity again.
There was another thing eating at me: entitlement.
I had read a positive and kind review of a short story that I’d written, that said something to the effect of this: Tobias delivers yet another engaging story. He’s never the best story in a collection, and he’s never one of the worst, which is an amazing feat all of its own.
I knew they were being complimentary. I get exactly what they were saying. But I will be vulnerable with you, something I wasn’t raised to be but have had to learn: that sucked the wind out of my sails. Because it spoke to the heart of some deeply-buried imposter syndrome. It suggested that I was a bench player, like I’d spent all those years in high school and college sports.
Writing is something where, no matter how hard I work at it, no matter how much of my soul I put into it, I still can’t predict its success.
There were works I’d put everything of myself into, psychic wails and straining, that would be dismissed as “okay.” There were things I moved quickly on for a deadline that I get tearful fan mail about, ten years later.
I have oppositional defiance in me. Being told I suck fuels me to try harder. The people who email me racist screeds about why my diverse characters don’t belong in space or the future, that is just static I put in the fuel tank. Being told I can’t do something makes me want to try it. But mediocrity, people who liked the work well enough but didn’t think I stood out, that made me seriously wonder what I was doing and why.
In the Western educational system, from the youngest age, we are taught that the harder we work, the more successful we will be. This shows up in narratives about creative work as well. We’re told that writers polish drafts to perfection and suffer through personal angst that becomes fuel for the work.
But here, even as I’d sacrificed sleep, personal health, and some financial stability, I still didn’t feel any link between how my work was received and what I’d put into it. If anything, there were less nominations, less acclaim.
I was ambitious and driven, and I found myself starting to wonder what all that hard work was bringing me.
This, very simply, is entitlement. Because every other creative-type is trying hard, pouring their soul into their work, and getting mixed reviews. You rip your heart out, place it on a platter and show it to the world, and people glance at it in between beer, texting emojis to friends, and playing video games while their favorite TV show is due to come up. It might be your heart on a plate, but it’s someone else’s entertainment in a busy world. And there are so many bloody, beaten hearts to choose from …
Realizing that I had slipped into feeling that way, feeling like my shot hadn’t come, realizing that I was exhausted, led me to think about quitting. Because none of this was a healthy mind-space to be in. I was hardly blogging, or talking to people, because I knew I was tired and being silly. It was mainly from exhaustion, but it was also possible that I needed to reset my head.
And I knew I also needed to take a dose of my own advice, because in 2011 I’d written about the dangers of all this stuff for writers. I’d written about insane pigeons and how writers come resemble them.
So you have a pigeon in a box and you set up a machine to feed it a pellet when it smacks a lever. Said pigeon quickly learns that a single action equals reaction.
But then, you change it up and make the machine spit out the pellets randomly. What happens?
The pigeon becomes irrational. It starts trying to figure out what it did when the last pellet came out. Some of them do half-fluttering dances, others flip about. They basically become neurotic.
Publishing, in some ways, is a random pellet generator. The rewards for what you do come at random intervals that are hard to predict. There are a lot of things you can’t control, and you become a pellet pigeon if you try.
In the interest of not turning into a neurotic pigeon, I decided to use a cushion of savings set aside to take a little time off and get my bearings. I focused on playing Ultimate Frisbee a few times a week and reading everything I could get my hands on, as well as taking some walks while listening to audiobooks.
Reading was why I had gotten into this, so it’s always a good idea to return to basics. Find some books that were fun and engaged me and just get lost in story for a while. The physical activity and getting outside helped. The time to think and meander let me dwell on my situation more thoughtfully.
I gave myself permission to not write, not think about writing at all. It was like a lead vest dropped.
The break lasted a couple of months. Maybe even less. I started doodling on paper again, the same way I had when I first started writing. An idea here. An idea there. I started to mull over writing short stories. A novel seemed too much of a commitment. But a short story didn’t make me feel like I wanted to curl up into a ball. A short story didn’t come with complicated contracts, long negotiations, and other expectations and obligations.
So, I started a short story Patreon. I promised to write a short story a month, for people chipping in at various levels. Writing stories for people who had signed up to have them delivered gave me a confidence boost. I could write stories!
But while I was grateful to see over a hundred people sign up for it, the Patreon didn’t hit the number of subscribers I’d hoped for. That again hit me in the ego. So I sat down and began to write down my thoughts about what I was doing and if I should continue.
“Peace comes from within, not without.” The Buddha is said to have said that.
“You have the power over your own mind, not outside events. Realize this and you will find strength.” That’s Marcus Aurelius, who I’d re-read during my time off.
I carried on a conversation with myself about why I was writing, why I was doing all this, on paper. And in the end, I came to think that Henry Miller was on to something when he said, “Writing is its own reward.”
Did it matter if I was going to be considered a decent and always-entertaining writer? A stalwart contributor? No, because it meant I was still getting paid to do something I really loved. Could I make peace with never being never nominated again for anything? Honestly? I wrote pages to figure out if that would lead me to a place of bitterness down the road.
Deep down, there was that young, ambitious little kid who wanted to make a huge impact and be a star. I decided he couldn’t be given a place at the wheel. I wasn’t going to walk away. I was going to write. But I was going to write from a place of joy and fun.
That sounds like something a middle-aged dude who’s tired and trying to justify his mediocrity would write. That’s how I responded to myself on paper.
But it missed where I was going to point my ambition. Because I am never not going to have it.
See, that energy, that little firebrand in me, it’s not going anywhere. But I wanted to redirect it toward the work. The writing itself. I could never force someone to stop calling me just okay. I can’t force anyone to look at my work and be blown away.
But I can write more. I can write harder. I can have fun.
All of those things, I can control. I cannot truly control any of the other stuff because it involves other people and I am not their puppet master. I can monitor it; I can do my best to make it all work, as I have done in the past; I can react to it and make decisions. But I can’t force anyone to do anything.
I can be lit up by my work and hope that fire spreads.
Could I be happy with that?
I decided I would be.
I did an exercise on paper.
Some say that writing is a way of achieving immortality.
But, is it?
In ten thousand years, will my work be read? Or anything we build now exist? Likely not. Unless I write a book that starts a major world religion, chances of my words being read on that scale is ludicrous.
In a hundred thousand?
What is the point of what I was doing on a cosmic scale? Even just a few generations away?
I just wanted to get stories that I would have liked to have seen on the shelf, when I was an avid book buyer.
So that was all I was doing.
Let the outside world go and tell your tale. The tale that only you could tell. And then … tell another.
It was freeing. My levels of no longer giving a shit about external drama went way up, and I started to dream stories before falling asleep again.
I started a new novel. It’s mainly for me to read, right now. Stories and worlds that kept bubbling up after I started doodling maps and daydreaming again.
It’s fun to work on it. When it isn’t fun, I go do something else.
So, a week after I went through the exercise of letting go of valuing outside validation, a week after I decided that the writing was its own reward, Gardner Dozois emailed, asking for my short story “Zen and the Art of Starship Maintenance.” It was a story that I had worked hard on and poured myself into, and seen no reviews of. I had given up on it being recognized and felt sad about that in the summer. But, after deciding to go through that process of letting go, I thought it was pretty neat that I’d had the chance to write it. I was happy that John Joseph Adams had asked for it, and worked on the edits with me. I liked the story; that was enough.
But now it would be in a Year’s Best. One of my bucket list items.
A week earlier, I would have thrown up my hands and screamed “finally!” Instead, I was totally grateful and had a good laugh at myself.
Then Jonathan Strahan asked for it for his Year’s Best, and I was amazed that a story I’d written would be in two Year’s Best collections. How often does that happen? I considered myself lucky. Then Neil Clarke took it for his Year’s Best. I’d gotten a hat trick.
The story went live on Lightspeed Magazine for the world to read this February, and all I can say is that I’m delighted more people get to read it. I’m deeply grateful this happened now, and not earlier.
And as cool as all that is, the coolest thing was that I got to write the story.
And that I’ve written sixty-six others that have made it into people’s hands.
Now, if you’ll excuse me, there’s a book I’m deep in the middle of and I am looking forward to disappearing inside.