Against the Dying of the Light: What Keeps Me Going?

Now that I’ve gotten through the appropriate wailing and gnashing of teeth regarding my bitter, desolate – one might even say bleak – future as a fiction writer, I’m left to look at why I keep on trucking. The answer should be obvious to me: I’ve been doing this for 20 years. It’s what I do. Now I’ve put something out there, and while the sales might suck, it’s obviously never been about the money. So why do I keep doing it then?

Of course, this is aside from my recent post on why we write. The best way to explain what I’m trying to say is that this is less about writing as an inner drive and more about what keeps me on the path that I’m currently walking. I could quite easily walk away from it all and keep my stories to myself; lots of writers have done it. But I don’t want to do that. Why?

That’s a harder question to answer. It’s easy to come up with a passe answer, like “I just want to get my message out to more people and more people to read what I write”. Okay, sure, that is true on a certain level, but it’s not the whole story. We’ve established that it’s not about the money. I mean, money’s great, I’m not going to turn down an opportunity to be a full-time novelist, but that’s not my drive. I have a full-time job that I actually really enjoy, and so I’m not upset about the prospect of this never turning into a full-time authoring gig.

But when you ask me about fame…that’s where it gets a little trickier. I’m not talking about the 15 minutes of fame type stuff, though. Not the “hey, everybody wants to be like me” stuff, either. I’ve spoken against that many times on this blog; my experiences with anything resembling that were frightening.

So what am I really talking about when I say that fame is a component of what I’m trying to do? Aside from, of course, “I just want to get my message out to more people and more people to read what I write”. In order to explain, I’m going to have to get a little personal on this one.

Most of my life I’ve had a very strong fear of death. I don’t know why. I have some theories about it connecting to some experiences that I had as a child, etc. etc. But the theory behind this intense fear of death is not as important as its mere existence. Of course, fear of death is psychologically linked to a fear of change. Right now, as a matter of fact, as I’m undergoing a rather large life change in putting myself out there for criticism, the fear of death has increased to the point where I’ve had some anxiety attacks over it.

Maybe you see where I’m going with this. When I was young, I thought about this issue very seriously. Immortality cannot happen. Period. You can’t live forever, no matter how you might want to. I tried to brainstorm alternatives, and my mind latched onto the idea that people who create certain works of art, in a way, live on through their art. Look at Van Gogh. Guy was a virtual nobody during his life, now everyone knows him.

Sure he’s dead, and I know that, on a purely rational level, this makes no sense, but emotionally, this search for “fame” is more a way of trying to beat the reaper. It’s almost a way of looking impermanence in the face and saying “oh yeah? How about this?”. I think it’s related to why I get so anxious when I’ve created something that I think is pretty great and it doesn’t receive the hoped-for reaction. I suspect this has something to do with how other artists react poorly to criticism. It’s all a raging against the dying of the light, and in some ways that rejection – or poor sales – can feel like the threat of annihilation.

I try to tell myself that it’s all a shell game. Everything comes to an end. But there’s still that small part of me that once lived in my childhood and wants to outrun death forever. It’s ironic, given that some of my eating habits are so self-destructive.

What I’m trying to say here is that I’m a neurotic mess! I’m a writer! It’s what we…well, most of us, anyway….are! No matter how hard I try to keep perspective that on a long enough timeline, none of this matters, IT STILL MATTERS. Very much, and there’s not much I can do about that.

My life has been a constant war between my emotional side and my rational side. I think that I’m at my best when I get the two to work together – when I can manage to capture emotion and describe it in a rational form. Okay, some of that keeps me going, too: those rare moments when those two parts work in concert to come up with something that’s…well, not bad at least.

So yes. All those words, all that prose, to say that I’m afraid to die. Yet I know that it must happen one day. To me, the act of creation and attempting to build a name for yourself is emotionally one of the few bulwarks. Does that make me weak? I don’t think so. I think it makes me human.

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  1. Interesting post. I know where I live, the approach of winter (and we already have some snow on the ground) is difficult for me as a writer (some have said we are more emotional beings… or at least more in touch with emotions… not necessarily ours all the time 🙂 ).

    And I can agree with your desire to leave behind some sort of legacy, and an interesting connection to a fear of death. I find it very intriguing. I heard it from another writer recently (maybe it was you… so many blogs) about wanting to write something that would survive into the next century. For me, I just hope to be read in my lifetime. Maybe my kids’ lifetime. Of course, after convincing myself that I died in a high school accident (longer story), and then besting one of my biggest fears by skydiving, I don’t really fear death anymore. I don’t want to die, but I’m not scared of it.

    Anyway, keep your chin up. You’re putting in the time and paying your dues (even still after 20 years). I believe that should land you where you want to be eventually (and I know that last word is the kicker, right?).

    Paul D. Dail A horror writer’s not necessarily horrific blog

    • Yeah, that’s my desire – to have a way to communicate my ideas beyond my immediate field of influence and time. To be able to say that I was here. Thanks 🙂 I’ve started coming to terms with things in the last few days and altering my long-term perspective a bit. I think it’ll be okay. Which reminds me, I need to check out part 2 of your story….

  2. Very insightful post Jonathan, thank you for sharing something that is so deeply personal, that takes a lot of courage in and of itself.

  3. Some very interesting thoughts there. I think the analogy between indie authors and artists is an apt one. It’s incredibly rare for an artist to make a recognised impact on their first piece. The same is true of the indie author, now this doesn’t mean the art/writing doesn’t have the quality to breakthrough and gain recognition it’s just they rarely get the opportunity to be reviewed by the right people. And without a body of work behind the first release you can lose some credibility. I think it’s all about the numbers game, keeping putting out quality work and with luck something will hit and have knock on effects with the previously released work. Van Gogh barely sold anything in his life but his earlier work is now more desirable than some of his more established work. As you say “keep on truck!”

    • Good point about getting reviewed. I’ve been doing the best I can to get my work out there, but I’m finding that a lot of the review community has some of the same draconian measures that the traditional publishers use. That’s their priority – I get that. They’re in high demand and have to figure out some way to make best use of their time, but I think it’s creating a bottleneck for some of the more deserving work to find its way out there. I know that, as a reader, I’d like to be able to rely on sites a little more for finding worthwhile indie work, and it’s really tricky right now.

      But yeah, something clicked for me yesterday and I’m getting the whole long-term view of the thing. My career’s not over if this one tanks…there’s a loooong way to go. Your comment helped me develop that longer view. Thanks!

  4. Very interesting and thought-provoking post! I know for me, it’s not about fame at all (but hey – I’ll take some wads of cash!), but I love the idea of sharing what is important to me with others. Knowing that somebody is feeling (hopefully!) the emotions that I felt while writing a piece is just such a high for me. It’s all about connection for me. I could care less about death. Not that I necessarily want to die, but I will say I worry far more about other people’s deaths than my own. For me, I just hope it’s quick and relatively painless. 🙂

    • I like that! For better or worse, I’ve already found that the emotions that I feel when I’m writing a scene rarely match up with what the reader experiences. I think that’s a good thing, because it validates the interaction between reader and writer and shows that a work can have value outside of its intended use, but it’s also made me a little gunshy about relying on what I can evoke in a reader.

  5. Thought provoking post – hope you get it all worked through. I feel some of your pain: I too struggle for success, but it’s not about money (OK not ALL about money) and fight with the feelings of inadequacy when my work fails to be accepted by the masses. I do not, however fear death. I rather welcome it – but that is another issue entirely!! Hang in there my friend.

    • Yeah, the feelings of inadequacy are really the worst because…well, honestly, I’m used to succeeding in my chosen vocation, and it’s always disconcerting to find that something that I’ve worked hard on, poured the best of myself into, can still fail, at least on a commercial level. Rationally, I know it’s this way for everyone, but a part of me always hoped I’d be the exception. Don’t we all? Just have to get used to the idea of being a schlub, at least for awhile 🙂

  6. It’s not that you are wary of being famous. You’re wary of fame not born out of respect.

    I feel the same on this issue. I’d like to be famous, but not in a celebrity-super-star way of selling your life to every tabloid on the planet, but rather as a guy who is good at what he does and cares about his readers.

    In the end, we all want to leave a positive impression of our lives on other people – that is what endures beyond our own. Works of art are one way to achieve that.

    • Very well-put. Fame born out of respect – I like that. Leaving a positive impression and even making a positive impact on the world, if even in a small way. Yeah, that’s exactly it. Thanks, that gives me something to think about and even strive for.

      Also, I love your avatar.

  7. Pingback: Top Picks Thursday 11/10/2011 « The Author Chronicles

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