05 February 2016

Confessions


by Art Taylor

The landmark anthology Sudden Fiction: American Short-Short Stories includes Lucas Cooper's extraordinary "Class Notes," a piece of flash fiction which originally appeared in 1984 in the North American Review. As the title suggests, the story is presented as one of those class updates that you find in the back of college alumni magazines, and it all begins in just that tone of chatty news: "Ted Mecham may be the first member of the class of ’66 to retire." But these particular class notes quickly take some unexpected turns: "Richard Endergel phoned a few weeks ago from Houston, under arrest for possession of cocaine" is one tidbit, for example, and further along, "Violence is no stranger to Bill Nast. His wife turned up in terrible shape at Detroit General Hospital two months ago, the victim of Bill's hot temper," and then further along, "Sue Zimmerman was a 1978 Penthouse Pet." While many of the items indulge some dark sensationalism, toward the story's end the briefs begin to linger over quieter, more private moments, glimpses into troubled inner lives: "Frederick Mandell weeps uncontrollably in his crowded apartment in Miami Beach. Joel Reede lives in self-destructive anger in Rye, New York.... Odell Masters cries out in his dreams for love of his wife and children."

On the one hand, the story can be read as a playful poke at the relentless pride and hearty optimism of class notes as a genre—and I've seen similar things done with the genre of the annual Christmas letter. But on the other hand, the story strikes me as much deeper and with a rich awareness of the human condition. To my mind, the effect is both beautiful and heartbreaking.

I thought about this story in the wake of a couple of recent events—the first of them a Facebook status update in which a friend discussed her awareness of "the curated nature of our Facebook posts," followed by an admission that some aspects of her life were, right then, pretty crappy.

It's likely not a surprise to anyone who's social-media literate that what people post on Facebook or elsewhere is at best just a glimpse—and likely a "curated" glimpse, to use my friend's word—into a much more complex life. The genre of the Facebook post may, to some degree, demand something performative of us—and it's easy for FB posters simply foreground the good news and bury the bad. (I recognize that exact opposite may also be true for other Facebook users—a type of Eeyore-ness about those online lives.) From the side of the reader scrolling through updates about selfless spouses, brilliant careers, and exotic vacations, the response might be anything from irritation at how one's fellow friends and acquaintances cross the line between "sharing" and "boasting" (see this letter in the Miss Manners column) to actual depression about how their own real lives compare to their friends' and colleagues' online ones (see this from the Harvard Business Review and this from a University of Missouri study). Facebook doesn't cause depression, no, but there's a pretty definite link between the two, via "social comparison," according to the Journal of Social and Clinical Psychology (cited here in Forbes). And going back to the class notes situation above, I'll admit to catching myself at times browsing through my own college alumni magazine and wondering, "How do I compare to...?" and "Why haven't I...?" and "Oh, I wish...."

The second incident that had me thinking about "Class Notes" was the announcement, earlier this week, of this year's finalists for the Agatha Awards, a time of great celebration in the mystery world and, as it turns out, right here in our immediate SleuthSayers family. It was such a thrill to see my fellow  bloggers Barb Goffman and B.K. Stevens represented on the slate: Barb for her short story "A Year Without Santa Claus?" in Alfred Hitchcock's Mystery Magazine, and Bonnie in two categories, with the short story "A Joy Forever," also from Alfred Hitchcock, and with her YA novel Fighting Chance: A Martial Arts Mystery. I was pleased to be among the finalists myself with my first book, On the Road with Del & Louise, as a contender in the Best First Novel category. As you can imagine and some may have seen firsthand, Facebook and Twitter and various other virtual communities were abuzz with the news, with announcements and congratulations and conversations—and I'll add a congratulations again to the finalists not only here in our SleuthSayers family but across the board!

Though I was grateful, of course—immensely grateful—both for the honor of having been named a finalist and for all the goodwill coming my own way, in the midst of it all I couldn't help but feel slightly self-conscious about the attention and undeserving in several ways, couldn't help but wonder at what point these types of posts risk crossing the line between "sharing" and "boasting" (to borrow that phrase from the Miss Manners letter) and, more to the point, I found myself fretting about the "curated nature" of the whole thing—though I was heartened immensely by a posting Barb Goffman herself made, which she's given me permission to reproduce here:

We writers often toil alone, wondering if what we write is any good, if anyone will read it, let alone like it. So receiving validation through an award nomination means the world. Thanks to everyone I've heard from today about my nomination for an Agatha Award in the short story category for my story "A Year Without Santa Claus?" Thanks to everyone who listed my story on your nomination ballot. Congratulations to all the finalists, especially my fellow finalists in the short-story category, Edith Maxwell, Terrie Moran, Harriette Wasserman Sackler, and B.K. Stevens. And I want to give a shout-out, too, to all the authors who had wonderful books and stories published this year whose names don't appear on the Agatha shortlist—being published is no small thing and is to be celebrated as well.

I couldn't agree more with Barb's comments—which speak of the best aspects of the mystery community in general: thoughtfulness, generosity and inclusiveness, with celebrations and recognition for us all. Those opening comments struck home, about writers wondering if what we write is good, if anyone will read it, if anyone will like it. And echoing that closing shout-out to other authors: Having twice judged the Edgar Awards, I know all too well how many fine books and stories are published each year, how few get to step into the spotlight, and how many others were equally deserving of that spotlight.

I've been about as fortunate as any writer could ask to be—something that I recognize and am grateful for every day—and I use that word fortunate specifically, with its echo of luck, a huge factor always. And I feel thrilled and humbled by the new honor this week and by the support I've received from fellow writers and readers. But in the spirit of how I've titled this blog, "Confessions," I want to admit that even as the celebrations were unfolding on social media and email, I confessed to a friend that the news came at a time when I've been struggling mightily with my writing for a variety of reasons—not just with finding time to write (always an issue) but with lack of direction, lack of confidence, poor productivity, and more.

These are things that I don't post on Facebook: anxiety, self-doubt, a recurrent fear of failure, and then real failures—the stories languishing on my computer because of rejection after rejection.

I recognize the potential dangers in admitting this—the danger that it might come across as whining from someone who really, truly has nothing to whine about. I've said before and I'll say again (and again) that I am blessed in many ways and couldn't/shouldn't ever ask for anything better. My point is never, not intentionally, to take on a woe-is-me attitude amidst an overabundance of riches.

But I do think it's important to pull back the curtain a little to reveal how much all of us may struggle, at whatever stage of our careers, at whatever level of success or seeming success. As Barb pointed out, we writers "toil alone"—a level of interiority is indeed central to our craft—and in the midst of that interiority, in that aloneness, sometimes as that aloneness verges into loneliness, it might prove seductive to wonder why the progress or the success that comes so easily to others is so difficult coming to us.

The friend I wrote to, confessing my own struggles, wrote back that she too has had a rough patch lately—over several years—a fine writer and former Agatha finalist herself. And then another writer I mentioned this to, a writer I've always perceived as immensely productive and invariably successful, admitted that she hadn't written anything in months, admitted to her frustrations about that and to the fear that there might simply not be any next plot coming. Other writers I know, some with long and acclaimed publishing success, have no trouble with craft but are struggling with sales and contracts and the various shifts in the publishing world. Closer to home: My wife, Tara Laskowski, has a book coming out in the spring and just earned some advance praise from a Pulitzer Prize-winning novelist—but in the midst of celebrating that boost, she's also been uneasy about troubles with her next project, the daunting task ahead of her, the fear that she's simply not writer enough to ever bring it off. (She is, I know she is, but right now she doesn't believe she is, and that's the point.)

Not all writers are like this, I recognize. Maybe I'm just the fretful sort, I tell myself, because I see those other writers who seem to know where they're going and get there without fail and make it seem so easy and.... But then that's just proving the point too. Not all writers are fretful, no, but at least based on my small anecdotal evidence, my small corner of the writing world, many of us likely are, perhaps more this way than the other—even those who don't look it on the outside...or on whatever social media platform they spend most of their time on.

As I've been working on this post, I've kept thinking that I need to find some way to bring it to a rousing close—some moral or message. Keep on writing! Everyone struggles, but the struggles will pay off! Or simply: You're not alone in the world! But ultimately too much of that seems pat and simplistic and maybe even condescending. It's also (updating this post here) unrealistic and maybe even empty; as one writer commented to me offline after this post went live, there are writers for whom the hard work might not pay off—writers who might ultimately give up because they haven't found that success or even publication. This happens, far more often than it should.

So maybe what I'm aiming for is something closer to the "Class Notes" story that I opened with and the comments on the "curated nature" of Facebook posts, the idea that what's flattened out in those respective genres may ultimately mask something more complex and more human in real life, part of some deeper struggles that we all sometimes experience, whoever or wherever we are.

In any case, I hope some of it might be not unuseful—and to bring all this from some over-lofty armchair philosophizing back to more practical matters, how about a question or two for the writers among us: Do you ever feel similar worries or crises? And if so, how do you deal with them?

Share if you can. We're all in this together, after all.

9 comments:

Paul D. Marks said...

Art, I think most writers are, to use your word, fretful. And for the same reasons. Some just cover it up better than others. But I also think most of us like to put on a good front, stiff upper lip and all that. Because, as you also say, we don't want to appear whiny.

Keep it going! What else is there?

And congratulations to you, B.K. and Barb!!! Good luck!

P

janice law said...

Class Notes sounds like a classic.
Congratulations on your nomination and good luck to you and all our Sleuthsayer finalists!

Eve Fisher said...

Congratulations to you on your nomination - and to B.K. and Bonnie and all the other nominees. Wow.
I agree with Janice, Class Notes sounds really interesting.
I also agree with Paul - we're a fretful bunch. What if the magic goes this time? What if this damn plot will NEVER get worked out? What if... Three in the morning can be a hard time for an awful lot of people; for me it's about three in the afternoon, when I'm sitting there, looking at my screen and wondering if I've screwed it up so badly I won't be able to get it worked out. Maybe I just wasted the whole afternoon. Maybe I should do something else. Maybe I should scroll Facebook for a while...
Yeah.

Art Taylor said...

Oh, yes, Eve--that's basically my process, whatever time of day, like you said. (Facebook is so easy, too easy.) I didn't add this to the post, but I remember being in grad school and talking to one of my professors who seemed to be on top of the world with his writing, top of his career, and being surprised when he said very seriously that he wondered if he'd ever write anything again. "What if the magic goes this time?" is a great question and the most troubling one, I think--not an obstacle to get past (a sticky plot point, a character that needs fleshing out) but something more existential.....

And yes, Paul, I agree with "Keep it going!" and always try to take that attitude myself. Not always easy, but the alternative is much worse! :-)

John Floyd said...

Well done, Art (as usual)! And sincere congratulations to you, Bonnie, Barb, Terrie, and all Agatha nominees.

Barb Goffman said...

Another aspect to touch on is the need to always improve. The next story should be better than the last, deeper, richer, pick-your-favorite-adjective-er. If you've previously shown you can showcase skill X, the next story should display something else. It's keeping up with the Joneses, but with yourself alone, and wondering if at some point you'll hit your limit and there won't be any more improvement coming. I've faced that struggle. All I can do is wait for the next exciting idea to come along, eventually it always does (at least so far), and then I start writing and try to still the negative voices in my head.

Another thought is something I've told other authors (and yes, this will sound like a Hallmark card): You have to enjoy the journey. You need to enjoy writing for itself, because not every story will sell and not every story will be lauded. If you live only for that external validation, you're setting yourself up for some hard times. But if you can enjoy the process of writing and of having written, then the benefits of publication can be icing on that cake.

Thanks for this thoughtful post, Art, and congratulations on your Agatha nom.

David Dean said...

You've really struck a nerve here, Art, and did it in a truly thoughtful, sensitive manner. You're quite right about the fretfulness of writers if I'm anything to go by. It seems sometime that I do nothing but write and worry about writing...or a host of other, more personal problems. Of course those personal things are far more stressful than the writing worries, so I return to those for relief. Eventually, I reach the point where there's nothing left but to write in order to take my mind off the worrying. Naturally, after I've achieved a few pages I begin to worry about the new project. This all hinges on coming up with a viable project to begin with, of course--inspiration, I've heard it called. This is another worry, coming up with something new and meaningful enough to bother with in the first place. Oh yeah, I almost forgot: I mustn't write the same story over again. When you've been at it awhile there's always the danger of the ghosts of stories past creeping into the present. Insidiously attractive wraiths they be, too. Lastly, I worry whether the story is any good, whether it will be published, will anyone read it if it is, and will they like it if they do. Then there's those pesky awards you mention. "Great God Almighty," I cry out every awards season, "Why have I not received a boatload of those things?" No one can hear me since this heartfelt cry is rising to the heavens from thousands of writers' desks across our great nation at the same moment. So I resolve to quit writing and spend more time doing good in the world and drinking. Like most of my resolutions this pledge comes to naught...other than the drinking part. In the end, I return to writing in a creative rage; seeking vindication, only to realize that I've yoked myself to the heavy plow of writing once more. But since it's a yoke I've grown comfortable with, I begin to plow a few furrows...then a few more...then a few more...then...

Great piece, Art! Congrats to you, Barb, Terrie, and B.K.!

R.T. Lawton said...

Art, I sometimes find that ego, arrogance, ignorance and/or being in denial helps. In 2000, I happened to read AHMM's guidelines on their website. Editor Kathleen Jordan wanted stories set in an exotic location, so I submitted one set in the Golden Triangle. Pretty exotic setting. She took it. The elation lasted about five minutes, then panic set in. How do I follow up with a second submission? How do I come up with something different to stand out from the crowd? Am I merely a flash in the pan?
So, I borrowed from Block, Hammett, Azimov, Peter Lorre and others to create the Twin Brothers Bail Bond series. Kathleen bought the first three stories and then she passed. Linda Landrigan took over and immediately asked for changes in the 3rd story which had been already paid for. Uh, oh, may be back to square one. Went back to the E, A, I and/or D mode and ploughed forward. Yes, despair and what the hell am I doing sometimes creeps in, because you are only as good as your last story/novel, whether it's an acceptance or a reject. But, with the E, A, I and/or D mode in place once again, I recently sent off an AHMM Holiday Burglars reject, cut down from 3,550 words to 1,500 words, to a UK newspaper who wants, family, crime and humor oriented material. They pay 80 pounds and I figured that the country which gave birth to Monty Python just might like my two characters. Besides, I've never been paid in pounds before. We'll see how it all comes out.

And a hearty congratulations to all you Nominees.

Art Taylor said...

Thanks, John, Barb, David, and RT -- I think your comments are better than my post in many cases! And David, if that fiction writing thing does fall through, you could go pro here, I feel sure. :-)

Seriously, while I kept wondering if I was being either comprehensive or even coherent in my own post, I'd hoped that the conversation would help to take this in better directions, expand all of it outwards.

Barb: Couldn't agree more (not the first time I've said that where you're concerned) that we're constantly competing with ourselves, and I know that David echoed that as well, trying to avoid following similar paths in our writing approaches. And I've also tried to remind myself that writing should be fun in and of itself, which is too easy to forget. Tara's writing actually took off when she rediscovered the fact that it could/should be fun--play not just work, not a duty or a deadline--and I try to seek out that sense of it myself as much as I can. (Part of what I was talking about with that Exercises in Style I talked about in my last post here.)

David: My process is cyclical like yours--including the drinking. :-)

And R.T.: I have to admit, I don't know what the E, A, I and/or D mode is! I may just be missing the obvious, I know, but..... But I agree with you with that feeling of elation followed by panic. Tara and I have joked that any good news that comes our way has a shelf-life of about 24 hours tops before some anxiety comes in--either about something else OR directly related to the good news. Like you said: Great I have a story accepted! Then: Oh, no! I'll never write one as good as that!

Good luck, R.T., with the UK submission--though sorry that AHMM passed on it. I love that series!