In the early 2000s, after about ten years of work, a few sales, three Nanowrimos, and two unpublished novels, I stopped writing for a long time. I was totally burned out and discouraged, and a series of events transpired that made me feel like the entire business was hopeless.
First, I managed to finish Nanowrimo that year, “winning” by writing 50,000 words of a work I had come to totally despise. But it was a Pyrrhic victory. Once I uploaded the file to the Nano website to verify my win late one night in late November, I closed the file and never, ever looked at it again, not to this day. Writing that NaNovel had become a kind of death march that left me feeling totally exhausted and discouraged.
Next, a story that I had poured my whole heart into, a near-future science fiction story for which I had done massive amounts of research, and which I had lovingly targeted toward a particular market, a science fiction magazine — came back from that magazine with a boilerplate rejection. You know, a form letter — sometimes it’s really just a flyer — that says, thanks but no thanks. This was a stinging rebuke for two reasons. One, although I hadn’t sold many short stories, the ones that were rejected didn’t get boilerplate rejections. I usually got a personal note from the editor scribbled on the manuscript, like “It’s good, but not for us,” or “keep trying.” Sometimes, an actual letter advising how the ms. could be improved, or suggesting another market to try. That a story I would sure would sell came back with a boilerplate reject was heartbreaking. Second, many of the readers in the workshop I currently belonged to specifically suggested that magazine, independent of my ever mentioning it. “This would be great for Magazine X!” That everyone could see this except that magazine’s editor was crushingly discouraging.
So I was feeling pretty rocky when the third thing happened. I met a local author at a con when he gave a reading. He had just published his first novel to good acclaim. Upon researching him after the con, I discovered he was a member of George Alec Effinger’s writer’s workshop. That workshop arose out of an adult extension class on writing science fiction that George taught at the University of New Orleans. Many people — my parents, my husband — had encouraged me to take that class, but I proudly refused. “I don’t need a class on how to write. I know how to write!” I was young and full of myself enough, I guess, not to realize that one can always improve one’s craft — an artist is always learning. Nor did I ever imagine that a class could evolve into a workshop, an ongoing community, and at that time I didn’t realize, to my detriment, that artists need community, need support to keep going in the mercantile American culture that is brutally dismissive of art and creativity.
I guess that was my first inkling of that, when I realized I could have joined a sustaining writer’s workshop, led by a Hugo and Nebula winner no less, that might have nurtured me and guided me toward completion of a novel. But I was too full of myself to do it.
(I’ve come to realize over the last few years that I have many fixed, rigid ideas about things, all sorts of things, that limit me in ways I never realized. Not a good trait for a speculative fiction writer. I am trying now to be more flexible and open-minded.)
And then, George Alec Effinger died. So I guess this was in April 2002. (Poor bastard, he had cancer. He was only 55.) No more classes. No more chances to join that workshop. Opportunity lost.
At that time, having seen some startling reversals in the lives of older friends and relatives, I had become rather possessed of the idea that one could make a fatal mistake in life, one that would send you down the wrong track for good and all, and you would never recover. You wouldn’t know that moment when it came, but it would be obvious later, as you gnawed on the dry bones of your discontent. (Yeah, I was not in a good headspace those days.)
But this was it! I could see it, my fatal mistake. Not joining that class, not becoming part of that workshop. Flailing alone in the wilderness, while other writers, no more talented that me, learned and advanced, helping each other. I should have joined that sci-fi writing class in 1996 or whenever. Not joining was my fatal mistake.
Reading that writer’s blog, realizing the implications for myself, I just put my head down on my desk. I remember that moment very clearly. It was the final straw.
My writing career seemed like a failure and a wasted opportunity at that point. Pointless. A black hole sucking the joy out of my life.
“I don’t know if I can do this anymore,” I told my mother.
“So take a break,” she said. “It’s not on a timeline. You can always come back to it later.”
So I did. I stopped writing, for about three years.
I was just thinking of taking it up again, when Hurricane Katrina happened.