Success Sickness, by Eric Witchey

FNTCVR

Fantasy Silver Medal, 2018 Independent Publisher Book Awards

 

Success Sickness

Eric Witchey

Last weekend, I supported a local mini-conference here in Salem, Oregon. The conference made use of the Parallel Play program psychologist Brian Nierstadt helped me create sixteen years ago. Parallel Play has been the subject of other articles and will be again. For now, I want to focus on the fact that the conference was all about production and overcoming obstacles.

Aside: Special thanks to Chris Patchell and Debbie Moller, who did the bulk of the work to create the very successful, sold-out weekend. Special thanks to Willamette Writers: Orit Ofri, Kate Ristau, and Summer Bird. Also, thanks to the other professionals who donated their time to help the local community of writers: Rachel Barton, Erica Bauermeister, Elizabeth Engstrom, Devon Monk, Diana Pharaoh Francis, Waverly Fitzgerald, and Natalie Serber. My deepest apologies if I’ve missed anyone.

Now, it happens that on the Wednesday before the conference one of my novels received recognition from the 2018 Independent Publishers Book Awards (IPPYs). Littlest Death, cover show above and available in print or ebook on Amazon from Shadow Spinners Press (grin),  received the silver medal in the Fantasy category.

Result? I can’t write.

This is not a new experience. I know I’ll get past it, but I thought I’d take a second to write about this particular form of writer’s block because of the inspiring mini-lectures I was honored to listen to over the weekend. However, before I really get going, I want to point out that this is sort of a violation of certain social mores. In our culture, we accept that people can talk about the struggles, problems, obstacles, and especially the solutions encountered while striving to achieve our dreams. The gods know, I have done plenty of that both verbally and in writing over the years. We are much less accepting of people exploring the struggles, problems, obstacles, and solutions that appear because we achieve the things we strive for. Nobody wants to hear about how annoyed you are about the misleading Engine Warning light in your new Rolls Royce, but everybody wants know how you managed to, and by extension how they can, get a Rolls Royce.

So, at the risk of social shunning, I offer these insights into a problem I hope everyone has already overcome or gets the chance to overcome.

First, I’ll point out that there are two types of success sickness. They are “Anticipatory success sickness” and “recent success sickness.” They pretty much work the same way, and the treatment is pretty much the same, too.

Here’s how success sickness, which I sometimes erroneously call award sickness, works.

  1. The writer either anticipates or has received some new success—any new success. It can be as simple as a compliment from a teacher, a friend, or someone in the family.
  2. The writer sits down to write.
  3. The writer starts wondering either what they should write to succeed or what they did when they wrote the material that succeeded.
  4. The writer can’t figure it out, so they scrub the bathroom floor instead of writing.
  5. Repeat 2-5 until suicidal or new floor tile is required in the bathroom.

I first encountered success sickness after selling my first short story in 1987. I didn’t sell another story until 1997.

Well, that sucked.

Then, I won a slot at Writers of the Future and a place in the top ten from New Century Writers. New Century was a big deal then because Ray Bradbury was involved. Now, sadly, both Ray and New Century are gone. About the same time as the above two awards, I sold my first short story to a national slick magazine.

All good, right? I figured I was off to the races—a made man in the fiction family.

Then, number 2, I sat down to write and…NOTHING…3, 4, 5, and 3, 4, 5, and 3, 4, 5…

Well, that sucked.

After about six months of cleaning the bathroom and chatting with my new phone friends from the suicide hot line, I realized that I was in the loop of trying to recreate the success without understanding that the success had been created by not trying to create the success. In short, I had just been practicing my craft when I wrote the stories that won the awards and sold.

Sure, I wanted to sell stories and win awards, but I hadn’t been working on each story with the idea that I would do certain things in order to sell the story or in order to win an award. I had just worked on each story to make it the best story I could make it. I had practiced craft without regard for outcome.

That realization led to the idea that I needed to just work on stories and stop thinking about the successes, which of course is like telling yourself to not think about the proverbial elephant in the living room.

Sigh… Well, that sucked.

Once the tile in the bathroom had been replaced and I had tattooed the suicide hotline number on the inside of my wrist, I decided I needed to figure out how to trick myself into not paying attention to what I may or may not have done to contribute to the success I wanted to repeat.

My solution was to practice craft in a way that made it impossible to write a story that would sell. If I knew it couldn’t sell, then I couldn’t expect anything from it other than experience and words through the fingers.

Clever monkey.

So, I went back to the basic concept of practicing craft. I went back to my personal simplest form of practicing craft. I picked random topics to bind together into silly stories. That way, it would be impossible to believe I was creating saleable, award-winning material. Then, I picked a craft concept to practice. I called what I was doing my morning warmup, and I sat down every morning to a speed writing session in which I attempted to execute the craft concept I had selected while also incorporating the stupid random topics.

No pressure. No bathroom. No hot line. Just silliness and practice.

We are talking seriously random, here: My orange coffee mug; Mrs. McPharon’s black gravel driveway; The stinging fur on a caterpillar I found on Hogue’s barn. These are things from my desk and my childhood—totally unrelated. The concept to practice was, conversely, serious. It might be any of a thousand things, but it is always specific—something like “deliver implied intentions through indirect dialog.”

Five to fifteen minutes of speed writing attempting the concept and including the random topics was all I had to do. I started with one minute based on the belief that I can always sit down to do one minute. In a week or so, it became five. Later, and to this day twenty years later, it is fifteen.

Way back then, it took about six months before I stopped second-guessing every word and my writing became about the story on the table again. And, oddly, once I forgot to worry about how I had done what I had done, I did it again.

Well, that didn’t suck.

Except, then, 2, 3, 4, 5, and 3, 4, 5, and…

And begin again. New tile. Reacquainted with the hot line people. And back to five minutes and random topics at speed.

About six weeks passed, and I forgot to worry about how I did what I did, so I did it again.

… and 2, 3, 4, 5, and 3, 4, 5, …

You get the idea.

Fast forward to 2018 Silver Medal in Fantasy IPPY award, and 2, 3, 4, 5, and 3,4,5, and…

And back to five minutes of speed writing at the mini-conference. I did manage to put in several hours of productivity at the conference, but my stupid brain kept returning to what I had done to make Littlest Death an award-winning story.

Well, that sucks.

I’m hoping it will only take me a week or so to get to the point where I forget to worry about how I did what I did so I that can do it again. However, since I’m hoping that will happen, it will probably take longer since I now also have to forget to hope that I’ll forget to worry about how I did what I did before I can do it again.

Silly monkey.

The moral to this whole convoluted story is that sitting down to write something silly for one minute will lead to five will lead to fifteen will lead to an inevitable focus on the story at hand instead of what it might do once it’s finished because of what other stories have done in the past.

I will point out at this point that many of the stories I have sold were born during my warmup and became the story at hand. It turns out that choosing random topics to make it impossible to write a story is nearly impossible because the brain can, if given the freedom to do so, make a story out of pretty much anything. Sadly, that adds a whole new layer to this insanity of not thinking about what you did while you are doing what you are doing now so that you can repeat what you did. I think that’s another article.

Success sickness is the mind attaching itself to what was and what will be instead of resting in what is. Playful experimentation will bring the mind back to the here and now in which all successes are born.

Luck and skill to all who write and send.

-End-

Fish Every Cast, by Eric M. Witchey

Fish Every Cast

by Eric M. Witchey

My father was an avid sport fisherman, so my head is full of little gems of parental wisdom couched in angling metaphors.

More on that in a minute. First, a joke.

Have you heard the one about the aspiring writer who asked the editor, “What is the difference between a manuscript you accept and one you reject?” The editor smiled, sipped her wine, and quipped, “Lunch.”

In Dickens’ “A Christmas Carol,” Scrooge suggests to Marley that the ghost might be the result of a bit of underdone potato. We are all glad Marley wasn’t, but he might have been. Scrooge’s experience and the editor’s quip share very significant characteristics. Marley really is a ghost, and Scrooge embraces the possibility that human perception is influenced by environmental factors. The editor’s response assumes that the manuscript is a story, and she also embraces the knowledge that her perceptions might be influenced by blood sugar or general attitude in the moment.

Where Marley is actually a ghost, the editor’s assumption that the manuscript is a story is a huge and kind assumption. She is really only speaking to the selection between two stories from equally skilled writers. She has, in her mind, automatically dismissed the other 99% of her slush pile. Given her obscene workload, we have to allow for that.

Keep our hypothetical editor in mind for a moment while I return to my father. We used to go bass fishing on a pond in the woods at the back end of a Catholic Seminary in Ohio. That pond is where I learned to use a spin-caster. I can still hear my father saying, “If you want to learn to cast well, cast more.” I have fond memories of that place.

Now, having travelled the world and fished in many places, I can say that the little pond of my childhood was a bit of a shithole. It was choked in weeds. It was surrounded by a wall of cattails ten feet thick in places, which made water access difficult. Additionally, that pond wasn’t more than fifty yards from a landfill where we used to shoot rats, but that’s another story. Luckily, the shithole pond was full of nasty, hungry bass.

Learning to cast was an exercise in managing mind, body, equipment, and environment. Little-by-little, under the patient tutelage of my father, I got the hang of finding access, seeing where the bass might hang out, flipping the bail on my reel, letting out a little line, locking the line with a finger, swinging the rod to load the fiberglass and establish the throwing arc, and releasing the line by pointing my finger at the spot where I wanted my bass lure to land. Then, I learned to work my lures in the water in order to attract bass.

I caught bass.

However, and I actually started keeping track because that’s how my sad little OCD brain works, I only caught a bass about every 50 casts. Now, it turned out that in 50 casts, a fair number of them went astray of my intentions—especially early on while learning to cast by casting a lot.

One day, while trying hard to impress my father with my casting (and catching), I sent a hoola-popper (bass lure) out into the lily pads and tangled vines of elodea (weeds). That was not what I wanted. It was embarrassing because my father was standing next to me watching, so I quickly started to real the lure in to try again.

My father put a hand on my frantically cranking arm to still it. In his quiet, fishing voice, he said, “Fish every cast. You never know what might happen.”

Frustration at my failure battled with my desire to appear as though I believed my father. That day, the desire to please won out over my frustration. I slowed down. I worked the lure, and I caught a bass in the middle of the weedy, mucky, lily pad-laden shallows.

What has all this to do with writing, Scrooge, and jokes?

Well, in case you don’t already see it coming, it has everything to do with them. Sometime in the last few years, and I won’t say exactly when, I won an award for a story that had been rejected 65 times. That’s not an exaggeration, and I won’t name the story here for the same reasons I won’t pin down the timeframe more specifically. No organization wants to believe they gave an award to a story that other editors had rejected 65 times, but that prejudice is a human foible to explore another time.

The point here is that the story didn’t change over the almost 15 years it took before an editor had the right things at lunch to set their mood and allow them to embrace it. The manuscript was always a story, and it was always a “good enough” story. I put it out on the pond over and over and over because you have to cast 50 times to catch a bass. I put it in the lily pads. I put it in the elodea. I put in open water. I hit the bank. I got it tangled in the trees. Then, one day, it magically became the right story in the right place with the right editor, who, incidentally, had had the right things for lunch. In short, I caught a fish in the weedy, mucky, lily pad-laden shallows.

If, as writers, we are sure the manuscript is a well-crafted story, then it is important for us to remember that my father was a wise man. When he said, “If you want to learn to cast, cast more,” and, “fish every cast,” he wasn’t talking about fishing. Fishing was just the tool he used to slip his wisdom past my anti-parental advice defenses.

Every story is a lure. Every submission is a cast. You can never be completely sure which lure and which cast will bring a trophy bass up out of the muck and weeds. So, cast more and fish every cast.

I have to say one more very important thing. Editors are not bass. I never said that they are bass. Don’t ever tell them that they are a bass. That’s a very bad thing. Editors are people who have nothing whatsoever in common with bass. It also helps to buy them good lunches. Never let an editor eat a bad lunch.

PS: I’m adding this post script about thirty minutes before this blog entry is scheduled to go live because I just found out that the one and only science fiction story I have written about a boy and his father teaching one another to fish just sold to Daily Science Fiction. The story is titled, “Vincent’s First Bass.” I love it when the universe throws these tiny convergence parties.