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-

Free Yourself From Your Work

by Matthew Lowes

rainbow-road

The experience of hesitation just before one starts writing is something all writers have probably felt at some time. Whether from doubt of our abilities, the fear of what might come out, or the aversion to collapsing our grand nebulous ideas into something concrete, we hesitate, sometimes only for a moment, and sometimes for a lifetime. In the middle of a big project, doubt may seize us and again we hesitate, certain the work is a mess. Likewise, when we have expressed ourselves freely and fully, we may hesitate to rewrite and to put it out there, to let others see what we have done. And all these fears, all these doubts and hesitations, spring from one simple thing. We identify ourselves with our work.

In this day and age, when we are encouraged to brand our work and our identities to suit the market, this tendency to internally identify with our work finds ample reinforcement. It may prevent some from writing all together. It may prevent some from finishing a great book. It may prevent some from doing their best work, from fully opening themselves to writing the most challenging, most daring words they have to offer. And it may prevent some from sharing with others what they have written.

Of course, one must be critical at times, especially when learning the craft and while in the midst of doing any edit or rewrite. But to cling to this criticism or to identify ourselves with any work, is not only to suffer, but to stifle our own creativity. The creative mind is free and open, unlimited by any expectation, and unhindered by self doubt or personal identification with any work, past or present.

Don’t allow this tendency or pressure to identify with your work to stand in the way of your creativity. Whenever you feel this hesitation or doubt, just remember that you are not your work. The work itself is just a stream of words on a page, just symbols on paper. And while you have a right to the act of putting these symbols down and arranging them as best you can, you do not control the origins of this act, nor its ultimate ends.

Our own true nature will always be beyond all words. So free yourself from your work, whether it is the work you are about to do, a work in progress, or the work that you have already done. Our work is really not our own anyway. For we do not know what thoughts will arise in the act of creation, nor from whence they come. It is all a spontaneous happening. Just allow it to happen.

 

When Real Life Interferes

By Elizabeth Engstrom

Writing fiction takes up an enormous amount of cranial space. It requires quiet, solitude (or your version of those things), and quite a bit of time just staring into space. Or mindlessly playing solitaire. Whatever, you need your version of quiet time to let your mind freewheel.

Carving out that time to write in a dedicated, ongoing, consistent manner is more difficult than any non-writer can imagine. There is always the phone, the ding of email, the person coming into the office saying, “I’m not disturbing you, I’m only…” All of which are distractions so off-putting it’s truly a wonder we get any pages written at all. And when we do, we have a right to be satisfied, even if they suck.

But then there is the other interference, and that consists of life events that vaporize our concentration.

A good friend confided in me not long ago that he was “blocked” for the first time ever in his writing, and what few sentences he wrote were hard fought and turned out to be crap. He was truly mystified. With a little discussion, it turned out that he had not one, not two, but three major events happening in other areas of his life that were of maximum stress.

You know that list of stressors? Here they are:

  • Death of a family member
  • Terminal illness (one’s own or a family member)
  • Physical incapacitation, chronic pain, or chronic illness
  • Drug or alcohol abuse (self, family member, partner)
  • Divorce
  • Marriage
  • Loss of job or job change
  • Moving house
  • Primary relationship problems
  • Severe financial problems

There are more, of course, but these are the big dogs. Most, if not all of these happen to all of us at one time or another, because that is the stuff of life. That is the human experience. We should welcome these events, even when they stress us out, because that’s how we learn about ourselves—how we react in stressful situations. Need I mention that it is all grist for the mill? We need new experiences to feed our fiction machine.

However, when we work so hard to carve out the time to write (and we can’t give that up, no matter what), and one or more of these situations takes up all of our cranial space to the point where we’re either “blocked” or all we come up with is hard-fought crap, then it is time to reevaluate our priorities.

Sometimes we just need to sit down and deal with what is in front of us. Sometimes writing is not and should not be the number one priority. We have bigger issues to deal with. As writers, though, our fiction-writing minds are busy focusing on future scenarios and how what it is that we’re bothered by is likely to turn out. It almost never turns out the way we imagine, but we can’t help ourselves. Plotting is what we do.

We’d rather feel guilty about not writing.

We’d rather deny the stress, as if confessing to it makes us less of a person, less of a writer, when in fact it not only makes us more of a person, it makes us more of a writer.

And then there’s comparing ourselves with others. We all know that so-and-so pumped out four books last year despite a divorce, the death of a child, and moving to Europe. Well, maybe, and maybe not. Nothing is exactly as it appears. Besides, that person’s career is not your career and not your life. Certainly not a life you would trade yours for, not really.

So if you find yourself “blocked” (I put that word in quotation marks because I don’t believe in writer’s block—but that’s a blog post for another day), or all you can write is hard-won crap, take a look at your life and see if you have one or two or three of these major stressors. If you do, use your solitude and writing time to puzzle out not the plot of your new book, but the way to peace and serenity with the situation that life has handed to you.

The job of a writer is to articulate the human condition. To do that, you must experience it.

Embrace it, live it, journal about it, and when it passes, as it always does, you will write about it, and your life and your work will be all the richer.

Writer’s Stuck

by Matthew Lowes

Train_stuck_in_snowThe idea of writer’s block gets a lot of attention. I’ve always interpreted it as some kind of psychological block to writing, and while I can imagine such a condition, I can’t imagine it would be too common among writers. Much more common, I believe, and perhaps sometimes mistaken for a psychological block, is the experience of being stuck on a difficult problem.

I’m right in the middle of a summer long campaign to finish the 3rd book in a fantasy trilogy. It’s a project I’ve been working on for around twelve years all together, if you include a few years when nothing got done. And in that time, believe me, there have been times when I felt stuck. I struggled to figure out a particular plot line, or how to turn some necessary action into an exciting scene, or how to develop a specific character or theme over the course of a 300,000 word trilogy.

The first couple times I got stuck like this, it felt like a catastrophe. This thing can’t happen because of that other thing, and that character can’t be in this place at this time because how would he have gotten there, and so on. You’ve written yourself into a corner, and how the hell are you going to get out?

Over the years I’ve learned not to panic or despair. It never helps anyways. There’s always a solution; the trick is finding it. Sometimes it requires a day of hardcore thinking, the kind that makes your brain hurt and your sleep fitful. Sometimes it requires a long walk, a hot bath, or a few hours of looking at birds out my back window. Sometimes I just need a day off. In any case, it’s important to acknowledge that the brain needs time to process problems when they arise, consciously and subconsciously.

Sometimes the answer comes to me in a flash, but if not I move on to the next step. When all the thinking and loafing around starts to feel indulgent, I pick up a pen and start writing ideas down. I brainstorm solutions and variations. I draw diagrams, make notes, and outline possible scenes. Finally, if I’m still not sure I understand the solution I pick the best idea I have and just start writing it. I don’t commit to using it yet. I treat it like an experiment. But more often than not, if I’ve gotten this far, the problem dissolves in the process of writing.

So while I don’t put much stock in the proverbial writer’s block, there are definitely real problems big enough to get stuck on. Luckily, getting unstuck is pretty straight forward: think/rest, brainstorm, and write. Repeat as needed.

My Hero’s Journey between the Coffee Pot and the Keyboard

Eric M. Witchey

Every writer is at one point or another exposed to these two things: Joseph Campbell and resistance to writing. Is it surprising at all that instead of actually writing fiction I’m scribbling about two concepts I wrestle with every day? After all, isn’t talking about doing something very nearly the same as doing it?

My World of the Everyday

This morning, the alarm didn’t go off.

I should be so lucky that I sleep until my alarm actually goes off.

You see, in my tribe of one, I’m dissatisfied with my world. My restlessness gives me fitful dreams and early mornings.

Ah, but there are good things, things that represent home and hearth to me. One is my morning cup of steaming, Italian Dark Roast espresso. In spite of my dissatisfaction with my lot amid the familiar things of life in my small village, I take pleasure in my skill in grinding, measuring, pouring, boiling, filtering, smelling, and sipping my dark elixir.

I lift my mug to lips, savoring the aroma and anticipating my first sip.

The Call to Action

Then, up in my bedroom, the Marvin the Martian spaceship alarm clock explodes into its 90 decibel, digital simulation of lift-off.

My promise to myself is that today I will move beyond my own boundaries, failed attempts at eloquence, and cyclic, self-defeating thoughts. Today, I will leave my village of one and enter the dark woods of creativity where none but those who dare to venture forth know what might await.

I gulp down my magic elixir, forgetting to savor because I’m already seeing the future greatness that shall be me once I leave this wretched village and pen a deathless tome.

Resisting the Call

But first, I’ll clean the kitchen, which amounts to resisting the call, which is never, ever a good idea. Everyone knows that resisting the call means immediate deterioration. I know it. I do it anyway. I wet the sponge. I swipe at the counters. I sweep the floor. I face the crud-caked microwave.

The clock on the microwave counts f***ing seconds. Seconds! Who the hell needs to know what time it is to the f***ing second?

Apparently, Mennonites think I do. I don’t know any Mennonites, but they know me. Mennonites. Minions. Is it coincidence that I think of dark Sunday coats and muse on the idea that the two words could be modified slightly to make them near rhymes?

I think not! There is darkness in the world.

I can feel my coffee buzz rising to a crescendo as I wipe away last night’s bean and bacon soup explosion from the inside of the microwave. By the time I’m done, my buzz is fading. The self-loathing is growing. The clock is counting the seconds of my mortality off with annoying precision in digital block numbers that remind me that I’m dissatisfied with the tribe of one and its limitations. I must take action if I want to stop my own deterioration.

The Wise One and Magical Potions

Memory, ghostly and strange, brings me the voice of the sister-in-law I once rented a room from, who tells me in her most wise, sepulchral Japanese voice, “Go, Eric! Go! Only doing gets it done!”

Spurred on by my memory of the wise one, I make a new cup of coffee and head for the archway into the hall that leads through the shadowy back of the house and toward the…

Threshold Guardian

The sphinx holds the archway, blocking my path to my path.

Okay, not so much a sphinx as a pug-sized, 14 year-old mutt of mixed origins, profound deafness, near blindness, and extreme wobbliness. I try to step past, but he senses me and stumbles to the side, placing his frail, pathetic body nearly under my foot.

Very clever.

He knows that every writer knows that you can’t hurt the dog.

Catching myself, and protecting the newly brewed elixir I carry from sloshing over onto the frail guardian and my village’s symbolically overloaded now-soiled-but-once-upon-a-time white carpet, I step back into the kitchen and ponder the guardian and how to vanquish it.

My life reading mythopoeic tales is not wasted. The answer comes to me as if by magic. Guess its name.

That often does the trick. I’ll start with an invocation. “Thy name is Zeke,” I say.

No response.

I pull out the big gun magic word. “Tuna?

Ah, now I have his attention. I have answered his riddle before it has been asked.

Did I say he’s really, really old in dog years? As if to warn me of terrible things to come, he squats like a little girl dog and pees, further soiling the symbolically overloaded carpet.

Tuna, indeed! In my mental notebook of vanquishing spells, I make a notation. Do not overexcite the frail threshold guardian.

I clean the carpet and feed the guardian, thus vanquishing him and learning that beyond the archway await trials and tribulations too terrible for him to speak.

The Dark Woods and Learning the New Rules

Stepping over the wet spot, I enter the dark dinning nook.

There, I must pass traps set by minions—or perhaps Minionites. Who can say what true Minioinite-owned parent corporation controls the Time Magazine left open on the dining room altar? Like a siren’s song, pretty pictures beckon. Jennifer Aniston got a haircut. Jeff Bezos now owns the Washington Post. A drone killed someone who was not in the NSA skimming through this blog to find out what I’m up to.

Foul spell! Evil tempter! Archaic media format! Begone. Leave me be! Leave me be!

I shake off the darkness that settles slowly over those who read news before writing fiction. I sip my elixir of clarity and motivation, and I consider returning to the kitchen to let the Mennonites reheat the elixir to a reasonable temperature for quaffing.

The Minionites nearly had me, but my encounter with my first trial has made me wiser, stronger.

Staggering away from the breakfast nook, I set my course for the stairs on the other side of the living room.

Yes. If I can make it to the stairs, I may be able to rise above the trials of the shadowy living room, move beyond the soul-tugging shelves of books I have collected but never read, slip around the sudden, mystical need to dust tchotchkes and alphabetize by author.

My elixir is nearly gone, but it has served me well. I swallow the last. I am now alone with myself—with whatever innate powers I was born to and whatever knowledge I have gained along the way.

Encounter with the Minionites

The Minionites call my name.

No, it’s my ringtone. My cell phone is in the bathroom off the short hall at the bottom of the stairs.

I had not considered that the Minionites might be in league with the evil Japanese wizard Sam Sung, a Galaxy III class wizard and master of many apps to beguile me. Who could think of such a union until confronted with it? Who could resist the need to silence Sam’s call? Braver souls than mine have succumbed to the subtle, insidious mental magic and answered the call—lifted, poked, then stared at a fixed point while ignoring all around them. The Lotus Eaters themselves would have risen from their bowers of bliss to answer.

But I have learned! I have grown! I have voicemail!

Ha, Minionites! Ha! I bite my thumb at thee, Sam Sung! Fie, I say! Fie!

The stairs are mine!

Confronting a Lieutenant of the Evil One

I rise upward toward the land wherein the grail hath been hid. There, a framed gateway pours forth beams of ultraviolet, spectrum-adjusted, high luminosity seasonal affective disorder busting brilliance. Just beyond resides The Oak Roll Top Altar of Creation and the rune-etched keyboard through which I will cast my spells upon the hearts and minds of the needful.

I rise and press forward, ever watchful for an attack I feel must come, a…

A spider!

Huge and hairy and spindly-legged, it dangles from the doorframe, challenging me, testing me. This is no mere apparition or household pest. No, clearly the UV, spectrum-adjusted sparkling of its many, many-faceted eyes reveals the true magical nature of the vile beast. This is more than a Minionite! This is more than a guardian! This is a confidant, a true loyal to the desires of the darkness that I now know is named Sam Sung.

It beckons. I can almost hear its Vincent Price voice call to me, “Embrace me! Do battle with me! Show me what it is that makes my master tremble so when your name is spoken.”

The trick here is suddenly clear to me. Battle joined, I would no doubt win. I have size and speed and hard-earned tools. The empty elixir mug alone would be enough to end the existence of this creature, but there is more at stake here than vanquishing a foe.

As with all moments, I live in this moment. It will define me. My actions will name me truly hero or merely another of the many who have fallen to violent impulse and selfish desires.

“No, lieutenant of darkness, I will not fight. I will not raise my hand against thee. My quarrel is not with you, nor is yours with me.”

“Fight, Coward!” He drops to the floor and scuttles, fangs raised, toward my feet.

“I am not like you or your dark lord! I embrace the UV, spectrum-adjusted, mood altering light and will not fall into the shadows from whence you came!”

I choose my action and define myself. I do not kill. I do not capture and release outside. I step over the spider, humiliating him with my demonstration of his irrelevance. I have stepped past the last obstacle.

The Final Confrontation

Into the glow—into the embrace of light, I pass. To the altar of imagination and self-expression, I step. Into the throne, I settle. Incantations and careful hand passes of mystic power bring The Oak Roll Top Altar of Creation to life.

But Sam Sung knows of my victory over his minionites and his lieutenant. He marshals all his powers against me.

His evil corrupts even the altar of creation.

Allison wants to be my special friend, wants me to chat, to share naughty secrets, perhaps to meet and see what comes of it.

Minionite! Begone! Route thee to the garbage files!

Blue pill promises potency beyond my wildest dreams (and hers—probably Allison).

Get thee to Allison’s house!

Sam Sung himself promises me new power, power beyond my dreams, beyond his Galaxy III mastery. I, humble villager that I am, can have Galaxy IV power if only I will click here.

One click.

Only one, and the world will be mine!

NO!

I have seen this ruse before—and before, and before, and before. My life has brought me along a twisted path through dark rooms to this moment, and I deny thee and all thy Minionites, Sam Sung!

Not local Milf, nor magic app, nor promise of great power, and not even your offer of great wealth if only I will help you move funds from your Nigerian accounts will stop me this day.

I rebuke thee! NO, I say! Thrice, I say, NO!

Deep within, I find a spark, a need, a moment of purest hope. With all my tested spirit, I fan that spark. I feed it my dreams and nurture it with my hopes. I open a blank file of purest potential, and I place my fingers upon the rune-etched keys.

The Grail is Found!

Free, healed, and in the moment to which I was destined to come, I give my triumph back to the world. I type, “It was a dark and…”

~End~

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