I’ve been debating this past week or so, on whether it’s time to lay a project to rest of not. From its conception – on one long, isolated, Maltese holiday – to its finish, on the afternoon I fell off my bike in a canal – it took me over 4 years, tons of effort, and several grudge matches with my depression to get the story down and start querying. I won’t say I’ve done everything possible – there is still the option of paying a professional editing service to have a look at it, or taking one of those London courses that will get me networking as well as learn the basics of an opening scene (again).
But… I have a choice to make. I can either put in the deposit for a car, taking just this little bit of control of my constant traveling, or I can pay an editor to look at my book. It’s a tough one to make, and depending on your personal disposition, you will choose differently. Some people will say that no expense should be spared when you work towards your career, especially when it comes to the arts. But a sad fact of my life is that I have made considerable sacrifices to get into careers – not all of which are writing-related – and they were not worth it. Not even for the sake of saying “at least I know better now”. So short of something coming out of my grant applications, or my (long-suffering) beta readers finally catching enough of a break to read what I send to them, I’m looking at the very real possibility that this project will have to be shelved, if not indefinitely, then for at least a very long time.
And yeah, in case you were wondering – this is really, really painful.
I first had the idea of becoming an author when I was in 8th grade, and I quickly came to realize that it’s not something that can happen overnight. But the real decision came five years later, as I was gearing up to go to university and realizing I didn’t have the spine to fight my parents about the kind of studies I’d be making. I didn’t take the decision lightly – I researched it, I read up on it, I thought really hard about the pros and cons of it (I am, after all, an over-thinker). I knew being a writer wasn’t easy, or that it would pay well, and if I couldn’t sell the idea to myself, how would I argue it convincingly to anybody else?
(For anyone wondering whether to go into the arts or business after school: it doesn’t matter. I swear it doesn’t. If you’re not going into a highly technical field, like engineering, or medicine, or law, or any of the natural sciences, the debate is worthless. Pick whatever “soft” field you like best and enjoy the hell out of it. Economics only appears sound, but it’s the sort of field you should only get into if you have a natural inclination for it. I assure you, your lecturers don’t want you in their courses if you’re going to pick your nose for three+ years in their classroom.)
I did make a bargain with myself, though:
I would do the studies that I was expected to do, and I would try to do well in them because it’s no good sense to put all your eggs in one basket (I didn’t know, then, that having too many baskets can be its own sort of Hell). I would be diligent and committed. But I would also work towards becoming an author, and I would be as serious about it as any other profession. I would treat it as the apprenticeship it is, and see if it pays off at all.
Mind you, that’s not how it turned out. The reason why people go to university in the first place is less about the lectures themselves, and more about the structure and the space to experiment and figure things out for yourself. Juggling two different apprenticeship routes and giving them the same amount of attention and care is not doable. Not for 4 years straight. And despite my best of efforts, the writing fell by the wayside.
That’s not to say I never stopped trying. But it took me a long time to get to a point where I was happy with what I was putting out. And now, I’m faced with the possibility that my best is not good enough, and that I have a lot more to learn.
One thing I will say is this – the years I spent in higher education were not in vain. My degree hasn’t gotten me the windfall job I was hoping for, that would give me freedom to write without financial constraints (talk about fairy tales!) but what I did get was discipline. I learned to work in stages, to give myself enough time, to plan, to think ahead. I learned that things sometimes don’t work out, despite your best efforts, and that fairness has nothing to do with it.
I took a few falls, and I discovered I’m not as easily breakable as I am.
And, although I hate this cliche as much as any other recent graduate, I did, eventually, start to accept setbacks (and even the deaths of projects) as an opportunity rather than a personal failure. (I know, I know, the cringe!) I’m not saying that it doesn’t suck when it happens – case in point, I’m taking over 1000 words to explain to you why exactly this project is a big deal for me, even as I contemplate shelving it – or that it doesn’t make your question everything you know about yourself. But it’s physically impossible for everyone to be a winner all the time (out of the millions of manuscripts submitted to publishers, only a handful get the green light! A handful out of millions! Imagine those odds!) and the only way you recover your self-esteem, and live to write another book, is by finding a way to bounce.
Bounce from the disappointment.
Bounce from the (oddly personal) rejections.
Bounce from the doubt, and anger, and despair. Bounce away from the fear that you will never be a writer, that you are bound to work rubbish jobs for an eternity, that your soul will be suffocated under the demands of the mundane (cars! Health insurance! Medication!) and the pressing weight of the years.
The only way to do that is to make your next project even bolder, crazier, and more audacious than the first. Smile, I tell myself. Camp NaNo is coming up, and you’re not yet put into a marketing slot. You can still write what you want. What more can you ask for?