Monday, October 22, 2012

One Life is Not Enough

Yes, I know today's title sounds like a soap or a Bond movie, but it really does describe what I'm about to discuss.

On her latest blog entry, my friend Malena Lott (publisher of two of the anthologies that have included my stories), wrote about "The Dark Side of Being a Writer" You can find her blog here

In that entry, Malena talked about the negative sides of pursuing a career as a writer: the fact that our ways of thinking might seem abnormal to others, the frequency with which our work is rejected by publishers and editors (even the most successful writers don't sell everything they write), the loneliness of working in solitude, and the fact that most of us make more money at our day jobs that we do writing, yet we feel compelled to keep tapping away on our keyboards day after day and night after night looking for any little victory we can find. Malena really hit a bunch of nails right on the heads in that blog, noting many things that I think most writers feel at one time or another.

Reading that made me get back to thinking about a question I've been meaning to address on my own blog.

Why do we write? In a business where success is unlikely, the odds are against you, and competition, even for the jobs that pay little or nothing, is fierce, what makes us keep writing and writing and sending material out there and promoting our work day after day? Why not just stop, walk away, and do something easier?

It's not that simple. If you have the desire (or perhaps "need" is a better word for it) to write, you can't turn it off like a light switch. That would be like trying to turn off your dreams or your emotions or your need to eat. The need to create stories is part of me as much as my skin or hair or bones. For me, and maybe for many writers, one life is not enough. There's something in us that makes us want to experience not only our own lives, but what it's like to be someone else, or many other people, perhaps whole worlds worth of others.
In every story I've written, there's always one character or several characters, that seem more connected to me than others, as if I'm putting on a mask of that person's life for the time it takes to write part of the story, the whole story, or somewhere in between the part and the whole. But why? Why do writers have this impulse that leads us to become, for a moment or an hour or however long it takes, someone else in our minds?  

I've always had a strong imagination. Looking back on my life, I can see that. As a kid, even as early as three or four years old, I loved stories. I was fascinated by my grandfather's stories of his experiences in World War II (which I now realize were significantly cleaned up) and the bedtime stories my grandmother told me about Dracula and Jack the Ripper (yes, Jack the Ripper! They were gruesome too, although she left out the fact that his victims were prostitutes. I guess I was destined to grow up to be either a writer or a psychopath. Thanks, Grandma!). When I saw a movie or TV show when I was small, it never ended with the closing credits. My mind always kept the story going, coming up with ideas about what might happen to the characters next. When I was old enough to read, I rarely read a book or comic book without imaging further adventures for the heroes.

So my imagination was always there, always powerful, but when did storytelling become something I had to do, something I couldn't live without? As I look back at memories, I see the answer to that. Creativity can sometimes be a necessary response to pain. That's what made it happen.  

I may have developed my imagination early, but it really kicked into high gear when I got old enough to go to school. I had to use it then. It saved me. I was one of those kids who learns easily. I guess that happened because I treated school lessons like any other experience. I didn't see it as work; I just absorbed the information.  So, because I got my work done quickly, I tended to get bored in class. I needed something else to do. I tried to do what I thought was the right thing. I tried to help those who didn't work as quickly as I did. My heart was in the right place and I didn't realize I was breaking the social rules that people in groups tend to develop early in life without even realizing they're doing it. Boy, did that backfire on me! I found myself ostrasized, looked at like I was weird, alien, like there was something wrong with me. I didn't expect that. I was caught off guard. It hurt! (In a way, it hurts just to remember it now, thirty years later.) So what does a kid do in a situation like that? He has to defend himself. Well I couldn't go around punching people. For one thing, I was a scrawny little kid. And I hate violence; I wouldn't want to hurt anyone. So my imagination became my shield. I became someone else. I wasn't the strange one. They were! They were the aliens and I was Captain Kirk exploring their planet and trying to understand their strange customs and behavior. Or maybe I was James Bond infiltrating a lair of SPECTRE agents. They were the Empire and I was a young Jedi waiting for the right time to bring their evil plans crashing down on their heads!

That fantasy world in my head got me through a rather lonely childhood. Of course, it got better. I grew up, gained confidence, realized there really wasn't anything wrong with me at all. I am who I am and that's great. I don't blame those other kids either. They felt what they felt and maybe I did seem weird to them. Years have gone by and some of them are friends of mine now. It's all ancient history.

So that was how my imagination became such an important part of my life, and even after I no longer needed that shield, I couldn't turn it off, nor would I want to.

There's a part of me (and I see the same quality in some of my fellow writers too) that's very much like Peter Pan. I don't want to fully grow up, and I consider myself lucky that I never have! Sure, there's the adult me. I live in the twenty-first century and can look realisitcally at the world around me. I have a good life now and I'm happy about that. I have a house, the best wife any man could want (and she puts up with all my eccentricities!), some money, good friends. But even the best life has its limitiations. I am the age I am now and will only get older; I can't get younger again. There are parts of the world I'll never visit and interesting people I'll never get to meet. I'll never explore an alien planet or be an agent of Her Majesty's Secret Service.......or will I?

That, you see, is the great thing about it. While there are things I've never done and never can do in the body I inhabit in the world I "really" live in, the imagination I've relied on my whole life, and now get paid to use (how awesome is that?), has sent me on some journeys I wouldn't trade for anything. I've solved mysteries on the streets of Victorian London, killed vampires (and had sex with one!), chased Chinese crimelords through the streets of Chicago, found a way to stop a plague of zombies, flown airplanes over Europe in the first world war, saved a gymnasium full of teenagers from an alien invasion, exorcised a haunted Facebook account, saved an alien princess from cannabalistic scavengers, found the Nautilus right where Captain Nemo left it, and done a dozen other things I never could have done if I didn't have the kind of "abnormal" mind that some people accuse writers of having! They say the pen is mightier than the sword, but it can also take you where no airplane, automobile, spaceship, or submarine can go. And it gives you the ability to take others along too, as long as they're willing to accept the ride.

As Malena said in her blog entry, writing does have its dark side, and it's a profession that's not for everybody. But for people like me, the price of having to deal with that dark side is worth it. One life certainly is not enough. I want as many as I can get!      


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