Talking to Ghosts

If you ever have the misfortune of mixing with the “the writing life” crowd at one of their little summits or stumble upon a lost member of this tribe, wandering lonely and disoriented, in the concrete wilds of the real world, there’s something you’ve probably heard them say. They say it a lot. The words vary but the substance remains the same.

Listen – does it sound familiar? It goes like this:

“There’s no such thing as inspiration. Writing is work. You have to view it as work.”

This is usually followed by the ritualistic invocation of word counts. Targets, goals, the usual sorts of quantities and whatnot that one may find at a job. One is instructed to meet these goals, day in and day out, until they die, their life wasted.

And the argument does have a certain appeal. It makes the whole thing seem less airy-fairy and mysterious than it might otherwise be. Gives the whole endeavor a veneer of blue-collar dignity. (Tell your blue collar parents you want to be a writer and see how long that lasts.) There’s even some truth to it. You do need to write –if writing is, for some fucking reason, what you want to do. You do need to show up and put the work in. There’s no way around that. But there is a lie here – the lie is that’s all you need to do.

I might be a dying breed here. I believe in inspiration. I believe in the muses, though I don’t call them that, I just call them the ghosts. I’ve written with them a few times and without them a lot more often. Sometimes the ghosts are talking to me, sometimes, they’re howling, other times, they’re whispering. Most often, they’re silent.

In California, the ghosts just wouldn’t talk to me. I don’t know why. Maybe it’s the climate. It might be that whole place has been so mined for fiction that it basically is fiction. The ghosts there might just be exhausted. I may just not be up to the task of finding anything to say about California that wasn’t beat into a cliche in fiction before it even really happened. But I showed up and did the work and have a few novels to show for it anyway. I never really know if anything I write is good or not –or if other people will think it is– but I do know when the ghosts are with me and, there, they weren’t.

Now, four or five years ago, Wife and I headed to Seoul, and the ghosts talked to me. I came back and wrote the only book that I liked while I was in the states. In Cali, I had to hunt for ideas and never really liked them when I caught them. But two weeks in Seoul? I was suddenly, dirty word here, inspired.

I don’t really know what that means. (If I did, I would call it “ghosts.”) It might just be the climate. Quite possibly, I just think better in humidity and with weather. This would make sense. Weather is such a fucking obstacle in Canadian fiction. It’s a thing that must always be dealt with, usually by moving your characters inside. I might just be built for that style. Or it could be the visual and human density of these cities. God knows, in Cali, my senses felt generally underwhelmed. They were attuned to danger and not much else. The whole place felt empty. The spaces were too big, the views too long, the sky too blue and big and the background just too much the fucking same thing day after day after day. I had to hunt for ghosts in that big flat empty and, when I found them, they never spoke to me. But I showed up anyway. Wrote my daily words and fucked off.

It’s a good thing I did. Ghosts or no, every time I write, every time I fail, I learn how to do something. I’ve written whole books just to teach myself some new trick. That’s where the work matters. It’s there so that if the ghosts show up and start talking, you have something to say back to them. You can hold a conversation. All that talking to myself came in handy. When they spoke to me, I was there. I could deal with it.

Of course, that book, working title, “Three to Zero”, never sold. No one would buy it. People stopped returning my emails, unfriended me on the SNS, and my friends won’t even read the fucking thing. My wife read it. She liked it. I mean, she did hate the ending but she hated it for the right reasons. It’s a bit like how she feels about me. I did hear back from one publisher. They’re not looking for pessimistic fiction. They want optimistic stuff these days. And it’s too long. So they say.

Now, that shit hurts me. That’s like a real punch in the stomach. I write a lot of stuff, most of it without the ghosts, and I might try to sell it, but when the answer is “no” I don’t really mind. These things are usually experiments or attempts and I’m not that connected to them. But when I write something that I think is good –something better than I’m even capable of writing alone– and that gets a “no”? That hurts me. Especially when the thing is getting rejected for being itself. When it’s too much what it is.

I’ve been through this before. With “Technicolor Ultra Mall.” It took ages to sell. Like five to seven years or something. I can’t remember. But a really long time. And it kept getting rejected for being too violent. In some cases, people really liked it but they didn’t think they could sell it. That fucked me up. I just don’t know how to cope with that.

I mean, you do the best you can do, and it’s good but that doesn’t matter?

Well, those writer’s life types have another mantra for that – you have to be able to deal with rejection. I’ve heard that one a lot. There’s some truth there, I suppose. But, at the same, time, it seems to select for the most pig-headed, insensitive buffoons, in the writing community. And then we wonder why so many of our writers are pig-headed, insensitive buffoons. Like, if ignoring people and refusing to listen is a job qualification, you probably shouldn’t be surprised at who makes the cut. But there’s some truth there.

You do have to keep showing up.

But I’d say it’s not about selling books. (I have to say that, I sell so very few.) You show up and write because you like writing more than doing other things –even when the ghosts aren’t talking– and because you want to be ready if they do. Writing is not a job. It’s not even like a job. You show up to a job to get paid. This writing shit has to be its own reward. That’s why I keep doing it even when no one is reading. When the books don’t sell and won’t ever get published? I don’t even give a fuck. I do it for me.

But the business part? The selling part? For that part, I need to get paid. And, if I don’t, I don’t sell. I just try to keep the two things in different compartments. I don’t make writing my job and I sure fucking don’t make getting published my passion. Hell, when publishers ask too much of me, vis a vis, guidelines, I just say fuck it. That’s time better spent writing. And we don’t have endless time on this planet.

On that note, I’ve got to go. I’ve left California and the ghosts are whispering. I don’t want to keep them waiting. They’re moody fuckers.

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