Advice for Aspiring Writers Part II: The Janus Effect

Before we start on lesson two (lesson one is here), let’s have a little art history lesson. Aside from being a lapsed academic (can you tell I studied the Middle Ages?) I’m also a historian at heart, and I have a penchant for late-night research binges on every topic from printing block techniques to porcelain patterns to what exactly composes the materials in a bustle. Which is a roundabout way of saying that the figure of Janus, the Roman god, has always fascinated me (we can get into the meaning behind the word fascinating, but that’s a whole other ballgame… and it definitely requires a NSFW tag), and it’s about time he featured a bit more prominently.

Back with our old friend, the Luttrell Psalter. And lo and behold, I found an actual Janus.

So, Janus. He’s the god of transitions, of beginnings and ends, of war and peace, and duality itself (hence… January). Perhaps it’s my Gemini nature, but sculptures of him — a being with a face pointing forward and one pointing backward — have always held meaning to me.

As writers, we are looking ahead and back simultaneously, so I feel like it’s worth the discussion. And this kind of thinking is also the bedrock of dialectics, something I’ve encountered raising my son. The ability to hold two contrary thoughts together at the same time. Psychologically, it’s very freeing: something can be frustrating and wonderful at the same time; meeting someone can be sad and elating. Essentially, one thing can be looked at from multiple directions and those two, seemingly contrary sides can exist at the same time.

And that, my friends, is what these next points are. They are both good news and bad news. They are “Janus facets” for aspiring writers. So buckle up your codpieces or equivalent loin-girding apparatus. It’s time for a little old-fashioned excavating (which I did in terms of the images, too — holy cow, Batman, digitized manuscripts FTW).

Here you go again, talking out of your… no two butts about it. Just one butt.

FACET 1: You’re one among millions.

Well, shit. You’ve got a ton of competition. There are three hundred different Twitter hashtags to follow, seventy-six new books being published every second, and the hippo at the Cincinnati Zoo already has a three-book deal (not all of these are true). It’s a veritable human sea of aspiring writers. And many of them have more experience than you do, and better connections, and career plans and speaking engagements and good headshots. This world of digital communication has only intensified the situation, and even if you wanted to avoid that crushing sense of crippling overload.

But hey, you’ve got their mistakes to learn from. You’ve got a ton of history to go through. And as isolating as the experience of writing can be, millions of writers like you mean that you have a community if you want it. There are generous, transparent, amazing human beings out there who will help you. All you have to do is not be a colossal jerk (definitely harder for some) and reciprocate. Put your ego to the side a little and start making real relationships. Get invested in your friends’ writing. Support them. Go to their book readings at conventions, buy their books, share their stories. Post reviews, or privately tell authors you enjoy their work. Build real connections and you’ll find your tribe. I have the best weirdos in my tribe, and I wouldn’t have it any other way (looking at you Paul, Jacques, and Jonathan…).

Pictured above: people arguing on Twitter, ca. 14th century.

FACET 2: There is nothing predictable about the market.

Boom! Crash! Explodey noises! I started writing just as the 2008 recession came into full swing. I saw book deals fall through, agents quit, writers quit, publishing houses flounder, and every trend flip on its head. What was big one moment was too risky the next. Digital publishing was going to change everything. Then it wasn’t. Then it was ruining publishing. Then women were ruining publishing. Then iPhones were ruining everything. Then everyone was mad about sparkling vampires. Listen, it was a confusing time.

This powder keg means that only so much planning can go into what you can do. Writing “to market” is probably not advised as a long-term strategy, because that’s like chasing the wind.

So what’s so good about the volatile market? Well, in some ways it frees you entirely from its shackles. It means that you can focus on what you do best: writing the stories only you can write. At the risk of sounding super saccharine, it really is good news. We don’t need fifty versions of Fifty Shades of Grey. We need whatever shade of whatever color you want to write, need to write. I’m not saying to go out and invent your own genre (that has been done, but maybe if you’re still aspiring it’s a big of a leap). And I’m not saying to ignore the trends. You absolutely 100% need to understand the market. You just shouldn’t shackle yourself to it.

A self-portrait of my personal neuroses. Panic, depression, and anxiety. Three heads are not better than one.

FACET 3: Your writing career impacts your mental health.

Do you love being anxious? How about adding some crippling self-doubt to that mix, and then sprinkle in some imposter syndrome, a bit of existential crisis, and a good dollop of good old-fashioned depression. As someone who struggles daily with mental health (I’ve written about it a good deal, as well as our family’s experience with the mental health system re: our son’s Autism — tl;dr, I have panic disorder, anxiety disorder, and depression!) I can attest to the fact that my creativity and my brain are inextricably linked, and not always in a good way. I 100% admit that I use writing as a coping mechanism. I escape into fanciful worlds where I can control everything because it helps me maintain my composure (most of the time) among the general public.

But lots of times it’s not just an escape. It’s hell. In my last post, I talked about being pregnant, nearly losing a child, and having my first book get a not so stellar rating. At the time is was devastating. And I didn’t handle it well — but that’s okay. You don’t know how to do a thing right until you’ve messed it up. But I’ve also had to figure out how to write (or decide not to write) while my son was hospitalized following a psychotic break. And while other members of my family broke down. To say nothing of figuring out my own brain as I’ve worked through different medications. There does seem to be a correlation between creatives and mental illness, but I tend to err toward the thinking that well, almost everyone deviates from the norm one way or another.

And you know what? Screw the romantic “tortured genius.” The good news is that writing can be a wonderful tool for helping you through. It can connect you to people, to groups, to experiences you never had before. It can encourage you to try new things, to travel, to experience. I can’t explain it, exactly, but writing and art help me understand and untangle my own emotions. I’m not a very emotional person, I don’t feel in realtime. But I process both though creating and by reading.

The even better news is that there’s a ton of great psychology, and it’s fairly easy to get help if you need it (insurance notwithstanding, but that’s another rant for another time). There is absolutely no shame in getting medication — medication has saved my life and the lives of others. Remember what I said in that first post about the fact that the on qualifier we all have for writing is being alive? It’s really, really important. Depression is a dick. Mental illnesses lie. Don’t worry if taking medicine is going to “rob your joy” or take away your creativity. It’s a process, it isn’t easy, but it’s 100% worth it. Take care of yourself, and the rest will fall into place. The stigma around mental illness still has a long way to go, but it’s better than it has been in a long time. Take. Care. Of. You.

This one guy on my Facebook feed.

FACET 3: Everything is changing and there are so many distractions!

Full disclosure, sometimes my Netflix queue terrifies me. The world is moving at such a fast pace these days, especially when it comes to media, that I just can’t keep up. My very, very busy life is already scheduled down to the minute, and adding the crushing need to catch up on all things current is pretty overwhelming. That doesn’t count the in-the-moment news of the day, which oscillates from horrifying to Armageddon and back again within a few moments. The world is both smaller and larger than its ever been, and my 13 year old reminds me, every day, that I am getting older and falling behind. He’s also taller than me by two inches, now, which is an impossibility. Everyone wants our attention, it seems, from video games to iPhone advertisements to Twitter feeds to Instagram. And if you lag behind you’re doing everything wrong.

This could be part of a larger post in and of itself, but I choose to believe that the key to managing the distractions of this technological area is in our hands. Literally and figuratively.

First, it’s about curating your feed. Take time to examine who and what you follow, what and how you watch. If something isn’t bringing you joy, Marie Kondo that shit away. Stop wasting time doing things that don’t help your creativity. People being jerks on Facebook? You can mute them. News depressing you today? Turn it off, read it on the BBC, or just take a break. It’s in your hands. I’m not saying to ignore what’s happening out there, but we can only let so much in at a given time. Human beings are still, for better or worse, painfully clannish creatures. The rate at which our monkey spheres have expanded is too much for our tiny brains.

There is no shame in knowing your limits. But at the same time, don’t be afraid to embrace things outside your comfort zone. I find that drawing and writing by hand help me immensely to get the focus I need out of a story. And tools like Scrivener have absolutely transformed the way I produce manuscripts and tell stories. Hell, spreadsheets are like magic if you know how to use them.

It’s a bird-eat-head-eat-bird world.

FACET 5: Suffering is real and happens all around us, every day.

Sometimes the world literally is on fire. And our hearts burn along with it. And summoning up the power to write when that happens is nothing short of heroic. But knowing that it’s time to lay down your instruments and take a break is also heroic, too. The good/bad of this part is fairly straightforward. There may be no more Janus-like concept: without suffering, we do not know joy; without pain, we cannot be soothed. We’re all born in a torrent of blood and wailing, water and flesh and power. We all leave with a last breath. In between, every journey is entirely different.

The vastness of the world, the depth of the suffering inherent, need not stop you forever, though. If writing is too much, read; if reading is too much, watch. If you can’t dislodge it there, try and get some fresh air, drink some tea, go for a walk; hug a cat or a dog. Tell someone you love them. Tell yourself that you love yourself. Forgive yourself, forgive someone else.

Give yourself permission to feel. To cry. To get upset. Then, when the time is right, try again. You won’t be the same as when you started, but we’ve all got to be chameleons. Nothing is constant except for change. And change, we must. As we age, as we feel, as we grow, as we learn. I recently had to start a new project and leave another manuscript to languish because it was just too much. And it’s okay. I’ll get back to it soon.

And you — yes, even you — are needed. Are necessary. The art you make is as unique as your own fingerprints. It is a happy byproduct of your most miraculous, improbable existence. One thing you create may change the entire course of someone’s life — or your own. That’s huge.

Listen, just read this bit by Carl Sagan. It’s from Journeys in Space and Time and it’s far more eloquent than I… maybe I should have started with this? Anyway. Here…

We are star stuff, which has taken its destiny into its own hands. The loom of time and space works the most astonishing transformations of matter. Our own planet is only a tiny part of the vast cosmic tapestry, a starry fabric of worlds yet untold. Those worlds in space are as countless as all the grains of sand on all the beaches of the earth. Each of those worlds is as real as ours. In every one of them there’s a succession of incidents, events, occurrences, which influence its future. Countless worlds, numberless moments, an immensity of space and time, and our small planet at this moment — here we face a critical branch point in history.

Carl Sagan

And in the end…

Imagine, you could be the poor blue guy.

If you’ve come this far, I presume you do want to keep writing. And that’s good. The second step after “being alive” to write is a desire to keep doing it. Keep that fire burning. Figure out what lights your fire. Give oxygen to the flames now, and store up fuel. We’re going on a long voyage, and we’re going to need to make pit stops and be efficient.

The last step in this little journey of advice (I seriously said I wouldn’t do it, but here I go, changing my mind) is the good stuff. The fun stuff. The happy stuff. So stay tuned, and thank Janus.

What we do with our world, right now will propagate down through the centuries and powerfully affect the destiny of our descendants. It is well within our power to destroy our civilization and perhaps our species as well. If we capitulate a superstition or greed or stupidity, we can plunge our world into a darkness deeper than the time between the collapse of classical civilization and the Italian Renaissance. But we are also capable of using our compassion and our intelligence, our technology and our wealth, to make an abundant and meaningful life for every inhabitant of this planet, to enhance enormously our understanding of the universe and to carry us to the stars.

Carl Sagan

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