No Writer’s Immortal, No Story’s Immortal
Submitted for your approval: a group of Buddhist monks gathered to craft an intricately-designed work of art out of colored sand.
Note their dedication to their craft, the pains they take to get everything “just so”. These aren’t just jaded American trust-fund brats playing with Zen. These are the real deal. It would not be over-stating it to call them “perfectionists”.
Note how the Dalai Lama leads prayers and teachings as his monks work on the mandala. All involved revere creation as a sacred event.
Then observe the monks destroy the mandala. Some use small brushes to sweep the beauty away. The sand is then placed into a sort of urn. Watch the Dalai Lama pour it into a river. If not for the event being captured on film, there would be no proof the mandala had ever existed.
Lately, I’ve been thinking about why I write. This Buddhist ceremony came to mind. I think I write because I’m invested in that fleeting moment of time when a reader encounters one of my stories.
I’m a perfectionist. Lately, I’ve taken to going through several drafts of my stories to get them “just so”. Eventually, I send a story out. In a year or so, that story might find a publisher. In anywhere from six months to a year, the story might finally be published — actually available for readers. Occasionally, I’ll be contacted via Twitter, etc. by readers who provide me with feedback..there will be some actual evidence that the exchange occurred, and some indication about its success (or lack thereof) — some evidence that writer and reader actually joined together for an hour or so, via the story, and that the encounter resulted in a change of the reader’s consciousness that he/she found rewarding.
Yeah, I know, “change of consciousness” sounds pretentious, but I don’t know how else to put it and still express what I’m driving at.
That’s why I write…for my stories to be read, and for them make just a fleeting impact on the reader’s mind (and/or heart). I go into it knowing that once they’re read, they’re almost-certainly forgotten as people put down the book (or stop listening to the podcast) and move on to the business of going to the grocery store and picking up the kids from school and making love and doing the laundry. Of course, I strive to make my characters and plots memorable…but the small minority of literate people who read fiction of any type (let alone speculative fiction, or my particular take on speculative fiction), in English, have other things on their plate.
I spend about twenty hours each week working on stories that will be read and, likely, soon forgotten.
In other words, I am insane.
Over the years, I’ve bought into other reasons to write (for awhile, I was particularly fond of Harlan Ellison’s reasons – “ego and posterity”). But I think the Buddhist mandala ceremony demonstrates the folly of that approach. Given enough time, all stories (and, in fact, all authors) are just grains of sand swept into an urn.
Careers decline. Seminal figures find themselves demoted. Disasters happen. Libraries of Alexandria are burned. Stories are lost. Entire authors are lost. Genocides occur. Civilizations fall. Languages change. Species evolve.
If we look at creativity through the lens of deep time — geological time — then we have to laugh at ourselves. One day, all of us — the bestsellers and the midlisters and the self-pubbers-who-insist-on-calling-themselves-”indie”-authors-even-though-that’s-not-really-what-they-are will all be indistinguishable fossils in the same strata of rock. Millions of years from now, we’re all just going to be coal in some other species’ furnace (assuming that such a species has the recklessness to use fossils as fuel). Groaknok The Super-Evolved-Cockroach won’t know (or care) if he’s burning the fossilized remains of a Dan Brown or a Neil Gaiman or a Nicole Cushing or a Jonathan Franzen or a Self-Pubber-Who-Sold-Ten-Books-At-The-Family-Reunion-And-Nothing-Else. All Groaknok is gonna know is that his ass is cold and he needs to burn a frakin’ lump of coal.
For some reason, though, this doesn’t depress me.
If anything, it inspires me. It gives me the freedom of focus.
By “freedom of focus”, I mean freedom to ignore trends, the freedom to pursue the writing of strong stories without fretting about the things writers too often fret about, freedom from getting distracted by the zeitgeist. If all I have is a moment in a reader’s consciousness, then let it be the best moment I can muster. A mind-orgasm. A rush.