03 August 2012

self-portrait

i realised that i wanted to write when i was five years old. i wasn't aware that that was a particularly challenging career choice, because both my parents had been journalists and half of their friends seem to have written books, or made some kind of a living writing, so how hard could it be? so i just set about writing, whenever i could, sometimes for school, but more often just for myself. if you put paper around me, i would write on it. my life could be illustrated by heaps of paper everywhere with scribblings on them.

when people asked me what i wanted to do, i told them i wanted to write and while i gradually did become aware that this wasn't the easiest thing in the world to do for a living, i had a certain confidence that was unshakable. the few people who ever saw my writing said i was good. i won awards for short stories that were submitted to city-wide contests. despite the fact that i was almost psychotically paranoid about letting my work be seen a lot of the time, i had some feedback and it was positive.

a little after i graduated high school, i had one of the worst, most intense panic attacks of my life. i've had them since childhood and it's only in the last few years that i have started to get them under control. that particular panic attack was memorable because i took the dramatic teenager step of tossing all my writing down the garbage chute and into infinity. i angrily insisted to the air that i was done with writing, the dream was over and that i was never going to be able to make it. i can't remember what set me off.

i didn't stay true to my word. i started dating a guy who wrote- who'd finished an actual book- and i started over again, not wanting him to think that i wasn't creative. and i managed to finish things more than before. i built up a bit of a catalogue. then i moved to montreal and the movers lost the box that had all of my writing and photos in it. i didn't have a computer at the time. those were the only copies. i keep imagining that i'll see that box some time on "storage wars".

this time, i felt a bit lost. what i threw out myself was a lot, but there was little of any quality. i felt that some of the stuff lost in the move was actually good. i couldn't swear to it, because i'd really only shown it to a person or two, but i had an instinct that i'd started to develop a voice and then had my vocal chords damaged. i tried rewriting some of the things that i'd lost, but the new versions never really compared to my idea of what the originals were like. and because i was so often ruminating about what i'd lost, i wrote very little that was new. i was back to beginnings, scraps and snippets again.

when i got a computer, i slowly but surely started to get better. after all, now i didn't have to wonder where the piece of paper was that had the beginning of what i wrote- it was stored right there! i could go back to it at any time! and so i wrote a bit more than i used to.

when i moved to toronto, a sense of isolation from the creative people i'd always been close to drove me to spend more time on my own creative projects. i wrote more and more frequently and i finished things. and then i started doing something i'd never done before- i sent it out to other people. not just my closest friends, but to professionals, to contests and to publishers, because i really felt i couldn't go any farther in my life without actually putting a serious effort behind what it was i was supposed to be destined to do.

i'm embarrassed at how little of my young adulthood was spent pursuing my dream. i mean, i was lazy, compounded by the fact that i didn't really get along with other writers i met who all seemed to take themselves very seriously. i got along with musicians. they had fun. so suddenly i was an adult woman in her thirties who was going to be a writer when she grew up.

one of my early submissions to a contest resulted in a story getting published, which was encouraging. it also resulted in a lot of "thanks but no thanks" form letter responses, something i'd never really had to face before. that was no fun, but i was of an age where i knew to expect it, so i was less discouraged than i always assumed i would be. i figured i'd gotten tough and maybe it was a good thing i'd waited so long to make my move on the world. after all, it didn't look that difficult to get accepted and the rejections were evidently something i could handle until i caught the attention of some agent or publisher who could really take me to the proverbial next level.

except that from that point on, all i got were rejections. whatever magic had caught the attention of that first publisher went unnoticed by everybody else. i submitted to contests, to periodicals, to anything, really, but no one was interested. i looked at the submissions i sent, improved upon them, paid closer attention to sloppy errors i'd made in the past and was careful that everything sent out was perfect. nothing happened.

then i wrote a book. not a long book. more of a novella, really. i hadn't even meant to, it was just a short story that got away from me. it was different for me. it was funny and more accessible and i thought it was something that really had a chance to get published. i was wrong. no one was interested in that, either.

i eventually lost patience with the publishing industry and figured that i'd do what the musicians i admired had been doing for decades- release something myself. that's where "interference" came from. it was a collection of shorts that had always gone well together in my mind and i made a collection out of them. i got a talented writer who'd liked my stuff to write an intro for me and launched to the world. people bought it and read it and told me that they liked it. they gave me good feedback. but i really didn't know what to do to get things moving from there. it's an ironic fact that despite having worked in marketing for more than a decade, i don't know how to market myself.

then one day, i decided to write a movie script. this was mostly because dom is such a big movie fan and i wanted to get his feedback on my writing in a format he felt really comfortable critiquing. surprisingly, despite the newness and despite the fact that there is generally very little dialogue in my prose, i found the form very quick and within a couple of weeks, i'd churned out a draft of "conversion".

when dom said he liked it, a strange new flame was lit in me; i wanted to make a movie. i wanted us to make this movie. after all, short stories were an incredibly niche market, but people like movies and the more people saw the script for "conversion" the more people liked it, which was all very exciting. and so when dom said he'd direct the film, all of the energy i'd been storing up, all the desires i'd been stockpiling for thirty years were directed to this one project. we were going to make this film and we were going to make it the best film it could be.

and i think we did.

it made me crazy in every way. it exhausted me, drained me, depressed me and preoccupied me, but it's a pretty good little film. unfortunately, there aren't many people who know that, because it was rejected by every film festival, every distributor, every person of influence we sent it to. three years and thousands of dollars and working hours later, i can say that a script of mine was made into a feature film of which i'm proud, which has received great praise from anyone who's seen it, but which has once again proven unsaleable.

this experience was different for me. i realise now that the reason those rejections i'd received initially hadn't bothered me so much was because i'd unconsciously held back, i'd kept myself somewhat cynical about the process because i never allowed myself to expect that i'd succeed. but with "conversion", i'd poured absolutely everything into it. i'd let my heart go and i'd believed that something really could happen. but it didn't. and that was when i had to face the fact that the rejections hurt a lot. every single one felt like getting punched in the chest, despite the fact that i knew the odds were against us. despite the fact that i'd gone through these experiences before with my writing.

in the wake of completing the film, my creative output slowed to a trickle. although i've published a few short stories in a couple of arts magazines [most notably "paraphilia", who have remained kindly supportive of my work throughout their existence], it hasn't really felt the same. for a couple of years now, i've been in a sort of post-traumatic cloud. i did my absolute best, worked harder than a lot of people will ever work on anything, i'm not shy to say, and nothing happened. i'm back once again to writing fragments, things that get forgotten, or things that never seem to get finished. even "a definable moment in time", which i've worked on for years on and off, is something i've had to push myself to do.

there are lots of reasons i can think of why doing what i love is difficult. it's a competitive market to begin with and my anxieties about approaching people make networking extraordinarily difficult. i had some success through social networks early on, but those seem to have become so vast and so transactional [come to my event in another country! like my page! put my stuff on your wall!] that it's just as daunting as the real world now.

you do hear of people being discovered, or making it big on line all the time it seems, but often those are genre projects with a well-established, comparatively homogenous audience that are easier to market to. i don't do anything connected to any genre, unless that genre is me, in which case i'm the freakin queen of that genre.

and there's also the possibility that i'm just not that great a writer.

i'm not being self-pitying there [well, maybe a little]. i don't doubt that i have some skill, but that's a far cry from having a truly distinctive voice, a compelling perspective, an ability to enchant through storytelling and phrase-making.

i sometimes wonder if post-high school me had an inkling of what was to come. in the midst of that panic attack, she could see through to a future of getting pummeled by rejection and indifference and thought to try to save her future self the heartache by renouncing her writing early enough that she could lead a full life as an an amateur botanist. or something. i still think now about saying "enough" and formally renouncing the effort, as pretentious as that would be.

but i know i won't.

because, as little-known as my passion for writing may have been throughout my life, it has always been absolutely central to my idea of who i am. if i weren't writing, or thinking about writing, or coming up with ideas to write about, i don't even know who i'd be. i'm not a "failed writer", because i don't think it's possible to be one. i'm not a known writer, even in the modest sense, but everything about me is still writer-ish [including the part that cringes at the fact that that's the best i could come up with to describe it]. how i view the world is fundamentally shaped by interpreting it as a piece of writing, or rather as a multiplicity of pieces somehow woven together. i think in story arcs. i perceive people as characters. everything i see or smell or taste or touch i try to put into words.

i may never be a famous writer. or a respected-writer. or a successful writer. but that doesn't change the fact that i am in essence a writer and that i couldn't be any other way. so i'll likely keep on doing much the same thing as i have been. and if you read something here and would like to offer feedback, please do. i don't know if the future will be any different.

i just looked out the window as i tried to come up with a gripping final line. there were two men rolling what looked to be a stretcher across a back parking lot down the street and unloading into one guy's minivan. on closer inspection, i think it was just a cart, but for that one instant, all i thought was that i needed to figure out the story behind what was happening.

2 comments:

way2aware said...

The fact that I am the first to comment this is not a reflection on the capability of this writer to grab you, and keep you, from beginning to end. What it IS is a reflection of the sorry, dumbed down, world of reality tv contestants that I have somehow made it this far through life to have to live amongst.
I used to imagine a life as a writer, too.. I have maybe a fifth of your ability on my best day...
Your 'self portrait' made me proud of my evidently sensible decision to forget about trying to pursue it, and at the same time bummed me out to see further proof of my notion that literacy (or at least appreciation for it) is going extinct. You are phenomenally good at this. What a shitty deal that you were born too late to be recognized the way you woulda been had you been at this level in the 70's or 80's. {tl;dr i know.. I couldn't help it}

Kate MacDonald said...

Wow. Thank you so much for the thoughtful and moving comment... For once I'm at a loss on how to respond. So, yes, sometimes words fail me. But even if neither of us will ever get to live the life of a writer, I think it's important to keep putting our thoughts down, if only so that we can remember how we experienced them.

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