There is no Glass Slipper — a blast from the past post 2/2011

*First, rest assured I AM better.  Just not better enough.  Second, I will do a critique of Laura M’s intro pages on Wednesday.  Until then, please forgive me.  I was told this had a long ramping up, and it does, and as impatient as I’m getting my energy has limits.  I’m doing a post for ATH but only because it’s a piece of nonsense Kate and Amanda (it’s all their fault) started last night. This is a blast from the past post from February 2011.  And not to get back into the trenches of the war that has roiled this blog these last few days, but this is part of the reason that the young writers are trying to prove their “righteousness” and themselves as being more deserving of writerly success than their elders.  It takes time and maturity to understand that to get success as a writer you don’t need some sort of moral high ground.  Being a saint is not the way to success.  This is not a fairytale.  To become successful as a writer, you just need to write interesting tales that people will buy instead of beer.  Scoundrels and outright reprobates have managed it.  Some saints too, but that’s rarer.  People don’t like being preached to.  If you manage to turn a professional association into some sort of Temperance League for Writers, you’re likely to be left holding the wrapper, while the “Gift” — i.e. any advantages the organization might have offered — slips away from you. *

Your life is not a story.

I mean, oh, of course, in a sense it is a story – of course it is – in the sense that things happen in chronological order, it has a beginning and one day it will have an ending.  You could also say it is divided in chapters.  In fact we often talk about “entering a new chapter” of life.

But there are differences.

I’ve told you – haven’t I? – that my final exam in Theory Of Literature, consisted of two questions.  The first was specific and required analysis of the use of commas by a Portuguese poet who wrote in blank verse.  The second was “Explain the difference between literature and life.  Give examples.”

Since I have a fraught relationship with punctuation I knew I’d get at best half the points on the technical question, so I had to get full points for the second.  So I spun from memory of my Philosophy classes a deal about Plato and the cave and how only through literature could we see life outside the cave.  I knew that would appeal to literature professors and, as most of you know, my morals are weak.  (If they weren’t would I lie for a living?  No?  What do you think fiction is?)  So… I passed.

However, my rather mendacious answer notwithstanding, or my wished-for answer which was “if I kill you in a book you’ll continue breathing.  If I kill you in real life not so much” the true answer is more complex than that, and more simple.

Life is not like literature because life doesn’t have to make sense.  (We’re reminded of this daily as we see what some of my colleagues post on facebook.)  More rarely we’re reminded of this as an impossible coincidence surfaces that makes us go “What?  That wasn’t laid out in the plot.”

But we forget that too.  We forget it very often, particularly those of us who are dedicated writers – or readers.  We forget it as we think as though life WERE a plot, as though it HAD to make sense.

I was reminded of this a couple of days ago while talking to a friend who is a beginning writer.  We were trying, somewhat ineffectively, to convince this person it’s best to go indie now, while this writer has no track record.  This writer was yelling back about wanting what I had.  (Apparently people HANKER after ten years of kicks in the teeth.) About how I was famous (Am too.  Right now I’m the most famous person at this desk.  Well, the cats have left in search of food.)  About how I was a real writer, and therefore I could now go indie with a clear conscience (I’m trying, okay?  I’m trying.  I need time, since I’m also still writing for traditional publishers.)

And then this writer explained that since childhood, the writer had dreamed of having books out “on shelves” and being able to tell friends to go and buy them at any bookstore.

Useless to tell this person that there was that year I had FIVE books come out with traditional publishers and you couldn’t find a single one on a single shelf in the whole state of Colorado.  In this person’s mind, that story from childhood, HAD to have a happy ending.

It’s conditioning.  As writers and readers, we are trained to pick up “promises” in the plot early on.  Some of you who have been following Witchfnder are unreally good at picking up on those promises.  I’ve had emails guessing at Nell’s origins, at the ultimate end of the book, etc, which are, at this point, GUESSES.  Have to be, since my cluing has been as hidden as possible.  And in one case the clue is not yet connected to anything.  And yet, people GOT it.

Unfortunately, we tend to reason about life that way, too.

This might be a case of chicken and egg.  I know that stories are what happens when we turn our mind lose on life and allow it to impose order on reality, whether that order is real or imaginary.  We tell ourselves stories.  And we tend to make stories out of our lives.  Perhaps that’s how we make sense of life.  Perhaps that’s how we remain what passes for sane.  Or perhaps not.

Perhaps life used to be more predictable, too.  I’m not betting on it.  I grew up in a small village, where people by and large, with minor innovations like electrical light and running water, lived the way they had for centuries, observed the same feast days, cultivated the same plot of land, kept the same farm animals as their ancestors world without end – in a place where Romeo and Juliet might have happened in the next village.  (I thought it had, the first time I heard someone talk about it.)  Looking back, life looked a lot more… well… ordered.  You knew the pool from which you’d choose your mate, more or less, you knew the places you’d see in your life, you knew where you’d be buried when you died.  You knew the kids who worked hard in childhood would probably make good, and you knew the class clown would probably have a checkered career, and the kid caught breaking into a neighbor’s house at ten would probably eventually come to a bad end.

But that’s from a distance.  If you increase the granularity and go life by life, person by person, you find it’s not like that.  That kid who worked hard in childhood, walking out his parents’ door one evening, gets run over by a car and spends the rest of his life as a paraplegic, having to be looked after.  The kid who was a bad lot?  Well, he gets drafted, goes overseas, becomes a hero, comes back and picks up a steady job, never has a hobble again… until he’s fifty when he embezzles his boss’s money, runs away and dies a millionaire in Brazil.

Even in the village, with its ordered cycle of life, people could surprise you, events could surprise you, things you counted on – like inheriting the family business – would turn out quite differently – when you found out the company was bankrupt, for instance.

After all, that small village produced me and – good or bad (and often bad) – you can’t say my trajectory was predictable.  When I was born to a rather traditional family in a traditional village and as a female (which in that culture means far less mobile) I can safely say that if some time traveler had told family, friends or extended acquaintances that not only would I survive (an iffy thing, since I was extremely premature, born at home, and not allowed access to an incubator) but I’d leave home and go live in the states on my own (no relatives, other than my husband) AND become a novelist in a language no one in the family spoke at the time (correction, my grandfather spoke it.  He didn’t write it.  But he had no one to speak it to) NO ONE would have believed it.

But even those of you who aren’t little vortexes of unstable fate can probably point out to events in your lives that were in no way “foreshadowed.”

However, it goes further than that.  MUCH further.  Right now, we are in a time of catastrophic change.  By that I don’t mean the intentional, phony and often strange change brought on by political moves.  I mean bone-deep technological change of the kind that leaves a mark.

Part of the reason that change is so difficult is that we are essentially two cultures.  One of them is  “the people who talk.”  (I’d call it “the people who think” but that is unwarranted flattery for most of them – for most humans, actually.)  These are the media, the academia, the people who tell stories whether fictional or fictionalized.  These people in general know nothing – or very little – about what the other culture is up to.  The other culture is “the people who fix”.  These are the people who know how things work, the people who can build and create.

For years now the people who talk have been ascendant.  We’ve been building a little reality of words, telling ourselves stories.  “This is the way things work” and “This is the way things will go.”  Actually, we haven’t been ascendant so much as we were the only ones saying these things, and the other people didn’t or couldn’t contradict us, so we thought we had it all.  Our story was undisputed.  Like the garrulous wife of a silent husband, we sat there for years making plans.  “And when we retire, we’re going to live in Miami.”  And because the poor sob across the table said nothing, we thought we could do as we pleased.

The silent people who fix and create things were, all along, quietly, often in an inarticulate way, pulling the rug out from under our feet.  While we were talking about our condo in Miami they were building an entire retirement community from discarded beer bottles, in the backyard of our house in Michigan.

So while we were creating our just so plots, the people who fix and create things changed the world on us (the bastages.)  While we were climbing the ordered ladder of publishing (such as it was) they were building ebooks, and even – gasp – places like Amazon to sell them.  They were creating the computer revolution which allows us to attend lectures from home (I’ve said it before, I’ll say it again, education is next in line for that change.)

So, now there’s a choice of courses for us.  The world is changing.  It’s called catastrophic because it resembles Atlantis subsiding beneath the waves.  We can’t change it back.  We can make phony political changes that will make things go a different route, and possibly a worse route, or we can shout into the wind, but it’s not going to stop the change.

The metaphoric oceans are coming in.  You can choose to stand there going “I’m despondent.  My life is over.  I want my beach back.  When I was little I dreamed of a condo in Miami.”  Heaven knows I’ve done a bit of that myself and still have instances of it.  HOWEVER that is not a survival-enhancing behavior.  Those who will survive – and many who will thrive – are already running for the hills, scouting out the now-barren peaks that will be fertile islands when the change is done.

I know it hurts.  It hurts like heck.  We want our stories to make sense, and we want our life to be a story.

But you have to be aware that at some level it was always a lie.

To the extent that you need stories to survive, make this one be about the plucky author/educator/artist who survived catastrophic change – who got out ahead of the mess and the turmoil and came out much more successful than traditional routes allowed.  Make your prototype that of the mythological (but then so was Atlantis) sage who got in a boat ahead of the continent sinking and went to other lands to teach what he knew.  And who was treated as a god in the new land.

You’re not Cinderella.  There is no glass slipper.  BUT if you’re good and pro-active and if you stop lamenting and start looking to the future, there MIGHT be a fortune in canned pumpkin or trained mice.

First let go of the glass slipper dreams.  It was never very comfortable and it came off when you ran downstairs.  Then shake yourself, look around, and find new dreams.  You can do it.  Remember, the best stories change direction halfway through.  Why should your life be any different?

31 comments

    1. There were times where I wanted to “shoot” the author of my life. [Wink]

  1. ” … since childhood, the writer had dreamed of having books out “on shelves” …”

    I know this is a vintage post, but do authors you know still dream of this?

    1. Yes.

      “The future is here; it’s just unevenly distributed.” Or, as Sarah puts it, cultures change very slowly. And just because we’ve gotten used to flying in the whirlwind (it’s not that different from how falcons circle in a thermal! really!), that doesn’t mean there aren’t people out there who don’t even realize there’s a breeze outside.

    2. I’d like to be able to put a paperback with my name on it in my Dad’s hands. He doesn’t do the computer any more (Which is kinda sad, considering he did them back when they took up rooms, but retirement turned him into an AOL user who forwarded lots of emails. So it’s actually good he stopped).

      I think that means I’m going to have to write faster. He’s 84.

        1. Luckily, my father was a recipient of the first two books I worked on for White Wolf. Wrote in both of them, and did art in one of them. I also gave comp copies to my high school library… (there’s a story in there)

  2. You know– that was my dream too (books on the shelves) until I became extremely ill and realized “bam” I wouldn’t be able to promote. So I was writing short stuff (mostly poetry) when I happened upon Joe Konrath. I watched him start his indie career on Amazon and Smashwords (now mostly Amazon)– It was enlightening and scary.

    So I put my first ebook up about my disease (mostly a collection of stories and essays about dealing with a rare disease). I have a decent amount of short stories, chapbooks, and novels. I am not in the category of being a “star” in indie– but I keep plugging and enjoy writing stories, formatting books, and making my covers.

    Glass Slippers are not my things (my feet are too big– so I would end up being the stepsister) and Cinderella story was the first part of my life– instead of waiting for a rescue, I rescued myself. So I hope that I can become a big-time indie author– but I know the way my life works that there will be a plot twist somewhere.

    1. Yeah, I just hope my story isn’t Literature. I mean, what a bummer, on your death bed, realizing you’d just done a meaningless stream-of-consciousness novel, hit your word limit and just added, And then she died.

      Maybe I ought to get out and do something outré . . . Make sure this is at least a mystery, if not SF. Maybe I could pull off an Urban Fantasy? Maybe Sushi is an international psychic spy, now hiding out in his Were-Corgi persona . . . At a minimum I could get myself committed for psychiatric evaluation.

      Umm, yes, Sarah, I agree with you. But trying to force real life into a rousing good story is much more fun than watching people who think they can talk reality around to their depressing, everyone-is-a-victim PC story.

      1. To make it Urban Fantasy 😉 add in a cityscape with over a million people who are just plain cranky. A were-corgi? Yep, cranky. lol I write fantasy and a little sci-fi now (dang Sarah– I have been infected). But I should try a mystery. I did try a romance, but tragically, I just don’t have the single-minded romance focus ability. 😉

      2. I’m hoping it’s not Miss Marple.

        I mean, she’s awesome, I’d like to absorb some of her sense– but the whole “Cassandra but with evidence” thing would be depressing.

        1. Brr…

          I’d hate to turn out to be a Gary Stu whose worst anxiety related intuitions turned out to be exactly correct.

          More broadly speaking, there are very many things I can enjoy in fiction that I would hate to live.

  3. I enjoy the line you draw between speakers and fixers, those who talk about things and those who make or renew things. I want to be both. Some people I admire have been, like Benjamin Franklin and the mail. I think the real impact is when you can get both sides engaged.

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