Suddenly!

Writing, or long term writing, writing as a career — not the occasional poem, or story — is a lot like a long term marriage.

And honestly, yeah, all marriage should be long term. It’s in the word. Never mind. Point is, for reasons or others marriages sometimes don’t last. More importantly, at any given time I suspect the average “duration” of a marriage is maybe fifteen years. Not because people have gotten divorced, but because people die.

I mean, these days we don’t get married in our teens, you know? So, Dan and I have been married a freakishly long time — 35 years — for people who aren’t even sixty yet. (Yes, we were married in our cradles. Thank you for asking.) So marriages that are fifty or sixty years are rare because people die. Or one of them does. Though yes, divorce is also more common. Of course we could argue about that one, kind of, because while for instance where I grew up divorce wasn’t even legal, people still…. ah…. parted ways. And a lot of them parted ways and went “away” which in that time and in that place might mean a hundred miles away, and pretend you’re single. At any rate, I’d guess maybe ten percent of the people that got married, even in an extremely tiny community got “divorced” de facto if not de Jure. They separated. The woman went back to her parents. They lived together but didn’t talk to each other. One of them disappeared.

And this, mind you, was in a relatively static community where 60 years of age was considered old. But then most people married in their teens, and people are people. Asking people to stay in love, or even in friendship over fifty years is a difficult thing.

Still most people managed it.

Until of course technology accelerated the spin of the world, and events started coming at us really fast, and at any rate we were both expected to have careers and unless you work at the same thing (and then sometimes it’s worse then) your career is going to shape too (mostly it twisted me, yes) and change you, and then, suddenly 20 years becomes an achievement.

Note, this is not a confessional. I come from a long list of people who just.don’t.get.divorced. Or separated. Or the next thing to those. In fact, I come from a list of people who don’t give up, and who, once they give their word or they embark on a course of action stay with it through thick or thin, no matter how much everyone else looks at it and goes “dude….”

So, divorce was never an option. And in many ways I’m glad it wasn’t–

But wait. We were talking about writing. Actually that is a really good analogy. The whole thing.

I got married in the eighties, when people no longer expected marriage to last a very long time. I think in our year there were already people making the vow of “as long as we both shall love” which is kind of the equivalent of making a vow to do something while it’s fun. I mean, if it’s fun you’re going to do it, you don’t need a promise to hold you. There is no value add to the vow. It’s not needed. And frankly the financial and legal entanglements are going to make the whole thing a problem, when it’s not fun anymore.

And I broke into publishing in the late nineties, when the “average” career was ten years from first published short story to last published novel. Probably with at least a few years before of beating your head against a wall to break in. (Few people were as stupid as I and took 13 years to break in at all.) 10 years, with probably two or three novels is not a career. Particularly not since the average novel advance at that time was 5k. Same as in the fifties, only cost of living has gone up a tad. In fact, by the nature of the beast, it wasn’t a profession, so calling it a career was a misnomer. It was at best a hobby. Something you did for a while in your free time, and which paid. You might have been oh, painting something or making dolls and making a little money on the side, but you wouldn’t devote yourself to it as your life’s work.

Just like the “while we both shall love” made marriage little more than a shacking up for a while, so as not to be alone, the fact that publishing houses regarded writers as a disposable resource, the one part of the process to be shorted on money, and people who could be treated like dirt because “they’ll write anyway”, plus the fact that publishers stopped publicizing most writers, and fully expect them to completely tank in three books produced a certain type of writing. To begin with, most writers were women or gay guys. I.e. people who were not the main earners in the family and who could, nonethless, devote full time to a work that was never going to pay off. Second, the books became more a matter of prestige and signaling than books designed to sell, to appeal to the vast majority of people, to provide entertainment.

Until I fell onto the Baen boards, I used to wonder if books was just writers selling to each other. And to an extent I wasn’t even wrong, though, of course, there was a vast number of readers out there. But they’d become disengaged from the type of writing being published, and wandered off: to fanfic boards, to used books, to genres they would never before have considered, like romance, or manga, or something. I knew that because I was a reader too. In fact reading is mostly what I do for fun. (Though I’d really like to add sleeping to my resume, particularly recently. Never mind.)

I knew there was a fatal mismatch that. I could see how the field was …. faffed five ways from Monday, and yeah, I wanted to quit. In fact, my wanting to quit became a family joke.

As far as writing went, I was in the equivalent of those marriages where every other weekend you pack your bag. Or you think of putting an ice-pick in your spouse’s head.

I am — I don’t think this is precisely a secret — a gateway writer. Or perhaps, if you prefer, a short-wave-radio writer.

When I was 9 or 10 I wanted a radio. This was, at the time, in Portugal, an expensive household article. No, I know, this is really hard for you guys to picture. But remember what TVs were here, oh, late forties very early fifties? You know, TV in a place of honor in the living room? Honking big cabinet? Women crocheted stuff to drape on the TV because it was the center of the room and their pride and joy?

Radios were like that in Portugal in the sixties and early seventies. Families usually had one radio. In our family, the radio was put on a shelf over the kitchen table, because as families, we lived at that kitchen table (it explains a ton about my weight.) And the radio would be on pretty much all day and evening. It had music, sure, but also news. It had entire stations devoted to history and mythology. It had soap operas.

Anyway, so I wanted a radio. And my parents, being the prototype for the parents in Have Spacesuit (which is why I didn’t realize that was science fiction for a long time) said “That’s fine. You can get a radio.”

At the time most of my “income” came from finding discarded bottle caps and turning it in at the grocery store. And I got paid in peanuts. No, literally peanuts. I think it was two peanuts per bottle cap. And I didn’t think could buy a radio even for a wheelbarrow of peanuts.

So I went into the attics and storage sheds (my family also never throws anything away. It’s not a great trait) and found …. parts. And put a radio together. It was a great radio, and if you held on to the antenna wire a certain way you could catch stuff way off in Great Britain. Only of course it didn’t come in as clearly as your local stations.

In fact it came in in dibs, drabs, you had to hold onto the antena or thread it through the wardrobe door just right. And sometimes parts were missing. Or a nearby transmission walked all over it.

This long digression is to explain how I write. I get transmissions, as it were, but you know, they’re often distorted, or I can’t get them clearly, or there are parts missing. Still. Even when I’m cursing, when I’m writing like that it’s the best thing in the world. It’s what I was designed to do.

Only, of course, when you’re trying to keep a career going (and they tried to kill it every three books, I swear) in a world that works against it, you can’t wait for the transmission. I did an awful lot of painting by the numbers.

And it’s just like being in a marriage for ten years, and you’re both working too much, and you have kids, and you have no patience, and everything goes wrong. And you feel like “Where did that zing go? that joy? I’m not even sure I LIKE this person anymore, much less love them.”

But something weird happens. In the middle of the paint by numbers book, something catches, and suddenly you’re catching the transmission clear as a bell and it’s like it’s all brand new and perfect again.

And in the middle of an annoying marriage where everything is going wrong, you catch each other’s eye, and the horrible thing suddenly becomes funny and you’re laughing together, and suddenly you’re in love again.

In a long marriage or a long career you go through this, over and over and over again.

Because we’re humans, you know? We can’t live in joy or misery all the time. Things cycle.

And yeah, sometimes something is so broken you just need out. I thought I was there six years ago with the writing. And I told my husband I was just going to quit. And he said “give it another year.” And I did, and then I couldn’t quit because we needed the money, and then–

But for the last three years, it’s been hard. And I’ve wondered, “why don’t I just give up and go do something else.”

So, why now? Why now when I’m sleeping like crap, when the world is going to hell in a handbasket? when we expect a move this year? When it makes no sense?

And yet there it is. It’s weird, and mostly attacks at odd times, and the novel that’s really moving is not the one that should be. But–

But for better or for worse, the transmission is clear, and I think of Pratchett’s dictum that happiness is being good at something and doing that thing.

And there’s joy in it. For now.

So, I’ll go and write fiction now. And I’ll love my husband because that’s also at a high point right now.

While the world is going to hell, my own personal bit of it is all right. Even if I’m worried sick about everyone and everything else.

And pssssst, here’s a secret for all the rest of you out there struggling through the long term thing, and the ups and downs: what makes it all worth it is that each “up” is higher than the last. The love is greater and more joyful. And the writing? The writing is clearer, with the transmission pure as a crystal note suspended in the clear morning air.

And it’s all worth it.

7 comments

  1. We know you can’t stop, Sarah. Others have tried…with distressing results:

    “I’m glad I married you. But I will indeed have to write.”
    “But you don’t enjoy it and we don’t need the money. Truly we don’t!”
    “Thank you, my love. But I did not explain to you the other insidious aspect of writing. There is no way to stop. Writers go on writing long after it becomes financially unnecessary… because it hurts less to write than it does not to write.”
    “I don’t understand.”
    “I didn’t either, when I took that first fatal step-a short story, it was, and I honestly thought I could quit anytime. Never mind, dear. In another ten years you will understand. Just pay no attention to me when I whimper. Doesn’t mean anything- just the monkey on my back.”
    “Richard? Would psychoanalysis help?”
    “Can’t risk it. I once knew a writer who tried that route. Cured him of writing all right. But did not cure him of the need to write. The last I saw of him he was crouching in a comer, trembling. That was his good phase. But the mere sight of a word processor would throw him into a fit.”
    “Uh… that bent for mild exaggeration?”
    “Why, Gwen! I could take you to him. Show you his gravestone. Never mind, dear; I’m going to call the Manager’s housing desk.”

    [Robert A. Heinlein, The Cat Who Walks Through Walls]

  2. Heh. I have fond memories of kludging together a radio shack special, and chasing the skip when I was supposed to be sleeping.
    This was back before AM was all centralized and corporatized. There were different local music scenes all over the country (not to mention the border blasters in Mexico), with baseball games and old radio dramas interspersed.
    It was a world of wonder, and you never knew quite what you were going to find.
    .
    This song captures it about as well as can be done: https://youtu.be/fUyKAJGyfKY

  3. For those of a different bent: Sometimes the limb goes septic and you have to amputate.

    The difference in the World now is that every broken bone (which would mend stronger, we’re it let) gets cute chop. Frequently at the socket. Judging the difference when you’ve been maleducated with intent is hell.

    If you’re in this pickle, try to find someone who understands it’s not all one thing or the other, and who knows his gangrene *and* first aid.

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