Wednesday, May 4, 2011

The man in the arena

"It is not the critic who counts; not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles, or where the doer of deeds could have done them better. The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood; who strives valiantly; who errs, who comes short again and again, because there is no effort without error and shortcoming; but who does actually strive to do the deeds; who knows great enthusiasms, the great devotions; who spends himself in a worthy cause; who at the best knows in the end the triumph of high achievement, and who at the worst, if he fails, at least fails while daring greatly, so that his place shall never be with those cold and timid souls who neither know victory nor defeat."

I've long admired these words, even though they come from Teddy Roosevelt, not exactly an admirable figure in my books. But he's on to something here.

I don't know how many times I've met people who have told me, "I'd like to be a writer," or at least "I'd like to write". I've even met with people a few times, usually steered to me by someone else (we'll never know why) who want to know how to get started.

Usually I ask them, "What sort of writing are you interested in?" Nine times out of ten, they give me a blank look. They haven't stopped to think. Either that, or they push a mass of paper toward me, fully expecting that I will hand it directly to an editor at Random House and say, "Publish this. It's brilliant."

It doesn't occur to them we're all competing for the same few glittering prizes. Competitors should respect one another, but not score goals on their own net.

Attitudes toward my craft are funny. People are uncomfortable with it. One guy stood at a booth I was person-ing for a writer's group at Word on the Street in Vancouver and talked for fifteen minutes about how his "sister" was interested in writing, and his "sister" wanted some pamphlets, and his "sister" was. . .Finally I eyeballed him and said, "Your sister?" "Well. Uh. Yes, no, I mean. It's really me." I guess this is worse than admitting you have a bladder control problem.

Maybe after talking to me they walk away dejected, I don't know. But I want to try to warn them for their own protection. In general, the attitude towards writers/writing is very strange. It's something only a bloody fool would try to do for money.

It's all conjured out of the page in some sort of arcane way. It's magic, opaque, obscure. This is why it is so damned uncomfortable for me to answer the simple, common question "what do you do?" I have had a wide variety of responses to saying "I'm a writer" (and thus breaking some sort of mysterious taboo that no one ever told me about). These are actual quotes:

"Ohhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhh!" (with the inflection rising, then falling.

"You're brave."

"Yeah, right."

(doubtfully) "Oh?"

Or confused silence, a look of misunderstanding or even slight aversion, as if you've just said, "I have psoriasis on my buttocks".

If I talk about my work at a gathering where other people are talking about nursing or teaching or tending bar, after a while people get that glazed-over look you see when someone is being extremely rude. Unless you're Stephen King or the 4 other writers who've really made it, writing isn't work, not proper work at all. It's not quite a hobby either, in fact we're not sure just what it is, but one thing it isn't is something you discuss in public.

I can't blame sane people for shying away from this field. Most aspiring writers aren't willing to go through what I have for the extremely modest level of success I've attained (and even that is debatable, if measured solely in book sales).

Oh, I guess my attitude might be a little skewed. Someone said to me recently, "Why is it, Margaret, that every time you accomplish anything you immediately raise the bar?" Because I can? Or because I think I must?

Perhaps it's because I aspire to be that "man in the arena", the one who actually does the work, whether anyone else really understands it or not. Will they ever "get it"? Will I ever chuck this thankless game forever?

The answer to both questions is the same.