I consider myself a fairly even-keeled guy. That could come across as a brag, I suppose, and perhaps it’s been said for just that purpose. I don’t know, because I haven’t monitored every phrase spoken during my lifetime, and those prior to but that were not written about, well those may have never happened or whatever. But I’m guessing some dude has tried to get all suave and say, “I consider myself a fairly even-keeled guy,” with the sole intention of parlaying that obviously stellar personality trait for some of the sweet, sweet… well you know.
But I’m not trying to do that, and here’s why: It may very well have been my nature to be so oriented, to be even-keeled as a course of everyday action and thought. Could very well be. Or it could be that I grew up among a crowd of humans who were most definitely NOT even-keeled or any other boat part. It could be that I had to learn to be even-keeled in order to not fall victim to someone else’s opposite alignment. It could be I learned it at the same time I was perfecting invisibility.
Whatever the reason, ultimately, it’s what I am. And you’d think because I’m now in my sixties that I’ve had lots of time to think about it and work on it, perfect it even. Since this is a confessional, I will tell you I have not been working on it diligently. I think I just got good at it when I was younger or figured out that I was good at it naturally or who the hell knows? And when I think about the years that I did actively cultivate the skill I probably figured I’d still need to use it after I moved away from home, but for the most part, I could just keep it tucked away and handy. I certainly don’t think I ever expected to need to apply the skill to my career.
But then, because you always knew that you one day would, you choose the career of “writer.” Suddenly being even-keeled starts to feel a little bit on par with, oh I don’t know, blood circulation? Respiration? And I realize this could potentially bring up a slew of other questions, and it could be very tempting to circle back around to that whole “this is not a brag” introduction to this already rambling exposé. Because listen:
I grew up being actively taught that I should not think of myself as anything special. At any task, etc. This thought pattern is kind of death on two legs for anyone seeking a career potentially putting him in the public eye. And unlike the great writers I grew up reading, anyone can post a review of your work, and they can tell you how much they loved it, or they can go into detail about how badly it sucked.
Seems like a good place for an even keel.
Because let me tell you – when it comes to reviews, I’ve gotten some real stinkers. And from the very first one of these, I clearly remember thinking, “Hmm.” And then moving on. And there have also been some glorious reviews, written by people who seem to understand things in a similar way or that were drawn by a concept or a character.
Now with the first, your natural tendency might be to panic and to believe you now have x-hundred pages identified as having come from the desk of [INSERT YOUR NAME HERE] which apparently were written by an uneducated refugee with insufficient command of the skill in question. The next thing you know you’re a shot-up plane, engine aflame, in a twisting death spiral with a cow pasture rapidly growing closer and closer. Oh, and the radio will only pick up stations you don’t really enjoy. That’s the FM radio. Your two-way looks like a family of rats gnawed through it. You get the idea.
Conversely, this second sort could feel like vindication. To all those people who told you to forget about writing and learn an honest trade, like being a laborer – which doesn’t require you to utilize many of the portions of your brain which may have been actively stunted, or just never adequately developed.
I don’t think it takes too much of a mental step to conclude that either of these could be significantly more dangerous than you would probably expect either to be. That’s simply because in any endeavor, writing being high on the list, one needs to be very particular about what one lets into the brain box. Because too much “oh my god, why did I ever think I could do this?” is what I call a brain worm.
And you’d probably think, Well, as long as I can avoid that I should be okay. While that’s at least partially true, think about the alternative. About the other, even uglier and nastier. Because when one gets praise, especially after being dissuaded from thinking about oneself in these terms, we’re talking about the potential of a literal invasion of brain worms. Unkind spirals of unpleasant origin. [Ed. Note: Prog. Rock band name. Called it!]
Although I’ve avoided, generally speaking, the pitfalls of this unfortunate event, I can tell you from experience and observation, probably in that order, that a loading dose of praise wants nothing more than to shred your brain, with – what’s this? – a burgeoning sense of justification for one’s planetary resource consumption? That will never do!
In the first case, what we’ll call the “negative input worm,” a person with any kind of history dealing with self-doubt or low self-esteem can do immeasurable damage by using the bad review(s) as a springboard for his own bullshit. Here again my current fetish (telling the truth) requires me to explain that I defintiely can speak from experience on this topic, and I can tell you that many times, (and by “many” I mean a number higher than I want to be bothered with – could be as low as seven?) I’ve been doing at least baseline-well when some outside negativity gets introduced, which then triggers my own willingess to spiral and bore into the brain with four related complaints about myself as well as three that are completely unrelated to the first batch but are clearly indicative of my innate inferiority and…
And there you go. The worms have shown up in numbers and in force. I don’t take the time to comparitively anylize, but my gut says that they are exceedingly murderous, and are fiercer, more hateful than anything the original antagonism ever considered being.
You would imagine, or at least want to do so, that in the case of a “positive input worm” as with our current example a praiseful review, or a fistful of them would on the other hand bolster the spirit. You might suppose that any positivity about any aspect of the person’s career or his life would likewise be a spring board but this time it would be one to newer and further alacrity. That this encouragement would drive one to reach higher with each new word one ropes and ties.
Where’s the danger in that, drama queen, you might ask. And right after I popped you one for calling me a drama queen, I’d explain that a praise starved soul can pervert the afirmative input just as easily as he can use the negative evidence, labeling it “futher proof that I suck” to build internal criticism. He can become pleased with his work, which sounds like a good thing (and is!) but can lead to being proud of his work. Okay, I hear you. This is also a good thing. But it’s also a slippery thing. Because one of the possible next steps would be feeling superiority with that pride.
And listen. It’s very possible, maybe even likely that your work is superior to much of what may be selling currently. But that doesn’t mean that a) anyone is going to know that out of the blue and b) gradients of ascendency should not be your goal. You don’t need to think about being better than your uncle, who you used to envy at holidays when he’d talk about his upcoming new release. Here’s why: you’re uncle was a dork, my his soul be eternally put up with. Comparing yourself to him would be roughly the same as doing it to a colony of mold.
But just as importantly, you don’t have to struggle to be better than [INSERT THE NAME OF AN AUTHOR YOUR RESPECT FOR THEIR ART]. For me it would be several people, but I would start, as I always tend to do in any literary conversation that lasts longer than two or thre minutes, with Hemingway. “I can write better than him!” I could easily say, (lying like a rug as I did). But the effort I’m expending to think that is not being transferred into my own creativity.
Neither is it reminding me that the only author who I should worry about surpassing in terms of what he did with his last book, is that S.J. Varengo guy. I admit he’s fairly good, and his last one may have been (was) the best one yet. But I can think of places where I could do better. I can think of times when he says something that I would have said differently, to much greater effect. I don’t even mind getting mad at that author while I’m working, grumbling, “Thinks he’s better than me? I’ll show that twerp.” I have no problem whatsoever focusing my disdain on former me.
The job of all the other guys, the Hemingways and Steinbecks, Vonneguts and Millers, (okay Miller is a woman, stay focused), and yes I mean the job of those of them who are still alive, the dead ones get to skip this lesson, is to take a swing at their former selves. Not at me. Not even at my uncle.
Okay maybe at my uncle.
So remember, it’s “garbage in, garbage out,” when it comes to the mind of a writer. In addition to crafting a special book, you need to craft the mind that is the seed and verdant field of everything you do. And if this is going to effect everything, should I not be intentionally crafting? Should I not be feeding the mind with the best, healthiest food I can get my hands on?
Don’t think on it too long. The answer is yes.
Because let’s face it – this job is nuts. The elements that even we unknown indies have to become accoustomed to and prepared to keep in perspective, to deal with properly, are not meant to feel normal to an individual who considers himself to be just that: normal. They should feel weird. They should make the other kids point and whisper.
Not bad in themselves, just requiring moderation of thought.