The Power of Story

This is a story about becoming lost, and finding your way back home.

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I climbed aboard the #21 bus after another long shift at the day job auditing loan applications for the stupidly wealthy to bring in more money for the insanely rich shareholders of the banking concern I work for, in the faint hope that they will toss me enough spare change to pay my mortgage, which my employer holds. You know, working for the company store and all that.

So.

I’m sitting on the bus in the first front facing seat, desperate to avoid the gimp seats again, though I don’t even know why. Maybe my anger and frustration at what I am and what I’m becoming is spilling over. Anyway, I’m on one of the new hybrid buses, so when it stops and puts down the ramp for a wheelchair, because of the seat configuration I don’t need to move. I sit there thinking about how tired I am. Thinking about all the things I need to do when I get home, none of which are writing or even writing/storytelling career related.

Thinking about how I’m not really a writer anymore. Writers write, after all. And I haven’t been writing — really writing — for a long time.

You know, useless thoughts about self and all that.

As the wheelchair ramp returns to the top of its journey, I look up. My white cane is open and we chipped up gimps tend to acknowledge each other in the language of sidelong glances, slow nods, subtle smiles.

And two of my characters get on the bus. Zoe and Robert from Rainfall. S&S

Go ahead and read it. I’ll wait.

I watch as they settle, my breaths coming hard, head pounding, eyes stinging as they fill with tears. For one wild moment I think about fleeing out the backdoor of the bus.

#

Here’s the thing; I haven’t been writing much in the last year. Very little, in fact. This has me thinking hard about my career as a writer and artist. I’ve been studying the arc of the thing. I was contemplating stopping, putting away the words. I would finish rewriting and polishing the completed works I had on file, find homes for my unsold pieces, meet my remaining deadlines, and fulfill any outstanding contracts.

And then be done. Set it down, put it away, buy some sensible shoes, and shirts, and trousers, get a sensible job like a good sensible American worker-citizen. God Bless the Apple Pie.

#

So Beloved Spouse has been watching Bull Durham. There is this scene where Susan Sarandon’s character Annie realizes that Kevin Costner’s character Crash Davis is about to break the minor league home run record. She wants to make a big deal of it and call the Sporting News, seeing it as a milestone. He doesn’t. He considers being the All-Time Minor League Home Run King a dubious honor.

I completely understand. Everyone who plays wants to go to The Show—whether that show is Major League Baseball or Big Time Publishing in New York or London.

I’ve been a hell of a minor league author for a long time. A small-press / semi-pro All-Star. Like Crash Davis, I’ve even spent a little time in The Show, but I didn’t stay there and I’ve never been able to duplicate it. I told someone once – to keep using the baseball analogy – not everyone gets to be Hank Aaron. Some of us have to be Roger Metzger.

Or the fictional Crash Davis.

And after more than a decade, I wasn’t sure I wanted to keep slogging away in the small press.

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I’m going to stop here for a moment and engage in a small digression, okay?

I am not denigrating or disparaging small press book publishers and semi-pro magazines. All of my small press publishers have been fantastic and Very Good To Me as a writer. And most small press publishers are in the business because they love books and the written word. I would NEVER give up my experiences in the small press. But any writer worth his pen and word processor wants to reach the widest range of readers possible, and the Big Publishers have the money and clout to make this happen. For a small press author, I sell really well, but to reach a national audience, you need the power of the big publishers. I learned this during my time with Harlequin’s Carina Press imprint, when I got my taste of the Big Leagues. End of digression.

#

One of the problems with being an author, unless maybe you are a big-name N.Y. Times Bestseller, is that you really don’t get much in the way of audience/reader feedback. You have to take it on faith that you are reaching an audience. I’ve been working on the stage as a spoken word performer and storyteller, and you get immediate audience feedback. You know right away if the audience likes what you’re doing. If you know you’ve reached the audience, if you know they care, if you feel like you’ve reached them…

I talked all this out with my wife and she pointed out that I’ve been changing my focus as an artist – more stage work – storytelling and play writing. She’s right, and I have found some success on the local stage as a storyteller. But my primary identity is as a prose fiction writer. I was getting some good writing done on those occasions when we were traveling or at conventions. In fact, most of my writing was being done in hotel rooms and not much of anywhere else. I’d get good momentum coming out the conventions, feel good about my writing, but I couldn’t sustain it.

Writing was about to become just one more damned thing I had failed at.

I’ve been a musician; a bassist in a rock-a-billy band. It was fun for a while, but I got tired of being paid poorly to play in crappy bars and third-rate night clubs. I stopped playing, except at the hobbyist level.

I’ve been an actor, mostly under and sometimes unpaid in small theatre. And sometimes community theatre. I stopped doing that as well.

There are other perfectly good reasons why I left those pursuits behind. And I mourned them a little, but mostly when I dropped those as career pursuits, I felt relief.

The thought that I would no longer be a working writer made me sad and sick. The idea that I had failed as writer left me feeling — well, I was in a bad place. Other, wiser peers tried to remind me that I had accomplished a lot, things other writers could well be envious of and aspiring to. I’d published two novels, three single-title novellas, ninety pieces of short fiction and poetry. My first novel was a top pick for Readings in Lesbian & Bisexual Women’s Fiction and one of my novellas was long-listed for the Nebula. I had been Author Guest at a major regional science fiction convention and an invited participant at two others. When regarded from the outside, my career looked pretty freaking fabulous and other writers would love to be in the position I’m in. I can acknowledge that.

But I wasn’t writing. And when I was, I wasn’t even making barista pay. I had convinced myself that being a writer was a lovely dream, but it was obvious that I was never going to reach a point where I could make the minimal money I needed to make for writing to be viable. And the less I was writing, the harder it became to get back to it and the more critical I was of what little work I was getting done. I wasn’t writing up to the level I felt –knew – I should be.

Like Crash Davis, I had a good set of skills and a love of what I was doing, but not enough skill or talent to make the permanent leap into the Big Leagues. I got there for a time, but couldn’t make it stick. I could nurture it in others, helping mentor other emerging writers as they made their first big-time pro sales and moved on to the major publishers—like I now knew I never would. And I found I wasn’t jealous of them, or even angry that they were making the sales I could not. I was just sad and tired; resigned that for me, as a writer, this was as good as it was going to get.

Resignation quickly became exhaustion. I’d made a good run, had some successes, but I wasn’t writing anymore. I was a cog in a giant corporation, nothing more. Between that full-time job and the part-time job of being disabled, I didn’t have the energy to carry on as an artist. Like I said earlier, it seemed like it was time to put it away, hang on to my a sensible cog-job like a good sensible American worker with a mortgage and bills all that other American Dream stuff. God Bless the Liberty Bell.

I was done.

I was done, until two of my characters climbed and wheeled onto my bus.

#

The man was almost an exact duplicate of how I pictured Robert to be. Dark hair, slight build, missing his legs below the knees. He was in an old-style wheelchair. The woman pushing him was tiny, probably little more than 4’10”, if that. She was also slight of build; slender and willowy. Her hair was dyed the color of autumn leaves; red and orange and yellow. She settled him into the proper spot and set the restraints that hold the wheelchair in place with practiced ease. I caught her eye for a moment and she smiled before settling in his lap, arms around his neck. They leaned into each other, exchanging smiles, quiet laughs, and subtle touches as the bus rolled away from the curb and continued on its route.

I was unprepared for the wave of emotions. I actually bit through the inside of my lip so that I did not burst into tears. I couldn’t stop looking at them even though I was pretty sure I was about to have a full blown panic attack. It physically hurt to see these two strangers who might have been my characters in another life/world/dimension. When the bus reached Uptown Station — its final stop — I exited out the back and fled. I couldn’t face them. But there was no point in trying to get away, because it wasn’t this young couple, or even Robert and Zoe, I was trying to get away from.

I couldn’t face myself.

#

Charles de Lint once said, “We are all made of stories,” and I sincerely believe what he said is true. We are all made of stories. We all have our own story. Life is nothing more than one big story, and I believe—I have to believe—in the power of story. This is why movies like Big Fish, Stranger Than Fiction, and Ink resonate with me so much when so little visual entertainment does; they are all at their core about the power of story.

I had forgotten that. Or at least had let it be drowned out by the less important things. I had lost my way, become too caught up in the numbers game, worrying about money, about conforming to societal expectation concerning what is really worthwhile work, about my imaginary position in an imaginary hierarchy of writers, about marketing and blogging and being public, and about not ever being able to break through to the big-time despite being fairly well-respected by my peers. About wanting to be SFWA qualified even though I never ever plan to join SFWA. I got too involved in the Internet Noise Machine: Fiction Writers Edition. It wasn’t so much impostor syndrome as it was just a feeling of general failure, of not being good enough. Of being barely minor league with no chance of ever being more.

I lost faith in the power of story.

And so the Story came to find me. It climbed onto a creaky, battered city bus and settled in front of me. Presented itself in unambiguous terms. Without speaking it said, “Michael, don’t forget me.” It made me remember.

It made me remember why I write. It made me remember the Power of Story. What I do isn’t about publishing, and sales figures and money {And for those of you who sneer at this statement: fuck you. Sure, I want to get paid and I need to get paid and I understand the business of writing, but that is not what being a writer is about in the end, and if you think it is, you’ve lost a little piece of your soul}.

I write because at the end of the day, I’m a storyteller and an entertainer and I don’t know how to be anything else. I write for the tired worker who comes home and wants to be transported to another world. I write for the kid who needs those words worse than water as they try to figure out their place in the world. I write for the desperate and depressed and battered and forgotten and lost who need a respite and an escape, even it is for a few bare minutes.

I write for people just like you. And just like me. Because I’ve been all of those things above, and I can tell you, brothers and sisters, the written word saved my life more than once. Some author whom I never meet wrote a story and the power of it carried me through, got me from one day to the next — from one story to the next — helped me become the person I am today. If I can do the same for someone else, then it’s all worth it. I may never know if I have touched a reader, made their day brighter, helped them in some small way, but I have to have faith that I will. That I have.

That I do.

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Thank you, young couple who were the literal living incarnations of Robert and Zoe; thank you for letting your story intersect with mine, even if you can never be aware of the impact it had on me. Thank you for helping me get back on track, for helping me find what I had lost, for reminding me of what I am in a way I could not ignore.

Thank you for renewing my faith in the Power of Story. I won’t forget again.

I promise to go forward and — to the best of my ability — create awesome stories.

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11 Responses to The Power of Story

  1. Anne Basso says:

    This right here, this post, is why you have to write. This was beautiful.

  2. Michael, what a powerful description of your feelings about writing. As an admirer of your voice, I beg you, never stop writing.

  3. This, and the story of Robert and Zoe, is beautiful and has touched me. It’s so wonderful to think that bit of magic came into your life, just when you needed it. Thank you for sharing this moment with us, and the hope that comes with such stories. I’d ask you to keep on writing, but I don’t believe you could stop, even if you sometimes feel you can’t continue.

  4. Sonya says:

    I was in tears at the thought of no more Michael stories. Now they are happy tears, that was amazing.

    Thank you. <3

  5. This struck home for me. It’s how I feel more often than not. Thank you very much for sharing.

  6. I’m so happy to hear that you have found your way home. May your stories flow freely again.

  7. I am a small-time, minor league author, as well, who feels she will never make it to the big league, and I’ve put myself under the wheels of that kind of thinking, and I’m afraid it’s done some real damage I’m not sure I’ll ever walk away from. But reading this … I’m in tears. Thank you, thank you, thank you for sharing this. The human race values nothing more than they value stories. It seems to be the glue that sticks us together, the manna that feeds us when we’re nearly dead, and the wheels that keep us moving forward. Where would we be without story? Where would we be if everyone who felt minor league just gave up? Even those in the “big league” often feel minor league, I’ve noticed. If we all gave up, it would be the end of what makes us human, I think.

    I really needed this, so thank you.

  8. Been there. Done that. Eaten the T shirt in frustration.

    Oh, how well I understand this. The “what’s the point” stage of everything. The “who am I kidding” stage of everything. The feeling of being the biggest damned fraud when you’re in conversation with some of your friends and colleagues all of whom seem to be in possession of contracts from at least semi-major-league houses, are winning national awards, all that, and you’re sitting there in the corner quiet and ashamed and hope that nobody asks you what your news is because there IS no news right now and you’d give your eye teeth for a contract…

    Oh, how well I understand.

    I’m glad you got re-mugged. I am fighting the beast myself – sometimes I think it would help to just know that someone out there has read a WORD I have written.. – and hopefully I’ll see you on the other side of the tunnel…

  9. Pingback: The Best Online Posts I've Found for Writers - 002Michelle D. Argyle, Author

  10. The “Internet Noise Machine: Fiction Writers Edition” be damned!

    Your beautiful post has shown me how that machine has defeated me. Your words made me cry and that’s a good thing because it reminds me how much telling the story means to me. You are my version of Robert and Zoe. Thank you. Bless you.

    I wish for you an endless river of words.

  11. Jaimie says:

    I needed this. Thank you. (Thanks Michelle for linking it.) My face is still wet from the crying that just happened. I don’t know what’s going to happen to me, because I want to write but things keep getting in the way. Two dud novels, eight years of nothing, etc, etc, sob story, fin. Work’s hard too. I especially liked your perspective there, because doing the 8 to 5 and trying to write while exhausted is its own bitch. Live-giving or life-sucking, depends on the day — dear God don’t give me a day where the work and the writing sucks.

    You’re right about the power of story. Lately I haven’t been able to write, but you know what’s been keeping me alive? A book.

    I’ve been writing fan fiction for the last 6 months. Pathetic, maybe. It’s taught me the value of writing something you love no matter how silly people think you are (or how silly you think you are). I need to bring that mentality into the next novel I attempt. It’s fun. Have FUN. Life is too miserable not to.

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