Business Musings: How Writers Fail (Part 10): The Problems in Your Writing Are The Problems in Your Life
The first time I ever heard the saying, “The problems in your writing are the problems in your life,” I was having a conversation with Harlan Ellison about editing. Back when I was editing Pulphouse: The Hardback Magazine, I was feeling my way around editing fiction.
I had run a newsroom and put out a nightly half-hour newscast. Producing a newscast is editing. You assign the stories, gather everything, organize it, and hope to hell it all makes sense. That’s Monday. On Tuesday, you do it all over again.
While 20-something me was very confident and comfortable with telling experienced journalists what to do, I was not comfortable telling fiction writers the same thing. My instincts were good. Ah, hell. My instincts were great. I knew how to edit. I knew what made a good story, from my own writing, but mostly from learning how to verbally tell a story and keep an audience interested.
A radio piece has to catch the ear, not with great writing, but with great storytelling. The tools are different—you use multiple voices (quotes) and sound effects, instead of a lot of narration—but the upshot is the same. You hook the listener and then get them to listen all the way to the end.
Harlan adopted me as an editor pretty early on. He talked to me about editing, usually initiating the discussion with his questions to me, most of the time on the phone.
On that particular day, he called me and at some point asked me what I was working on. I had bought a story from a mutual friend of ours, and I had asked that friend to revise the story to make it shorter.
The revision came in. The friend had cut the story and left the dull parts.
I later learned as an editor to tell people what I thought needed trimming—not by doing the work myself, but by being incredibly specific. I could only trust a writer so far. And then there were the baby writers who would take my suggestions, “fix” the story, and turn that story in to their workshop. The workshop would shred the story, and then the baby writer would send me an unrecognizable draft.
In those cases, I wrote a really pointed letter. I would take the original story (which I kept) and I would do the revisions myself, and send them to the writer, and ask them for their approval.
It usually worked. One or two baby writers withdrew their stories (this, when I was at The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction) because the writer believed their workshop draft was better.
Nope. The workshop draft invariably sucked.
But back to the friend. I had just read the revised manuscript that day, so when Harlan asked me some pointed questions about the editing, I mentioned that our mutual friend had cut the story and left the dull explanation parts.
“Have you ever listened to him talk?” Harlan asked. “It takes him forever to get to the point, only after he has gone through all the shit you don’t want to hear.”
Sidebar: Harlan was a difficult man. He was a hard person to befriend for a variety of reasons. He didn’t suffer fools and he would call you out on your bullshit. He only respected people who called him out on his, but only after arguing with them endlessly about their opinions.
He would also get angry at the littlest things, and his anger was epic. It didn’t scare me, partly because his anger was verbal (at least with women), and I could handle verbal anger. I grew up with it. I have had to learn how to temper my tongue so that I don’t offend people.
Harlan was also very good at seeing through people’s façades. He could find the vulnerable spot, and if he was in a mood, he could press on that spot until it became a painful open wound. He would do that with regularity to people he disliked. He would do it accidentally to people he cared about.
(He often used these powers for good. He could and did help a lot of people because he could clearly see what they needed. People don’t talk about that as much as the painful stuff, because the help was less dramatic and often quite personal.)
When he made that observation about our mutual friend, I paused and thought. The statement was true. Our friend took forever to get to the point. If you spent time with him, you often tuned out the prelude and listened to the meat as it arrived later.
Harlan and I discussed how to fix the story one more time, and then he told me, “Be gentle, though. Remember. The problems in your writing are the problems in your life.”
I had never heard anyone say that so succinctly. Nor had I heard it in context with the work of a very good writer.
I knew it to be true in my own life. I had gone to a writers’ workshop in Taos, New Mexico in 1986. That’s where I met Dean. The workshop was taught by Algis Budrys, Jack Williamson, Gene Wolfe, and Fred Pohl. Those men did not mince words.
They went over a story of mine and got to the heart of what I was trying to say. They also found what blocked that heart. Then one of them—and I’m thinking it was Fred, because he had no filters, he was the most successful of the four of them, and he had more editing experience than all of them combined—told me that I would probably need therapy to solve this particular problem in my writing. (Why don’t I remember who exactly? Because I was shocked down to my core by that conversation.) (After reading this, Dean just confirmed that it was Fred.)
Certainly, Fred said, you’ll need to change how you’re living your life.
The problem? Well, all four of the men put it like this:
I could keep doing what I was doing, and be a mediocre writer who would have some success before my career fell apart. Or I could dig deep, challenge myself, write the stories that meant something to me, and be one of the best writers in the field.
I was (and am) nothing if not ambitious. It angered me to hear the word “mediocre” to describe my work. If there was anything I could do, anything, that would take my writing to the next level, I was going to do it.
That was May. I went home, blew up the life in Wisconsin that I had been slowly dismantling over two years, ran off with Dean to the West Coast, and by August, I was in group therapy in Eugene.
I started with group because I was skeptical about this therapy thing. I even said to my counselor on the first day of individual counseling that I didn’t want to break my writing by all this therapy nonsense. She said that therapy would, if anything, make my art stronger.
She was right.
It was not a quick fix for me as a human being. It was a quicker fix for my writing. I got practiced at going deep into emotions. I learned.
And yes, the problems in my life are reflected in my fiction. Every now and then, someone comments on something I’ve done and makes an observation that actually stings. It stings not because the person is being hurtful, but because I hadn’t realized that 1) I had that particular issue and 2) that the issue showed up repeatedly in my writing.
One more personal example, and then I’ll move on.
Many of you know that I write out of order. I do so for a variety of story reasons—I write better when I am as ignorant as the character about certain events. So I have to write about some characters before they experience the big reveal.
But I don’t think that the writing out of order started because of that. That might be a happy accident.
You see, I’m dyslexic. And I wasn’t diagnosed as a dyslexic until I was nearly thirty. I don’t think about things the way that other people do. My brain literally does not conform to the normal ways of doing things.
Just tonight, I was showing Dean how I had stumbled all over myself at this morning’s Pilates class. I was laughing about it because my instructor wanted to combine a simple box step with some arm movements. I can do a box step, with a lot of concentration. But add the arm movements? And expect me to do these things in coordination?
Nope. It would take me weeks to learn that, and if you put pressure on me after I had learned it (like making me do it in front of a crowd), I would screw up all over again.
Simple, straightforward movements. Simple and straightforward always, always become complex when filtered through my brain. (Yes, psychology students. My dyslexia shows up most strongly in spatial relations, followed by numbers.)
The problems in your writing are the problems in your life.
How does that translate into failure? In a myriad of different ways. Some of those ways are craft, like they were with the friend that Harlan and I had. Our friend’s verbosity often masked his excellent storytelling.
Or as with me early on, choosing the easy way out of any story situation because I was unwilling to dig deep into my characters.
Some of the ways are little more complex. Some writers quit publishing their fiction for fear that people will reject them. It’s easier to self-reject by not publishing anything at all.
Then there are the business aspects. Have trouble with money in real life? Can’t make it from paycheck to paycheck even if you earn hundreds of thousands per year? You won’t be able to handle money management in your writing business either—even if you understand the principles.
Sometimes money is not money. Sometimes money is emotion. Or security. Or something that you do not deserve.
Then there are those of us who were raised in abusive households. We tend to tolerate the abuses of the traditional publishing industry a lot better than someone who was raised in a healthy home. Someone who was raised in a healthy home won’t put up with the kind of microaggressions and lies that are sadly common in the traditional publishing industry. But someone raised by an abusive parent or two, someone who hasn’t had therapy to deal with it, will not even see the traditional publishing industry’s abuse.
Toward the end of my traditional publishing career, I had one editor launch into me with foul language, personal insults, and lacerating comments about my writing. She told me I couldn’t write a simple sentence. She told me how awful I was at both genres I was attempting.
By then, I was an international bestseller and I had won awards in the genres she said I couldn’t write. I’d also had a decade of therapy, and I knew what she was saying was abusive.
I also knew how to handle it.
I hung up while she was still ranting. Then I documented the horrid discussion, and immediately wrote to her boss, withdrawing my work from the company. I sent the letter by email and registered mail.
Within a week, I was no longer published by that company and she—well, she was not fired. She still works there. There’s a Facebook group for writers who are with her at that company, where the writers compare notes and tell each other how to buck up under her abuse.
I know of at least a dozen writers she has driven from the business.
It’s so easy to say that the problems in your writing are the problems in your life. It’s easy for someone else to see the issues.
It’s really, really hard to deal with those problems, because you have to deal with you. The essence of who you are. You have to make a decision: Is it worth changing this aspect of my life to improve my writing?
If the answer is yes, then you have to figure out how to change that aspect of your life. Usually, you can’t do it alone. Usually, you will need professional help.
Here’s the thing about therapy, folks. You have to commit to the work. The work is not easy.
I’m not talking about getting medicated either. When I discuss therapy, I’m discussing talk therapy. Working with someone else to have an outside perspective on you and your issues, and then figuring out a way to either resolve those issues…or, just as important, accept those issues.
Some things you might not want to change. And if that’s the case, and they’re getting in the way of your writing or your business, you have to figure out a way around them.
Or you take a step back. Writing might not be a career for you. Owning a business might not be something you can do, given the issue that you have.
For therapy to work, you have to be willing to take a fearless personal inventory. You have to be willing to admit that you have flaws and that some of those flaws get in the way of what you want to do with your life.
You have to commit to making changes.
It’s hard and it’s slow and it’s not for everyone.
Harlan, who first codified that saying for me, knew it. I was at his house one afternoon when he received a letter from some asshole who was deliberately goading him.
It was well known in the sf field that if you poked Harlan just right, he would launch into a rant and try to verbally destroy you. It was as if there was a button on the side of his head that, when pushed, would send him into an uncontrollable rage.
Harlan read the letter, and turned bright red. Then he picked up the phone. I put my hand on his arm.
“You know,” I said, “that’s what he wants. It’s a badge of honor to some of this dweebles to have you yell at them. He might even record it.”
Harlan looked at me. “I know,” he said.
“Then don’t do it,” I said. “If you don’t give in, people will stop goading you.”
“I know that too,” he said.
“So why do it?” I asked.
“Because,” he said, “if I don’t do it, I’ll obsess about it for weeks.”
I backed off after that. I might have the courage to tell you folks to get therapy in an impersonal blog, but saying that to someone’s face is a bridge too far for me. I’ve said that to a few people in the past, none of whom took it very well.
Now, I just back away or, if the conversation goes that way, I make a very gentle suggestion: Have you considered therapy?
Usually that suggestion gets ignored. Often the response is rage. And really, it’s none of my business.
Just like it’s not my business whether or not you succeed as a writer, or as a business person.
Ultimately, your future is in your hands. We all choose how we want to live our lives. Some people don’t approve of how we live.
And really, who cares what they think? Who cares what I might think about your life? My opinion is mine, but your life is yours to live in a way that’s best for you.
Over the years, A lot of people had tried to talk me out of staying in the life and the relationship that I would blow up after the New Mexico workshop. From one of my high school teachers to one of my sisters to my very best friend in the entire world, person after person tried to tell me that I was making a mistake when I chose (and stayed with) my first husband.
Which only made me double-down on the mistake.
I was ready to hear Fred’s advice at Taos. Maybe I heard it because I was ready, or maybe I heard it because he tied it to my writing. Or maybe I heard it because Jack Williamson, that sweet, gentle man, reinforced the comment later.
They made the comment. I’m sure they made similar comments to other writers over the years. I have no idea what happened to those other writers. I do know that I took that comment and ran with it. Literally ran to another state and a new life—and launched into a journey to improve my writing and mental health.
I know how tough this one is. I also know that each and every writer struggles with it. And I know that we all have things we refuse to change, even if it would improve our lives tremendously.
Because it’s our choice. And our life.
Some of these choices will equal failure for our writing dreams. I think whether or not we make changes will depend on the real importance of those writing dreams.
For me, those dreams were everything.
For others that I know, the dreams are secondary to whatever it is they’re hanging onto.
To them, pursuing the dream is not worth the effort of a life change. And believe me, it is an effort.
But I’m in a much better, much happier place than I would have been if I hadn’t embarked on this journey.
And…oh. I have a writing career. And even more writing dreams.
I took a risk. But the risk paid off.
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“Business Musings: The Problems In Your Writing Are The Problems In Your Life,” copyright © 2023 by Kristine Kathryn Rusch. Image at the top of the blog copyright © Can Stock Photo / 4774344sean
Shouldn’t this be Part 11, or am I confused?
Business Musings: How Writers Fail Part 10: Blame
Sorry to nitpick.
I very much enjoy your posts.
Best to you and Dean!
Philip De Parto
Yeah, I tend to make errors like that. Thanks Philip.
Therapy and writing are strange companions. I used to write really angsty fiction, or fiction filled with various risks. It all came from my “interesting” younger years and from adventures both ill-fated and victorious. So, I had a lot of material.
I did a good bit of therapy, including EMDR-based desensitization to threat. It worked.
I became so relaxed, other karate people could get into my space and get the “drop on me” just about any time. I had to rebuild my sense of situational awareness – but I was able to sit with my back to the door, and it’s nice not to reshuffle tables in public spaces.
My fiction changed too. It got boring for a while. I had to learn to think about others, not just rely in drawing from the deep well that had been my formative years. With practice, thinking of others opened new doorways. I think I got unstuck – and with getting unstuck came other genres and other kinds of stories. I am still learning those new genres, but I’d like to think that writing comforting stories is a good thing. Not every story needs to have a traumatic event or a body count for the protagonist to have to experience personal growth.
That had been something of a revelation.
And I can write without being angry, which is, actually, quite lovely!
This is a column that digs deep. Thank you.
This. Ever since I battled deep depression and anhedonia, I’ve had problems writing any other type of heroine. Sadly, my low self-worth and experience with toxic, mid-range narcissists comes through in my writing. On the plus side, instead of writing a grief journal, I was able to write a series of books about one of the Aoine Sidhe working through her own grief. (Shrug.). I try to find the good in it, but the toxic experiences come out no matter how hard I try to keep them out of my writing. There’s always a sadness there, and even when I try to write happy, I still reduce readers to tears.
Cutting right to the heart of it like you always do.
This was similar to something an old boss told me about getting another job: “you think that getting another job will solve your problems, but you are simply going to carry them with you. You’ll have the same problems, only with a new job.” It’s one of those pieces of advice that stick, like what Harlan told you.
Still a lot of work to be done, I guess.
“Some writers quit publishing their fiction for fear that people will reject them. It’s easier to self-reject by not publishing anything at all.”
I took a huge risk. I finished the second book of my WIP, a mainstream trilogy, exactly as I wanted it to go, but in a way which opens a lot of wounds. It works for me – I was afraid of what my readers might do/think. I had to hold my own feet to the fire to do what I planned.
All I’ve gotten so far is six 5* reviews – but not a single person will tell me how that ending hit them. EVEN when asked point-blank. I’m waiting for that feedback – curious why they won’t say anything but ‘I liked it.’ I was ready to be the only person in the world with the complete story sitting on my shelf.
No one is ever going to see the Story the way you intended. Ever.
I write the stories so that “I” can read them. I publish them so that I stop “twiddling paragraphs” and move on to the next Story.
If people can enjoy what I wrote, that’s great, but I’m not holding my breath.
“Story” by definition, gets deeper and deeper each time I read it, so even though I wrote the Story, each time I read it I am discovering more and more.
That’s a “feature not a “flaw”.
BTW, virtually every comment I get from the Reader has me asking if they actually read the Story I published.
Wow. Great post, Kris. There’s a lot to think about and unpack here. Thank you.
And I’m jealous. While I met Harlan, Jack, Fred, Gene, and AJ, it was only briefly for all but AJ, whom I met several times. Being taught and mentored by them would be a dream come true for me.