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Our topic at the SFF Seven this week is "My favorite great cautionary tale in the writing world."
This might even have been my suggestion, because I think it's really important to pay attention to the cautionary tales. Sure, there's an aspect of rubbernecking to these, or schadenfreude (or Franzenfreude, for a specifically literary metaphor). The key, however, is not to exult in the failures of others - because there but for the grace of the blessings of the universe go we - but to learn from them.
That's why they're Great Cautionary Tales. Don't cry wolf, don't be unnecessarily unkind, don't lose your soul to material possessions. Our core stories tend to be cautionary tales. It's up to us to take those cautions to heart and live by them.
There are many Great Cautionary Tales in the literary world, even more so with the internet ruthlessly detailing each to the miserable deaths of the final squirming pieces. I write a lot of them down and have been since I was a very newbie writer. In fact, lately I've been doing this enormous cleaning of my writing office, including files, and I found a set of notes I made back in 2000, when a writing teacher of mine won a prestigious statewide fellowship. We'd all applied, with shining puppy eyes, as we did every year. She won (deservedly), but showed up only for the awards ceremony rather than the associated conference, wearing scruffy jeans and called the honor "neat." My note says "Always remember to honor the honors you're given. Even if they seem small to you, they might be lofty goals for someone else."
When I finally received that same fellowship in 2006, I made sure to honor it.
But let's take a look at that. Six years between the disappointment of not winning - yet again - and when I finally did. Ten years since I first applied for it.
I could cite a lot of Great Cautionary Tales, but with NaNoWriMo (National Novel-Writing Month) on the horizon, I'm going to pick this one: Don't Give Up.
Or, put positively, Keep Going!
I'm thinking back to those days of my crit group, the starry eyed aspiring writers who all applied for that fellowship. There were twelve of us, more than half who went on to publish in some fashion (from literary magazines to novels), a third of whom won that selfsame fellowship and a quarter of whom are now dead. None of them were old women, either.
But one of them, who I'll call Diana, lingers on in my mind. She was older than me then, but I'm thinking she must have been about the age I am now. A professor's wife who'd spent most of her life raising a family, she wrote these incredible stories about the passive/aggressive rage in women who gave up their ambitions. Her stories were deftly told, lyrical, and explosive. When I read Meg Wolitzer's The Wife, I thought immediately of Diana. Of all of us, I thought she was the most talented writer.
I still do.
And she never published anything, that I know of. No, she's not one who died, that I know of.
She moved away when her husband retired and we fell out of touch. She has a common enough name that Googling her would be very nearly futile. Oddly resonant, that.
The reason she never published was not because of the gatekeepers, because she was rejected too many times, because she didn't want to learn to self-publish (which back then was highly suspect anyway). She didn't publish because she never submitted anything to anyone. We were the only people who read her work. When we encouraged her to send in a story, she'd demur and say it wasn't ready. Once she confided in me that she couldn't bear for it to be scrutinized and rejected, that it was enough for her to write it.
I tried to respect that, but I think of her from time to time with a sense of great regret. When last I heard from her, she said that, with her husband retired, she'd given up spending time and energy on writing.
She gave up.
I know a lot of writers who have. It's a difficult business, fraught with challenges and opportunities to throw in the towel. It's frighteningly easy to let a small break become a hiatus that becomes a sabbatical that - years later - turns out to be quitting. It doesn't get easier, either. Many writers give up after having multiple books published by Big 5 publishers.
I'm asking you not to be one of them. Because the writers I know who are successful are the ones who kept going no matter what. Not the most talented. Not even the most prolific. Just who kept going.
This is the great lesson of NaNoWriMo, as far as I'm concerned. Writing 50K in the 30 days of November teaches you to build a writing habit, yes - but it also teaches you to keep going. To "win" - to reach the goal - requires that you don't let anything get in the way of completing those words.
It's the most necessary skill for being a writer.
So I'm urging you all: KEEP GOING. If you want to write, WRITE. Let nothing get in the way. Never surrender.
A Narrow Escape
With her secrets uncovered and her power-mad brother bent on her execution, Princess Oria has no sanctuary left. Her bid to make herself and her new barbarian husband rulers of walled Bára has failed. She and Lonen have no choice but to flee through the leagues of brutal desert between her home and his—certain death for a sorceress, and only a bit slower than the blade.
A Race Against Time
At the mercy of a husband barely more than a stranger, Oria must war with her fears and her desires. Wild desert magic buffets her; her husband’s touch allures and burns. Lonen is pushed to the brink, sure he’s doomed his proud bride and all too aware of the restless, ruthless pursuit that follows…
A Danger Beyond Death…
Can Oria trust a savage warrior, now that her strength has vanished? Can Lonen choose her against the future of his people? Alone together in the wastes, Lonen and Oria must forge a bond based on more than lust and power, or neither will survive the test…