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Monday, July 12, 2010

Ruminations of an Old Goat

Everyone has something they dream of, long for, and generally assume will make life much better for them if they manage to achieve that dream.

Many people dream of winning the lottery and retiring to a happy life of luxury and ease. Many people win the lottery every year. Amazingly, half or more of them end up bankrupt within just a few short years. Less amazingly, very few of them end up happier as a result of winning the lottery. Still, I'd love the chance to prove that I could avoid bankruptcy and live happily after a lottery win. That probably won't happen, though. Since I know that my odds of winning are only slightly better when I buy a ticket than when I don't buy a ticket, I only buy one or two tickets a year.

I've had dreams I have achieved, though. For instance, when I was in high school I thought the coolest part time job would be working in a bookstore. I imagined getting paid to talk about books and getting more books for my money due to the employee discount. Then I landed a job in a bookstore. Strangely enough, I did not spend a lot of time talking about books. For one thing, only a percentage of the customers were interested in science fiction. A much larger percentage were interested in romance, an area I only entered when forced. No, working a bookstore was just that, work.

As with many bookstore employees, I had ambitions on the publishing side of the book business. I wanted to be a writer, of course, but the opportunity to edit a science fiction magazine came along first. A friend of mine -- the owner of the bookstore I worked for, as a matter of fact -- and I combined funds and started our own science fiction magazine. Maybe I couldn't get paid to talk about books at a bookstore, but once the magazine took off I'd get paid to read science fiction! How cool was that? Anyone who has tried to wade through a slush pile can tell you just cool it is. Don't get me wrong, some true gems are found sifting through all the crap in the slush pile, but the crap can be truly painful.

You open your first envelope (this was long before personal computers, the internet, or email) hoping to find something excellent. Instead, you find that the author has spent the first page of the story describing, in excruciating detail, how the pilot of the shuttle moves about in zero gravity. Two hundred and fifty words into a story and the pilot as managed to go from his seat to the passenger level. Does it get any better? You flip through the fifty typed pages, discovering that the author has continued to describe zero g movement at this level of detail. You toss a form rejection letter on top of the story, stuff it in the return envelope, and open the next envelope. Repeat this over and over and over and over and over and over and over and over and over again. Maybe once per week, you find a story you like.

Sounds like fun, huh? And I haven't even touched on the actual typesetting -- achieved by typing each story twice using a specially designed IBM Selectric typewriter -- and laying out of the magazine. The bottom line is that editing a magazine can involve one heck of a lot of work that isn't readily obvious to the outside observer.

Eventually, of course, I even became a published writer of comic books. This dream was much better than the "work in a bookstore" dream or the "edit a science fiction magazine" dream. I was writing, after all! But, as we all know, not all of writing is fun. No matter how much you enjoy thinking up great story ideas and discussing them with your editor or artist or partner, there is still something you have to do before you're actually considered a writer. Yep, you have to write the sucker. The act of writing isn't all drudgery, of course. You have lots of moments of creativity as you expand on basic story ideas, turning them into great descriptions or wonderful dialogue or thrilling action. You also have lots of moments when you have a scene perfectly set up in your head and are totally incapable of transferring that scene onto paper. That's what stops most would-be writers; the actual act of writing their story. I don't care how many great story ideas you have, you're not a writer unless you turn those ideas into words on a page. That's the real work for a writer.

If you write for a while and develop any kind of a following, you'll eventually have a fan contact you with their great offer. They'll tell you that they have a wonderful idea for a story, something new, different, certain to be a bestseller. Their offer will be to tell you the wonderful idea, have you write the story, then the two of you split the money. Let me warn you in advance, these people tend to take it poorly when you laugh at them.

Even my work as a storyteller, for which the reality has come as close to matching the dream as I've ever seen, has its work moments. Unlike all of my other dreams, where the fun part -- feedback -- comes after the work has already been done, a storyteller gets immediate feedback through out his performance. It's easily the best "work" I've ever done. The work for a storyteller comes before he ever gets up in front of an audience. It comes from reading entire books of folk tales while only finding one story you want to add to your repertoire. It comes from practicing the stories by yourself to make sure you've got the bones of the story firmly ingrained in your brain so you don't screw up when you're in front of an audience. I'll be the first to admit that this work is about the easiest work I've ever done, but it's still work.

Dreams are wonderful things. They keep us going, trying to reach beyond what we have now to find something better. Still, even the best of dreams take work. But, if you're willing to do the work, you can achieve your dreams.
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