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Wednesday, October 4, 2017

The Acid Test: The Personal Take of a Broke Self-Published Author Who Refuses to Quit or Sell Out

It has been a busy year for me--the busiest ever since I took up writing full time. By the end of it there will be the distinct possibility that I will have published or put into print seven titles, five of them new. To give a little perspective on that, putting out more than one title a year for an indie author (at least the serious ones worth considering) is a lot; if you're legacy published, putting out more than one every two years is pretty great. It isn't that legacy authors are doubly careful with their work; it's that they have to sell to those houses, and then sign their lives away, which requires that they spend oodles of time on the road hawking their words and going even more broke in the process.

After almost a decade and a half of working tirelessly to make a living as a writer, I have given up. The struggle simply isn't worth the depression, loss of sleep, endless strategizing and planning, the cesspools that are social media, and the endless cash sinkholes one falls into, thinking that this plan will reap some rewards, or that contest is worth entering, or that advertising campaign will be the one that breaks me through.

It's all shit. All of it.

I was put on this earth to write. I know that. I've known that since I was nineteen. It took me twenty-three more years before I finally ginned up enough courage to really go for it. In the interim I did everything to deny that calling and to fit in and be a regular guy. It was an unmitigated disaster that ended up almost costing me my life and leaving me with scars that will never fully heal.

My mother died when she was fifty-five. The last fifteen years of her life were horrific as she battled a progressive terminal illness and her ex-husband, my father, who was, to put it charitably, a truly malicious man. When she died I was crushed. She was a remarkable woman who, aside from her catastrophic taste in men, was about as close to an angel as I think is possible without actually being one.

She taught me to live life on my own terms, and damn the torpedoes. She set an example that even today is frightening for me to consider and aspire to. You could argue that it was her disease that spurred her on, that gave her that courage. Maybe you're right. If so, she was in the strong minority. In the years since her death I have seen that what most people do when confronted by their impending mortality is give up. I've seen that so often, in fact, that when it doesn't happen, I'm surprised. Mortality doesn't get people off their asses. If anything, the vast majority lie down on their plots and dent the grass before the hole is even dug.

Thirty-three years ago I stood over Mom's grave and promised that I would try to live the kind of life her example gave me, and which she wanted for me. I was a twenty-two-year-old punk back then. I was totally naive about what I was promising: the costs, the sacrifices, the battles, the isolation, the ostracization, the betrayals, the backstabbing, the false friends, and the constant harping from girlfriends, all very gratefully gone from my life, who insisted I give up and give in.

In fear of loneliness, I worked pretty hard at doing just that. I worked hard at becoming a "regular guy." I worked hard at selling out. I tried adopting the standard suburban mindset. I tried standardizing myself, sanding the edges off, watering down my worldview, taking the fire out of my opinions.

On the surface, it worked. But underneath? Not so much. The harder I tried to be like every other guy out there, the harder I worked at becoming a safe and typical suburban male, the more sweat I exerted pretending everything I saw around me wasn't a vile sham, the more those depths leaked out of me. At work I often wrote funny fake missives from corporate execs or from district superintendents at the teaching jobs I had. They were loved--often they were copied and passed surreptitiously around. And then one got to an actual superintendent, who called me into his office and threatened to have me fired and disciplined. Three months later I walked out, with three months left in the school year.

There are many other examples of how those depths leaked out, but you get the picture. In 2000, on my birthday, no less, the woman I had been living with the previous four years walked into the living room and uncaringly flipped a birthday card at me. It spun into my shoulder as I sat on the couch and fell to the floor. "Get out," she said.

"And out the door I went," sings George Thorogood.

[T]he soul that is patterned on the commonwealth of the Good will find itself a stranger and a pilgrim on the earth, mocked by those still chained in and deluded by the shadows of the cave.

Keith Ward wrote that in his marvelous The God Conclusion. It's in the middle of his analysis of Plato and why the great philosopher wasn't a world-hating totalitarian. "The commonwealth of the Good" is, essentially, found only in Heaven and the hearts of the true and authentic.

That's what I've always aspired to.

An artist shouldn't have to starve. No one should have to starve. But that isn't the world we live in.

We live in a world devoted to conformity and oppression. Creatives--writers, painters, photographers, etc.--are, necessarily, rebels, nonconformists. Any worth the title, that is.

I can write full time only because my partner supports me. She believes in me. She trusts me. She knows I'm not trying to con her or use her.

She has spent most of the past ten years working to convince me that those few who can live off their writing (some estimates put that number at fewer than a thousand) can do so only because of sheer, astonishing luck, or because they had a huge disposable budget going in and also had major connections.

Not talent. Not passion. Not drive.

I finally realized--this year, in fact--that she was telling the truth.

So for the few of you who have read this post, and the fewer still who have read to this point, I will tell you this:

I'm an unrepentant nonconformist.

I won't sand the edges off or water down my worldview or take the fire out of my opinions.

I don't write for the masses. Fuck the masses. I write 1--for myself; and 2--for any genuine fans I may have. I don't honestly know if I have any. But if I do, and you're one of them, then I write for you, Ace.

I'm not going to quit. I've got eighteen projects on hold.
It'll probably be twenty this time next year.

Mom would be proud of me. She's my acid test every day--whether or not, at the end of each day, she'd be proud of the work I put in.

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All photography copyrighted Shawn Michel de Montaigne

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