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“What Was I Thinking,”

rail-tracks-seemed-3309912-pixabay-cc0-pubdom

is the thought that goes through my head when I look to the past, especially when it comes to my writing.

Maybe it’s a version of impostor syndrome. Maybe it’s performance anxiety, in which it’s easy to think the worst about one’s own work. Maybe it’s…

Well. It probably owes to many factors. But creatives are saddled with the cliche of uncertainty about the worth, goodness, and success of their own work, because the cliche is (as far as I can tell) overwhelmingly true. The main way I’ve seen out of it is to adopt a Kanye-level ego and self-absorption, and screw that, I’d rather be unsure.

But back to me (no ego here; I’m so modest!).

I chose the rail junction image because I’m a person who always sees alternate paths. I see the future as a hugely ramified maze of paths — which is of course where I draw stories from and why my stories tend to be clustered within a century or two of the present. I see the past the same way, and spend too much time wondering at what might have been or even regretting the paths I’ve chosen. And that regret is sometimes rightful — what if I’d never wasted so many years in alcohol dependency and self-hate? But that’s unproductive and I try to look at it, evaluate it, acknowledge any lessons that might be present, and quickly retire it. And I work with a couple of mental health professionals to help me be better at that, because I’ve historically kinda sucked at it.

So of course I also wonder what could have been if I’d talked to some professionals ten years ago, or twenty, or thirty-five. Hmm.

See what I mean?

The present is the same way. Endless potential paths. I have a nasty tendency to want to travel all of them, and getting stuck like the proverbial ass trapped between two equally attractive bales of hay.

And so, all of the above in mind, I want to continue to build on my past writing… but also, every few weeks, I get the urge to cut ties with my past writing (oh, it could have been better, boo-hoo, you get the picture) and dream up a catchy pseudonym because S.A. Barton isn’t flashy and also conflicts with the much-more-search-engine-present and popular Beverly Barton. And sometimes even the hideous zealot-ideologue revisionist fake-historian David Barton, who I wish I didn’t share a last name with.

Look, I know keeping the name I’ve kept for six years is the better choice. But for me, it’s difficult not to agonize a little over what might have been. What if I’d chosen a “better” nom de plume?

Heh.

(This post appeared on my Patreon page first, ten days before it appeared here. If you become a patron, you can see stuff early too!)

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Starting Late And Dying Young

general-leia-header

So, General Organa — Carrie Fisher — is dead. At sixty. She left behind a hell of a body of work and a trail of lives and souls touched through the characters she portrayed, the stories she worked on, and in person eye to eye.

She’s hardly the only one to die relatively young. It happens all the time. But when someone whose work is widely known goes youngish, you notice.

And it set me to thinking, because that’s what I do. I don’t just write about the near future. I live in it, too, through imagination and worry.

I think, I’m forty-six. Carrie Fisher died at sixty.

My dad died at fifty.

Oh, Christ.

I’m going to croak in four years or maybe fourteen (or fifteen minutes or fifty years, but never mind that). And I wonder, in that self-doubting way I have in my own head, if that means that if I’m lucky I’ll live to see a book of mine sell a whole thousand copies.

If. If I’m lucky, the little voice says. It’s a pessimist. My future vision, no matter howmuch science fiction I read and write, specializes in horror when I’m the only audience.

And it is honed and practiced by my earlier life. The Wasted Years, I sometimes think of them as, despite their worth now in experience and tenacity and other mostly bitter lessons learned at the feet of pain.

People like Carrie — scratch that. I’m talking about her. Carrie worked and built her career through substance abuse and mental illness and her own internal little voices, whatever fear and doubt she had and she alone truly knew.

I didn’t build a damn thing, and that lack hurts me. Like, physically when I think about it seriously. For this reason and that circumstance and whoknowswhat, some of which I’m aware of, it took me thirty years or so from age five to my mid/late thirties to begin to suspect that I might have value as a human and as a creative person. While Carrie worked I hid and devoted myself, monklike, to substance abuse and cowardice and surrender to all the things I didn’t think I could face alone.

Maybe that’s why, in this latest cycle of Star Wars movies, I feel contempt for Luke Skywalker.

And let me be clear: the character, not the actor. While I admire both Carrie Fisher and Leia Organa, I’m not sure I can admire Luke even if Mark Hamill is, I hear, a great guy.

I’m not closing the door on Luke. For all my pessimism, it is born of constantly disillusioned optimism and idealism. I cannot help hoping, even as I cannot help pessimism-ing. They’re in my blood.

But, seriously, fuck Luke Skywalker.

General Organa, from her Princess Leia days, was out fighting the good fight, facing the cold hard world with teeth bared and steel in her spine, standing in the face of disadvantage and danger and fear and worry and her own personal feelings and pains. Like the woman who portrayed her.

And you, Skywalker, you self-involved coward, ran away to hide.

It is easy for me to hate his character because I see a part of me portrayed in him that I despise and regret.

“But live your life without regrets!” you crow.

Oh, stuff it. That’s as dumb as that stupid “No Fear” slogan that was so big a few years back. You can’t learn a damn thing if you pretend the lessons and clues to them don’t exist.

And, to pick up the earlier thread again, I wonder how much time I have. Four years? Fourteen? Fifty?

I wonder where I’d be now if I hadn’t spent so many years being a dedicated half-hermit drunk paralyzed by the fear, the near-certainty, that I had nothing to offer the world, nothing to offer even myself.

And I know it doesn’t matter.

The past is gone, the future is unrevealed, and what matters is what I do now.

Now is all I have. And all you have. And all Carrie and General Organa and Princess Leia had.

Some days it’s hard. Living with one foot in the maybe-future, as I must doing what I do, makes me a worrier.

I worry I already blew my chance. That maybe only an S.A. Barton who kept writing in high school and through his twenties and thirties had a chance to make a living and a name writing. That maybe the S.A. Barton I am, the one who blew those years in self-dissipation, cannot no matter how hard he tries. (Oh, gawd. I’m speaking in third person. Shoot me.)

But maybe that me would have been too shallow to be worth much without all these crappy experiences I have survived. And the better experiences that eventually grew from them.

Who knows? Nobody.

Playing the what-if game outside of fiction leads to madness.

I still worry, wonder, regret, rage, fear. And wonder if I’ll have time to make my voice heard widely, to grow into a respected creative voice the way Carrie Fisher did. To make that kind of impact, one that will last many, many years after her untimely departure. I don’t know. It took her a lifetime, didn’t it?

Maybe I can. Maybe I won’t.

But when the worry and regret perch ravenlike in the dark corners behind me, I remind myself that it doesn’t matter.

I have no time for cowards anymore, whether they are Luke Skywalker or the Ghost of S.A. Barton Past. But I do, in that undying spark of stubborn optimism that hides under my pessimism, believe there’s a chance to be better today, and every today until the todays stop coming, and to find success.

I’m A Thanksgiving Literalist: I Give Thanks For Stuff And Ignore Our Weird National Fables

Turkey

I WILL EAT YOU. YOU ARE A DELICIOUS TRADITION.

The title pretty much says it all: I take the word “Thanksgiving” at face value, and I give thanks. Some folks might — and do — question how an atheistic sort like myself can give thanks without giving thanks TO something, by which they mean to a deity. Well, I answer, it is entirely possible to feel thankful for something without there being an object to hang the thanks on. I’m thankful for my wife. I’m thankful to have three awesome kids. I’m thankful for what my parents did to help me grow and I’m thankful that when they made mistakes, they were mindful and thoughtful enough to own those mistakes and say ‘whooops’ in a good and productive way. I’m thankful that when I make a parenting mistake, my kids are good enough to listen to my saying ‘whoops’ in what I hope is a good and productive way. And I’m thankful for delicious food, and a warm home, and…and…and…

…you don’t want to listen to all this. It’s a big laundry list, and you have your own laundry list of thankfulness to tend to. Suffice it to say, there is much in my life that is good and positive.

It means something, for me to have this day to focus on thankfulness. Its existence helps me remember to work it into the other 364 days of the year (your mileage may vary on leap years), and many of those days it is not easy to remember. Because I can be pretty darn pessimistic sometimes. Just as there is always something to be thankful for, there is always the potential for something to go wrong, or at least not right. And those things loom large in my vision. It has been like that for as long as I can remember. When I sell a few books, my mind wants to focus on how many more I had hoped to sell, not on being happy that the ones who bought them, bought them. When one of my blog posts gets five likes, my first thought is a grumble that it’s not fifty, rather than being thankful for the five who were good enough to pull the trigger on the positive reinforcement button. When the car is running well, I worry that it could break down tomorrow. When the bills are paid, I worry about next month.

As my maternal grandmother put it once, “we are worry warts.” To one degree or other, worry runs in the family. And yet, it’s not entirely a family thing. I read news and tweet on Twitter and look at what people post in various online forums and I see worry warts all over. Maybe it’s a human thing. Well, I’m all too human, and it often makes me grumpy. It’s important for we grumpy worry warts to take some time to focus on what there is to be thankful for.

And as for the portion of the title pertaining to “weird national fables”: what? They’re weird. They were built in a time when our nation was trying to pretend that genocide of First Nations people wasn’t part of this nation’s history (not that plenty of people — too many — aren’t trying to pretend so even today). Giving thanks is good, a ‘first Thanksgiving’ fable that glosses over the wrongs in our history isn’t so great, to say the least. So, I’m glad to cut those fables loose from my household. On other days, I tell my kids about history, and I tell my kids that people or nations that do not acknowledge their past wrongs are hurting themselves and inviting more wrongs. Honesty with self, human or nation, is vital to doing right today and in the future. Period.

But we don’t talk about that much on Thanksgiving. We’re too busy being thankful for each other.

Relax, Writer!

BodhidarmaIncense

Poor Bodhidharma is really getting a workout.

 

I have a certain amount of trouble relaxing. Burning some nice incense is one of many ways I attempt to deal with that; as you can see, my incense burning dish really gets a workout.

 

It’s more than a problem relaxing. It’s a manifestation of my inner perfectionist. I have seen other writers mention their own perfectionism, and it usually relates to editing and re-editing their written work into oblivion, and them being afraid to let it out into the world, terrified that there will be an error they’ve missed, or an imperfect expression.

 

That’s a concern that I share, though not strongly. Of course I worry that I’m sending a story out to an editor or into self-published distribution with a glaring mistake, a gaping plot hole, a patch of ludicrously overwrought prose, or something similarly embarrassing. But it’s not a huge worry for me. I can hit the ‘send’ or ‘publish’ button without losing sleep.

 

For me, it’s about feeling that I’m not doing enough. When I have a great writing week and produce a ton of good work, I end up thinking about how much more I could have produced if I had somehow made more time for writing. When I have a crappy week, I feel like I’m Atlas and I’ve just dropped the world on my toe, and it has promptly rolled away threatening to flatten a bus full of nuns or something. It’s just terrible.

 

And it’s counterproductive. My gawd, it’s counterproductive. I’ve lost sleep over the perception of lost writing production or lost brainstorming time (and therefore lost ideas), then spent the next day feeling crappy and sluggish because I haven’t had enough sleep, which means that I produce little or nothing that day, which means that I feel even worse about my now two-day-old string of lousy production, which means…

 

Vicious circle.

 

Worrying about how much more I could do leads to doing less. It’s really very simple.

 

It’s another thing altogether to remember this when I’m feeling like I’m not doing enough. But I keep reminding myself, and I get a little better –a little, tiny bit better– as time passes.

 

I figure by the time I’m 150 I should have this whole ‘relaxing properly’ thing down pat.

This Ought to be Interesting

So, tomorrow I begin final preparations to load myself onto a Greyhound bus and head from Norfolk, VA to Washington, D.C. for a school thingiee.  This ‘thingiee’ will last a week and will involve attending lectures, role-playing exercises meant to build skills to use in mental health counseling, being videotaped, meeting with academic advisors, and plenty of other stuff.

Since my means are humble (read: my family lives close to the belt and has little to spare beyond meeting a modest set of bills that keep a roof over our heads, food in our bellies, and the internet we need to attend online classes and for me to publish new ebooks), this will be a trip on a shoestring.

I’ll be staying in a hostel because D.C. hotel prices that’s why.  I’ll be taking the Metro across town because this thingiee takes place in the Crystal City section of Arlington nearby, and the prices are much higher there.

I’m looking forward to meeting some interesting people and hearing some interesting stories.  I hope some of those stories will enrich my writing.  I enjoy traveling, but haven’t been able to do any in years.  I don’t expect I’ll get to do any sightseeing since the thingiee schedules plus transit time will fill most of my days.  Such is life.

But I’ll have reading material along, and some notebooks to work on my writing, and the internet through my phone so maybe I’ll have the chance to drop a few things on my blog here and my Facebook author page as well.  The Greyhound rides alone will give me a nice chunk of writing time, so I’m hoping aside from the school-y enrichment I will get a step closer to building enough new wordage to let me complete a new collection of stories soon.

No matter what happens, this ought to be interesting.  Traveling on a shoestring always is.  Here’s hoping nothing goes terribly wrong. 🙂