Thinking about paths today. Where have I come from? Where am I going? What has the path looked like so far, and when I look back on it, what do I think?
Artists have an unusual challenge. Because what we do is essentially original, and comes from us in a way that isn’t true of every type of work, we often have to make our own decisions about where we want to end up and how we want to get there. The “career path” of an artist isn’t as clearly defined as in other professions. In some ways, building an artistic career can feel wide open, as if there are infinite possible paths: overwhelming, in fact, in their possibility. In other ways, it can feel like there’s exactly one “right” path, and a great big roadblock in the middle of it.
For instance, writing. This road has plenty of destinations on it to want. What type of writing do we do? Fiction, nonfiction, poetry, some combination? If we’re fiction writers, do we write genre work or are we strictly literary? Short fiction or long? Who’s our audience? If we’re short-story writers, do we have some bucket-list journals we’re determined to see our work in before we die, so we submit and get rejected by them over and over? (Spoiler: I’m guilty of this.) If we’re novelists, are we looking for a Big Five publisher, or an indie press, or do we want to go it on our own and keep the royalty money? How do things like publisher reputation and clout weigh against the challenges inherent in the system, and against the seemingly-infinite possible reach of the Internet? And if we get right down to it, is publishing our biggest goal at all, or are we teachers, editors, consultants, or some other type of wordcraft specialists?
All of these possibilities can feel impossible to sort out. Too many options, too many side paths that shoot off in all directions. But on the other hand, it can feel like you finally settle on a direction, you think you can see that path running straight and clear all the way to the horizon…and then a chasm opens up in the middle of it. Maybe you can’t get that book published after all. Maybe it’s too long/too short/too genre/too literary/too slow/too jumpy/too not-quite-appealing-enough. And if you can’t do that, after all the work you’ve put in, what are you going to do instead?
Roadblocks can take many forms: job we thought was going to work out, the conference we felt sure we were eligible for, the grant that really seemed like a good chance. The chasm opens up in the path, and maybe we start wondering if we were right to take this road at all. Maybe it’s led us exactly nowhere.
Especially at these times, I think, we need to take a minute to turn around and look back at the path behind us. How have we gotten to this point? What have we struggled with and triumphed over, what obstacles have we dug out or climbed around, and what beautiful moments have we taken in along the way? They’ve been there. But maybe we’ve been so focused on that ultimate goal – whatever form it took – that we forgot about the rest of it.
Lately, I’ve been taking time to think about this. If you’ve followed the blog, you know I’m often extremely goal-oriented. I don’t like mistakes and I don’t like not being able to point to a list of achievements…so writing is an interesting profession for me, to say the least. ( 😉 ) But lately, I’ve been looking back on my own unusual path, and realizing I’m pretty proud of it.
Because I didn’t start writing seriously in high school or college, I had maybe an even less prescribed career path than other writers. I didn’t have a map of the next right steps: what degrees to get and where to get them, which conferences or residencies to go to, which journals would possibly take my first short stories. Along the way, I pretty much figured out what I wanted to learn and do, and what resources might best help with that. I’m anything but self-taught, but it was pretty neat to look at the pastiche of education I cobbled together. It’s turned out to be pretty much exactly right for the kind of writer I want to be.
There has been any amount of rejection and disappointment. But last week I had the pleasure of teaching two brilliant short stories (Lee K. Abbott’s “The Valley of Sin” and “The View of Me from Mars”) at my library writers’ workshop, and it was exciting and wonderful to see how those pieces inspired the group. Last week also, I checked in again with the agent who seems most serious about my novel Fourteen Stones, and learned it’ll probably be a couple of weeks longer before we have an answer. I’m not at all sure the answer will be what I’d like, but I realized that no matter what happens, Fourteen Stones is a good book that I’m proud to have written. I was even able to promise myself – and mean it – that I’ll do whatever it takes to see it published sometime. And finally, I got to thinking about how much my writing style has changed over the years and how I’m settling into this literary/fantasy/magical realism crossover stuff that I love both to write and to read. I used to think I couldn’t write that kind of thing, but I’m starting to think I might be pretty good at it.
All of which is to say: it can be hard to remember to stop and look back on the path you’ve been on. Especially in those moments when you feel like a roadblock has sprung up to keep you from the one thing you want most, and you start thinking that maybe everything you’ve done so far has just been a waste of time and trouble. But those are the moments when you most need to turn around and look back. Let yourself appreciate, all over again, everything you’ve done and accomplished and taken in along the way.
Right now, take a moment to honor the path that’s brought you to where you are. It’s worth it. You are worth it.
Photos by Paul Faatz