The Shadow Life

Saturday, June 18, 2016

I’m currently reading Turning Pro by Stephen Pressfield. This is somewhat of a follow-up to his bestselling The War of Art.  Both books are about what keeps a writer from writing or an artist from drawing or a musician from performing. They’re about resistance, that tendency of creatives to find anything else to do except create art.

One of the things wannabe writers do is live a shadow life. Instead of actually writing, they go to writers groups, hang out on Facebook, buy yet another book on how to write, talk about the book they want to write, etc. Anything except actually putting words on paper or a computer screen.

M.C. Beaton has a character like this in her Agatha Raisin mystery series. Agatha’s next door neighbor and sometime love interest has been “writing a book” for years. But he never seems to make progress. Instead he has a cottage filled with research books.

The concept reminds me of myself in high school. I liked the kids who acted in the plays or played in the orchestra or worked on the yearbook or contributed to the literary magazine. We hung out together. But while they were actually working on those things, I was merely a hanger on. I was too shy to act onstage, even to volunteer to work backstage. I quit band in my senior year rather than working hard enough to be selected for the orchestra. I went to a few meetings of the yearbook staff, but didn’t do any work on the yearbook.

That behavior was classic resistance, the fear of failing, or, possibly, succeeding. This behavior followed me for a good portion of my adult life.

Convinced that I could never be a writer, I focused on my day job as a computer programmer. I loved learning and applying new techniques, solving business problems, seeing code I’d written do exactly what I intended. I told myself writing computer code was creative. It is, but not in the same way as writing is.

Even when I finally decided to pursue my dream of being a writer, I eased into it. I joined Sisters in Crime, went to writing conferences, bought a ton of writing craft books. I found some online writer groups to hang out with. And after five years, I still didn’t have a completed book. Again I watched other writers get agents, book contracts, be part of panels at those conferences. Meanwhile, I took out that book on weekends and fiddled with it some more.

More years passed and more life changes. I gave up on the first book and started a few others. I still went to writers groups and talked about writing. I was still living the shadow life of a wannabe writer.

As I grew older, the day job became much less satisfying. No one wants to hire an old programmer. They want the kids, the ones with the brand new skills, the ones who were willing to work 60-80 hour weeks. I was stuck in a job I hated. I wanted to retire. I wanted to write.

But I had niggling doubts still. Was I willing to take the steps to be a real writer or was I still a wannabe living a shadow life?

I decided I had to prove my desire to myself. No more excuses about lack of time or needing to recuperate after a tough week at work. After watching Randy Pausch’s The Last Lecture , I knew all my excuses, all my walls, were there for a reason. So how willing was I to conquer those walls?

I promised myself that if I could finish a publishable book, I’d allow myself to retire. I got up early and made myself write. I stopped finding other things to do that let me be a shadow writer. And I did it. I finished the book.

Over the past three years, I had to conquer other fears. I had to screw up the courage to actually press that Publish button on Amazon for Faith, Hope, and Murder. And again for Shadow of Death. I had to learn to promote my work (I’m still not very good at this), to tell everyone I had a book for sale. I had to make myself write a few short stories, something I always tell myself is much harder than writing a novel. I had to keep writing new work and putting it out there, chancing the dreaded one-star reviews and criticisms.

I’m no longer living a shadow life. I’m a writer. Yes, I’m too often tempted to spend too much time on Facebook or email, which is why I need to read one of Steven Pressfield’s books on a regular basis. To remind me that writers write. They do the work.

You can see the latest result of this writing work in Blood Red Murder, the second in my African Violet Club Mysteries. It will be at the introductory price of 99 cents until the end of June.

And, on Monday, I’ll be back to work, revising the third in the series and planning on publishing that one in July. Because writing is what I do now. I’m no longer content with a shadow life.

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A Clash of Kings
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