Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

Archive for July 17th, 2013

The waiting game

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Dear Contributor...

When you’re a writer, it often feels as if you spend half your life waiting for something to happen. You’ve got a short story out for submission, a pitch waiting for a response from an editor, a manuscript with publishers, and sales figures coming on Bookscan. Every time you check your email, you’re hoping to see an exciting subject line confirming that, yes, your words are going to appear in print at least once more. In my entire career as a fiction writer, I can count the number of times I’ve received that particular email on two hands, but that doesn’t stop me from secretly expecting it whenever I open my web browser. The human brain is neurologically addicted to the possibility, however remote, of receiving good news at an unexpected moment, as Christopher Chabris writes in the New York Times: “What the Internet does is stimulate our reward systems over and over with tiny bursts of information (tweets, status updates, e-mails) that act like primary rewards but can be delivered in more varied and less predictable sequences.”

If anything, “less predictable” is an understatement, especially if you’re a writer, for whom those moments of gratification can be few and far between, even as you’re always waiting for them to appear. For writers, the act of waiting can be especially hard to bear, because we don’t like relying on others. In theory, a writer should be a self-contained machine: everything he produces is the result of his own craft and experience, and the work can be done as easily in a hut on Walden Pond as in the heart of New York City. Once the draft is finished, though, the writer finds himself frustratingly at the mercy of countless gatekeepers and collaborators, not all of whom can be expected to find the matter of his artistic future as urgent as he does. As a result, a writer ends up being a weird kind of hybrid creature, utterly self-reliant at one moment and completely dependent at the next. And when you think about the switching costs involved in alternating between these two modes, it’s no wonder that so many writers have nervous breakdowns.

My Gmail inbox

I’m no exception. At the moment, for instance, I have a story out with Analog and a draft of a novel with my editor, and I’ve been waiting to hear back from both for a couple of weeks. In the former case, I’ve learned to be patient: Analog has never been particularly speedy about turning around submissions—although that’s partially due to the fact that they really do read everything—and it took me more than three months to hear from them about “The Whale God.” On the novel side, I have one advantage: my publisher is contractually obliged to get back to me within thirty days. Of course, that doesn’t make the wait in the meantime go any faster. And even when I don’t have particular works out for consideration, I’m always waiting for something: a set of notes, a blurb, an article, an event. For most of my life, I’ve found myself constantly looking forward to some milestone in the future, to the point where I haven’t always managed to enjoy the present. I suspect that many writers could say the same thing.

And there’s only one solution. Most writers eventually learn to regard work as its own reward, and that’s doubly true when you’re waiting anxiously for something else. Impatience and anticipation, like all emotions, are most useful when they’re channeled into productive activity, even if it isn’t related to the project that has been taking up most of your time. That’s one reason I enjoy writing short fiction so much: it offers me a discrete window of two or three weeks in which I can work on a story while the wheels are turning more slowly elsewhere. Right now, I’m outlining a side project that I expect will take a couple of months to complete, and as long as I’m absorbed in that work, three weeks can go by in a flash—or at least seem to crawl along at a slightly faster pace. Even better, by the time I finally get the response I’ve been awaiting, good or bad, I’ve got something to show for myself in the meantime. Of course, once I’ve finished what I’ve been working on, I send it off, and the waiting game starts all over again. But if I weren’t looking for ways to distract myself, I’m not sure I’d ever get anything done.

Written by nevalalee

July 17, 2013 at 8:59 am

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Written by nevalalee

July 17, 2013 at 7:30 am

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