I’m currently in Virginia, visiting a childhood friend of my wife’s. The woman’s husband died unexpectedly in September, leaving her with three young children, and we’ve come to do what we can to help her get through the holidays. My wife and her friend are about the same age, and they both married divorced men a decade-and-a-half older than they are. And the friend’s husband and I share the same birthday, just one year apart. My two daughters are adults, and my current wife and I have no children together, so the parallels end there. I can’t imagine what my wife’s friend is going through, and I know that while she appreciates us being here, we can’t really do anything to relieve her pain or shorten grieving. So given the situation, you can understand why mortality is on my mind.
I read on Facebook recently of the death of author Paul Dale Anderson. He was in his seventies and suffering from advanced cancer, so his death wasn’t entirely unexpected, but as I read the various tributes to him that people had posted, I began thinking about what it means to have a literary career – and what, if anything, becomes of that career after we die.
If you’re not familiar with Paul or his work, you can check out his website here:
I saw Paul at a couple conventions over the years, maybe was on a panel or two with him. I can’t remember. I know we didn’t spend much, if any, time in private conversation, so I can’t claim that he was an acquaintance, let alone a friend. I first became aware of Paul through an article he wrote for Mystery Scene magazine in 1989 or thereabout. In those pre-internet days there were no author websites or social media accounts to follow, so if you were an aspiring writer like me, you had to read essays by and interviews with authors in print media. Mystery Scene, as you might guess from the title, covered the mystery field (and still does to this day), but back then it also covered the horror genre, although to a lesser extent. Paul’s article dealt with how he found his authorial voice. He’d published a supernatural horror novel under a pseudonym – I can’t recall the book’s title – but he’d recently taken a turn toward writing about human monsters, novels that were as much psychological thrillers as horror. The first book in this new direction was Claw Hammer, and it would eventually become the first volume in his Instruments of Death series.
After finishing the article, I decided to check out Paul’s work, so I bought Claw Hammer and its follow-up, Daddy’s Home. I started to read Claw Hammer, but I couldn’t get into it, so I put it aside, figuring that I’d give it another try someday. I didn’t even start Daddy’s Home. I never got around to reading either book, and eventually they went off to a used bookstore during one of my I-have-too-many-goddamned-books-in-my-house purges. I didn’t hear anything about Paul for years. It wasn’t until we were at a con together that I learned he was still writing and publishing with the small press. I was glad to discover he was still in the game, but I was a bit sad the new direction he’d taken with Claw Hammer hadn’t resulted in a bigger career for him. When I learned of his death, I bought the ebook version of the re-release of Claw Hammer from Crossroad Press and started reading it. So far, it’s a decent piece of entertainment, and I’m enjoying it.
There’s a large used bookstore in the town where I’m currently staying, and last week I decided to check it out. They have a huge horror section, but they didn’t have any of Paul’s books. They did have a few of mine, and I of course dutifully signed them. Perusing the books, I was struck by how many of their authors I’d gotten to know in real life over the years, and how many of them had died since I began writing in the early eighties. And then it occurred to me that the shelves were a graveyard for dead fiction, with the books themselves serving as their stories’ headstones.
Occasionally in interviews, I’m asked how I see my legacy as a writer. Sometimes I say I hope that I’ll have contributed to the genre I love in some small way. If I’m in a snarky mood, I say I don’t expect to have a legacy. Once I’m gone, I don’t expect anyone to remember me or my work. Both answers are true. Any artist would love for his or her work to outlive them, for people to continue enjoying it long after they’re gone, for it to maybe change the art form itself. But the used bookstore tells a different story. So many of those books have been forgotten – if they ever made any impact at all – and they’ll remain on the shelves, unbought, until eventually they fall away to dust. And yes, I know digital versions of books can theoretically exist forever, but that doesn’t mean anyone will actually read the damn things. The files may be archived somewhere and never accessed again.
So for the vast majority of writers, the best we can hope for is that a few people will read and enjoy our work when it comes out, and we might get a few dollars to pay a couple bills as well. Our work is as temporary as that of an ice sculptor. When you’re younger, it’s easier to ignore the impermanence of things. Young writers are focused on honing their craft, finding their voice, reaching an audience, on making it. But when you’ve been writing and publishing for almost forty years – as I have – you are quite aware that time is passing at hyperspeed, and there aren’t as many years ahead of you as there are behind. You’ve probably settled into a career, the same way you’ve settled into the rest of your life, and you know it’s far too late to be a wunderkind, that you’ve likely had whatever impact you’re going to have on the field, that you’re not going to be getting larger advances, and you damn sure won’t become a bestseller. Not only is it too late to become an overnight sensation, it’s too late to become a sensation of any kind. If you think too much about these kinds of things, it can make it damn difficult to start a new project. After all, you already know the end result of writing a book: a moldering collection of yellowed pages resting on a used bookstore shelf somewhere, forgotten. Not exactly a motivating image, huh?
I used to wonder why so many writers stopped producing work as they grew older. I thought maybe they’d simply lost the energy and drive – the hunger – of youth. Or maybe they’d decided to make more time in their lives for family, friends, and other interests. All of this might be true, but I also suspect that many writers realize that they’ve taken their writing as far as they can, and once they know this (or at least think they do) it becomes hard to keep going. What’s the point of attempting to continue a journey when you know no matter what you do or how hard you try, you’re unable to take another step forward, and may, in fact, start taking steps backward?
Pretty fucking depressing, right?
But as much as I’m tempted to quit writing some days, I’m a stubborn sonofabitch (it’s a Waggoner family trait), so what can I – or you – do when the mid-to-late career blues start getting you down?
1. Get (or stay) involved. Share what you know. Volunteer.
Paul Dale Anderson didn’t just write. He was an active member of HWA, SFWA, the Authors Guild, the International Thriller Writers Association, and Mystery Writers of America at different points in his career. He taught creative writing at the University of Illinois and for Writers Digest School. He also attended conventions and served on panels. And from the Facebook tributes I’ve seen, Paul mentored younger writers as well. Not everyone is a joiner, of course, but as with many things in life, it feels good to be part of something larger than yourself. It helps create meaning in our lives, and meaning is what keeps us going.
I have a full-time teaching gig at a community college. When I retire (ten years from now, but who’s counting?) I’ll find other ways to work with writers. Maybe I’ll volunteer as a writing tutor or start teaching my own fiction-writing classes online. Maybe I’ll become more active in the writers’ organizations I belong to. I already mentor writers through HWA’s mentorship program as well as informally. I plan to keep this up and hopefully expand those efforts. You don’t have to do a ton of things, and you don’t have to wait until retirement to get started. Just get involved somehow.
2. Try something new. Challenge yourself.
I majored in theater education for my undergrad degree. I wrote a couple plays back then, but I hadn’t written any since. The last several years I’ve felt an itch to write a play again, and I finished a short one-act horror play called The Chaos Room a few weeks ago. I’m not sure what to do with it yet, but hopefully I’ll figure out something. But even if The Chaos Room is never staged, the challenge of writing it – the fun – recharged my creative batteries. Write a poem, an essay, an article, a song. Write for kids, write erotica, write comedy, write whatever. Try experimenting with different narrative techniques. Collaborate with someone.
3. Make a BIG change.
If you’re a fiction writer, try focusing on nonfiction for a while. If you write horror, try writing a thriller, a romance, a mystery, or tackling that dream project you haven’t gotten around to yet. Maybe you’ll end up with a whole new career. John Jakes and Dean Koontz wrote SF before going on to write historical fiction and hybrid horror/suspense respectively. Thomas F. Monteleone also wrote SF before moving on to horror/dark fantasy. Lawrence Block started out writing soft-core porn and lurid pulp crime novels before creating the various mystery series he’s famous for. It’s okay to change lanes when you’re an artist. Reinventing ourselves from time to time can keep us creatively young, if not literally so.
In the end, the doing of our art, the now of it, has to be enough, and the connections we make with others through our art – with audiences, peers, students and mentees – have to be enough. What we learn, how we grow by making our art and walking in the world as artists has to be enough. Because those are the things that we have control over. The only ones that are (more or less) guaranteed to be achievable. And if you want to get more abstract, know that by writing and sharing your work, you’re participating, even if only in a small way, in the great conversation that is Art. Know that your actions in the writing community – however you define that community – can create ripples that spread out into the world, affecting many others. And your words will create echoes, which in turn will inspire more voices to speak. In this way our words can, in a sense, be eternal.
Author Lawrence C. Connelly once told me that the world will decide how we’ll be remembered. We all create a legacy, whether we know it or not, but that legacy is not ours to control, at least not entirely. So focus on today’s writing, plan for tomorrow’s, and let Time and the World sort out the rest.
DEPARTMENT OF SHAMELESS SELF-PROMOTION
I’ve got a couple books up for pre-order.
My next horror novel for Flame Tree Press, They Kill, is due out in July.
What are you willing to do, what are you willing to become, to save someone you love? Sierra Sowell’s dead brother Jeffrey is resurrected by a mysterious man known only as Corliss. Corliss also transforms four people in Sierra’s life into inhuman monsters determined to kill her. Sierra and Jeffrey’s boyfriend Marc work to discover the reason for her brother’s return to life while struggling to survive attacks by this monstrous quartet. Corliss gives Sierra a chance to make Jeffrey’s resurrection permanent – if she makes a dreadful bargain. Can she do what it will take to save her brother, no matter how much blood is shed along the way?
My latest tie-in novel, Supernatural: Children of Anubis, is due out in April.
Sam and Dean travel to Indiana, to investigate a murder that could be the work of a werewolf. But they soon discover that werewolves aren't the only things going bump in the night. The town is also home to a pack of jakkals who worship the god Anubis: carrion-eating scavengers who hate werewolves. With the help of Garth, the Winchester brothers must stop the werewolf-jakkal turf war before it engulfs the town - and before the god Anubis is awakened...
I’ll also have a new creature-feature novel called Blood Island coming from Severed Press in 2019, but I don’t have an official release date yet. In the meantime, here’s a synopsis:
The Mass, an island-sized creature formed entirely of mutated blood cells, has drifted across the world’s oceans for millions of years. It uses sharks – the most efficient predators the planet has ever produced – as extensions of itself to gather food. For the most part, the Mass and its Hunters have avoided contact with the human race, but now it’s entered the waters off Bridgewater, Texas, where a film crew is busy shooting a low-budget horror film called Devourer of the Deep. The Mass is about to discover something called human imagination, and the humans are about to learn that battling a monster in real life is a little harder than fighting one on screen.
Here's a link to my author page over at Severed Press in case you want to keep an eye out for Blood Island – or buy my previous Severed Press novel The Teeth of the Sea. Blood Island isn’t a sequel to The Teeth of the Sea, but they take place in the same world and there’s a bit of overlap: http://www.severedpress.com/authors/tim-waggoner/
I have several short stories and an article that have appeared in anthologies lately.
“The Gray Room” appears in Ashes and Entropy from Nightscape Press: https://www.amazon.com/Ashes-Entropy-Laird-Barron-ebook/dp/B07H9B25LF/ref=sr_1_1?s=books&ie=UTF8&qid=1545155154&sr=1-1&keywords=ashes+and+entropy
“In the End There is a Drain” appears in Tails of Terror: Stories of Cat Horror from Golden Goblin Press: https://www.goldengoblinpress.com/store/#!/Tails-of-Terror-Digital-Format/p/116311665/category=14026709
“Voices Like Barbed Wire” appears in Tales From the Lake Vol. 5 from Crystal Lake Publishing: https://www.amazon.com/Tales-Lake-Vol-5-Horror-Anthology/dp/1644679671/ref=tmm_pap_swatch_0?_encoding=UTF8&qid=1545155537&sr=1-1
“The Deep Delight of Blood” appears in Fantastic Tales of Terror: History’s Darkest Secrets also from Crystal Lake: https://www.amazon.com/Fantastic-Tales-Terror-Historys-Darkest/dp/164467968X/ref=sr_1_1_twi_pap_2?s=books&ie=UTF8&qid=1545155651&sr=1-1&keywords=fantastic+tales+of+terror
My article “The Horror Writer’s Ultimate Toolbox” appears in It’s Alive: Bringing Your Nightmares to Life again from Crystal Lake. (Those guys love me!): https://www.amazon.com/Its-Alive-Bringing-Nightmares-Weaver-ebook/dp/B07L3XX2QY/ref=sr_1_1?s=books&ie=UTF8&qid=1545155707&sr=1-1&keywords=it%27s+alive+crystal+lake
If you haven’t signed up for my newsletter yet, you can do so here: http://timwaggoner.com/contact.htm
Until next time, keep writing!