Monday, November 11, 2019

Let it Go

The other day I was scrolling through my Facebook feed when I came across a post from my friend Taylor Grant. Taylor wrote about how practicing non-attachment has worked for him in his life and career, so I decided to look into the concept some more. (You can check out Taylor and his work here: For years, I’d thought I basically understood the idea of non-attachment. I believed it was a Buddhist concept (which could also be applied to other religions, and probably to Jedi Knights as well) which describes how attachment to worldly things is the ultimate cause of suffering. I imagined that adherents to this belief needed to cut themselves off from the world and live like monks, without emotional attachments to anything, including other humans. But Taylor wrote about how many people (myself included) mistake the concept as calling for complete and total detachment from everything. It’s about working with intent, Taylor said (in other words, working toward a goal), but without having any attachment to (or expectation of) a specific result or outcome – and the reason for this is because you can’t reliably control or guarantee a specific result or outcome. If you don’t get the result you wanted – say, your novel wasn’t a bestseller and award-winner despite all your hard work and hopes – that leads to disappointment, which can metastasize into more negative emotions. Instead of being attached to a specific outcome, you need to be open to whatever happens, accepting and, if possible, appreciating that outcome. So your book wasn’t a bestseller and award-winner, but you wrote the book you wanted, you think it’s a good book, and you’ve received some emails from readers saying it changed their life. You focus on accepting the outcomes which did occur, not obsessing over the ones which didn’t.

I surfed the Web for a bit, reading some articles on non-attachment, and as I did, I came to realize that (assuming I understand the concept better now) I’ve been practicing it for a while in my life and career without knowing it. Yay me, right? Except I also realized I’ve been practicing it only in certain areas of my life and career, and not in others. And the areas in which I don’t practice it are the ones that – get ready for a shocker – I’m dissatisfied with, if not unhappy or downright miserable. I spent some time thinking about this, and after a while, I thought it would make a good blog topic – but only if I focused on the way non-attachment has (and hasn’t) worked in my career, and how you might make it work for you. (After all, the blog is called Writing in the Dark, not Overall Life Lessons from Some Random Asshole Named Tim in the Dark.)

First up – ways non-attachment works for me professionally, as both a writer and teacher of writing.

·         In teaching. I’ve taught college writing courses for thirty years, twenty of those years as a fulltime tenured professor. I teach composition as well as creative writing, and I was a faculty mentor in a low-residency MFA program for nine years. I learned a long time ago not to be overly concerned with how students perform in my classes. (The administration at my school, which like all school administrations, are focused on MEASURABLE OUTCOMES and SUCCESS RATES, and they would hate to hear me talk about non-attachment to results.) I don’t mean that I don’t care if my students succeed. I do everything I can to help make success possible for them. But I know I can’t control whether or not they succeed. I can’t make students work hard, I can’t make them want to learn, achieve, and grow. And it would be arrogant of me to believe that every student should share my definition of success. I want to help students succeed, but I’m not personally attached to their success. I try to be open to whatever outcomes occur with my students and appreciate them for what they are without letting my ego be affected one way or another. One student might be thrilled to get a final course grade of D because it’s the highest grade he or she’s ever received in a writing class. Another might get an A and demonstrate professional-level writing skills, and while they enjoy writing, it will never be a focus for them. These students got something they wanted from the class, and that’s what matters. My colleagues often speak of how calm I am, and while some of that is probably due to my basic nature as a person, I’m sure much of it has to do with my non-attachment to specific outcomes regarding my teaching.
·         When I compose writing. I don’t worry about achieving specific outcomes when I write. I do have goals, of course. I want to express my ideas and thoughts as clearly as possible, I want them to be entertaining, and I try to make my writing the best it can be as I create it. I try to be open to whatever happens, though, and if new ideas pop up and I like them, I incorporate them. If what I wrote doesn’t seem to work, I delete it and try again. I remain in the moment while writing, and usually don’t do a lot of second guessing as I put words down on the page. I’m open to however the writing turns out. I don’t have preconceived notions of how it should turn out. I still have doubts, worries, concerns, and fears as I write, but I’ve learned to not turn up the volume on those voices. I do this by focusing on the story and only the story as I write. I enter into a kind of daydream, a sort of trance, or – and this goes with the blog topic – a kind of meditative state, and I remain there while I write. I might make a few changes as I go, simple things like rephrasing a sentence or, as I mentioned earlier, trying out a new idea to see what happens. “Let’s see what happens” could almost be my writing mantra.
·         When I think (or don’t think) about my audience. This is especially helpful when I write tie-in novels. If I stopped to worry about what fans of properties like Supernatural or Alien might think of the novels I write about their beloved characters and worlds, I’d be paralyzed and never put down a single word. I know there is no way I can ever please all the fans, so I don’t try. I try to write the best Supernatural, Alien, or whatever novel I can, without being attached to a specific outcome – like a tie-in that all fans of the property will hail as a masterpiece. Expecting such an impossible outcome would not only be folly, I’m sure it would make me so self-conscious during the drafting process that, if I completed the book, it would be terrible. This non-attachment to outcomes also helps me write sequels to books. It prevents me from worrying too much about living up to the expectations that readers of the previous books might have.
·         When I revise. Since I don’t have a specific expectation for how a novel or story will turn out, I don’t obsess over revision, constantly reworking material because it will never be good enough. And when I get editorial suggestions for revision, I may grumble at first, but ultimately my ego calms down, and I make them (as long as I agree with them, of course). Because I’m not attached to a specific idea of a Perfect Novel, I’m open to what the final product might become.
·         When it comes to awards. I’ve only gotten better at this since I’ve won a couple for my writing and teaching. It’s a hell of a lot easier (at least for me) not to be attached to a specific outcome when I’ve already achieved a specific outcome. (Not that I don’t want to keep achieving it, of course. It just doesn’t feel like a driving need to me anymore).

Okay, those are the writing areas where I do non-attachment pretty well. Here are some areas where, to put it mildly, I could use a little improvement.

·         When it comes to the number of reviews I get on Amazon or GoodReads. When I have a new book come out, I check the book’s listing on Amazon and GoodReads obsessively for days, sometimes weeks, waiting for reviews to roll in. (No one ever seems to review anything on Barnes and Noble’s site, so I don’t concern myself with it much.) A lot of writers won’t look at reader reviews, but I always do. I want to see what readers thought of the book, see if it did what I hoped it would as a piece of art, see what I can learn that might help make me a better writer. I don’t care as much about the number of positive vs negative reviews, but I think that’s because I’ve been fortunate in that my books tend to get mostly positive reactions from readers. But I can never understand why one of my books might only get a few reviews while another will get three times as many. I expect my tie-in books to get more reviews because the properties have a large fanbase, but I don’t understand why a tie-in written about the same property by another author gets more reviews than one of mine. I sometimes check out self-published authors’ books, and many of them have a shitload of reviews, and I don’t know why. I know some authors used to buy reviews from various providers, but I’m under the impression Amazon has started cracking down on that practice. I’ve heard Amazon also removes reviews from people that authors are connected to on social media. And I’ve heard self-published writers can temporarily lower the price of a book in order to sell more and get more reviews. But even knowing these things, I still am disappointed when one of my books doesn’t get many reviews. It doesn’t eat me up, and I don’t let it get me too down, but I am definitely attached to a specific outcome here: achieving many reviews on Amazon and GoodReads. It’s an outcome I have absolutely no control over, and one I’ve been working on becoming less attached to even before reading Taylor’s post. Now I’m going to work even harder at it.
·         When it comes to reviews by reviewers. I’ve published almost fifty novels along with seven collections of short stories. I’ve never had a book reviewed in Fangoria, only one reviewed in Rue Morgue (and that was Ghost Trackers, a book I wrote “with” the stars of the TV series Ghost Hunters on SyFy). I’ve had books reviewed in Publisher’s Weekly, but it’s been a while. I check these publications for reviews after one of my books is released, and I do Google searches to see if I can find reviews online. I’m looking to learn the same thing from these reviews as I am from readers’ reviews, but I’m also looking for something more: a check to see where I’m at in my career at that moment. Do I have enough of a “name” that my books are getting reviewed? Am I less of a “name” if they aren’t? What standing, if any, do I have in the field of horror? As with the lack of reader reviews, the lack of response by reviewers doesn’t depress me overmuch, but it is disappointing when it happens. I’m definitely attached to a specific outcome here: that my books will be widely reviewed (or at least more widely than they are now). And beyond hoping my publishers send out review copies and sending them out myself, there’s nothing I can do to make this outcome happen. I should be more accepting that a book will get the reviews it gets and move on to writing the next thing.
·         When I see lists of writers. The Twenty Scariest Books of The Year! Fifteen Modern Masters of the Horror Novel! Lists like these pop up all the time, and I’m almost never on them. Although when someone starts a list topic like these on Facebook, sometimes someone is kind enough to mention me, but not always. Again, I look at lists like these as barometers of my career, and it’s always disappointing not to be on them. (The end-of-the-year best lists will start coming out any day, and I’m not looking forward to seeing those appear since my books are almost never on them.) Again, I’m attached to a specific outcome and disappointed when it doesn’t happen.
·         When it comes to having a bigger, more impactful, more lucrative career. I had a therapist once tell me that I was “hell-bent for growth,” and I suppose I am. But while I can control my own growth as a person, I can’t control the growth of my career. I can work toward that growth, but specific results aren’t guaranteed. Larger advances. Other writers listing my work as an influence on their own. Movie and TV adaptations of my novels and stories. The lack of growth in my career – maybe plateauing would be a better word at this point in my life – is something that gnaws at me now and again. Focusing on my inner growth as a writer produces positive mental and emotional results for me. Focusing too much on the outer growth of my career, especially when I have very specific and uncontrollable benchmarks for measuring that growth? Not so much.
·         When a work of mine I think is brilliant is ignored. This is a minor one for me, but sometimes I’ll write something which I think is really good, maybe something that achieves an artistic effect that I think is pretty special, and when I send it out into the world, all I hear are crickets. When this happens, it has a small impact on me, and I can move on. Maybe it’s because I’ve developed a thick skin from receiving so many rejections early in my career. I still get them now, just not as many and not as often. I don’t know. But writers being upset that the world doesn’t recognize our genius is definitely being too attached to a specific outcome.
·         When I try to recapture, replicate, live up to, or surpass past successes. As I said earlier, I usually do okay with non-attachment when it comes to the process of writing. But after my novella The Men Upstairs was nominated for a Shirley Jackson Award, I was very conscious of trying to repeat that success – in terms of artistic quality, not in terms of expecting to be nominated for the Jackson Award again – when I wrote my novella Deep Like the River. I struggled writing it, fought to keep from being overly self-conscious during the process of creating it. I managed, and the result was one of the stories I’m most proud of. I thought it was so good that people would rave about it and that there was a good chance of it getting nominated for an award of some kind. Mostly crickets again. (Although I got some lovely blurbs from writers I admire, and that meant a lot to me.) I’ve tried to recreate past successes, attempting to create new versions of series the original publishers canceled and which I couldn’t find a new publisher for. So far, I haven’t succeeded with these reimagined series. Once again, I’m tied to a specific outcome when I attempt this, and once again, it’s one I can’t control.
·         When I compare my work to someone else’s. I’m sure all writers do this, but whenever I read something, I can’t help comparing the writer’s techniques to mine, and I usually find mine wanting, even if that writer’s work is also inspiring to me and gives me ideas for techniques to attempt in my own stories later. I think “I could never write anything like this no matter how hard and how long I tried.” And every time I think this, I’m right. I can only produce my work, not someone else’s. Still, when I read something really, really good, it makes me think – even if only for a moment – that I should give up writing altogether. Learning by comparison is good. Faulting myself for not being able to produce the exact same kind of writing as another person isn’t.

So what does all this mean for me? Besides providing a list of specific areas for me to work on when it comes to non-attachment, writing this article has shown me that while I do fairly well at non-attachment to specific outcomes during the process of writing, I have some work to do when it comes to practicing non-attachment in the career aspects of writing. Again, non-attachment doesn’t mean I shouldn’t care about my career or work toward clear career goals. It means I shouldn’t be so attached to specific career outcomes. I need to learn to be more open to whatever outcomes might occur and learn to appreciate them for what they are, not feel bad because of what they aren’t.

Try practicing non-attachment in your writing, in both process and career aspects, and see what it does for you. It might not come to you easily or quickly. Remember, they call it practice for a reason. Do your best, keep writing, keep learning, keep growing.
And don’t check those goddamned Amazon reviews so often. (I’m looking at you, Waggoner.)


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Alien: Prototype Out Now~

My Alien novel for Titan Books, Alien: Prototype, came out this week. It’s available as a mass-market paperback, a trade paperback, an ebook, and an audiobook.

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In Rockridge, Ohio, a sinister family moves into a sleepy cul de sac. The Eldreds feed on the negative emotions of humans, creating nightmarish realms within their house to entrap their prey. Neighbors are lured into the Eldreds’ home and faced with challenges designed to heighten their darkest emotions so their inhuman captors can feed and feed well. If the humans are to have any hope of survival, they’ll have to learn to overcome their prejudices and resentments toward one another and work together. But which will prove more deadly in the end, the Eldreds . . . or each other?

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  1. Que sera, sera, as they say. But, on the other hand, if I were in your shoes I'm sure I'd be quite attached to the financial income that comes from publication and unable to just let it go.

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