Thomm Quackenbush, author

Losing the Words

I need to reevaluate my relationship with writing. Once a passionate affair, I cannot even call this a loveless marriage anymore, as that would imply begrudging but mutual commitment. I suspect it may be abusive, but I am not clear who is hitting whom.

Once, writing was an addiction. I liked that better. It couldn't be kept from divulging details of my life and that of my annoyed friends at the earliest opportunity. I wrote constantly, desperately. It was my therapy and my drug. Most of what I wrote was weak in retrospect, but I conquered with quantity.

Now, I sit down to type and feel pangs of anxiety and self-doubt, so I don't want to write anything because the first draft isn't good enough to sell and the final draft seems more and more impossibly distant, like saying I intend to walk across the country. Even though I've done it a half dozen times, I find that fact unbelievable in the first hundred miles. I am more critical of my work than I have ever been. I used to quip it was because I saw the seams that I had, if fortunate, rendered otherwise invisible, but I think it is more that I am aware of the flaws in my writing and no longer invest confidence when I am consigned to misjudgment over work six years prior in my perpetual schooling.

I used to like few things better than writing because it allowed me to express myself. Now, I am keenly aware that I am shouting into an apathetic void. In the months since it was published, the number of copies of my fourth book sold are barely in the double digits, and most of those are to my father, who has only managed to put one in another person's hand. I often hate the book I am writing, I part because I know no one will read it. I've compared myself to a prostitute, but at least their services are in demand.

When I was a young writer, I was all potential. I had hopes and aspirations for what life would be like once I was published. Now that I have managed four books with a small press who would likely publish my grocery list if I formatted it properly, I know that I have an audience that could comfortably fit in a classroom and few of them are particularly chatty outside the group. When I look at the costs to me, the literal money I have expended, the hours taken, the ego shaved, it feels stupid to continue to let this bet ride. Is this simple a sunk cost that has gone on much too long?

I am no longer happy writing. I resent how much of my life I have wasted at a keyboard, all the experiences I have missed because I was going to be an author. It kept me pinned near pens and keyboards when I should have traveled more lightly. I made my wish to the literary genie and I technically got what I wanted without realizing how legalistic I would have to be to get what I should have desired.

Most of my writing income is from the classes and panels I do in order to get my name out. I enjoy these, but I am not an author for them. I am a teacher. I am only as good as my fallback career, what I was doing to keep myself afloat so I could write.

I hate how much of my time I have to spend on promoting myself when I should be working on writing new things. I don't want to have to promote beyond a passing mention that, yes, I have written some books and mightn't you want to read them? I acceded to beginning a podcast in hopes it would bring a new audience to my books, only to find that people who never listened to a solitary episode expected me now to spend more time promoting it instead of my writing. Every bit of boot-licking, check-signing, exposure-seeking, elevator-pitching, song-and-dance groveling I do to keep from being forgotten entirely rapidly depletes my internal reserves. If I were meant to be a businessman and publicist, I would have gotten an MBA and not had to worry about writing.

As an author of little read fantasy novels, I can't help but feel unentitled to have such angst. I am not attempting heartbreaking works of staggering genius; no great American novels are likely to flow out of my pen. The world is not improved by my putting on literary airs and writing something I do not feel. In one of the least respected genre ghettos outside erotica, I write alternate universe fan fiction of a life I never led. I write Buffy by way of American Gods, with a shot of Gilmore Girls as a chaser, but I am man enough to admit it.

I used to believe I would be good enough to write the book I most wanted to read, but I now feel that book will go unwritten. I am too self-conscious, to awkward and inhibited to write anything profound enough to be worth a damn.

I miss the joy I used to feel, the optimism that came from having only hope instead of flaccid accomplishments under my belt. I've put out the best I could manage and I have been greeted with a resounding sniff. Even an echoing yawn might qualify as critical commentary, some acknowledge that my efforts weren't wholly for nothing.

I want to love writing again and I don't know how. If I never again had to worry about my reception, maybe I could manage it. However, I've long since chomped that fruit from the tree of knowledge. There is no going back to a more innocent age.

I want to relax. I never get to do that. At best, I give myself a few minutes before guiltily returning to something productive. Writing, once my main outlet of leisure, has long since become my source of industry. If I am not doing it, someone else is trouncing me. (And don't you dare think you have the right to lecture me how I am only competing against myself, not when you refuse to read one of my books.)

Amber thinks that this is a narrowness of perspective, that I quickly forget that someone asked to interview me last month because nobody cared to this month. Perhaps I have the wrong metrics, but I work on so small a scale, moving maybe a hundred books a year. I am skeptical half of those are read. Yes, I would like media attention because it would justify my efforts, but I want readers more by far and they prefer to read something else or nothing at all.

Amber feels she is in a similar position. She worked her tail off to create a community sponsored agriculture farm. Now, she has only one member, her sister. She points out that her farming gained her a job, though she tends to the gardens of the indolent weekenders instead of plowing fields of her own. She got a bachelor's to become an artist, but she mostly only sells upcycled denim bracelets. She has attempted to launch, only to stall on the ground time and again.

The pressure built as I sat all Saturday at Amber's closing show. The studio she has rented for a year, which she painted a branded sky blue and kept stocked with her art, was being taken from her so the liquor store next door could have a touch more storage space. The rest of the artists who rent space are not being affected. Amber took this on the chin like a champ, in that she thought this was an opportunity for one final bash to get rid of excess stock. She bought alcohol, cheese and crackers, and grapes when I would have taken my ball and flipped off all those depriving me of a creative outlet that legitimized my efforts.

A scattering of friends and family members said they would come. Aside from Amber's mother, the only people we saw Friday night into Saturday were a middle aged couple who didn't even stay long enough to nosh some of the grapes I was hate-eating. The indignity of this inauspicious closing rankled me, but Amber only shrugged. She is accustomed to events populated by no one, craft fairs where she doesn't sell as much as a solitary bracelet or polymer clay creature despite the money she forked over to sell. Had I not witnessed how often and much she worked for her dream, it might sting less to see it disappointed yet again.

This is not only me whinging, or should not be. I want to rekindle my love of writing. I want not to want to do anything but write when I have the time. I want no anxiety when confronted with the opportunity to create. I simply need to remember again how I do that.


Thomm Quackenbush is an author and teacher in the Hudson Valley. Double Dragon publishes four novels in his Night's Dream series (We Shadows, Danse Macabre, and Artificial Gods, and Flies to Wanton Boys). He has sold jewelry in Victorian England, confused children as a mad scientist, filed away more books than anyone has ever read, and tried to inspire the learning disabled and gifted. He is capable of crossing one eye, raising one eyebrow, and once accidentally groped a ghost. When not writing, he can be found biking, hiking the Adirondacks, grazing on snacks at art openings, and keeping a straight face when listening to people tell him they are in touch with 164 species of interstellar beings.


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