I originally wrote part of this post just before I turned 40. You can read the original if you’d like. However, I sometimes need to be reminded why I’m here. It happens every once in a while: you bury yourself in the business aspect of writing, looking at numbers, trying to forecast the way the readership blows, but when all is said and done, we’re all authors for a reason, even if those reasons are different. The WHY we do things should always come before the WHAT we do.
My reason starts with unrealistic views and ends with a little Samoan boy. I died a lot when I lost him.
On April 26th of 2012, I turned 40. I never thought the approaching birthday would take it’s toll on my sense of worth the way it did, but I finally think I understand why: in the grand scheme of things, why are we here?
I could go into the philosophical reasons why, drip in some religion for you, rant about age slipping by, etc. I could even go on to say I don’t expect much out of the next 40 years…if there will even be another 40 years. Why do all that, though? We all have our reasons for being here, reasons we give ourselves for remaining on the planet as a productive member of whatever society we live in. Even if we don’t yet have a reason, the journey to find that reason becomes reason enough for some folks. Because of our varied views on the nature of Life, the Universe and Everything, what I say won’t have an impact on you.
And that’s the problem, I think.
I’ve heard it said that a writer does what he or she does for one of two reasons (never both): the love of the art or the love of the money. If it’s money a writer is after, it’s well-known that the writer probably won’t get far–unless that writer is backed by one of the large publishing houses and his or her name is worth more than their art. Any large publishing house is about making money–damn the art, damn the beauty of the written word, damn creativity or elan. If a piece of literature doesn’t make money, then it certainly can’t be a piece of literature worth their time. You understand this, of course. This is why high profile authors who started with the grandest of intentions eventually turn out crap just to make their publisher/editor/agent happy. The only way that publisher/agent/editor will be happy is if that writer makes them money. It’s almost like politics, in that respect: people get into the business to serve but the end result is almost always corruption.
So is the other reason–for the love of the art–the only honest reason a writer should write? As an artist with noble and romantic views of the future, I certainly bought into that and embraced it as my external reason for writing. Hell, if I didn’t care about the art so much, wouldn’t I be out there trying to pimp my way into any large publishing house simply to get at that magical pot of marketing money? I certainly wouldn’t be where I’m at now, standing with millions of other up-and-coming authors and yammering on about how difficult it is to market or how exciting it is to see a fellow author make a sale. I’d probably ignore Indie or self-published authors and shun them as pathetic wannabe hacks–a view shared by agents, editors and every large publishing house in existence. If the love of the art wasn’t my reason for writing, I could probably write a novel a month and infest the market with mindless entertainment that has a shelf-life of two or three years at the most.
I write for the love of the art, don’t I?
Or could there be another reason hidden deep in the wrinkles of my aging face?
I need to back up for a minute. There is a pain I keep to myself and rarely talk about, yet it is one that influences so much of what I do.
It’s a story about a boy.
His name is La’akea, a Hawai’ian name meaning “consecrated light.”La’akea is a Samoan who currently resides with his auntie on the Big Island of Hawai’i. In 2007, I signed up to foster children who had medical issues, those who–for lack of adequate support–languished under social services because many people who opt to foster children do so with the idea they can either make money or raise “normal” children. La’akea was abused from the day he was born until I took custody of him on his first birthday. His retina had been detached, he had fractures in his skull and because of his injuries, he couldn’t walk, talk or eat like a normal child could by that age; he’d essentially forgotten the basics. Due to deep venal thrombosis (a nasty blood clot in his leg), he required two shots of enoxaparin a day. He was quiet and because of his history, afraid of men.
From the day I brought him into the house, he and I bonded in a way I haven’t bonded with anyone before. He sat on my lap for months. He couldn’t sleep unless I tucked him in at night. When he woke with night terrors (which occurred around 11 p.m. every night), he ran to me. I battled the MRSA virus with him for over a year and contracted it myself. I taught him what I could, made sure his interaction with my natural children was good, and watched him regain what he lost. By the time he completed his first year of preschool, he was leading other kids.
On July 27, 2010, I left Hawai’i. La’akea couldn’t come with me and after nearly a year of legal battles, he was adopted by his auntie. I haven’t heard his voice since August of 2011. There is, of course, so much more to the story. However for the sake of brevity, I have condensed it down to the most important parts, those parts that exist to support this one statement:
I had left a mark
During the time I was actively involved in trying to move La’akea to Colorado, the voices started again. I mentioned during an interview with Michael K. Rose, that Castles: A Fictional Memoir of a Girl with Scissors took seven years to write. For quite a few of those years, Maggie (the main character of the novel) wouldn’t talk to me. If I tried to write something into the novel, it wouldn’t sound right.
Then, one day in that Autumn of 2010, Maggie spoke up. From that point forward, I haven’t stopped writing. Castles was released. I started and finished Sketches from the Spanish Mustang. I returned to a novel I had abandoned years ago, A Difficult Mirror, polished it and put it out for the world to see. I plotted and planned out five more novels and have been working diligently on all the things that make writing a career.
I had a drive and purpose. Something in me changed.
What was it I intended to do? What was it that those three years of my life had taught me? Did I seek money or was I writing for the sake of art? Could it be the reason I wrote was completely different than the reasons stated by all the thinking heads of the world? Why was I here?
To leave a mark?
You might be saying to yourself that since I have kids, I have left a mark. Since I am a 20-year veteran of the military, I have left a mark. Since I developed plans and procedures for the training of people who would eventually destroy 7% of the nation’s chemical weapons, I have left a mark.
But I haven’t, have I? Not, at least, in those endeavors. Sure, raising kids leaves a mark on their lives, but it’s something we’re programmed as human beings to do: procreate. It’s an evolutionary principle.
But what of the art? What of the writing?
When I was a kid, I dreamed of being the next Ray Bradbury. That dream transformed over the years to being the next Stephen King or the next Clive Barker. Hell, at one point I would have settled for being the next Michael Crichton, but I knew my research skills were far inferior to his. I wasn’t thinking, however, that I was bound to be the next good writer; I was thinking I was going to be the next well-known, famous and rich author.
Big freakin’ mistake. Because of that misguided goal, I was already bound to fail as a writer. Sure, I may have broke into the corporate masses and held their marketing skills hostage, but what kind of mark would that really leave? That I could write quickly or party with Hollywood celebrities on a beach in California?
No. That was not for me.
La’akea taught me something; he taught me to sacrifice for the sake of leaving a mark on the future. I know he will be better off because I was his father for nearly three years. I know he will remember the lessons I taught him, even if he never remembers who I am. I know in my heart that not only did I leave a mark on his life–on his future–he left a mark on mine. Some of my recent writing reflects that, and I know much of my later work will, too. One day, La’akea will show up in a novel.
And so I return to writing, to the reason I write, the reason I let Maggie into my head. I write so I can leave a mark. I may be late to the game–although 41 isn’t really that late–but I think I managed to filter out all the wrong reasons for putting pen to paper.
I write to leave a mark, a mark on your life if you choose to read it. In return you, the reader, can leave a mark on my life–feedback, good or bad, I can use to sharpen the words so they leave a mark on someone else.
For me, the world of writing isn’t–or shouldn’t be–about money. It’s not even really about the art. I might never make a living from my novels, but if I can touch one reader–like La’akea touched me–then I have accomplished something. The world of writing–for me–is a method by which I can leave a mark on current and future generations of readers and writers.
You never know–one of those future writers may be a little Samoan who probably doesn’t remember my name.
On April 26, 2012 I turned 40. It took me most of those four decades and a little boy to realize why I’m here, why I write.
I write to leave a mark.
(I miss you, boy.)