Tuesday, June 14, 2011

The Dream vs The World

I didn't grow up wanting to be a writer. I grew up wanting to be a paleontologist. I saw my very first dinosaur sometime around the age of three, and I was instantly captivated. It was on a gas station of all places. I'm not sure if it was meant to be ironic or not. It's hard to know those kinds of things at three. My mother has told me, though, that I was hooked from that moment on. Everything was dinosaurs. In many ways, I learned to read by reading about dinosaurs.

In first grade, our teacher asked us what we wanted to be when we grew up and, then, went around the room letting everyone answer that question. All of the usual answers came up. Fireman. Policeman. Doctor. Someone may have even said scientist. I know all of the other answers were normal because the teacher would nod and go on to the next person. Until she got to me. I said paleontologist. She told me I was making that up. We had an argument. She said if it was a real thing, then, I should I write it on the chalkboard. I'm sure she thought that there was no way I could spell a word that long even if it was a made up word. But I put the word on  the chalkboard spelled correctly. I won the argument.

All of my science fair projects while I was in elementary school dealt with dinosaurs in some capacity or another. Well, except for that one year where they actually told me I couldn't do dinosaurs again, so I did my project on the solar system. Generally speaking, I knew more about dinosaurs than anyone else at any school I was ever in, including the teachers.

Typically, kids' ideas about what they want to be when they grow up change quite a bit. I don't remember the exact numbers, but I think most kids change their minds a couple of times a year before adolescence, meaning that the typical kid has had anywhere from 6 to 12 things s/he has firmly wanted to be as a grown up by the time s/he hits middle school. I only ever wanted to be one thing: a paleontologist.

Ironically, it was middle school that changed that for me. Two things happened: Earth science and Careers class. In Earth science there was a unit about rocks. I  hated it. Absolutely hated it. And the test on rocks at the end of the unit? The test where we had a bucket of rocks on the table, and we had to name them. No, not things like Bob and George. We had to identify them. That was my only non-A grade all year. I'm not talking about just in that class, I'm talking about all year. All of my classes. Everything except the rock unit. I hated rocks. And, thus, my Dream came face-to-face with the reality of the World and the World won. Between that and a project I had to do in Careers class about the profession I wanted to go into, I realized that no matter how much I loved dinosaurs, I would never enjoy being a paleontologist.

I first dreamed of being a writer sometime in high school. It had to do with Shakespeare, whom I didn't like, at the time, but that's another story. You can blame it on Romeo and Juliet. At any rate, I remember thinking about how cool it would be to write something that people were still reading, even studying, hundreds of years after I was dead. I mean, really, how cool is that? That was the dream... to write something that people would be still be reading and enjoying, maybe even learning about in school, after I was dead.

At some point, there was a new dream. Wouldn't it be cool to walk into a book store and see a book that I wrote sitting there on the shelf. I mean, how cool is that? Right? I'm sure we all have that dream. Just like I'm sure that, at some point, all guys dream/wish they were great poets. Usually, right around the time they fall in love for the first time. For most guys, though, that's just a brief phase. heh

So, here I am, 20 some odd years later, staring that dream in the face. Just like I had to stare that dream of paleontology in the face. Because dreams are great, essential, but, often, not realistic. Or, even worse, not what we really want.

When I was a kid, paleontology was not really my dream. Dinosaurs were my dream. I was like the kid  in Ray Bradbury's excellent short story, "Besides a Dinosaur, Whatta Ya Wanna Be When You Grow Up?" Not that I actually wanted to be a dinosaur, like the boy in the story, but I thought I wanted something that I didn't really want.

After I finished my novel, I had this same sort of experience. I was grappling with the replacement dream, the dream of "wouldn't it be cool to walk into a book store, or, even, a Target or Wal-Mart, and see my book sitting there on  the shelf?" I think as writers, most of us start out with that dream somewhere in our heads. Possibly, that's the only dream we're having. The cool factor of being a name on a bookshelf. But I started delving into the data about the publishing industry to work out all of this how to get published stuff, and I didn't like what I was finding.

Now, I already knew about the huge amount of waste that publishing industry produces every year in conjunction with book stores, because I worked in a used book store when I was in college, and the owner used to rant about people bringing coverless books to him. But that was just the tip of ice berg. And all of this is a topic for another post, so I'm not going to go into it, now. As I found things out, I would comment on them to my wife. In a, um, negative way. That way she takes as me complaining when, really, I'm just commenting. She knows in my mind there's difference, but it affects her the same either way. Anyway...

Don't tell her I said this, but my wife is a smart woman. At some point in there, she said to me, "Well, what is it you want? Do you want to be published [i.e. have my book in bookstores] or do you want people to read and enjoy your books?" That's really what it comes down to, in the end: does your dream, the dream that drives you, match up to what you really want? For me, the dream of "being published" was at odds with what I really and truly actually want, that other people will read and enjoy my books.

Yes, yes, I hear you. "But being published is the way that other people will get to read and enjoy my books!" Except that's not true. I'll concede the point that it used to be true, but, now, today, there are so many other options. And most books that go through traditional publishing (and when I say most, I mean almost all), never sell 5000 copies. At this point, we could get into the huge debate over traditional publishing vs, well, whatever else, but that's also not the point. I will say, though, that, I think, we often defend traditional publishing not because it deserves defending but because we're defending our dream of being on a bookshelf in a book store.

I had to look at that dream and evaluate it. Is that what I really wanted? To be published and be able to walk into a store and point and say, "that's my book!" That would be so cool! I get it. It would be. But is it what I really wanted. No, it's not. What I really want is for people to have the chance to read and enjoy my book. On top of that, I don't want to support an industry I feel is wrong in so many ways. My Dream came up against the reality of the World, and the World won. Again. But it's okay, because that dream... it's not what I really wanted, anyway.

It's great to have dreams. We should have dreams. We need them. They fuel us. They give us goals. They keep us striving to achieve. However, we shouldn't just cling to dreams because they're our dreams. We need to evaluate those dreams on a fairly consistent basis so that we know if they are worthy of still being our dreams. Do they match up with what we really want? Do they align with reality? Which is not to say that, even, having impossible dreams is not okay. Some great things have been accomplished due to the "impossible" dreams of some people. But it's a pretty horrible thing to achieve a dream, to get there, and find out that, although you reached your dream, it wasn't what you wanted.

Here's what it boils down to: I see so many blogs from people striving, reaching, investing everything in the dream of being published, but I have to wonder if that's really what all these people really want. If it is, that's great. But when confronted with the question, and looking at it honestly and objectively, I couldn't say that that is what really wanted. And, if it's  not what I really want, why pursue it so single-mindedly? I'll admit, that dream of being published still worms its way around in my head causing conflict, so I have to, pretty constantly, remind myself about what I really want. Make my work available for people to read and enjoy and do my best to let them know it's out there. After all, it's the same work I'd have to do even with traditional publishing. Maybe I'm the only one that this is true for.

This whole thing about evaluating our dreams isn't just for writers; everyone should remember to do this. I need to remember to do this more often. Is the dream we're pursuing, whether it's growing up to be a T-Rex or having a book published, actually the dream that we want? With all the changes in the publishing industry, right now, though, I think this is an even more important question for writers to be asking themselves. What is it you want from your writing? Does your dream of being published actually fulfill what you want?


  1. I love dinosaurs too. As a kid, I used to model them from clay and have fights between the t-rex and the triceratops.

  2. Andrew, I don't want to get all sappy on you, but... My goodness, this is a beautiful post. I literally sat here, chin in palm, mesmerized by how true and how touching each paragraph, each sentence was to me. And it should be to everyone who ever dared to dream. You're right. It's not just about writers, and it's not just about publication or worldwide (even nationwide) recognition.

    It's about discovering in yourself what's really important. To you. I would rather put out one, memorable book than 50 mediocre novels I half-a$$ed on deadline, which just so happen to make the NYT bestseller list. Because that's what happens, you know? And if that's your dream, heck, go for it.

    But I'm with you. I want to write. Why? Because I love it. I love the way it makes me feel inside when I show up at the keyboard. The fulfillment & contentment. The serenity. Sure, I want to be published. I want to be able to pay my bills, because I'm selling novels. In the end, however, I always want to keep this feeling I've had since I was a little girl...

    That when I'm writing, I'm home.

    Wonderful post. Thank you.

  3. To answer your question, my favorite dinosaur was in fact the triceratops because it looked really cool. Beyond that, my favorite prehistoric creature is the megladon. Now don't get me wrong...I'm terrified of sharks. But it blows my mind that the seas used to have sharks so fricking huge that eight people could sit within its jaws. I'm so glad those things are extinct. How terrifying the prehistoric world must have been.

  4. I ask myself that question all the time. Unfortunately I never answer myself. This is a great post. As a certified dreamer I was enchanted by each paragraph. I think removing the stigma on self publishing is very important because I think when you publish something on your own people still don't consider you a writer unless you say I was published by Random House or whatever. I write because the words inside my head insist I do and because I love it! If no other person ever reads a single word I will still be happy........or maybe not? I don't know yet.

  5. I'm on the fence with what I should do as well. I do have a manuscript I've submitted to a publisher at the moment, but I've already counted that as a rejection. I just can't decide if I should keep on trying for traditional publishing or not.

    I've read their terms for new writers are almost highway robbery, at least with e-rights. Since those never go out of print, you could be giving them (pick a publisher, any publisher) something like 75% of your earnings on ebooks forever. Even if a book you released today sells a copy a decade from now, they still get that huge cut.

    That's as bad as can be.

    So, is it worth it? I don't know. The allure is very strong.

  6. Michael: Have you seen Primeval? I resisted it for a long time, because it looked like a cheesy dinosaur show, but I was pleasantly surprised when I finally checked it out.

    Alyssia: You may get as sappy as you want :) And thank you for the wonderful words. Even if you don't get published, I'll read you :)

    Jennifer: No, people don't. It's too bad. People at my kids' school knew I was writing a book, because I was reading it in a few of the classes at their school while I was writing it. After I self-published it, I brought it up to school with me. The first question I had was, "Oh, who published it?" When I said I did, I was immediatelty dismissed. To be metaphorical, being a writer is in the pen, not the printing press.

    Rusty: I know what you're saying Rusty. Getting published traditionally offers a lot of validation. Not just to you but to other people. In so many ways, that's what it takes to get acknowledgement. I suppose the question comes down to whether you want the validation or not.

  7. Really great post, Andrew! I think you've hit on a point that I've realized over the past year - the reason why I really write. Now that I've self-published and traditionally published, I realized that nothing in my feelings has really changed. I'm still me. My goals of writing well-written stories is still the same, and nothing would change it. If my publisher went under tomorrow, I'd be fine. I'd keep writing. I'd go another path and just keep... well, writing... because that's what I do. My dream has never been to publish. It has been to write novels, and that's what I'm doing, and I'm very happy doing it. I just happened to find ways to share my work with more and more people, and I'll continue to do so.

    Go out there and live your dream, whatever it may be.

    In the end, none of this is about validation or publication. It's about DOING. It's those who go out and DO that are so busy and happy DOING that the validation isn't even an issue.

  8. Yeah... you know, I think writing should be viewed like being a doctor or a lawyer. "I'm a practicing writer/author." I think I like the sound of that. And by saying it that way it immediately removes the pressure of whether you're published or not.

    Of course, when I was younger, I always hated that "practicing" thing. The idea of going to a doctor that was just practicing... I wanted one that knew what he was doing! I appreciate that word more, now, though. Now that I have kids. That's also like being a doctor. "I'm a practicing parent." heh