In 2009, I had been writing “seriously” for just over four years and I had given up. It was subtle–I didn’t chuck my laptop at an alley wall, soak it in lighter fluid and throw lit matches at it until it exploded in a supernova of crushed hopes and dreams. I just had learned that even though I had potential and was developing skill, the parts I liked most were what others wanted me to change.
That’s a simple thing to say, but imagine it for a moment. I truly believed that no one wanted to hear what I had to say. The brand of paint you use is wonderful, but the canvas is ugly; that outfit is fabulous, but not on your body; your child would be better if it had different parents. And I believed it, because every workshop I’d ever been to had given me positive feedback on my technical skills, and negative feedback on the parts of me inherent in the work.
I didn’t need to murder my darlings, because critique had done that for me.
I still wanted to be a writer, but I was convinced this would be a job like web development or graphic design, something I did because I was technically proficient but which offered no true home for my art. Like a dayjob that asked me to cover my tattoos, commercial fiction would ask me to cover my heart. I could do that, I thought, even though it hurt. I wanted to write so badly that I would make it work.
The deadline approached for my next workshop. I agonized over which novel chapter to send in for weeks before I finally admitted to myself that no sample of mine was going to get a magically different response. “Smooth prose,” “vivid imagery,” and “It’s not very funny. You should try reading Terry Pratchett.”
So I just submitted something that was all darlings. I already knew what they were going to tell me, so what did it matter what I showed them? I chose the worst of my stories, self-indulgent tripe I’d written only for my own amusement, and sent it in. It was about 25% fart jokes, 15% f-bombs, an elf that cleaned its crotch like a cat, and so on. Somewhere in between, there were some adventurers and a quest or something.
When we sat down to critique, I heard mostly what I expected. It was a mixture of likes and dislikes, with some recurring annoyances: why is there modern swearing in this fantasy novel; the main character is rude and I don’t like him; have you read anything by Terry Pratchett, because you could learn a thing or two about writing fantasy humor.
The instructor that year was Jay Lake, a man I had met casually at a few conventions who later became a fast friend and who is no longer with us. He was invited to be an instructor at VP, but had to decline due to his health, and this is just one of the myriad ways in which we were all robbed by his cancer. I’m exceedingly fortunate that I had the chance to have him read and respond to my work, because at that moment in time, I very much needed exactly what he gave me.
When we’d gone around the circle and it was his turn to speak on my work, he referred to it as hilarious, did not utter any combination of the words “Terry” and “Pratchett,” and in fact, he offered to show my manuscript to his agent.
He couldn’t have known then that something inside me was dead, or that he was the mad scientist who brought it back to life, but it was the most pleasant of electric shocks. And what happened inside my headguts was just as complex as Frankenstein’s experiments. Not only had I come across a kindred spirit, someone who liked weird gross silly/serious work, when I’d assumed I was alone, but he was a professional, someone who wrote weird stuff and got paid, who had confidence in my work! And perhaps most importantly, I now had the notion that when five people say they’d make changes and one says they wouldn’t, I could listen to that one. I could, and should, listen to the person who got what I was trying to say, not the person who wanted me to say something else.
When his agent wasn’t as enthused about the manuscript, he showed it to one of his editors, and every time he saw me for years afterward he asked me where it was and who was looking at it. Jay alone gave me more confidence in my work than any other single human has. That manuscript is still in my hands, unsold in spite of its apparent potential, but some day I will publish it, even if I have to do it myself with my own blood on bathtub newsprint, so I can write a proper note of blame to Mr. Lake.
Because of Jay, I stopped murdering my darlings–in fact, I added more darlings. My darlings bred and made bizarrelings and some four-letter-wordlings. Writing is a passion again, somewhere I can explore instead of merely coloring inside the lines.
This is my story, but the best thing about Jay is that he was friends with everyone, and everyone who met him has a story about him. If you have time, please share one of your Jay stories in the comments. I’d love to hear more about an amazing man who isn’t with us anymore, because every time you do share a story about Jay, for a brief moment, while I read and imagine it, I get to be with him again.