Shane Joseph is the author of four novels and two collections of short stories, and was the winner of the best fantasy novel award at the Canadian Christian Writing Awards in 2010. His short fiction has appeared in international literary journals and anthologies. His latest novel, In the Shadow of the Conquistador, was released in November 2015. For details visit www.shanejoseph.com.
Shane dropped by the blog this week with the guest post below. Enjoy!
My Writer’s Story: Different to the One I Imagined
Our times are generating many more writers than demand can bear. This is due to better education, improved health, technology, inflated egos in an age of “me first,” and our eternal quest for immortality. The ambition to be a writer usually begins in our formative years and is inspired by our favourite writers. As a teenager, I was greatly influenced by Graham Greene, John Steinbeck and Hemingway. I dreamt of sending manuscripts out into the world, where they would become best-sellers and make me a reclusive millionaire; I would hide out in some remote island and submit more manuscripts and continue to dazzle the world with my brilliance until I was invited to a cold capital in Europe to accept the Nobel Prize. And I would refuse that honour, making me an enigmatic figure like Jean-Paul Sartre, Boris Pasternak or J.D. Salinger. It was nice to dream!
The reality, even back then, was different. I had chosen to gloss over the private demons my literary heroes had faced in order to achieve their fame: dual lives, alcoholism, drug addiction, persecution, shell-shock (called PTSD today), hypertension, depression, divorce, estrangement, chronic pain, and suicide staring into the barrel of a gun—not forgetting the early struggles with rejection and penury, either. These trials gave impetus to their work and are mentioned only in discreet biographies, not on the glossy covers of their books.
My writer’s story turned out differently to my idealized dream. For instance, I didn’t imagine that after hacking away at this craft in my early twenties in a developing country where English was a second language, and after having a handful of stories published, I would pack up my authorly tools and try something easier to earn a living—Greene, Steinbeck et al, be damned! I never realized that the “other living,” at a corporate job, would come so easily and earn such a handsome income that I wouldn’t bother with the writing game again for another twenty years. I didn’t realize that it would be the curse of “guilt” that would bring me back to reopen the dusty toolbox and start to catch up to the literary world’s evolution in the intervening years.
Once “Take Two” started, however, the stories and novels came easily, and they are likely to continue into the future, health permitting. It was like a dam had burst and all that had been stored for years came gushing out. But the publishing landscape had changed, drastically. Prizes sold books now. And the prize money was cornered among the “1% of the 1%” in the literary hierarchy. There was no middle class in publishing anymore—there was a huge gulf between the self-published and the best-seller, and a huge stroke of luck seemed the only way to bridge it.
But with every closing door, others were opening. There were now many ways in which to be published, I discovered, thanks to evolving technology that had finally disrupted the dominant publishing model of eons, which was: publish a large quantity of paper books on ancient printing presses until unit costs became affordable, ship them across the land in trucks into stores that couldn’t keep track of them, receive most of them back after awhile to be shredded, then start the cycle again and hope like hell that governments or private donors supported this inefficiency in the interest of promoting the arts. My heroes had thrived in this model, but now it was dying, supplanted by DIY publishing, print-on-demand, electronic media, subscriptions services, free story sites, social media, and blogs like the one you are reading. And my heroes were dead too.
I enthusiastically tried all the models available, traditional and new, and discovered that all had their pros and cons. But as their readerships were distinct, this lack of homogeneity helped plaster me all over the map, assuaging my guilt for having neglected “the gift.” There was also no way I could hide out on a remote island, I realized; I had to be front and centre in the global public domain, a.k.a., the Internet (which also didn’t exist in the time of my literary heroes), selling my wares like a shoe salesman. I even started a publishing house, using the new technology, and have helped bring other writers into print, ones who might otherwise have been sitting for years in the slush piles of the Big Five (or is it Four, now—hard to keep track!). The joy of bringing others’ work into the world, watching them at the podium reading from their debut novel at their book’s launch, gives me immense satisfaction. I was doing my bit to restore the middle class in publishing. And I finally faced the darker side, too: the rejection, the shrunken revenue streams, the even further shrunken attention spans, and the need for that other source of income to fuel this one. None of this had been part of my teenage dream.
And so I have accepted that my writer’s story is different from the one I visualized in my youth. Creative visualizers, take note: it doesn’t always turn out the way you paint it in your mind. But it can be a damned sight more interesting and surprising. Why go on a trip where every stopover is carefully laid out, predictable and boring? Where would the thrill of the unexpected lie? Isn’t that what we try to create in our work—the unexpected?
Shane Joseph visits Brockton Writers Series on Wednesday, September 14, 2016 – full of beans Coffee House & Roastery, 1348 Dundas St. W., Toronto (6:30pm, PWYC) – along with Madhur Anand, Jeremy Hanson-Finger, Phoebe Wang and a special guest talk, “Best Practices for Grant Writing”, by Toronto Arts Council Interim Dance & Literary Officer Natasha Powell.