A Writing Career: The Opportunity of Defeat

What it is that sustains me as a writer? First of all, you have to be crazy to expect to sustain yourself financially as a fiction writer. What’s that about “not giving up your day job?” It’s not a joke. Everyone seems to think they can write and everyone seems to think that their writing should be sent to literary agents and publishers. This turns into a permanent rush hour around the e-mail addresses and phones of those literary agents and publishers. Best bet here is to get that day job and then go onto to “just do it” when it comes to your writing.

When I was a creative writing teacher, I used to read a lot on the teaching of writing. Most experienced writing teachers seem to agree that becoming a successful writer is 10% talent and 90% perspiration/hard work. Many times the most talented writers don’t have the patience for the long haul that it takes to weave oneself through the nonsense of the publishing industry. They get their stories right the first few times through and then lose patience with all the waiting that it takes to get through the publishing door. While those of us less talented writers are working away at getting the story right and pass the time in endless rewrites before we might get noticed. But nothing that I’m writing here is new, there are endless articles and books on writing that will tell you the same thing. I’d rather write about my path, because that’s what I know best.

It is a cliché in writing that there are two basics to becoming a writer: writing and reading. And both are equally important. It’s obvious that a writer must write, but perhaps not so obvious that a writer must read. And read not only what’s in the field you’re most interested in but read eclectically, read everything that you’re remotely curious about – and some things that you thought you could care less about. When you’re reading in your field of fiction interest, read for the story and then read for how the author did it, or didn’t do it – read both the successes and failures. Learn how they were done, how they were constructed and by doing so learn what works and what doesn’t work – and WHY! This is how reading teaches writing. But of course, if you don’t apply yourself, all the reading and writing in the world doesn’t teach a damn thing.

Let’s look at my reading list. In the category of reading for sustenance, probably the number one lesson in the writing field that I’ve learned was taught to me by Joseph Campbell when he wrote:

Any life career that you choose in following your bliss should be chosen with that sense that nobody can frighten me off from this thing. And no matter what happens, this is the validation of my life and action.  (The Power of Myth)

Yes, “following your bliss.” Campbell was of that 60s generation, and “bliss” was a big deal. And as you can see in the above quote, he is equating “bliss” with “the validation” of your “life and action.” This is serious stuff. He’s saying that what most profoundly moves you is the purpose of your life, your reason for being alive. Further, Campbell has said that if you follow your “bliss,” you are not only validating your meaning as a human being, but by following this path, this dao, doors will open, connections will be made for you. He notes that although these doors will open and connections will be made, you will not necessarily become rich or famous, but you will have a fulfilling life.

My writing career has been this way. Lot of hard work, lot of persistence, but also a lot of satisfaction with the stuff I write and its reception - certainly, no riches and no fame, but great enjoyment out of exploring medieval China in my own way. And here too, Campbell’s work has helped define the way for me. In preparing to write my first wuxia novel, Dream of the Dragon Pool, I read his Hero with a Thousand Faces. It is in this book that Campbell puts forth a detailed concept of the “monomyth” – the story of the heroic archetype that appears in most literate civilizations throughout time and geography. The hero’s path is now so well known that Hollywood screenplay writers can probably recite it in their sleep. It was, after all, George Lucas teaming up with Joseph Campbell in scripting out the “myth for our time” – Star Wars.

Campbell’s position made a lot of sense to me, that those stories that touch most deeply on our common shared humanity are the myths that explain what this world is all about; perhaps, the original purpose of storytelling. So I sought to make this part of my storytelling when I set about to write Li Bo’s adventures in Dream of the Dragon Pool. Although, Li Bo lived a long time ago, in a “galaxy” far, far away, his story, hopefully, is one that we can all recognize and share. If that happens, then to no small extent, Joseph Campbell had a hand in it.

As for my literary guides, two or three stand out. At the top of my list for sheer inspiration and imagination rests the great Latin American writer, Gabriel García Márquez. I can still remember riding in a Taipei taxi heading to my class and finishing One Hundred Years of Solitude with a gasp – “He brought the whole story full circle!” I remember my feeling of profound admiration for his literary talent and the power of his imagination. I was deeply awed by Garciz Márquez and read more of his works and those of his fellow “magical realists.” I went on to use them in my creative writing classes to illustrate the leading edge of literary imagination. In some ways, I saw the Chinese wuxia genre as a form of China’s “magical realism.”

But it wasn’t García Márquez, who inspired me to write my first wuxia novel. Rather, that inspiration came from the Italian writer, Umberto Eco, and his renowned, The Name of the Rose. Like many, I bought the novel, but never managed to finish it. I came away thinking, “I can do this and I can do it with a much more interesting culture and historical period.” Of course, I was thinking of the Tang dynasty. Li Bo’s tale was born from that “inspiration” – an historical fiction novel with “Chinese characteristics.”

As I continued to write and read, another author profoundly influenced me. A friend once remarked that there are “popular” writers who are actually better writers than the so-called “literary” writers. As an example, he mentioned Patrick O’Brian, a historical fiction novelist who wrote a series of novels about the British navel experience during the era of Napoleonic sea warfare. What came to be known after the two main protagonists as the Aubrey-Maturin series has been declared the best historical fiction series ever written. After I got by the early 19th century British English, I was hooked and read all 20 volumes one after another. O’Brian writes so well and knows how to do it all: plot, draw characters, do dialogue, go off on fantastically interesting tangents, and create riveting action and suspense. My forthcoming series, The Adventures of the Shaolin Blade Tanzong is a direct influence of O’Brian’s Aubrey-Maturin series right down to the dual main protagonists!

There are other writers who informed my imagination, but those mentioned are the main influences. The next influence would be the cinema that includes mostly Chinese wuxia pian and Japanese samurai and anime films.

So we come back to the basics for a writer: writing, reading, and persistence. The motto that I most abided by over these long years was, “Every defeat is an opportunity.” Each time I got a rejection, whether it was for a job application or a literary submission, I saw it as an opportunity to make something better. Best wishes in your writing careers - and remember to be kind to yourselves, writing takes patience!