A Cheery Holiday Roundtable

In December 2014 I approached our esteemed panelists with the following:

On his blog Michael Swanwick recently addressed a reader-inspired question: “How do I cope with the despair endemic upon being an unpublished or little-published writer?” In an essay first published in 1991, Robert Silverberg wrote about spending his adult life as a successful professional writer but still facing the “long despair of nothing well.” The word “despair,” and related terms, like “defeat” and “depression,” appear with some frequency in discussions of writing.

My question for this group is: if this is something you experience, how do *you* cope with despair as it relates to your professional SF/F/H endeavors (writing, reviewing, editing, scholarship, etc.)?

Are your coping methods now the same or different as when you were unpublished/little-published/trying to break in?

Cat Rambo

Strangely enough, when I am feeling particularly angsty, I mail Michael Swanwick, who was one of my Clarion West instructors. I mail him a long tortured letter and then he mails back and tells me to go write.

Paul Graham Raven

The most honest answer in my case is probably “scuttle sideways into a world where there’s marginally better odds of landing a regular paycheck given your skillset”–with the rueful caveat that I’m fully aware that the academy isn’t exactly a stable employment market for the majority of its participating Rational Actors, but also that I’m too old to pass the eye-candy selection standards at Starbucks.

More true to the spirit of the question: deadlines are the great and final motivator. A promise to deliver must be fulfilled, and commissions–regular or irregular, paid or otherwise–bring a certain productive rhythm to one’s writing life, and also provide a justification for sustaining it, if that doesn’t sound too pompous. (It totally does, but whatevs.) So I guess volunteering for things is a good motivator, as is reading new stuff by writers who inspire you, and stuff by writers you think are idiots. Whatever warms the engine-block, right?

But getting yourself into writing the stuff you’re always promising yourself you’ll write, those odd-ball back-burner secret pet projects that you’ve poked at for half a decade or so, but never have time to work on properly because you have to pay the rent and writing? Damned if I know–if anyone’s got tips, I plan to copy them down!

Jeffrey Ford

Honestly, I never felt despair when I was unpublished. Writing was too much fun. It was a lot of the other shit in life that at times caused despair, but even then, not much. It took me ten years of writing without much acknowledgement before things took off. I wouldn’t trade that time for the world. Also, I was young and basically didn’t give a fuck. I’d decided I was gonna write come hell or high water. When you have kids, though, things get deep pretty quickly. Then I had a full time job where I taught five classes a semester and drove an hour and a half each way to work and back. Writing time was precious, but I used the drive to think up story ideas and my students, to a great extent, taught me a lot about writing. Writing has never made me feel despair. Sometimes frustration. But often elation and accomplishment as well. Only bad things happening to the people I love can really get me down. In these situations, writing has saved me more times than not.

Cecelia Holland

Despair is part of my process. I don’t get into the meat of the story until I’ve destroyed all I already know about it and am reduced to sitting, staring out a window, and eating chocolate chip cookies. Then, against my will, drop by drop like acid falling on the heart, through the awful grace of god, comes wisdom.

Michael Dirda

Being a journalist, I don’t have time for angst over my writing. The work gets done, willy-nilly, because there are other people counting on it. I save my personal despair–of which there has been plenty over the years–for the times when Im not sitting at my desk. As D.H. Lawrence said, “Work is the best, and a certain numbness, a merciful numbness.” Most of the time, I just tell myself to get on with it. Of course, I regularly look at my initial drafts, and sometimes my final drafts, and wonder “What made you ever think you could write?”

Elizabeth Hand

I experience despair over writing more often than not. I try to focus on the process, not the outcome, and on technique. One sentence at a time, one page, etc. This feels more like physical labor to me, which is a good antidote to despair.

I also heed Merlin’s advice to the young Wart in The Once and Future King:

“The best thing for being sad,” replied Merlyn, beginning to puff and blow, “is to learn something. That is the only thing that never fails. You may grow old and trembling in your anatomies, you may lie awake at night listening to the disorder of your veins, you may miss your only love, you may see the world about you devastated by evil lunatics, or know your honor trampled in the sewers of baser minds. There is only one thing for it then–to learn. Learn why the world wags and what wags it. That is the only thing which the mind can never exhaust, never alienate, never be tortured by, never fear or distrust, and never dream of regretting. Learning is the thing for you.”

Siobhan Carroll

What a great question! I’ll reinforce what everyone else has said so far:
#1. The best cure for despair over writing is always to write.

That said, *why* do writers despair?

I’d say I see (and have experienced) far more despair in academia than I see in SF writing groups. There’s a good reason for that: in a ‘publish or perish’ world, one often can’t afford 10,000 hours of practice. That article needs to get published this year, or you’re not only out of a job, but probably out of a career. The stakes are very high, and so even small frustrations can induce despair.

Full-time SF writers face similar stakes. That book needs to be sold or you can’t keep up with your mortgage. A fallow period in which you can’t seem to sell anything may well bring visions of the end of your writing career dancing through your head. Again, despair is real, and the only solution is to keep writing.

So now back to the unpublished writer. If writing despair is linked to a writer’s sense that everything is at stake in getting this novel/story sold – then part of managing despair involves managing stakes.

So a second piece of advice is:

#2. If possible, keep your stakes low.

a) Financial stakes: Avoid being the person who quits their job to become a “full-time writer” if you haven’t sold anything yet. Most writers spend years learning their craft while working day jobs before taking that plunge (if ever).

b) Emotional stakes: If you’re working a day job & feeling despair, it’s worth asking where the stakes are for you. Is it that you’ve always thought of yourself as a writer, and your lack of immediate success is challenging your sense of identity? Is it that you have friends and family members who make you feel foolish when you fail? Is it that you’ve represented yourself to others as a writer & a rejection slip makes you feel like a fraud?

These high-stakes *emotional* scenarios seem to me the most common (and one of the reasons so many people rush prematurely into self-publishing). But in these cases the stakes can–and should–be managed outside of just writing: Limit your exposure to toxic people. Identify traits in yourself that you value that do not depend on external measures of success. Manage the expectations of yourself & others. Etc.

Easier said than done, of course. But to sum up: To manage despair: 1) keep writing, 2) manage your stakes.

Happy (almost) holidays everyone.

Brett Cox

I’ve always identified with a quote attributed to William Gibson: that the hardest thing in writing is to get past one’s loathing for one’s own work. For me, writing–or at least generating that first draft–has never been a pleasant process. I don’t enjoy it. But it’s what I’ve always wanted to do, and it’s where my abilities lie, so here I am. And the results are worth it.

What results would those be? Publication, an audience, the respect of my peers. Someone I’ve never met before telling me they liked one of my stories. And, let’s not forget, the satisfaction of producing a viable creative work, and the feeling that I did a good job no matter what the outside response. That sort of thing.

Having been a slow starter, and still subject to long droughts, I understand the despair that comes with lack of publication, or lack of recognition when you do. What can we do? What Siobhan said, of course: keep writing, and manage your stakes.

Kathleen Goonan

Writing is a virus some of us get, and the only cure is to write. I contracted it when very young, as most of us do, and staved it off with my preschool until I was thirty-two, when that simmering background radiation suddenly flared and took over my life. I wrote my first novel during scraps of time–before dawn, during lunch time and weekends, and watched it take form as science fantasy (unpublishable in 1985, but now?…)–and then stepped onto the tightrope, leaving the income, community, my school building–everything I had built from utter scratch–to balance over the terrible abyss of Nothing, and write. In terror and doggedness and joy, I wrote. And was published–in Appalachian Heritage, Read Magazine, and almost, in Redbook–but those were mere nothings to me, too easy. Not science fiction. But soon, I was encouraged by acceptances at Space and Time, The Mage, other small magazines the names of which I cannot recall, and then, Strange Plasma, and Century…so it went. The acceptance of Queen City Jazz in 1992 was a burst of wild joy and searing light.

I was invited to teach at Georgia Tech in 2010, right after I finished This Shared Dream, and accepted the job out of curiosity and with a sense that it was temporary and would fill the necessary dusting-off, desk-clearing, gradual return to the world and the incubus of a new project that always takes me quite a while after finishing a novel, which I usually fill by writing short stories. After a month, I told my hiring committee that if I taught two semesters a year, I would never write again, so we made a deal for me to teach only fall semester.

I have written, still. I have responded to every story request and to every academic request. I’ve published stories in Twelve Tomorrows, Arc, Discover Magazine, Tor.com, the Hieroglyph Project, Reach for Infinity, and in venues I can’t remember right now–more than enough words for another novel and a half. I’ve written a post-human thought-piece for Intelligence Unbound, many reviews, academic pieces, and a concluding chapter for Lisa Yaszek’s forthcoming Women in Early SF academic book. I’ve written in the interstices of planning courses, grading, and in my head during my relaxing weekly ten-hour commute.

But now, there is a hungry, novel-shaped space in my heart, mind, and soul. Since 1983, I was always working on a novel–until 2010. Maybe I needed that time to reassess everything–what science fiction has been, what it can be, and my curious un-choice of writing sf as a career, which I did not make, but which seemed, somehow, like What I Ought To Do. But is it now? As I head into my next chunk of open time, already filled with distant signposts that appear as colors the eye can’t see, but which mysteriously shine, I am drawn forward chiefly by curiosity. I want to read the writing on those signposts, each a piece of fiction that has been assembling itself in the place where fiction is made.

I put on my hiking boots, grab my walking sticks–and notebook! and begin the trek through powerful lands of luminous images and walloping emotions.

But first I have to grade some papers….

Marie Brennan

I can’t say I ever felt generalized despair in being unpublished or little-published. For specific projects, sure–I might wonder if X would ever sell–but even when a hoped-for prospect fell through, I only crashed briefly. My response to such things tends to be to pick myself up off the floor and go WELL I’LL SHOW THEM. Find somebody new to submit to; write something new to submit. I like “fail better” a great deal as a mantra, because it reminds me to up my game.

As a more solidly-published writer, my despair is again not general, and it usually falls into one of two categories: 1) oh my god what is *wrong* with this industry how can anybody keep a career going, and 2) oh my god what is *wrong* with this book I have no idea where I’m going. The latter I tend to solve by slinging my unfinished draft at a friend and asking her to read it so I can babble at her about the mess in my head, because articulating things often helps me see a way through them. The former…I can’t really solve the problems with publishing, but I can and do tell myself that if I have to reinvent my career under a new name, I will. It’s basically the WELL I’LL SHOW THEM of this stage.

But I can’t say I’ve ever *really* despaired of my life choices as a writer. Even when I’m stuck on a book, I know that I’ve done this before and will do it again.

E. Lily Yu

As many others have felt and said, I’m not sure I know the despair specific to being unpublished or little-published, which sounds, to me, more like the very exciting state of being about-to-be-published. That said, I know a few flavors of despair very well: when the execution fails the vision, which is every time; when, through exhaustion or lack of time and capacity, I can’t write; and once a month, regular as the bills, when I realize that I am an awful writer who has never written a decent sentence in my life, who will never write a paragraph worthy of other people’s eyeballs, and who will justly never be published again because everyone else in the world is simultaneously realizing that I am an awful writer.

I have found the solution for the last kind of despair: a dearly loved one who listens with sympathy to the wailing and gnashing of teeth of about an hour, and then quietly and patiently asks me if I remember saying the exact same thing last month?

In the middle of the writing, though, there is no despair.

Russell Letson

I don’t write fiction and haven’t had to struggle all that much to publish academic essays and various flavors of journalism. (Which is not to say that the writing itself can’t be arduous. And like Paul GR, I find that deadlines are the drivers.) I have, however, hung out with writers (and editors) for most of my adult life and am married to a writer of fiction who does wrestle with the usual demons of production, publication, and validation. So I at least have observed the struggles. (And I have an unfinished book with a contract that’s become an obstreperous teenager, so I share some of those struggles, in a small way.)

It’s hard not to just echo Swanwick’s observation that you have to “tough it out”–though toughness and persistence, while necessary, are not sufficient. But since the theme here seems to be how to deal with the emotional challenges of working on the craft and one’s own ambitions, I can add one of my wife’s favorite bits of wisdom on the subject, often repeated in writing classes and workshops (copped from Samuel Beckett): “Try again. Fail again. Fail better.” But then, that’s a more dramatic version of “tough it out,” so maybe I really don’t have much to offer beyond “Yeah, what he said.”

And even for a journalistic scribbler like me, having written is the sovereign remedy and balm of woe.

Guy Gavriel Kay

This discussion is complicated, it seems to me, by different meanings or contexts as to “despair.” If we think of it as “I can’t go on” without the “I’ll go on,” that follows it seems a large word for career frustration. I see those frustrations as being about the moving goalposts inherent in any artist’s career. Dream of writing something decent, dream of an agent, a publisher, some readers, a review in X, a good review in X, actual sales, more sales than Y…I talk to younger writers often about this, sometimes I steer them to a poem by Cavafy called “The First Step” (have a look).

On the other hand, if we use “despair” to describe the feeling every serious artist I know wrestles with, which is the gap between how something is in one’s head, and what emerges on screen or page–the limitations of fallible mortality, our limitations as artists (Pound’s “I am not a demigod/I cannot make it cohere…”) then I would say this is embedded in the attempt to make real art.

John Clute

A writer who does not suffer career despair, for some or all of the reasons adduced here, is a hobbyist or one of the one %, perhaps earned. Writers who do not suffer vastation in the face of the world probably do not write sf, or fantastika in general. These are truisms, which is no reason not to recognize them.

I sometimes think every new day is a personal best because I’ve never lived so long before.

Jeffrey Ford

An interesting dichotomy here. There are those describing what they have personally experienced. And those describing what everyone must experience.

Karen Burnham

I’m currently facing a slightly different sort of despair: after an 18 year career in Aerospace and Defense, I find myself involuntarily unemployed for the first time. No real shame–the project I was working on got canceled and I got laid off. Happens to the best of us. But I went from the peak of my career, with a BS in Physics and an MS in Electrical Engineering, being a lead engineer on a manned space vehicle and a subject matter expert, to–having to prove myself in job interviews. “You’re not technical enough for us.” Or “You’re too technical in the wrong area.” Or, worst of all, simply no interview at all, “We’ve decided to proceed with other candidates at this time.”

So a) I wanted to let you know that it isn’t only the creative disciplines that suffer from this sort of despair, even us stolid STEM field workers face it as well. And b) I wanted to recommend a mindfulness meditation podcast that’s been a big help for me as I work through the anxiety and depression that come with this period of unemployment. The Mindfulness Awareness Research Center at UCLA puts out a podcast with a couple years of backlog, and it’s been a huge help to me. Available from iTunes or their website (http://marc.ucla.edu/body.cfm?id=22) each episode is about 30 minutes of (free) guided meditation.

Cecelia Holland

I’m very sorry. But keep pedaling and don’t look down. If I’ve learned anything in all these years, it’s if you don’t give up, you get what you want.

Peter Straub

Despair does seem to me, as several others here have intimated, an inescapable part of the so-called process of writing , especially the writing of fiction. Time and productivity allow one to accommodate this bleakness and confusion of purpose through sheer familiarity and the hard-earned recognition that after all one has been there, exactly there in fact, and managed to come through–it is probably true, most of the time anyhow, that this psychic destruction and healing is a necessary aspect of the ability to inhabit and develop something that feels previously unseen and unknown.

It has always felt to me that writing a novel is a lot like designing and building a house that you live in during the entire process of doing the work. There is a profound comfort in this, because, hey, you are at least building a house, a sort of big snail shell over your head, but there always comes this dreadful moment when you realize you have forgotten to include the bathrooms, or the windows, and nothing fits smoothly together. It’s ruined, and so are you. Ruination feels total. You will never escape this terrible condition. Then, whilst you lay tormented on your crummy uneven floor, something occurs to you, some fresh development that amounts to a rescue. You were lost, and now you have been found, maybe. The possibility of work brings you back into hope and purpose.

After all this , actual completion comes as a dreadful moment, all the worse for being shot through with ironic, mocking threads and bolts of satisfaction, gratification, pride. That’s just lovely, but the engaging, occupying shell is gone, and you no longer have a house, you must build a new one and do the whole damn thing all over again. And besides that, it gets harder, not easier, over time. Having written is the real, the worst despair. It’s ashes. That’s my story, anyhow.

Jack Skillingstead

I do know writers who claim to not suffer despair or anything like it, at least in regards their work. But I think they are the exception rather than the rule. If they aren’t lying outright, that is. It must be something about writing, or the writing life, that attracts a personality prone to depression. I would also like to add that writing has rescued me from despair as often as it has precipitated same. In typical mood swing dynamic, you have to be down before you can be up again–and you so desperately want the ups.

Ken Liu

I have been most intrigued by the fact that participation in this roundtable seems far higher than in the past. Perhaps despair actually makes the words flow for writers!

Marie Brennan

“I do know writers who claim to not suffer despair or anything like it, at least in regards their work. But I think they are the exception rather than the rule. If they aren’t lying outright, that is.”
I have to admit, this kind of comment actually kind of bugs me. I used the word “despair” in my own response because that’s the topic we’ve been handed, but it isn’t the word I use in my regular life. Disappointment, sure. Frustration. Sometimes anger. But despair? Nah, not really–except in very localized instances. (There’s a short story I’m contemplating giving up on trying to sell, because nobody seems to want it. That does not, however, make me question my ability to write at all.)

Sure, there are *many* writers who suffer from depression, either chronically or periodically. Sometimes, though, I feel like we romanticize the ~suffering~ of our art, to the point where it starts to sound like if you aren’t suffering that way, you’re doing it wrong. Or, as Jack suggested, lying. I don’t think you really meant that seriously, Jack–at least, I hope you didn’t–but after a while you start to think that maybe this isn’t a rhetoric we really want to reinforce.

Jack Skillingstead

Marie, it wasn’t meant in all seriousness–the lying remark. Probably there are plenty of writers who couldn’t relate to this discussion. Also, I understand your point about romanticizing despair. I think there does come a point when a person clings to the feelings even as they begin to lift. It’s an odd phenomenon and worth examining. Personally, I never wanted to feel bad or depressed or any of that. I wanted writing to be fun and energizing. And it is, sometimes.

Karen Haber

I think that writing is all about pain management. And there are so many flavors. Revulsion at the first draft. Dismay in the face of revisions. Terror at the prospect of reviews and/or resounding silence in response to your opus once it’s published. Perhaps we’re all simply mad to do this in the first place. But consider the alternative…

John Clute

As I writer with no knack at the exploration of the relict knot gardens within my psyche, and hence few works of “creative” writing to show for all the years, I do find myself less interested in others’ Minotaurs within than in whether or not what they say, in 2014, helps me echolocate where we are now. I have written, after my fashion,– and have been close to writers–for more than half a century, which I increasingly think is anecdotal; I do increasingly think of the roller-coaster within as a personalized toolkit. I do like descriptions of the tooling (as in the Cowboy Boot), all the same.

John Clute

I suddenly wanted to drive to shop to get milk (lest civilization fall) for the Author I live with, and pushed SEND prematurely (a guy thing). Final sentence to my previous was going to be something along the lines of a stating of admiration for Peter Straub’s architectural use of the inner drama: as what he describes, in the end, is the things built. Which, as a critic, is what I feed on.

Guy Gavriel Kay

I was also thinking about Peter’s metaphor late last night. Enjoyed it greatly, in part because of some awareness of the Eternal Variance here: he builds a house, I journey with fitful light along a forest path, hoping ardently for enough clarity. As a result, when the journey is done I don’t feel the end-of-book desolation he experiences. I feel relief. Joy. Sense of a harbor reached. And, an overwhelmingly short while after these, an awareness that at least four more full pass-throughs are to come because it ‘just isn’t good enough’. It is never good enough, but it can be made better. And then one lights another lantern and starts on a different path…

I also agree with the comment that “despair” as a term was a bit of a trap here. It was the essay question term, as it were, had to be used or addressed, I suggested earlier that frustration, a sense of limitations, might apply more to some. There is, indeed, a risk of romanticizing the writing game.

Paul Graham Raven

I had the good fortune to talk to Mike Harrison shortly after I’d read Climbers, and enthusiastically explained to him (complete with much arm-windmilling and fanboyism) how it was abundantly clear that, for him, the thinking out and following of a route up and across outcrops of rock, every one different, and different again under different climatic conditions, was surely a metaphor for the writer’s struggle to reach a half-seen goal across a hazardous landscape of ideas and feelings oriented entirely orthogonal to the gravity of one’s surrounding culture.

He was quiet for maybe ten seconds, and then told me he’d never thought of it like that before. I’ve always considered this an important lesson, even though I’m not entirely sure what I learned.

James Patrick Kelly

I have hesitated to join this conversation while I interrogated my own feelings about the vicissitudes of being a writer and I have at last decided that Guy has it about right. Despair, it seems to me is too powerful a word, even though it ~was~ in the assignment. I hesitate to play the dictionary card, but here it is nonetheless: despair: noun: 1. loss of hope; hopelessness. 2. someone or something that causes hopelessness 3. to lose, give up, or be without hope. Perhaps I am of too sunny a disposition, but despite the many disappointments that have come my way (in myself as a man, in my dedication to the work, in the inadequacy of my abilities, in the reaction to my fiction, in the path of my career) I have never, ever given up hope. That’s why I’’m still at it, lo these forty (!) years. Sure, I get
very sad and mightily pissed off, but as others have pointed out, the cure is to go back to the keyboard and show ‘‘em. And myself.

Jeffrey Ford

Just thinking about what the parents of those 100 plus murdered children in Pakistan might be feeling today. If there was ever an example of real despair. Equating that to not being able to finish a story or book and or not having something published is pretty ridiculous. Disappointment, maybe, frustration, sure, but despair–how melodramatic. If that’s the term you go to first to describe these kind of issues, I think you’re setting the bar for despair incredibly low.

Jeffrey Ford

Having the time and wherewithal in your life to even write stories no one else will ever read is a blessing compared to what a lot of people have to go through. Cheer up.

Guy Gavriel Kay

Well, this one gave me pause, underscoring how tricky this issue is.

Measured against the parents of murdered children, or refugees in Syria, or those living amidst Ebola while the world pretty much ignores, none of us have a “right” to be depressed, let alone despairing, period. Our sorrows are, as Coleridge and then Miriam Toews (quoting him in a book title) put it, “puny.”

It could even be called “ridiculous.” But do we really want to take that position?

Much as I dislike (I said so earlier) the hypersensitive, tormented genius, romanticized pain, “my candle burns at both ends, our morality is not as others” is, image of artists, I am loathe to invalidate someone’s actual feeling or state of mind. If someone suffers from depression, for example, it isn’t so startling to imagine a major trigger being a sense of working badly, of failing.

I agree that despair as the word used might have been (with respect) a bit forced, but on the other hand it engendered a more lively discussion here than there has been for a while.

Cecelia Holland

For me, despair is the right word. But I agree, a much more interesting discussion than the last couple.

Jeffrey Ford

“Much as I dislike (I said so earlier) the hypersensitive, tormented genius, romanticized pain, ‘my candle burns at both ends, our morality is not as others’ is, image of artists, I am loathe to invalidate someone’s actual feeling or state of mind. If someone suffers from depression, for example, it isn’t so startling to imagine a major trigger being a sense of working badly, of failing.”

A good perspective and really well put.

Guy Gavriel Kay

I know, and Peter said as much too (about a different stage in the process).

I meant “forced” as in framing the discussion to make something normative to writing stress when it might be person-specific (and with different contexts for emerging).

I am, for example, comfortable with using “despair’”to refer to the feeling engendered by impossibility of being good enough. I mean that pretty narrowly. Pound’s:

“And I am not a demigod,
I cannot make it cohere.”

Paul Witcover

I have to respond to this one. Despair is a subjective quality. It’s not measured necessarily by external circumstances. It’s absurd to state that the despair which, say, drives a writer to kill herself, or to produce a great work of art, for that matter, is less than or incommensurate with any other despair. Simply put: it’s not anyone’s business or right to pronounce another person’s despair ridiculous or melodramatic. Perhaps, to some, it is. Fine. But don’t presume to speak for what others are feeling–including, I might add, the parents of murdered children, who might very well be experiencing something other than despair at this moment.

Jeffrey Ford

I wasn’t presuming to think what those parents were feeling, that’s why I used the word “might.” It was an indication of my trying to weigh in my mind the limits of the term despair. Hey, don’t presume to tell me I can’t weigh the term despair in any manner I might like, melodramatic or ridiculous or justified. It’s a subjective thing.

Jeffrey Ford

Besides, being a parent myself, wondering what it might be like to have to endure the kind of tragedy these parents have, I don’t see that as a crime against humanity.

Peter Straub

With respect, I don’t think this is quite what we were talking about. To speak personally, I do understand that I am in an extremely privileged position, and that whatever I possess of decency prohibits me from ever whining about my lot in life. That whining would be abhorrent. I was talking about a writer in relation to the work the writer does, not world-historical catastrophes. False arguments will get us nowhere. (Of course, we are hardly going anywhere specific in the first place.)

Peter Straub

Hey, this really is a Cheery Holiday Roundtable!

Gary K. Wolfe

I hadn’t planned to join this discussion since I am supposed to be marking papers this very moment, but it’s getting way more interesting than that. Jeff’s point reminds me of something that comes up every time I teach Holocaust literature to classes that are largely African American: someone will always bring up the issue of American slavery. I had a chance to talk to Elie Wiesel about this once, and it turned out he’d had the same thing happen quite often. His response, simply, is “don’t compare suffering.” Suffering is not a competition, and neither is despair. Another, maybe more problematical comment on the issue came from Jerzy Kosinski, whatever you may think of his own credibility and general weirdness. In an interview somewhere on living in Poland during the Holocaust, he argued pretty much exactly what Jeff is saying. The example, as I recall, was that of a girl in South Dakota who discovers a big zit on her nose hours before her senior prom, and how we don’t really have the right to trivialize or demean her feeling of desperation–or despair–as it applies to her life, sheltered as it may be, at that particular moment. She’ll learn soon enough what other kinds of despair can be.

Gary K. Wolfe

But Peter’s right; that’s not entirely what this started out as. For me, I think that architectural metaphor is about the most useful thing to come out of this discussion so far, and it works for designing and teaching a class as well. I should get back to hammering together my outhouse.

John Clute

As per Gary (I think): the writerly “despair” of most interest to me as a reader is that which enables the writer to learn about “what other kinds of despair can be,” which is the next thing to learning how to write about the world.
ust say, also, with thanks, that I certainly haven’t yet gotten any NPD whiff out of this discussion.

E. Lily Yu

The thing about despair is, it doesn’t allow for a reasoned perspective on the matter. If you have perspective, you don’t have despair.

Peter Straub

Good point, Lily.

Jeffrey Ford

Excellent point.

Paul Witcover

Unless it’s perspective that is bringing despair. In an existential as opposed to psychological sense, for example. Despair is not depression. It can be reasonable. (To be honest, I feel the same about depression, but that’s off topic.) You would lose a lot of great writing if you took away a writer’s sense of despair, it seems to me. If you look at your own work and see clearly that it falls short of your intentions, despite your best efforts, then that perspective can reasonably lead to a feeling of despair… and that despair to whatever permutation of “fail better” drives you, as per previous posts by Peter and Guy.

Fabio Fernandes

Interesting points, both from Lily and from Paul. Indeed, despair is not depression, but depression definitely often leads to despair. I’m finding this discussion one of the liveliest of the past few months (maybe of the whole year), because it seems to be almost an universal constant for writers. We can discuss the etymology of despair for weeks, but there is always one moment when we stare at it in the face–or we’re so close to it that we have to resort to pharmacology to keep it at bay (my case, for instance–yes, I’m relating despair to depression). Recently I read the new preface that Richard Kadrey wrote to Metrophage, where he writes that (I’m citing from memory) he can
only write these days by taking antidepressants. I can relate. Although I can write without taking meds, I feel despair approaching by any number of reasons: that I’m not good enough at what I’m doing, that I’m too old for this shit, that I will never get published by a big press, or that, even if that happens, the reviews will show to everyone what a fraud I am. Curiosly enough, I never despaired of facing a blank page and getting out of ideas. I’m constantly haunted by the thought that I have no good ideas at all, and nobody will ever like them enough. Somedays it’s almost too much. Meds and meditation help. Running too.

Guy Gavriel Kay

Not entirely sure. Therapy or analysis, say, work to offer insight or perspective, but that doesn’t necessarily alleviate suffering.

I suspect many feeling despair might often feel worse when their intelligent perspective on a wider, suffering world tells them “I actually have it pretty good.” And that applies to writers in the context of writing, too. One can know all the “reasoned” things, and still be in that state.

Russell Letson

One is reminded of pigs, Socrates, and satisfaction. Pigs write very little, and Socrates–well, we know how that turned out.

Lacrimae rerum, vale of tears, the black dog, and all that. Dying is easy; comedy is hard. Also writing. Also getting up in the morning and going to a dead-end job. A lot of heroism is, to steal from Woody Allen, just showing up.

Jeffrey Ford

So we have all these writers on this round table, who, as far as I can tell are still writing and publishing, and yet a lot say they have experienced despair, some on an ongoing basis, which by definition is the complete loss or absence of hope and yet they still write. If you experience the absence of hope in specifically your writing, how do you continue to write? I would think a complete absence of hope would put the kaibosh on writing. How does this work? God forbid, I’m not denying anyone’s depression or personal tribulations or tragedies, but I think it would be useful to know how one carries on devoid of hope.

Cecelia Holland

Because the only thing worse than writing is not writing.

Fabio Fernandes

I second that.

Jeffrey Ford

So you’ve got writing over not writing which seems to indicate at least a modicum of hope. For as troubling as Fabio’s account was, he never claims despair, although he says he can feel it approaching. He takes measures to stave it off, running, etc. He continues to write–there’s hope.

Karen Joy Fowler

There is a quote I like from Margaret Atwood’s Cat’s Eye: “Little girls are cute and small only to adults. To one another they are not cute. They are life-sized.” I think of this often with respect to problems and sorrows, that they are life-sized to the person who has them. Every adult eventually has problems that are genuinely life-sized. They are not simply a matter of perspective; they are real and your reaction to them–depression, despair–is only rational. You think that you will never again sweat the small stuff; you see so clearly what matters and what doesn’t. But it turns out to be a temporary clarity and eventually you lose your footing again, find yourself outraged or undone by trivialities in spite of yourself.

As near as I can remember, I got through the period of not being able to publish, by not expecting to ever publish. Still, every rejection was a disappointment when it arrived and each one sent me into a tailspin, but I always recovered; I was always eventually ready to try again. The difficulties I face as part of the process of writing feel like a different thing entirely. They are internal; they are between me and me, no one else involved. In some ways, the problem solving is the part I enjoy the most. It is always disappointing not to be a better writer than I am, but I would never characterize it as despair. There is always the next book in which to be great. I wouldn’t even want to do it if it weren’t hard to do. I like that part.

What happens to the work once I submit it is beyond my control and surviving it is part of my job. I can’t be a writer if I can’t survive it. I handle it by taking pride in my ability to survive it. Look how many people are trying to stop me, I tell myself. They don’t know who they are dealing with. I will not be stopped.

Paul Witcover

Like x 1000.

Jeffrey Ford

Karen: Lovely and for me a true description of the frustrations, vagaries, and determination attended to writing. And most definitely not despair.

Elizabeth Hand

Beautifully put, Karen.

Kathleen Goonan

Perhaps the writers who lost hope–or lost opportunity, through life’s vicissitudes and choices–are not here, and perhaps they are the ones who, at the last, did feel despair–or perhaps they felt the milder sister emotion, hopelessness (oft-paired, though–perhaps twins?)–or the absurdity of trying to continue in the face of too much failure. Those here are lucky, perhaps (or, oft-times, it might seem, unlucky, for having pursued a path that seems to end in a cul-de-sac), but most likely obstinate; persistent in a way that often borders on the vast Land of Wishful Thinking.

Everyone’s writing life is different because there is nothing that automatically occurs after a certain amount of work: no promotion, no tenure; no grievance procedure to write up and take to the Big Boss and get satisfaction.

Having had hope does not preclude despair at a future date. At, for instance, not being able to feed one’s children because of the vicissitudes of the writing career.

Andy Duncan

I despair of having anything new to add to this thread!

Guy Gavriel Kay

What a cavalier, casual, careless use of the word!

You are going to hurt everyone’s feelings!


Jeffrey Ford

Much better to toss the term around like jelly beans, especially in honor of those who might actually be experiencing it.

Peter Straub

I think the loss of hope is experienced as absolute, but gradually is seen to have been temporary. After a couple of decades, it has a sort of familiarity. You say, yep, nothing works any more, I really did it this time, it’s up the spout and down the drain for you, old pal, and after too much time, a couple of days, weeks, or months, something begins to wake up, a picture of a kind begins to form, and it seems possible once again to do work, to finish the book. This is not mere depression, I took an antidepressant for years while all this was going on, on top of which I saw my shrink faithfully multiple times a week, and still I had these Dark Nights. Eventually I came to understand that for me anyhow a period of real despair was simply part of the process, so I had to suck it up and keep moving. It may be true that I am simply a fragile sort of human being, but that is far from being the only factor at work. I also have an unbelievable strength. I am old enough–and been through shrinkiosity–to be able to see this, to see both sides of this, with real clarity.

Cecelia Holland

Me too.

4 thoughts on “A Cheery Holiday Roundtable

  • January 23, 2015 at 3:41 am

    First and most basic, “endemic upon being unpublished” is incorrect word usage. I think what the writer means is that despair is endemic _among people_ who are unpublished. So the first lesson to be learned, here, is that if you are serious about wanting to be published, you should use words with precision.

    Second, the writer makes an assumption that I do not think is necessarily true. I never felt despair when I was unpublished. I just tried again to be published.

    Third, if the writer thinks that it feels bad to be unpublished, (s)he should consider how it feels to succeed and then fail, years or decades later. I never had to deal with that myself, because I never rose very high or fell very low; but I saw friends who went from being well-known to being largely forgotten, and the impact upon them was awful. To fail after succeeding is much worse, I think, than not to succeed.

    Similarly, seeing one’s work fall almost or completely out of print can be very tough. I have written more than 45 books, of which almost all are out of print. Most of them probably deserve to be out of print, but that doesn’t make me happy about it. So–I write more books, of which six are currently in print. Despair is not in the picture. If something doesn’t work, you have to try something else.

    My conclusion is that if the person who asks the question despairs so readily, (s)he might do well to try a different occupation, because being published can be just a first step along a path that has a very uncertain ending.

  • January 28, 2015 at 2:12 am

    For a holiday roundtable, the word “cheery” need not be so ironic. Writers live with frustration and worry, as do other artists, but they also have purpose and hope. I have done writing most of my life. I’m still unpublished and unknown, yet I still write. To appear in print is not always the main goal of a writer.

    I do my writing without regardless of if, when or how it is to be read or accepted. Uncertainty notwithstanding. Writing for the sake of writing is a reason that is good enough to make writing worthwhile, and it’s not the only reason.

    I no longer feel despair. I don’t mean to disagree with anyone, and I understand everything said in the roundtable. But isn’t the coping worth it if our writing gets done and somebody gets to read it?

  • January 29, 2015 at 3:46 am

    Charles, thanks for dropping by and commenting. Just wanted to share that I go back to DREAM MAKERS regularly; it’s been quite useful throughout the years.


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