Writers on Writing #87: Matthew Burnside
I’ll confess right away to being a hypocrite. I’ve written a lot about the unseemliness of bitterness in the past, of the very human petty envies that arise when we make the mistake of measuring our success (or lack thereof) by that of our writing peers. It’s best to be humble, we’re told by people like me, but here’s a crucial caveat I forgot to mention: there is nothing worse than fake humbleness—the culling of appearances for a crowd. So here I am to admit it: sometimes I get bitter, y’all. Sometimes I find I know absolutely nothing about what constitutes “good fiction” because what I’m told is great fiction just doesn’t appeal to me, and I get low. I get blue, and then I get red. I get all the colors. My weapon of choice has always been sarcasm of the self-depreciative variety (humor is almost always anger with its make-up on, quoth Stephen King). You can always tell I’m having a bad rejection day if my Facebook status is a joke about how much I suck, how much the publishing industry/literary world befuddles me, or some oblique crack about really successful authors. This is my way of self-wallowing, but also of attempting to reach out to fellow writers who, like me, are still very low on the literary totem pole. Every day I fight a war with cynicism, which comes naturally to me but I’m convinced is the most unproductive force there is. Maybe I’ve been grounding the lesser angels of my nature lately, stewing in my own bitter juices because I’m racking up an impressive streak of consecutive rejections of late. At times like this, when I am not unlike Arya – ritualistically repeating the name of everyone who has ever rejected me like a prayer at night, vowing my revenge, dreaming of the day I am some Big Shit, as if they will all cluck their lips in unison someday at having missed out on one of the great voices of the 21st century – I know, deep down, I truly am competitive. I once thought otherwise.
Even writers are human too, I suppose. A little bitterness is unavoidable, especially when you’re just starting out. And while it doesn’t make you a bad person, I’m still convinced it does more harm than good, and when we find ourselves getting bitter about this or that, maybe it’s best to remind ourselves, logically, why exactly it won’t get us the results we so greedily yearn for.
It’s not that bitterness can’t drive you to succeed. In psychology, overcompensation is not necessarily a bad thing. I’m certain some of history’s biggest success stories were written by individuals whose passion to succeed was at least fueled somewhat by pure bitterness: a chip on their shoulder, a humiliating moment that slow burned into something greater, an unjust scar, a healthy hunger for praise that had never come their way, in spite of their hard work, because it was all being stolen away by someone whose success was merely good luck or due to connections or some other excuse that mugs them of the rightful merit of their own creations and arduous labor.
No, it’s not that it can’t drive you to succeed (it certainly can) but how it drives you to succeed. At the moment we begin to lop the wings off the greater angels of our nature, we get stupid. We get sloppy. We get greedy to make a name for ourselves when the name isn’t what matters, or what should matter—it’s the stories. The writing. It’s always been the writing. Maybe we adopt trends that we see as shortcuts to publication, which cheats us out of the tales we should be telling—the ones only we can tell. Maybe we make a fool of ourselves in front of peers, which makes of us an ass, breeding a contemptuous community in an already incestuous environment. Maybe we discount the hard work of our peers, letting our ego eclipse the truth, that Yes, while luck is a great big variable in the writing world and sometimes it goes our way and sometimes it doesn’t, often the people who have success have been whittling sentences for years, developing their craft, and they are not without their own rejection streaks. (Who knows, once upon a time maybe even they were prone to bitterness?) But the worst is that it cheats us of our precious energies – the stuff we should be pouring into our work, we instead pour into secretly deriding others. That most rare ingredient to the cultivation of our talent: time, is squandered for the sake of whining about what we feel we’re owed, a rather entitled notion.
The default state of the writer is that of perpetual rejection for a reason, and I wouldn’t have it any other way. I am reminded of that Twilight Zone episode in which a dead gambler is welcomed into a glittering casino paradise with sumptuous foods where he proceeds to win time and time again, day after day, week after week, until the winning becomes tedious, meaningless. Finally, he turns to an angel: Heaven ain’t for me, he tells her. Oh, this isn’t heaven, the angel replies.
Rejection, denial, and invalidation all give meaning to our victories. Without them, we’d have nothing by which to measure our success. We’d have nothing to celebrate. Bitterness, while perfectly human and understandable, is the secret assumption we are owed something. When times get bitter, we’d benefit greatly from adopting a new mantra: We are owed nothing. We are owed nothing, because writing is a privilege. Creativity is a privilege. The opportunity to tell a story is a privilege, and praise is never automatic. Nor should it be.
Matthew Burnside is author of Escapologies (Red Bird Chapbooks), Infinity’s Jukebox (Passenger Side Books), Book of If&Ever, a chapbook of flash fables for charity (Red Bird), and the forthcoming Ritual Hauntings (Patasola Press). Other work has appeared or is forthcoming in DIAGRAM, Ninth Letter, PANK, Kill Author, Gargoyle, Hobart, NAP, OmniVerse, and others. He currently teaches creative writing for new media at the Iowa Writers' Workshop, keeps a list of his sins at Matthewburnsideisawriter.tumblr.com, and occasionally makes fun of himself at Thisisnotaliterarymagazine.wordpress.com.