Monday, November 8, 2010

Nathan Bransford, the Deafness of Phantasms, and a Blind Man's Faith in the Possibility of Sight

As most of you writers in Internetland probably know, the inestimable Nathan Bransford is leaving agenting. What many of you might not know (though some have probably guessed) is that I've been working with Nathan on my novel for quite awhile now. So the news, for me, certainly hit home. Luckily I got an early heads up! Otherwise some of my brain might have melted out of my ear upon reading his post. :)

I told him I was thrilled for him - it's a great opportunity. And he's still got my back, and I've got his (not that he needs it). Nathan has always been an agent who puts people first, and I think it's important to return that favour. If this choice is the best for him and his family, then it's the best choice.

And yet there's always a sense of loss, that sense of what might have been. These thoughts have been stewing together in my mind, along with Wanu's post of last week about taking a leave of absence, as it were, from writing. The two are strangely connected for me.

(I'm not leaving! Don't worry! Unless you want me to leave. Shit. I won't think about that.)

Nathan was not the first agent I worked with. A few years ago I had another, Joanne Kellock, but she passed away from cancer at the time we were going to start submitting. (Yes, I'll accept all donations of rabbit feet for agentish luck) This came on the heels of another loss - my father, who had recently passed away.

At the same time, I had just finished my last degree, gotten married, started a new career and then quit it to start another, and been diagnosed with a disease. What this all meant, when lumped together, was a longish fallow period in my writing. I fiddled with a few old things, maybe wrote a page here and there, but for the most part I simply didn't write.

This, though, wasn't a bad thing. Yes, writing through things is hugely important. You can't endlessly make excuses - in the end, you simply have to get the work done if you want to get anywhere. But... but... but... sometimes a break is not simply okay, but necessary. I didn't write because I had nothing left to put into writing. Every bit of my energy had been sucked out, had been pulled into other things. And I was grieving. My focus was elsewhere - rooted in the real world rather than my imaginary ones.

And yet I think the most important thing I did was allow myself to do this. I gave myself permission not to write. I didn't worry, didn't fear, didn't shout "Oh my God, writer's block! Save me!"

I have always felt that writer's block is a bit of a fallacy. Not that people don't get blocked, but that Writer's Block becomes this almost mythic beast, this phantasm of the writer's mind. It grows, and grows - and yet it's so insubstantial that there seems nothing one can do fight against it.

But the truth of the matter is that it's insubstantial because it's not real. There is no capital W, capital B, Writer's Block. Just many little blocks - a thousand, a million of them, each one unique to each unique writer. For some it may simply be a plotting problem, for others a matter of confidence. For some it might be fear, for some it might be a simple lack of time.

I think it's better to try and find the specific problem and deal with it, rather than beseech the phantasm, pleading for release. He's not listening - he has no ears to listen with.

For me, it was about accepting this period of grief and redirected energy. The words were still in my head, and they would never leave. They would find their way to the page in their own time.

And yet this can be hard, can't it? To allow yourself these moments? But they can be worthwhile and important. Farmers leave fields fallow on purpose - sometimes the soil needs it, all to make richer crops in the years to come. So goes things for writers - we need rich soil to grow our words in.

It's a matter of faith, perhaps, and confidence. Confidence in our ability and in what it is we are meant to do with our words, our stories, our thoughts and dreams. Yet that confidence can be hard to find.

I'm not entirely sure where mine comes from. Belief in my ability, perhaps, and a gift from all those who have believed in it, too? People have helped along the way, with advice, with support, with simple appreciation for what I've put on the page. Perhaps some of that confidence is simply natural, an outcropping of personal pigheadedness. I, shall we say, do not like failure. Now, I may define success and failure on my own terms, but I'm pretty determined to meet my own criteria for such success.

And yet a lot of that confidence to persevere and continue, I think, is about accepting that old saw, that it's more about the journey than the destination. Hokey, maybe, but it's about understanding the value of those hours at the keyboard. Not simply as a means to an end, not even as practice. You do it because you're a writer and that will always be a part of you. And you do it, even more than that, because there is something necessary and valuable about the specific act itself. Not just a matter of identity, a matter of training, or the creation of a product, however poor or extraordinary. But the act itself, the value of an imagination acting upon a blank page.

Because to me the most important thing is those hours of actual writing, the process itself. And, in truth, it's not just about me, about the blank page and the story that might form on it. It's about the world and my perception of it, and, in those moments of writing, how I explore and seek to understand it. Writing, to me, is my filter for the world, the lens with which I bring it into focus.

I'm naturally fairly blind, but contact lenses make the world clear for me, perceptible and understandable. Writing frames my consciousness in the same way. the act itself is important, the transformation, the formulation in words of a million perceived and felt things. Writing is an act of clarity, an act of envisioning.

And I don't think that ever completely leaves us. You can take the writer away from the keyboard, but you can never entirely take the keyboard from the writer. Inside, the words are there. The mind makes stories. Memory itself is a story of oneself, a narrative framed as explanation, as motive and cause. And, if you wait long enough, I think the blank page will always start to call once more: the desire to make concrete the silent and hidden stories that flit through our consciousness, that help us make sense of the world as we experience it.


Matthew Rush said...

I'm so sorry for your losses Bryan, all of them. It is interesting that the more I get to know you the more it makes sense that we have a connection, whatever it may be. I'm glad to hear that you're choosing to take it all the way you are, and I wish you the best of luck in all your future publishing and writing endeavors.

Deb Salisbury said...

Hugs, Brian.

Did Nathan pass you to another agent, or must you start querying all over again?

Poetry of Flesh said...

This post really hit home for me. My life has been in an uproar for a little over a year now, maybe a bit longer, depending on the determined quality of "uproar". I keep trying to focus, trying to write, but... sometimes, I just can't move past what's running around in my head.

Good luck with your writing projects and agent-ing. Hope Nathan gave you to someone good.

Anne R. Allen said...

So sorry you've lost Nathan as your agent, especially if you didn't have a contract yet with Curtis Brown.

I think all Nathan's followers are feeling the loss. I've blogged today about trying to see the bright side. He's got an eye on the future and sees some major shifts in the industry, which he thinks will benefit writers in the long run.

What a challenging time you've had! I send you a virtual rabbit's foot.

As far as "writer's block" and grief, I always remember some advice I heard from playwright Marsha Norman. She said "you can't write about something until it's over." You have to process the experience before you can make it into art.

Quill said...

Nice piece, Bryan. And fitting, on what feels like a time of mourning, for the loss of Nathan as an agent even though it is a new morning as well. My thoughts are with you, and not to sound too maudlin, with us all.

Susan Kaye Quinn said...

Oh, Bryan. I hate it when my friends take a blow, and I'm feeling the loss of Nathan-in-the-world-as-an-agent even more keenly now, through you. But I know you'll continue through this, as you have before.

I love what you say about confidence and setting our own definitions of success. My mom used to tell me that I was born with a ridiculous amount of self-confidence, and I think she was right. I really don't know where it comes from. But writing confidence has always felt like a wall of a thousand blocks - small blocks like your Writers Blocks, only these ones build me up instead of block me from moving forward. They are a thousand small compliments, or excited critiques, or encouraging notes, or readers who love what I write. Sometimes a strong wind comes and blows the blocks down, and I have to set about stacking them up again.

Even those acts of creation and destruction and renewal are part of the writing process and journey.

p.s. you can't leave, so don't even type stuff like that.

Elaine AM Smith said...

Bryan I feel for you: you have double-double disasters. Hope the connections are there at Curtis Brown, if not I wish you every success in the querying process.

Wanu said...

Commiserations, Ink.


I agree that the journey is more important than the destination re writing.

Given how much you love that journey, I think there's an inevitability of success for you. Two vanishing agents really is remarkable, and I totally see why you'd want a literaty rabbit's foot.

But another way of looking at that would be: you've already had two more agent acceptances than most authors will ever have.

I know you learned a lot with the most recent one too. Aaaaanndddd, the time taken to query and such will see even more Ink improvement.

I love the way you roll with these massive punches. I'm sure it'd feel more pleasant not to have to, but wow, you seem to be.. well.. good at facing adversity. That's quite an attribute.

Bryan Russell (Ink) said...

Ha! The one thing about adversity is you don't have much choice about it...

Mira said...

You sure have had a bizarre series of losses here, Bryan! It must be really hard to be so close and have it slip away - heartbreaking, I'm sorry.

I do think you're lucky though, that Nathan is going to see this book through to the end. It's not the same as having him as an agent - that's a real, true loss - but it certainly is proof that he believes in you, and that you are a writer worth investing time in! And, of course, that he is uber-responsible - but we knew that.

I continue to hold out great hope that all these starts and stops are for some invisible, important reason, and the end result will be even better than you imagined. :)

I can't wait to see your book in print, Bryan, and your acknowledgements to your new agent. It's going to happen!

Tahereh said...

what a beautiful, powerful post, Ink.

i'm so sorry for your losses but so immensely awed by your perseverance.

i wish you nothing but the best.

oh, i have a little present for you on my blog, by the way. :)