Chris East is a writer, editor, reviewer, bassist, and general media junkie, who grew up in western New York and gradually migrated west to Los Angeles. He has a special studies writing degree from New York University, SUNY at Fredonia, and Michigan State University and attended the Clarion and Taos Toolbox writing workshops. His fiction has been published in various genre magazines, and from 2004 to 2010 he was the fiction editor for Futurismic. He loves science fiction, music, hockey, movies, spy fiction, coffee, video games, good friends, and far too many television shows.
Last month, I spent two weeks on a mountain learning how to write. Or I should say, learning how to write again.
Taos Toolbox was a fantastic experience. For two weeks I got to focus on nothing but writing, reading, critiquing, learning, and getting better — all in the company of talented, insightful writers, brilliant instructors, and the gorgeous scenery of New Mexico.
It was also my first organized, intensive workshop experience in eighteen years. I’m still trying to wrap my mind around that. Sitting down to write this post got me thinking about the years in between, and how I’ve changed.
In 1994, I went to the Clarion workshop in East Lansing. I spent six weeks surrounded by talented, insightful writers, brilliant instructors, and…East Lansing. It was great! At twenty-two, I was the baby of the class, still recovering from teen angst and reality shock as I gazed cluelessly into the future. But there was one thing I was certain about at that age: writing. I was going to be a writer. That was all there was to it. Writing was the thing I was good at, and damned if the world wasn’t going to find that out! Like, soon!
Hee. Well, I’ve had a lot of time since then to think about Clarion. Believe me, I wouldn’t trade those experiences or friendships for anything — they were truly transformative. And Clarion set me on the path; everything I’ve been able to accomplish since then has its roots in that six weeks.
But reflecting on it now — or, more importantly, on the subsequent years — I can see how I set myself up for frustration. I think we are conditioned — especially in the U.S., but perhaps your country is similarly dysfunctional — to see our life journey in the simplest of plot terms: you set your goal, work toward it, reach the goal, and you have succeeded. Win!
That is a toxic way of thinking, especially when applied in contexts where it makes no sense. Like the writing world: where nothing makes sense. I wasted many years after Clarion waiting for that switch to flip, for that moment when I would start to feel like I’ve made it. But here we are, eighteen years later — and I’m still aspiring?
Then came Taos. No longer an inexperienced, cocky, enthusiastic 22-year-old, I went into Taos a different person: a slightly more experienced, considerably less cocky, but equally enthusiastic 40-year-old. And I think Taos crystallized something in my mind. Oh, it’s something people have been telling me for years, and something that, on some level, I’ve probably always known — whenever common sense managed to pierce the forcefield of my delusional ego. But it took a return to the workshop environment for me to really get it.
Becoming a writer isn’t a race. And there is no finish line.
There is no set timeframe for becoming a writer. Success comes at different times for different writers. Some writers will publish right away. Some will take five years. Some will take twenty years before they find any kind of writing success.
But it doesn’t matter, because there is no finish line. If you’re like me, you’ll probably look for one. And occasionally you’ll think you’ve crossed one. But in the end, “finish lines” in this business are illusions, and they only keep moving.
I don’t think of myself as a particularly successful writer, but when I put myself back to my 22-year-old brain, I realize that I’ve crossed “finish lines” without even noticing. I’ve seen my first story into print, my first pro sale, my first honorable mention in a year’s best anthology, my first reprint. I’ve put myself out there as a reviewer, as a fan, as a speaker at conventions. I edited a paying fiction market for six years, where I had the unique pleasure of discovering other writers and helping them find their way into the field.
Those are achievements, and milestones, but they’re not ends. When you pass them, you find that you’re still running. The “finish line” has moved, it’s somewhere up ahead, and it’s completely different than the last one you passed. And this is true for writers far more accomplished than me. The problems change, the challenges change, but with every achievement, you find that you’re still running.
It’s taken a while, but I’m finally starting to shuck that goal-oriented mindset. And when you stop worrying about external validation, what’s left? Process. Writing, reading, critiquing, learning, and getting better — and, of course, having fun!
Check it out: eighteen years, and I’m still aspiring!