The High Cost of Failing to Thrive: What Does It Mean If You Die Before Finishing the Story (A Grief-Inspired Rant)


Most of us know that person.

They are bright, witty, talented, creative, and an absolute magician with words.

Everything they write has an eloquence, a lyricism, a sense of having been combed through by a seriously talented internal editor.

Teachers and professors stand in awe of their abilities; projecting with their eyes and their comments a certain expectation that this one, this student is going to be somebody, to do something significant.

Indeed, they write…novels, screenplays, poetry, short stories. And whether or not they “hit the mark” there is an uncanny sense the reader will feel that the work – if it is just short of publishable – is in fact JUST SHORT of it and only lacks the right editorial discovery.

They make you as a fellow writer feel that much less accomplished, that much less talented, that much less deserving. Because they are THAT GOOD.

And yet…  Nothing comes of it, or them.

And then they die.

And all of us who identified with them start to wonder: what is the point in being given a talent that one is prevented from ever using?

Because it IS obstruction. It is sabotage.

And I, for one, am sick and tired of hearing how The Best will always rise to the top and Real Writers overcome all obstacles. We are losing generations of writers because our own genres don’t care.

The Whole If-You-Are-Not-Poe-Lovecraft-or-King-You-Deserve-To-Fail Ideology

For those who missed the last post, I just lost a very good friend, former coworker, and fellow writer to cancer.

Like so many of us, he wrote – all of the time – and sometimes just in his head. He had plans – ambitious ones – for a novel that would be a trilogy, if not a series. And he was not thinking about Hollywood and marketing and residuals. He was thinking about the sheer scope of the story he had to tell. It was fantasy. It was a descendant of Tolkien. It was an unrealized plan because like so many of us, he had to take the time to educate himself about EVERYTHING writing demands while juggling low paying jobs and family responsibilities. He had to practice, sculpt, edit, slash-and-burn, and burn between charity work, caretaking family members, and double shifts. He had to submit and fail, and stomach the rejection without a word about where he was needing to work on a story, without a word of encouragement or criticism that might have cut years off his search for how to perfect his story.

Like most of us, he tried writers groups, but felt it was a case of the blind leading the blind (and it is, but it has some merits because there is commraderie in the support of fellow writers, different ways of seeing how and if your work succeeds or fails in telling the story you intended)…

So he mostly kept to himself, writing when Life allowed – which as so many of us know – is very infrequently when work schedules demand 24/7 availability, don’t pay all of the bills, and take such a physical and emotional toll that in going home there is nothing left but grabbing a meal, taking care of chores, going to bed, and starting the whole thing all over… for years of our lives.

Trust me. That road to Hell? It is paved with writers’ souls. With Arts souls.

You wake up every few years to discover The Story is still not told, the painting not painted. Every few decades, you throw everything you own that supported that dream out. Angrily. Bitterly. Because what is the point?

You get older, more tired, more sick, more worn down, more disenchanted.

Every year that passes, you begin to feel more bitter because the frustration is ungodly. You find yourself suffocated by the burden of not being able to find the time, the creative energy, the self-education necessary to pull it off – of letting yourself down…

And when you dare to try, when you dare to peek out of the grave that has been dug for you, some editor somewhere is heard preaching that Real Writers get the job done. That Real Artists aren’t Artists unless they suffer.

So you begin a seemingly endless journey of self-loathing, depression, and doubt. Despite all that scribbling on paper, may you aren’t a Real Writer after all… so you slash and burn again. Giving up for even more years, while other Writers and Artists seem to sail by and find publication, audiences, recognition…

And every merger, closure or bankruptcy of the major publishing houses only stokes the fires. Real Writers must be young, and traditionally published, and somehow “perfect.” Original. Salable. Prodigies.

Yet everything we read, everything we see seems to lack that spark we are sentenced to obscurity for allegedly not-having. We come to doubt the judgment of our Establishments. Of ourselves. If there are so many opportunities out there, why don’t we FIND them? Why don’t they find US?

This is how a writer like my friend, a writer like myself, a writer like so many of us find ourselves old, abandoned, depressed, and hopeless when Real Life comes at us yet again.

And it was my mistake to pick up and be reading a Best Of Horror at the moment my friend died.

Because I’ve read his writing.

And my God.

How many “Real Writers” are being shut out of their genres because they did not have the right connections, the right education, the right OPPORTUNITY at the right time? How many work at restaurants so they can get at least one meal a day? At a bookstore so they can afford those oft-referred-to how-to’s because they can’t afford college? Who have never seen a $30,000 annual paycheck in their lives?

And why the hell is miraculously rising above that the measuring stick for who will create the narrative for American Literature? For music? For the Arts?

Do editors have the slightest idea what it takes to be ABLE to write in these times? Do they have a clue about the creative mind? About how little it takes to drown the Muse with sixty hour or zero hour work weeks?

Do they have a clue what it is to worry ALL OF THE TIME about rent, food, clothing, car payments, medical bills, CANCER, undiagnosed masses, broken teeth, kids, pets, and constant layoffs?

I don’t think so.

And what is sad is that like so many of our fellow Americans, they don’t care.

All they need is another Stephen King to keep THEM afloat for a few decades so they can “shape the genre” in their own image.

Screw the rest of us.

Self-publishing?

Well, my dead writer friend left working at the bookstore to become a long-distance truck driver to help his parents keep their house. He couldn’t even GET his own problems stabilized…let alone find the necessary peace to write and then to pay to publish and promote himself.

Guess I am supposed to believe that makes him a “bad” writer, right?

Well, it doesn’t.

I want to see a few “editors” enjoy the same obstacles. Then we can say Real Editors rise above.

Do I sound bitter? Angry? Disgusted?

Well, I am. And not just for my own Failure to Thrive life, but for all the writers I have met and read in passing… in retail jobs, in data entry jobs, in customer service jobs, in call centers and 7-Elevens…those who slept in their cars with nothing but a carefully bound manuscript kept in a protective case held close and endlessly polished to keep them going…

HOW MANY OF THEM WERE TOLKIENS? WERE LOVECRAFTS AND POES?

All without pulp markets. All without a solid education in the Classics. All without the simple OPPORTUNITY to learn and hone their craft?

To all of the Critics and Publishers and Editors who bemoan the lack of talent in this country I say this is YOUR fault.

When young writers needed the education and support, the most you bothered to offer were astonishingly insufficient “How-To” (do nothing) books for $15-25.

When Amazon killed publishing you were too busy whining about your own jobs…

And then you had the audacity to send venomous criticism to those who dared to self-publish…against those who because of their age, were either too young and arrogant or who were too old and had been “proven” to not be Real Writers because they “would already be traditionally published” by those nonexistent publishing houses by now.

And where were you when education began slaughtering the Arts? Where are you NOW?

So now we are ALL supposed to believe that editors have such trying lives sifting through insufficient writing because, you know, it is our unpublished/under-published mission to obscure the Real Writers, to endure a parade of endless form letter rejections…

You want to know why our writing is insufficient? BECAUSE WE ARE ALL SELF-TAUGHT. Because no one gives a F***

The constant assault on the Arts and those who labor therein is inexcusable. Those who joyfully participate are bullies – even when and especially when – they come from our own ranks.

You want Art and Music and Literature? Start acting like it.

 A Man Was Born.

I see my friend, I see myself: older every year, unable to coordinate the time and creativity to do more than just…function. I see so many other writers relegated to the same Life, struggling to grasp the meaning while time keeps passing us by – precious time. Writing time.

When are we going to draw the line here? What is it going to take before our own genre of Literature decides that writing is an investment? That it deserves fighting for and support and more than just rancid lip service and cronyism? When are we going to stop replacing elitist systems of discovery with other elitist systems like the one currently that bestows editorial and agent blessings on MFA grads when the average writer can’t even afford to finish an Associate’s degree?

When are we going to stop gloating over the disenfranchisement of the Arts?

When do we tell ALL of education that there is more to life than freaking STEM?

When will we nurture KIDS in the Arts and give them direction – an actual pathway to becoming Artists, Writers, Poets, Musicians?

When do we decide that if SCIENCE & TECH won’t “give it away” then neither should the Arts? That starving is how we break spirits, not create the humanities?

That artists, musicians, writers deserve the same support and respect as OTHER PROFESSIONS – no matter where we are on the ladder?

When do we demand recognition that the real Creative Class has been out there since cave paintings and spooky stories were told and songs were sung about around campfires? And we still ARE?

And when do WE stand up for OURSELVES and shout that we are tired of being told to just starve because Real Writers…Real Artists…Real Musicians…

At the memorial service, the preacher talked about my friend asking to use the church for some “quiet space” in which to write.

Imagine the “noise” in this man’s head… who will take care of his aging parents, his disabled brother…what about the medical bills? What does it mean if he can’t finish his writing before he dies? What if he is not Writer enough to pull Tolkien-like work out of the pain of a bone marrow transplant?

There are a lot of us out here asking that question – what if we die before we finish the one job we feel driven to do – because we know what we were SUPPOSED to be…not rich and famous, JUST WRITERS PAID TO WRITE.

How soothing it would have been if he’d had just one thing published. Anywhere. Some evidence of validation…that he was what he KNEW he was…

How many of us are Philippe? Know a Philippe?

How many of us struggle to find time for the life-sustaining “hobbies” of the Arts and the training to get better at it?

But you know what editors say: there are plenty of publishing opportunities for good writers. (i.e., if you are not published, you are not good), and Real Writers get the job done (unlike the rest of us creatively deficient sick people working sixty hour weeks).

Talk about mythology. Talk about harmful lies.

Eff you. And the horse you rode in on.

I know what I saw. I know what I read. And I guarantee you I would bet even money all Philippe needed was a good editor and the time to write without the world in his head – like so many writers I have read in passing… so many struggling to find the time and the sanity and the health to just do what they do – what they ARE.

I admit I have my own writing demons. And I know – like Philippe – some day I will be looking at my stories in files and asking myself…burn them before I die? Or find a shovel buddy? Do I even care anymore?

I truthfully can’t answer that. I threw out almost all of my artwork in my twenties. And I have done precious little since, you know – knowing that Real Artists always rise to the top, too – that Real Artists starve and die and then are allowed to be great. What is the point, if not just for sanity? What is the point, if sanity doesn’t matter?

I still have no answer for why a person is given a talent and then sadistically prevented from using it… I only know it seems to be a mission of non-Arts people to enjoy our agonies. I only know a life filled with mindless tasks that rob simple enjoyment of Life leaves an Arts soul in an empty shell, our creations unrealized.

I also know it means the world will never know what might have been…that writing, Literature, and genres lose as well.  

Will my writing meet the same frustrated fate as my art? Will I indeed burn it in effigy in the final throes of failing to thrive at either talent I was blessed with?

I am betting I will. Because there are days the ghost of my own eviscerated Artist self feels the rub, remembers how liberating it was to take my collegiate portfolio and dump it in the trash the last day of class after that last, final insult.

I was sooo frustrated at the heavy-handed criticisms of nobodies about my art…about my Real Artist “failings”…when I was just trying to learn…technique…medium…the very people who were supposed to just teach technique destroyed Fine Art for me. It doesn’t help that this is “just how it is”… that the ability to run the gauntlet is somehow a qualifier as to whether you “belong” or will be allowed to stay…

Writing is the same. You start out excited, wanting to learn everything… and then you watch yourself – often floating somewhere above yourself – as those dreams and curiosities are dismembered, murdered, and fed to wolves.

They tell you this is how the weak ones are weeded out, how the Real Artists are raised up… by berating you and your work, by pitting you against fellow artists. By making you suffer for your art… Well, eff you. Precious few prodigies live lives of leisure and pounding creativity. Most game-changers struggle against unnecessary odds to be heard and seen. How many were buried by the stress of it all? By the unnecessity of it all?

Those who make elitist proclamations are people who don’t know the first thing about Life OR Art. But it takes its desired toll nonetheless.

There is no purer Horror than watching your life slip away, your Art peeled from your fingers by events that seem so beyond your control – and then to be made to feel responsible for the loss…the failure to thrive…

Why, when we are young, are we supposed to know how to defend our undeveloped selves, to know that if we are unable to figure THAT out, that we will lose everything that matters? Why do we drown alone at sea?

Why ARE we given talents we are not allowed to use?

Philippe asked this question. I had no good answer. Because I don’t think it has anything to do with God or talent.

It has to do with Man.

And as long as we consider the Arts to be expendable, worthless, less-equal to the maths and sciences… as long as we are told to wait for the messiah of our individual Arts worlds because we ourselves are flawed wannabees…we ALL lose.

I say we stop listening to myths…to “genre-shapers” who are mere mortals that happen to hold the reins of power. I say we take our power back. And charge for it.

Listen – all you would-be writers, old and young, just starting out… Apparently you are going to starve and struggle and get sick anyway. Sacrifice. Spend EVERY spare cent on your Art. Stop listening to bullies. Start listening to your souls.

Study your Art. Do whatever you need to do to learn that Art, to sustain it.

ART IS NOT A HOBBY. IT IS A LIFE-WAY. IT IS YOU.

BE your Art. Be selfish because other selfish people are going to lie to you anyway about being selfish already. About how by some miracle, Real Writers, Real Artists, Real Musicians just do…just are…Then make it so. Take back your dreams and charge heartily for them.

There is no spare time. There is no “later.” Stop making other people rich. Stop validating other peoples’ dreams. Non-Artists are not us. They haven’t got a clue. No one who stands to make a penny off you does.

I’m sorry for the rant.

I am tired.

I miss Philippe.

I miss what he would have written for the world.

Because I’ve seen one of The Best Of’s. And he took his work with him.

18 thoughts on “The High Cost of Failing to Thrive: What Does It Mean If You Die Before Finishing the Story (A Grief-Inspired Rant)

  1. KC!

    THIS… “BE your Art. Be selfish because other selfish people are going to lie to you anyway about being selfish already.” I say, let’s start a movement!

    On a serious note though, I take my hat off to you Ma’am. You’ve said what many of us think but dare not say aloud, with your heartfelt article and Philippe’s heartbreaking story.

    May he rest in peace. ❤

    Liked by 2 people

    1. At my age I see no point in tiptoeing around egos. I DO see a point in talking to younger writers about not-making the same mistakes we all were pixie-led to believe in up to now to doubt ourselves and the value of what we bring to the table… Thank you, my friend, for the words of revolution! We DO need a movement!

      Liked by 2 people

  2. There was no need to apologize for a rant. It showed us how much you still love and miss Philippe.

    While reading this post, I was reminded of a writer friend who gave away some free copies of her recent book for review. Then she felt the crush of her years and decided no more freebies because it was like giving away the precious time she had left. I think even if she were 22, she could still say she’s not giving away her work free, and I would support her proper valuation of her literary art.

    Liked by 2 people

  3. The arts is definitely an area that goes largely unappreciated, in particular through monetary gain. People value making money for greedy corporates [the same ones that are responsible for climate change] above everything that makes life pleasant and, frankly, worth living. It is not just writers who suffer this obscurity. The same applies to artists and any actors and other performers. I wonder what this world would be like if their was no art, no theatre, and not books. Just reality TV and work. Fahrenheit 451 comes to mind.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I agree wholeheartedly. Minimization of the Arts was always confusing to me as a child singled out by teachers who advised my parents to get me into Art training. On one hand I was seen as someone with a worthy talent, shown museums and treasured artwork. On the other, it was referred to as a “hobby” and then I was told I also needed to find a Real Job. I remember my childhood as suffocating… a place where a gauntlet I did not understand was laid in front of me to run if I was a Real Artist. The result? For good or ill, I do NO art. What should be a source of sustenance is a house of horrors. And surely I am not the only lost artist out there…

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  4. First of all and most of all, I am sorry for your loss. And I am sorry for our loss at never getting his words. Phillipe’s situation highlights multiple failings in our cultures, our systems. How we devalue nurturing the arts and artists yet rely on them and require them to survive (hello, pandemic). Yet also our socioeconomic systems, our healthcare systems, so many contributing systems that exacerbate these failings. Snowballs straight to Hell.

    In my mind, the publishing world is commercial, about profit. While art exists there, it is exploited. It is how we are “realized” and validated as artists. It is how we make contact with our audiences. Yet there is a loss of soul in the exchange because those packaging us up are doing so for profit. The integrity of the art is compromised when it is just to make money.

    I don’t know how to write without wanting readers. I don’t know how to be an author without wanting to be published. But all your citations of what’s wrong with the industry resonate with me. I just don’t know how to fix them.

    Liked by 1 person

  5. It is indeed hard to say how anything today gets fixed, but I think the word “rebellion” is in there somewhere. It’s why I miss pulp magazines — no pretense, just finger-painting for the sake of pure joy and discovery…I miss that as both a reader and a writer.

    Liked by 1 person

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