Although I’d love to use the excuse of being busy with life as the primary reason I haven’t been writing as much over these past six years, the reality is that six years ago I also finally reached a tipping point regarding my insecurity as an author.
I hold pretty high expectations for myself, and so whenever I would become aware of any failures in my own work, I would dwell on them. And while I know that art generally works because of the flaws in a specific piece, I’ve never been very good at recognizing that within my own work.
Part of my inability in achieving this feeling of zen has been that when you write books, there’s not much to go by to evaluate your worth as an author outside of how many books you sell. It’s not like making a movie or writing music where you can watch people experience your artform and see firsthand their emotional responses to it. No, you’re stuck getting the notes after the fact. When people have had time to think about it a little bit. When they’ve been able to fully dissect what you’ve crafted and come up with all of the holes that may or may not exist.
And books are notoriously difficult to sell. Not necessarily moreso than music or movies or other artforms, but considering this is the primary method by which to evaluate yourself, my incredibly low sales numbers have always caused me to feel this level of imposter’s syndrome. And when feeling like I didn’t deserve to call myself an author, I also caught myself questioning whether or not everything I was doing was an absolute waste of my time. And I hated the idea that I was forcing my friends and family to pretend to care that I was working on another book that they would have to pretend to have read and/or enjoyed.
Don’t get me wrong. I’m proud of my books. And I honestly enjoy them. Whenever I get around to rereading them to work on a sequel or for other reasons, I’m always surprised at the quality of my own writing. But at the same time, I am my own harshest critic and no matter how much I might be impressed with myself, I can’t help thinking it’s all in my head. That just because I appreciate what I’ve done, it’s still not good enough to be considered “good”. Even when people would tell me how much they loved my books, or the few times I’ve been told that someone was rereading them, or the phone call I got from a reader who had to seek out my number in order to ask about a sequel to Agora Files (it was a family member, not some random person in the world), or my daughter who tells all her friends about how much she loves my books, all of these, for some reason, just felt like people were trying to be nice, not really that they actually appreciated the work.
Right before the world shut down last year, my favorite local theater group stated their interest in having me write a play for them. It was a murder mystery dinner theater script they were looking for, where the cast interacts with the audience and the whole thing is really just about cramming as much sexual innuendo into the script as possible without flat out saying all the dirty things so the audience can giggle to themselves about the secret jokes that are in no way secret.
I was nervous about the idea of writing something so broadly comedic. Sure, some of my books have some pretty comedic things going on. The Defenders series has a “superman changing in the phone booth” moment, but with an overweight superhero in a port-a-john. It’s funny, and it’s broadly funny, but the whole book isn’t like that. It’s more tongue in cheek, not playing strictly for laughs, but breaking the narrative from time to time to allow for some silliness. This thing I was being asked to write exists purely to be as silly as possible, with the most minimal of narrative threads to hold the thing together.
And so I started with the simplest of things: names. And I said to myself, well, if this things is to be filled with sexual innuendo, let’s give these guys the names to match. And so we have Dick Burns, and Regina Burns. We have Justin Cider. We have Jennifer Swallows (nie Spitz). We have Anita Mandelay. And we have the fabulous Dixie Normous. This is the type of stuff I was writing, folks. The lowest brow of humor possible. Just writing to see how many laughs I could fit into 40 pages of dialogue and action. Just enough to give the actors something to work off of.
I knew these scripts. I’ve performed in these types of shows countless times. I was even a paid performer for a brief period in a traveling murder mystery troupe for this same theater group. And I did all I could to emulate those poorly written scripts as possible, while trying to insert a bit of my own goofy flair.
This past winter, they performed the show I wrote and I was allowed to watch it from the audio booth. And something happened where I suddenly felt as though I might not be as much of an imposter as I thought I was. These cast members brilliantly turned my 40 page script into something impossibly funny and, well, fun.
But what got me the most was this one moment in the show, where this one character, who, by design, doesn’t have much character development in the script, gets yelled at by this other character who is the jerk who ends up getting killed. It was designed to be a moment purely to give the minimally crafted character a reason to want to kill the future victim. And the audience let out a collective “aw” in empathy for the character getting yelled at.
In my years of performing and watching these shows, I have never once seen a single inkling of empathy from the audience for any of the characters and suddenly, it was right there. It happened. The audience cared.
And this may seem silly to you, but this is exactly the thing I had been looking for. To witness, firsthand, the emotional response to my writing. Sure, the script took a fraction of the time and effort to write than any of my books, and yes, it is not a piece that I’m incredibly proud of from an author’s perspective, but it gave me what I had been looking for in all my years as a writer. I got to see people actually responding to my writing as they were first digesting it. And it honestly changed my life.
And that’s why I was so excited when the theater group asked for a new script for this year.
I’ve actually got a lot of inspiration for plays I’d like to write moving forward. That doesn’t mean I won’t still keep a foot in novels, but I have to admit, it’s pretty awesome having an audience.
I still feel a lot of imposter’s syndrome, especially as I put the finishing touches on my current work in progress, but whenever it gets bad, I try to remember that moment and recognize that maybe there’s some semblance of worth to what I’m doing to people outside of myself. And that helps me move forward.
Have fun out there!