It’s no secret to those who know me that I’m a fan of the singer Morrissey and his former band, The Smiths. In the song “The Queen is Dead“, Morrissey (or his alter-ego) claims to have learned that he is “the eighteenth pale descendent of some old queen or other”. For a guy who has seem himself as something of a rebel and has railed against the establishment, finding out that he’s related to the establishment comes as a bit of a shock. The world doesn’t feel quite the same anymore.
He then asks the question “Has the world changed or have I changed?” As many times as I’ve listened to that song over the years, I never really pondered the lyrics until very recently. I’ve realized that the answer is “Neither. What has changed is your perspective of the world and your role within it.” Morrissey’s world is certainly no different for the discovery that he is related to royalty, nor has that discovery (at least at the moment of realization) changed him. But learning that he is a descendent of royalty has changed how he views himself and his role in the world. The question of course becomes what he does with that knowledge.
I think the reason this lyric has finally started to resonate with me is a similar kind of realization in my own life. When I was a teenager, I found that I really enjoyed writing. Not only did I enjoy it, but I had teachers who seemed to think I was doing quite well at it and rewarded my hard work with high grades. I thought I’d be a professional writer. Well-meaning friends, acquaintances, and relatives told me that few people make a living as writers. I’d better find something more practical to do than writing. I listened to them, and focused on my second love, computers. Since it was the beginning of the personal computer revolution (late 1980s), it seemed like a good choice. The decision has served me well.
I’ve been in the high-technology world since 1987. I’ve worked for a mainframe software company, a consulting outfit, and now a company that makes information available to scientists around the world. Even doing this work, I never really abandoned writing. My day job from 1987 to 1996 involved writing software documentation. Since then, it’s included writing reports, presentations, and procedure documentation. Creative, artistic writing barely found a place in my life apart from a few poems and an aborted attempt at a novel.
Then, a few short years ago, I was at a game convention (a place where people play traditional board games). I wasn’t finding any games I wanted to play on day, but did see a writing seminar on “The Rules of Writing”. It woke up that part of me that wanted to be a writer back in high school, so I plopped down my $8 and sat down for the seminar. As New York Times bestselling author Michael A. Stackpole shared his experience and advice, I began to realize that my teenage dream of writing novels and poetry didn’t have to be just a dream. There was no reason I couldn’t at least try it. The bills were paid. The kids were about to go off to college. The cats didn’t need a lot maintenance. Why not?
In the months after that, I learned of the National Novel Writing Month project (NaNoWriMo). In that effort, ordinary folks like me were committing to create 50,000 words or more of original fiction in the month of November. Many of them were successful. In 2009, I took a stab at it and was successful. I’d written over 50,000 words in a month. Were they publishable? No. Were they good? In places, yes. Overall, they were at best mediocre. But I’d done it. For one month, I was a writer! I was a novelist, even.
I kept reading and learning in 2010, and managed to complete NaNoWriMo a second time. This time, I went into the effort with a more coherent plan. The result was something better than I’d managed in 2009. This was a complete novel, with a consistent story. It was nothing I could (or would try to) publish, but I’d written a novel. I was still the same guy I had been a few weeks or years earlier. But something had changed.
What changed? I still looked and acted like I had before, so I hadn’t changed in any visible way. And certainly the world was the same old place it had been. My perception of myself had changed, and my perception of the world as a place where I couldn’t write had changed. I realized that I’m not just “a guy who works in IT” but “a writer” and even… a novelist. It couldn’t have been any less surprising than Morrissey’s discovery of a royal bloodline.
It’s now 2011. Earlier this year, I had the good fortune to take part in several hours worth of seminars given by some of the best writers working today. Michael Stackpole, mentioned earlier, has taught me a lot. Aaron Allston has shared much as well. Timothy Zahn helped explain why stories should be internally consistent and based (to the extent possible) on fact, even though they’re fictional. I’m confident my next novel will be better than the last three attempts thanks to their advice. Will the next one be publishable? I don’t know. But I know there will be a next one, and that’s a very liberating thought for someone who told himself for 20 years or more that he shouldn’t or couldn’t do it.
So perhaps the world hasn’t changed. And you could certainly argue that I haven’t either. I still look the same. I still have the same job, the same friends, the same clothes, and habits. I still drive the same car I did in 2002. If anything has changed, it’s my perception of myself. I may be “a guy who works in IT” but I know that I’m also a novelist… and I won’t let that change again. I can do this. I’ve seen me do it. And I know me well enough to know I’ll keep getting better at it.