Wilderness Years

I like to joke that my mental health was better before I was a writer.

Laughing is one way to deal with hard truths, right?

Though, to be frank, I’d probably be this tightly wound no matter what I was doing. Writing and submitting and querying has just provided me with a laser-point focus for it. If I had a different hobby I’m sure it would shoulder the brunt of the blame just as writing does.

I also like to say that I’m the most prolific writer you’ve never read. A part of me wants to claim an affinity with Kilgore Trout but I’m pretty sure those dudes I know with their stories in Playboy have more a right to that honor than I do. I like those people, but I’m also going to say they’re *s for taking that from me.

It’s a struggle to keep plugging away when success seems perpetually out of reach. That’s the problem with being friends with so many writers. All around me people are getting book deals and accolades and interviews while I spend 4AM to 7AM every morning, doing this thing the best I know how.

I have the files to prove it, too. It’d take two hands to count the full-length novels I’ve written. Probably a bucket of hands (if you can’t make your own at home, store bought is fine) to tally up my short stories. Multiple movie scripts. A ten-minute beat poem (no, seriously, it seemed like a good idea at the time.) Other poems.

I like to joke that I’ve got all the hustle and none of the talent.

It’s at times disheartening, knowing you can churn out the words but also knowing they lack the quality for them to mean much of anything.

Sometimes I lean into the hill I’m climbing, sure if I just work hard enough, I’ll top it. That it’ll build my endurance for the next hill.

Sometimes I sit on my ass, stare down how little I’ve climbed and debate just packing it in and declaring that hills can go fuck themselves.

I never mean it. I don’t quit things. But not everything is sunshine and beard daisies and sleeping puppies. Plus, I know I’d feel worse if I quit, so eventually I get back up, dust my ass off, and start climbing again.

Anybody fighting to create something the world wants understands this dance. It is the best of endeavors, it is the worst of endeavors.

Let’s change directions a bit.

Recently, I listened to Eddie Izzard’s book Believe Me. Read by Eddie Izzard. That last fact is important. I have no idea how long Believe Me is in text but I’d wager it’s nearly twice as long as an audio book. I mean, he googled stuff during the recording and every glorious minute of it is in there.

At first, I wasn’t entirely on-board. It was entertaining, sure, but rambley, as you would expect from Izzard. It was fine but just not as engaging as I was looking for in an audio book.

Then he got to talking about his early performing years and managed to say every single thing I needed to hear at that exact moment.

Izzard uses the term “Wilderness Years,” coined to describe the years Winston Churchill spent without a government position, to talk about his own early struggles. He writes about the attempts, the failures, all the bad he sludged through before he found what he was good at.

How those years taught him how to deal with a crowd. How they showed him his strengths, taught him what he did and didn’t want to do. How he hustled tirelessly, taking his blows and pushing on regardless.

How ten years of struggling taught him perseverance, and showed him who he was.

And that it’s okay if you’re struggling. It’s okay if it’s not working, so long as you’re still pushing. That success taking time doesn’t mean you’re a failure, that you suck and should quit. You’re just in your own wilderness years. Learning. Growing. Finding who you are and mastering it.

It was what I needed to hear. It was the sign I was looking for to keep me leaning into that hill and fighting my way up. I don’t care if it sounds superficial or cliche, it was help when I needed it.

I am still learning. That was honestly the hardest thing for me to process in my writing, that you don’t come out farting glitter and shitting gold from the get-go. Sure, some people do, but those people are unicorns, rare and ethereal, and most of us are not. There are things I do well, and many more that I don’t yet. Internalizing that I can learn, that I can get better, has helped me drastically.

Now the mental language isn’t that I’m bad at what I’m doing but that I’m not as good as I will be if I keep working at it. Every critique, rejected story, every blow to my ego shows me where I can improve.

Every time I get on stage with a mic and people don’t laugh, well, I learned something about those jokes, didn’t I?

Izzard’s book helped me understand that I’m not wasting my time. I’m forming the base I’ll eventually stand on. I’m learning how to make the parts of me as good as they can be.

I’m learning to keep my eyes on the top of that hill and push until I get there.

I’ve got the drive, and the staying power.

These are my wilderness years. They are not a stumbling block, but a building block. I am going to enjoy them, and wring every lesson I can from them before I cast them behind me, withered and fully used up.