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Days of Atonement

Years ago, I mean years ago, when Jen (jen_vm) and I first were married and struggling and, as I’m fond of saying, so poor we were gaining weight because we couldn’t afford to eat healthy, we ended up settling in a town where my bride had, it turned out, a high school friend. I was just out of grad school and desperately trying to find 1) a job and 2) time to write. I had an agent and a novel that had been passionately rejected by just about every publisher who’d read it, I was writing what would become Keeper, we were in our early twenties, and it was, frankly, terrifying.

Then we moved everything to this new town so Jen could go to school, and that was even more terrifying. We didn’t know anyone in the new locale, no one. Except for this high school friend of Jen’s.

Shortly after moving, we got together with her and her husband, and…we didn’t hit it off. Jen and her friend tried, but her husband seemed to take an immediate dislike to me. The few times we got together his asides were holier-than-thou, get-a-job bullshit, primarily directed at me because, you know, I was a writer without portfolio, and that and a dollar will get you a cup of coffee (or at least it would back then).

Mostly, this didn’t bother me, because frankly, I could’ve cared less what the self-centered pothead thought of me. As it happens, he thought I was a fraud; funny, because that’s exactly what I thought of him, come to think of it.

What bothered me was that, not too many months after we’d moved, it came back to us that this friend of Jen’s had been saying some unkind things about her and me. About how we weren’t realistic. About how I was taking advantage of her. About how I’d never make a living as a writer. About how we were living in an apartment that we couldn’t afford. That we were living in a world of make-believe.

To this day – to this day – that still burns me. Not because of what was being said about me, but because of the knife it put in my wife’s back. This was someone who was supposed to be a friend, and she absolutely fell down on the job. Fell down and cut my wife’s Achilles’ tendon, as far as I was concerned.

But it doesn’t burn me quite as much, not anymore. The friend in question – years later, after she and her husband had moved back to their hometown – made amends to my wife, at least as best as she could under the circumstances. The circumstances were extreme, and that counts for a lot.

But what I’m thinking right now is that, y’know, she did exactly what the world trained her to do. After all, to her eyes, she wasn’t really wrong. We were being unrealistic. The apartment we were living in was the first one we’d looked at, and we were used to New York prices, so we were being overcharged and never realized it; I wanted to be a writer, for fuck’s sake, to such an extent that my job search was in great part curtailed by whether or not I’d still have time to write after coming home from whatever job it was I was doing; Jen was starting graduate school and teaching, and anyone who’s been there knows that’s full-time and a half.

What hurt then is that she was attacking our willingness to dream, and yes, I know that sounds cliche, but that’s what it was. We were young newlyweds and we were terrified, but we each held onto this idea that, if we stuck through the hard times and we busted our humps and we put in the hours and we were smart in everything else we did, we could gamble on this other thing, this life we wanted to have for ourselves.

And to her (and more to her husband, I think), that was untenable. At best, they could only greet us with confusion and bewilderment. At worst, they viewed us with malice born of jealousy, that we were willing to chase something they either would not or could not pursue themselves, in whatever form they imagined it.

There are a lot of people like that in the world. A lot of them. They look at someone’s passion, someone’s dream, and they assault it. For most of them – to most of them – it’s a justified assault, something they may not even be aware they’re doing.

I’m guilty of it myself. Once, a friend turned to me with his writing and asked me to help him, and, sincerely believing I was doing the right thing by him at the time, I quoted Harlan Ellison to him, and told him that “some people just aren’t meant to write.”

That’s in my Top Ten Moments of Being an Asshole.

Mark, I’m sorry, and I hope you can accept my apology.

Here’s the thing about writing. Its engine isn’t creativity.

It’s fear.

28 Responses to Days of Atonement

  1. jarmon

    Here’s the thing about writing. It’s engine isn’t creativity.

    It’s fear.

    Thank you.

  2. sd6

    In the short time of our friendship, I have been unnerved, bewildered, amused, confused, flattered and impressed by you. Regardless of any of those things, moments like this cement the fact that I’m really glad I know you.

    Because, y’know…you *get* it.

  3. admin

    Y’know how Dan Rather used to sign-off (and drawing much mockery because of it?).

    Courage.

  4. admin

    Mutual, I assure you.

  5. coppervale

    I had an almost identical scenario, but it got much worse – and we felt virtually ostracized by people who had been our closest friends. These were people who would drive past our apartment window and yell “Why don’t you get a real job?” because they knew I’d be there, working on my comics.

    I once needed some silver change to buy a soda from a vending machine, and all I had were pennies, so I asked my friend if he’d exchange the pennies for dimes. He said someone like me shouldn’t be wasting money on soda when his wife had been giving my wife rides to her job – and he refused to exchange the coins, then stopped giving my wife a lift to work.

    They were the worst – but others have done variations of that right up until the last year or two, when the novels started doing so well it became impossible to deny that my career choice was, by any definition, successful AND sustainable.

    If they were just mean or stupid, I’d be more forgiving – but it’s the fact they made me feel like Picard being brainwashed by a Cardassian into seeing five lights that still pisses me off.

  6. rashyn76

    The fear post

    Excellent post despite the somber theme. I can certainly see that clash since I never got the response when I was in college as an English major, that being a writer with a degree was a socially approved idea. It was easier to be Teacher with a BA in English.
    Still I plugged on, currently I work a 9 to 5 job to pay the bills for myself and my wife, I write on evenings and weekends (usually weekends). I’ve been involved in a comic book project for 2 years now which has seen 3 issues come to print (self published), but I’ve had the joy of seeing people actually buy and enjoy what I wrote. I continue to plug away even know in my 30′s.
    The part about writing being driven by fear is very true. I think for me, there is the fear,that if I didn’t keep trying to make this into a better paying career than a 9-5 job, I’d end up a mindlsss drone. I, also, recall a day in one of popular fiction courses where the prof. asked , why do writer’s write? No one hands raised, except my own. My reply, “To pay the bills”.

  7. tawang

    Amen to that. I went through similar experiences, mainly with my then-soon-to-be-mother-in-law, who was trying to set up my fiancee with the son of their wealthy (and thus successful) landscaper/gardener right up until the wedding, to which she wore black.

    Fortunately, I lucked into–and backed into–a little job security when my wife got a job as a college librarian in the middle of nowhere, so to speak. I’d been living between NY and Philadelphia and not getting anywhere. I came out to southern Indiana and suddenly managed to get work onstage at Actors Theatre of Louisville within a few years, mainly from starting a professional theatre company with a colleague from the college.

    As for writing, I think my primary fear is a deadline…

  8. jeffrey

    This hits home in… pretty much every way possible. I’m sorry you had to go through it, too, but seeing that you did and came out the other side and get to where you are gives me hope that and I can make it, too. Thank you.

  9. kali921

    Here’s the thing about writing. Its engine isn’t creativity.

    It’s fear.

    Yes. Absolutely. I may have to put this on Wikiquote.

    This from Gandhi, whose quotes I can read every single day and never get tired of: The weak can never forgive. Forgiveness is the attribute of the strong.

    I struggle with resentment of past slights, abuses, etc. Forgiveness and, simultaneously, working on learning to give up that resentment so I can clearly see my own part in things and thus make amends when necessary is the foundation of any semblance of inner peace that I have.

  10. voiceofisaac

    This is helping me put my own situation in a clearer light. I want to write. But I’m terrified of not having a roof over my head. So I have a 40-hour corporate job that just barely pays the bills (but seems to be the best I can get right now), doesn’t give me much room for savings, and leaves me so mentally exhausted at the end of the day that I have a hard time focusing my brain to do any *writing* once I arrive home.

    I’d love to abandon the job and just focus my day on the writing, but that would make it impossible for my wife’s job to support us until my writing brings in income. I mean, we’re barely supporting ourselves on two incomes now as it is.

    I wish I knew a way out of the catch-22, because the fear of utter poverty is currently my biggest roadblock.

  11. wyldemusick

    One of the stories I sometimes tell about my chequered career as a writer is the proclamation by an idiot while I was at college that I couldn’t write my way out of a wet paper bag. As I’d made my first sale at that point, all it did was piss me off enough to multiply my determination.

    But these things are winnowing…they can be the death of a thousand cuts. That’s made it more difficult over the years.

  12. zachary_cole

    **Geez** You and Rucka show that financial hardships are probably not the toughest part of becoming a writer. Thank you both.

  13. kei87

    Maybe it’s because of my familiarity with your novels, but this post struck a chord with me. I just moved across the country (again) to basically restart my college career, this time as a creative writing major. I’m loving every second of it, but its also somewhat dispiriting to find out how many creative writing majors have no actual plans of following through with their itch to write for a living.
    Maybe it’s just because I could never see myself having an honest to god career in anything else, but I’m going to see this addiction through to the end.

    Sometimes, it’s good to be realistic. Other times though, it’s just a whole big bag of disappointment.

  14. fluidbeauty

    Thanks for sharing. It can’t have been easy. Examples of other people believing makes it easier to believe.

    My wife and I went through a similar thing. In 1995 we picked up and moved to Hawaii with $3K. We struggled and floundered and held on to each other. We came back east with some amazing experiences, a couple of new careers, a credit card bill for $5K, and with a strength that has gotten us through everything we’ve faced since. Meanwhile, friends of ours who never dared to dream are still struggling with the same challenges they had 13 years ago. In the years since, I’ve been hurt by, frustrated with, and shown pity to those friends who stayed put. I now realize that these people aren’t intentionally lashing out at things they don’t understand and that we live in a culture that bullies people into not dreaming.

    Because of this, some need to see other people realizing their dreams and they need compassion until they try it for themselves. It’s easy to forget that, and your story helped remind me. Thanks, sir.

  15. nadefilippis

    I hate to come in and swim against the stream here, but I really don’t agree with the engine of writing being fear.

    On a day to day level, Christina and I live with a ton of fear – How little will be make this year? Will we be able to afford the rent and the ever-crushing credit card bills? Wiill we be able to stay writers or take a day job again? Will we have to move away from Los Angeles and back with one of our sets of parents? Is the reason no one at the big publishers will give us a monthly book because we suck? What on earth would we do for a living if we gave up writing?

    But that fear isn’t the engine.

    It’s the obstacle.

    The engine may be courage, given how much fear is out there, but it is not fear. Nor, I might add, should it be.

    Fear has motivated far more writer’s block than it has motivated writing.

    Now, can some people derive some motivation from fear? Sure. But writing from a place of fear makes writing less fun. It makes the work a never ending treadmill. No success will make you happy, because you’re already worried about the next fear down the line. A writer driven by fear, in my opnion, will eventually lose faith in him/herself, or wind up blowing their head off like Hemingway.

    Like I said, I think the notion that fear is a part of being a writer is very true. And it’s a huge part. I don’t cope with fear far nearly as well as Christina does, and spend a good part of each year paralyzed by it, and even larger parts in a writing funk because of it.

    But when we get productive, when the work starts flowing, I assure you – the fear is nowhere near us in that moment. When you write and let that fear go, it’s a rush like nothing else – a rush that ensures I never need to use recreational drugs.

    Like I said, I don’t want to come and poo-poo the wisdom in Greg’s acknowledgement of the fear inherent in writing. But I think he either misspeaks, or perhaps dwells in a place of fear when he suggests it’s the engine.

    And Greg, as your friend, if you honestly use fear as your engine, I encourage you to use the courage it has taken you to overcome that fear instead. It will make for a more rewarding writing life, I think.

  16. zachary_cole

    I’m also a an aspiring writer, and I can say that realism and your dreams can co-exist. I bag groceries most of the week, but one of the stories will (soon) be published in a state anthology and (hopefully) end up on bookstore shelves all over the state. Both *can* be done. You’ll never have enough cash, or enough time to write, but it can still be done.

  17. snoristed

    An eloquent and wise post. I think there’s an important distinction to be made, though.

    In the community of all people on earth who want to be writers (and honestly this applies to people who want to make a career doing anything as a freelancer), people confuse the Money with the Writing. The fear you speak of has largely to do with marketing and selling the writing, with the incoming bills and the nagging financial questions (do I need another job? can I make a living as a freelance writer? how will I get health insurance? you’re fucking kidding me, I’m supposed to withhold taxes from myself???). Fear about the *financial aspects* of writing are TOTALLY different from fear about the writing itself.

    A writer writes, whether it brings in money or not. Whether he/she wants to publish it or not. Whether it will be published or not. Put the fear where the fear goes–with launching a new career, with being self-employed, with choosing a career that’s way the heck out there on the humanities end of the academic spectrum… This fear actually has nothing to do with writing per se. It’s career fear.

    And, Mr. Rucka: I knew you when you were a teenager so I can attest, you have been a writer the whole time. And lucky for us readers–rarely have I enjoyed anyone else’s career choice so much ;-)

  18. nadefilippis

    True, the fear is mostly financial, but sadly, it merges with the insecurity of writing and starts fears in that arena. If you can’t make it in this field, does this mean you have no talent? The obvious answer is no, but when fears rear their head, the obvious answers sometimes elude us.

    And yeah, Greg was a writer for as long as I’ve known him, and a lot of that time no-one was paying him to do it.

    The thing is, he’s not just a writer, he’s a fine writer – more gifted than I am, to be sure. He’s got nothing to fear, as a writer, anymore. He’s damn good and he should take more pleasure in that.

  19. hdefined

    I have a problem with the idea that it’s wrong to discourage dreams.

    My sister just graduated from college in May and has been looking for jobs for the past 4-5 months. However, she has no real skills, little practical experience, a history major and no interest in teaching.

    That said, the jobs she’s applying for are WAAAAAAAAAAAY out of her league. She’s applying for administrative and management positions, not realizing in the slightest how unqualified she is.

    But her “dream” is to live and work either in Manhattan or Paris. She’s limited her search to only those places.

    When my parents and I tell her that she’s being completely unrealistic in her goals at this point in time, she accuses us of trying to dash her dreams.

    But – and I’m sorry to all the dreamers out there – in her case, her dreams are holding her back and preventing her from 1) moving up in the world, if only to the lowliest position in an office, which is certainly better than being a part-time clerk, 2) maturing and getting an accurate sense of how the world works, 3) getting her out of my parents’ house, 4) becoming a responsible adult.

    So, dreams? Not inherently good things. Just like air, water, food, and sleep, dreams need to be kept in moderation.

  20. nadefilippis

    Oh I think dreams are inherently good things. But pursuing them haphazardly, or with no respect for the work or time or effort or courage they’ll take to reach is not a good thing.

    The point is… if someone wants to work in Manhattan or Paris, that’s a fine dream.

    If someone isn’t willing to get a low level job in one of those places and work their way up, that’s not.

    The problem lies not in dreaming of a specific goal, which isn’t a bad thing no matter how hard a goal it is to reach or how unrealistic it seems to others. It lies in assuming you can get to the endpoint without working your way through the rest.

  21. kei87

    I might be speaking way too out of turn here, but I feel like people from my generation (Born in 87) either don’t want to work hard enough to achieve their dreams or don’t even dream in the first place.

    I’m especially struck by the vast array of friends I know who graduated College with their nice, shiny degree and then realized they had no idea what they should do with it, who they were, or why they worked so hard in the first place.

    It’s bizarre too, just how much doing something you love affects who you are. Last year I was a pretty miserly fellow; I changed majors four times and social circles even more often. Now that I’m taking classes I actually enjoy, I’m enjoying everything else a whole lot more as well.

    It really shouldn’t be this hard to realize the connection, but it took me travelling halfway across the world to finally put the pieces together and start rebuilding who I am.

  22. mattsnyder

    Thanks for sharing this story. I find it helpful. I’m envious of those who had the balls to commit to writing careers. But, there’s still time left.

  23. mercuryeric

    AMEN.

    -E

  24. hdefined

    “Oh I think dreams are inherently good things. But pursuing them haphazardly, or with no respect for the work or time or effort or courage they’ll take to reach is not a good thing.”

    I’m tempted to agree with this on principle, but who can measure the time/effort/courage necessary to achieve such dreams? What if the dreams eschew such things? And what about luck?

    In my case, I was incredibly lucky. Got out of college, took a crappy job, quit it, spent 8 months home wallowing in misery, found an offer by accident that was out of my league, paid more than anything I’d been looking at, and they accepted me. There was some skill involved on my part, but I can’t deny it was pure luck. And moreover, it satisfied a dream I had just about given up on.

    But there was no way to shoot for this dream. If I hadn’t haphazardly come across this opportunity, nothing like it ever would have occurred. I gave up the dream because it was keeping me unemployed.

    I still believe the answer is to “dream in moderation.” Dreams shouldn’t be the reality you expect – they should be the reality you hope for, that motivate you to work toward them as an end goal, not the only goal. And you have to be willing to accept reality in spite of those dreams, if only because it’s the more realistic option.

  25. hdefined

    Hey, I appreciate the input, and I agree with your assessment. I went to NYU, and I felt like a lot of the students there had this same directionless approach to their major. I know I did. What am I going to do with an East Asian Studies major when I’m not nearly fluent in the language I spent three years studying? What good are History majors, or Philosophy majors?

    If only someone had told me the moment I entered high school to start thinking about me future career. It would’ve blown my fragile mind, but it also would’ve made a lot more sense than the path I ended up taking (I love where I’ve arrived at, but the process of getting there wasn’t rewarding at all).

  26. la_marquise_de_

    Dear Mr Rucka,
    Thank you for this post, and excuse me — a stranger — popping up here to comment. This may be the most heartening thing I’ve read in years about being true to self and dreams. I let someone push me away from mine in 1990 and it took me 15 years to find the courage to come back to them (whereupon I succeeded, which makes me wonder what I might have managed if I had not given into the fear). Writers need to learn to believe in themselves because so very few other people will.
    Kari in the UK.

  27. sixteenbynine

    Greg, Serdar here! I had a feeling I’d be able to drop you a note this way, so here I am.

    I have been tempted, on more than a few occasions, to tell someone that they were simply not “meant” to be a writer. My thinking behind this was simple: If they got angry and used that anger to transcend my words, great. If they decided I was right and went into something else that was a better use of their time, then also great.

    I don’t believe this anymore, for a couple of reasons. The single biggest is personal: I’m not that cruel, and I don’t want to be. I will tell someone “This piece of writing does not work”, and I will enumerate why, but I’m not going to go so far as to say “The person who wrote this is functionally incapable of producing anything worth reading”. It’s always possible to be proven wrong about such things. In fact, I love being proven wrong like that.

    In the time that I’ve spent being a writer — both commercially, in my day job, and as my passion (see link above) — I’ve learned that the few people who attack the way those people did generally have a couple of things going on, in roughly ascending order of likelihood.

    - They feel openly threatened by creativity.

    - They don’t like the idea that someone can do as well as them, or better, by simply planting their ass in a chair and poking some keys (as if that was all writing ever entailed).

    - They have a genuine concern for the other person — they don’t want to see them “wasting their lives” — but the way they manifest that concern comes out all wrong.

    I’ve dealt with all three. Add to the above list a fourth, which was jealousy on the part of someone else attempting to do the same, which honestly stunned me. (Did he think I was honestly going to steal the bread out of his mouth, even if we weren’t working on remotely the same kinds of things?)

    So — sum of comment: I empathize completely. And I’m insanely glad to see that you’ve gotten as far as you have.

  28. dudesy

    As someone who is only just starting to wriggle my toes in the frigid waters of Professional Writerdom, I can definitely identify with the Fear connection. I’m constantly worrying about the practicalities of the life ahead — how do I balance a day job versus my chosen profession? how will I know when the time is right to commit 100% of my time to that chosen profession? how will that career affect the realities of my married life and vise versa? how do I turn myself into a business? how do I do everything when it so often feels like I have time for nothing?

    I’ve been lucky enough to receive positive feedback on the things I’ve put out there so far, but I know that that can only last for so long… and at that point, my list of worries will grow even larger.

    And then there are fears like mortality, immediacy — seizing the moment before something (or someone) else seizes it from me. Fear of failure.

    So… yeah. Fear is there. It’s always there. Sometimes suffocating, sometimes spurring me forward. I guess it depends on how I choose to process it.

    So, maybe fear isn’t the engine. Maybe it’s the fuel.

    Either way, I really enjoyed your post, and I’m glad the negativity of others didn’t effect your journey. It gives hope to those of us just getting started.

    ~ Joey

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