Learn to Navigate If You Want to Gaze at the Stars by Mark Cantrell

Author Mark Cantrell

REMEMBER the days of innocence. That was such a carefree time, when the words poured forth untroubled by matters of craft and technique.

The learning needed was steep. The fertile mind of the new writer, however, was too star-struck by the first emergence of the creative cosmos to notice the incline rising rocky underfoot.

Too engrossed to consider where a turn might lead to a grassier path, the emergent writer follows their star oblivious to the hazards ahead.

Eventually though – provoked by a stumble, or chill gust of reality – our writer turns away from the star gazing to take quick glance around at the gutter. It’s a precious moment to contemplate the road ahead and take stock.

The bold newcomer might notice then the few scribbled notes in the margin. A few words of doubt hastily scribbled by a dawning internal critic that suggests this ‘masterpiece’ ain’t there just yet. Perhaps this wide-eyed innocent has sent an embryo out into the world before its time, and now glances frown-faced at the terse rejection.

Unusually, the stock rejection carries a few scribbled notes, a quick caveat intended to give meaning, even encouragement to the dawning scribe, but it scratches like a bad pencil sharpened to plunge deep into the heart of the matter. The writing is no good. The story is unformed. The writer is too raw – and sore.

Look past the pain and there is a chance to grow. It is, perhaps, the hardest lesson of them all – that we do not arrive fully formed. Yet in innocence, the new writer all too often assumes they arrive at the keyboard word-perfect, vision unmatched. For all this, then, it’s rather ironic that writers are notorious for self doubt. Well, we’re all a product of our contradictions.

Innocence and enthusiasm are a heady mix; as much a fire that can burn towards a brilliant ascent as a glare that blinds, but it’s in the shadows of doubt and critical reasoning that a writer is forged. Innocence must be left behind, enthusiasm tempered with patience, artistic self-assurance garnished with the muck and sweat of hard craft. Not every writer makes the transition.

Hurt, our writer retreats into scowling anger. Hell hath no fury like innocence spurned. The writer cannot comprehend the failings of a world incapable of appreciating natural brilliance.

No matter. The words must go on. The writer clenches the jaw and determines to face down the world: this bold newcomer will be recognised, will find the adulation of fans to come. And so it goes on. The writer walks, turning the gaze away from the rocky road and back towards the firmament of self-delusion.

Missing the turn, the writer continues to walk the lonely road of endless circles until, eventually, they vanish in the fog of irrelevance. A few linger maybe; irritant ghosts of lost literary lives, the stagnant stench of failure the woeful lament accusing a world of cruel indifference…

Why wouldn’t they listen? What’s wrong with them? Why can’t they see?

Why indeed? There is none so blind as those that refuse to see their failings, other than those who project them onto others. Writer, if you would be known, then know thyself.

Ah for those days of blessed indifference, when the words gushed from my fingertips, and in my innocence of the craft, I fervently believed that they arrived on the page a done deal. How easily I might have become that writer. Truly was the world of literature ready to receive me, and every rejection was a bitter blow delivered by those incapable of recognising my talent, in those foolish days when editing was but a matter of a glance to check for typos. Oh, I had so much to learn, so many hard knocks to face, so much added thickness of skin to grow, and an inner critical vision to nurture.

In truth, I do miss the ease with which the words flowed, back in those days of innocence, but I would not welcome a return to that ease if it meant also plunging back into ignorance.

Writing is always fraught with difficulties. The trouble with those days of innocence is that the writer doesn’t necessarily perceive them. Learning the craft is as much about comprehending those difficulties – embracing them even – just as we come to understand how to overcome them.

In fact, there’s a delightful paradox to writing, I find, that as we learn more of the craft, it becomes at one and the same time both harder and easier. Certainly, I don’t – can’t – write with the same casual indifference that I did in my early days, but I have found it far easier to see the cracks and deficits where the story’s true life and soul reside.

The innocent belief that the words must be good simply because I had written them down is long-since gone. The school of hard-knocks, together with a willingness to open myself up to the craft and learn, turned me into a better writer.

This is no place to recount all the lessons; all the knock backs, the how to books, the articles on the art and craft of it all, the advice and critical feedback from fellow scribes – we’d be here all year – but it has made me the writer I am today. Yes, it hurts, but you become stronger for it. In my case at least it was unlocked by one crucial lesson (plus a willingness to embrace it, even though it meant more work) and that was simply this: those first ‘completed’ manuscripts were little more than rough drafts.

In my newbie enthusiasm I sent these drafts out to small press ‘zines and literary mags, blind to their shortcomings and increasingly miffed by the rejections, even when they were sometimes accompanied by genuine advice and encouragement. There was work to be done to release the promise within these drafts, they were telling me, but back then I wasn’t ready to see it. The road beckoned me on, rocky and arduous, to literary oblivion.

So what happened? Technology certainly played a part in my case. Bashing out the words on a computer, it was too easy to make changes on the fly, finish the draft and assume the self-satisfied air of completion – premature.

The succession of pre-PC home computers and word processors I used, however, were incapable of transferring data from one machine to the next. This limitation demanded I retype my works into the new beast – essentially forcing a re-write. Inevitably changes cropped up as I thought of better ways to write the story, or new twists and turns to the plot, all of which combined to make it better.

Awareness – somewhat belatedly – dawned. No story is ever written. It is re-written, revised, edited, re-written again, proofread and polished. After that, rinse and repeat. Thanks to technology, I learned this crucial lesson and lost my critical naiveté.

Today, that deceptively simple lesson is perhaps all the more important now that we live in an age where technology permits rapid-fire self-publishing. In those days, the early to mid ‘90s, my bold blind enthusiasm meant I ‘only’ risked pissing off a few small press journal editors. I was ‘gatekeepered’ away (and justly so) from readers who might have gone on to bestow upon me a poor reputation.

As it is, though I am far from having ‘made it’, some of my work has earned its way into publication. In the process, I have gained a ‘backstory’ that demonstrates growth as a writer – and long may that process continue but I must earn it every step of the way. The reward is some satisfying regard for my stories and articles from people far removed from my circle of friends and family.

For that, I’ll happily sacrifice the ease of words I once enjoyed in those days of innocence. So, by all means, gaze up at the stars and dream, but don’t let yourself become lost in this cosmos. Learn to navigate the hard road of craft and technique – and lose the innocence, it’ll only weigh you down.

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Mark Cantrell’s book Citizen Zero is available on Amazon US, Amazon UK, Barnes and Noble, Smashwords, Breakthrough Bookstore, Kindleboards, Apple iStore, Sony, and Diesel. Citizen Zero has its own blog and Facebook page. Mark also has  a blog and a books blog. Check out Mark’s author profiles on: FacebookLinkedin, and  Goodreads. You can also follow him on Twitter.


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