Exquisite Persistence Terry Persun
Welcome to Creative Conversations, discussions on the creative process. This month I’m talking with award-winning author, Terry Persun. Terry writes Science Fiction, Fantasy, Paranormal, Mystery, and Mainstream/Historical. He’s also well known as a writer who gives back to the writing community. A board member and Editor/Agent liaison at PNWA since 2004, he teaches writing at conferences and MFA programs. As Terry says, “Writing is my career and my love.”
Janet: I met Terry years ago at PNWA and have always enjoyed our conversations. It’s great to have you here today, Terry.
Terry: It’s great to be invited. Thank you.
Janet: When I asked what you’d like to talk about, you said persistence. Can you tell us more?
Terry: It’s that thing that plagues me sometimes. I’ve had a varied career in writing and during those down times, I wonder why I’m doing it at all. There I times I’ve actually stopped, but I always go back to it.
Janet: I’ve been there. I think most of us have. A very synchronistic thing just happened before I jumped into this conversation. Saw this Debbie Ridpath Ohi @inkyelbows post on twitter.
“Writers/illustrators: You only fail if you quit. Take a break if you need to, but DON’T GIVE UP.”
It takes courage, and a certain amount of crazy drive to work for months or years on books, particularly when we are not sure if they will be published.
Terry: I have a number of books that have never been published (I’ve considered indie publishing, but haven’t decided which ones, if any.) I think, for me, the decision is made based on what I love to do versus what I think will make money (or is it my need for approval?). Whenever I go back to what I love, the drive is there. And I love all the parts: writing, rewriting, playing around and experimenting—then, for some reason, I also want that approval from outside myself.
Janet: I equate “approval” with “being heard.” If I wrote novels for myself alone, I wouldn’t bother revising them. I’d just write the story, then move on to the next one. I’ve been reading Brene’ Brown’s Braving the Wilderness. This quote jumped out at me this week: “The transformative power of art is in the sharing.”
Terry: Being heard is a good way to put it. But for me, it’s also about being creative in a way that may not fit into what is normal. Not everyone wants to hear what I have to say. And I like to experiment and play with words, sentences, formats. With poetry, I can do that all day and it hardly matters. There are literally thousands of poetry magazines to get published in and even if a poem isn’t published, that’s okay with me. There are fewer poetry readers and there is typically no money in it anyway. There’s a certain freedom that comes with that. I can write anything.
With novels, for some reason, I think I need to sell a lot of copies or get on a best sellers list or something like that before I can say that I’m a real writer. Don’t get me wrong. This isn’t always how I feel. A lot of the time, I don’t think so deeply about it. I just write. But, there are those moments when I feel as though…well, I’m not heard and would like to be. I have been reading The Reluctant Artist: Navigating and Sustaining a Creative Path
In the book, Karen Kinney she says, “It is all too easy to lose our art in search of our career.”
Janet: Great quote. And the career doldrums you mention aligns with something I’ve gone through –disappointment in how my “big dream” had panned out. I realized I needed to reframe my original writing dream of fame and best sellers and all of that if I was to go on writing. I needed to bury the old dream and plant the seed of a new one. It took a long time to do that, but something is growing from the soil now. New stories. A new kind of daring.
I had to play with the idea of quitting to remember the love I had for writing. Hope I’m making sense.
Terry: Very much. It’s similar to what I have come to. I’m going to write no matter what. It’s what I love to do. So, allowing myself to experiment and enjoy it, is the key. There is that shadow self who wants to adjust things to get noticed (fame and fortune), but that person doesn’t run the ship. Another thing from Karen’s book. “True creativity means less than perfect craft sometimes… It means exploration… It means trying new things that may or may not succeed.” She says, “The foundation of a creative life is self-expression.” I find that when I let go I like my work better.
Janet: When I let go, I find the story tells itself through me. I’m shaping it, but the flow, the story has its own drive. Surprises come. Sometimes I’m nearly knocked out of my chair by them.
In Stealing Death, for example. I created a character “The Sanu Witch” who made strange potions and caught birds mid-flight just reaching her hand out of the window. An enigmatic and rather frightening character Kipp goes to for help. She became a second character in the book, a Daughter of Time. I didn’t expect it would be the same person until she walked onto the page and I recognized her.
Terry: I love that. It happens to me, too. I can literally feel the novel coming through me. It’s deeper and more passionate than the best meditation I’ve ever had. And that’s it, isn’t it? This may not be about persistence as much as it is just letting things go and doing what you love with a sort of total abandonment from expectations. I have a novel, like yours, where I was surprised by what was going on throughout the novel.
“Hear No Evil” is science fiction and things continued to twist and turn while I was writing it. I still think it’s one of my better novels. Not that I love any of the others any less.
Back to persistence: there is the sense of commitment to me, the sense of desire, the sense of “this is why I’m here,” that keeps me writing. Persistence almost sounds as though nothing is working, but I keep going. I think it’s just the lack of what you said earlier…that big dream, that gets me looking at what I do. Your suggestion of ‘aligning with a new dream’ makes a lot of sense.
Janet: I completely relate to the feeling of “This is why I’m here.”
I also think I needed that big dream early in my life in the years when I was writing novels and getting nothing but rejection. I needed to believe I could do it as I sweated bullets over those pages, as I kept going without any guarantee of ever getting those books out there. The media also sells that big dream of writing success with splashy articles and endless advice about how to write best sellers. But here’s the deal. I’m glad I believed all of that early on or I wouldn’t have kept going all those years. So, I can thank that big dream for doing what it was meant to do, and let it go because now I’ve got nine novels out there, won an award, and got a few smashing reviews from the high uppity-ups. Now, I can just write hoping the book I’m working on will find an audience.
Terry: My story is a little different in that I started publishing rather young. Mostly poetry and short stories, but it was fairly regular. Plus, I write a lot of articles that get published regularly. So, when I started writing novels, I thought it would easy to get published–it wasn’t, of course. When I did find publishers, they were small independents and most of them have folded over the years. I get my rights back and self-publish them but would still like to break into a larger publisher. That may not happen for me, but as long as I enjoy what I’m doing, I think I’ll be in good shape. I think about mega-stars like Michael Jackson who had a huge hit album and then every album after that one performed at a lower level. That doesn’t mean that his other works weren’t great or that they didn’t have a huge audience, but they never reached the numbers that one album did.
In that way, I sometimes wonder if my older novels — my two best sellers are “Sweet Song” (historical fiction) and “Cathedral of Dreams” (science fiction) – will remain my top sellers.
I’m okay with continuing to write anyway. Does this make sense or am I going in circles?
Janet: It’s the circle I go around in. Well-worn grooves. The inner critic loves to pull the “your best work is behind you!” banner and wave it in my face. It’s one of her favorite shaming techniques. The more I talk with fellow authors, the more I’m coming to see that we are a brave bunch. We all find a way to keep going through rejection, changing editors, when our publishing houses go under, when our books go out of print . . . It happens to those of us who stay in the business long enough (myself included). I’m honored to be affiliated with this brave group. My hat is off to you, Terry for your exquisite persistence.
Terry: To all of us. Maybe that’s where persistence becomes a reality. It’s starting to feel like a force that comes in when we need it. When we’re tired, our guard is down, we’re feeling depressed about the work or our presence in the world. Exquisite Persistence comes to the rescue. I know a lot of authors, like you do, who have these same concerns no matter how many times they’ve been on the bestsellers lists. We’re not alone.
Janet: I agree. It’s good to talk it out with other creatives. Then we can get down to the business of creating, knowing we all have the same fears and phobias and that’s normal.
Terry: The next story or book or poem or painting or song or whatever is waiting for you. I try to remind myself of this all the time. You’re right about having conversations with other creatives, it’s a huge reminder that we’re not alone. We can still dream, hope, wish, and all that, but when it comes right down to it there is the work itself. Like they say, control what you can and let the rest go. We can control our own creative output to a certain extent. We can’t control how the rest of the world will react to it. When it comes to writing, the reading public is fickle. If the big publishers and agents don’t know what book will sell millions next, then we can’t bother ourselves with trying to write it. We just need to write what we’ve come here to write and take heart.
Janet: It feels dangerous to honor our works in progress regardless of “the market.” It also feels empowering an authentic.
Terry: I have a few books that I’ve written about a shaman detective that came from my need to “stop doing what I thought the market wanted and start writing what I enjoyed.”
Janet: Cool. Tell us about it.
Terry: I’ve studied conscious dreaming, meditation, drum journeys, Native American shamanism, etc. for a long time and really enjoy delving into those subjects. At one time, after writing several other books and feeling as though my career wasn’t going anywhere, I woke up one morning and started writing about this shaman detective so that I could use some of the things I’d studied over the years. It was such a fun project and I go back to this character over and over again. Whenever I’m with him, it feels right, it feels fun, and it reminds me why I write in the first place. I have never prescribed to the idea that you have to write what you know but, in this case, it helped to make it fun. I suppose when all else fails, have fun.
Janet: Wise words like these empower me to write.
Terry: Me too. I think this is a subject we could talk about for a long time and it will always come back to “just write” or some variation of that. It’s been a pleasure talking with you.
Janet: Same here. Thanks for the in-depth conversation, Terry.