I am Salieri

Yesterday I achieved the necessary emotional focus to recharge my Nook, wherein I discovered that the March Asimov’s had arrived.  I was hoping to see at last, in print, the poem they bought from me last year.  It isn’t there, so I’ll have to wait.  I guess the lead time on such things is longer than I had anticipated.

What I did find was another great novella by Kristine Kathryn Rusch.  I didn’t really like the ending–it felt more like a novel fragment than a complete story to me–but I really liked the way she detailed every character’s motivation.  They felt real to me, and I think I’ve learned something about writing from it. I also learned something about myself.Mozart

I am Antonio Salieri.

Not the real, talented 18th-century composer, who wrote many fine operas, held the respect of the Hapsburg crown, and taught music to such greats as Schubert, Beethoven, and Liszt.  I refer instead to the character from Peter Schaffer’s Amadeus, who, though talented in his own right, was crushed by the greater brilliance of the young Amadeus Mozart[1].  The film may not be historically accurate, but it’s a poignant piece of tragedy.

If I’m honest with myself, comparing myself even to the fictional Salieri is hubris at its finest.  As a writer, I’m not good enough to appear in a literary competition with the Mozarts of my day.  Still, I do have some talent, and when I stay focused, I can produce work that gets published at the semi-pro level.

It’s not a living–it doesn’t even cover my costs–but it somewhat salves my damaged pride.

Fifteen-plus years ago, I remember reading a late-90’s copy of Asimov’s, learning about the SFWA, and thinking, “I can do this.”  Maybe the writing in Asimov’s has improved, or maybe I’ve learned what it really takes to write a decent SF story since then, but I don’t think it’s so easy any more.  I have tried, and failed, and I have a decade of rejection slips from professional-grade publications to prove it.

I have dreamed that someday I could sell a short story to Asimov’s, or Analog, or IGMS, or F&SF.  Perhaps I might someday hold in my hands a novel from Tor with my name on the byline.  I still hold that dream, because Rusch has given us the secret to success as a writer:

Work hard, write a lot, and don’t quit.

But when my energy isn’t so high, when a story I love leaves prospective editors confused, when I wonder if I’ll ever get published again, I see the price I pay to write, and I wonder if it’s worth it.

Because there is a cost.

When I pick up a book these days, my writerly brain hovers in the background, critiquing it.  I can’t just enjoy a good book any more.  I can’t even enjoy a movie with my family without questioning its plot, its characters, its theme.

If I find a flaw, it spoils my enjoyment, and robs me of the joy I might have had celebrating a work for what it is.  And if I don’t, I’m left like Salieri, watching Mozart do casually what I can only do with great effort.  I want those writers to succeed, because their stories really are better than mine.  But at the same time, it’s no fun to fall short.

It’s what make Amadeus a tragedy, and Salieri its lead character.

[1] It is a sobering thought to realize that when Mozart was my age he had been dead for thirteen years.

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