I finally discovered how to prevent myself from writing in a vacuum. The secret is more simple than I'd ever imagined. As soon as I finish a story, or an anything, just the very first moment that I read it back and think, "Yes, I'm OK with this," I have to mail it out and hope someone will publish it/produce it/make love to it. I cannot even allow time for the ink to dry because that small window is exactly enough time for self-doubt to creep in. It's an interesting process, and here's how it works.
[Time represents actual time elapsed since my first reading.]
3 minutes: "This is the best thing I've written in a very long time. And, once again, its tone and content are totally incongruous with the book I've been trying, and failing, to write. No worries. I will write this off as distraction with a very happy ending."
2 hours: "I need to find that list of publications I've been meaning to submit stories to. It was aggregated by someone – a friend? and ex-girlfriend? – who clearly believes in me more than I believe in myself. I swear it was in an email somewhere. Please don't tell me I deleted it."
3 hours: "Fuck it. I'm sending this to 'This American Life.' Perfect. Now where's my microcassette recorder?"
3 hours, 7 minutes: "I swear I had a microcassette recorder. I have a clear mental picture of it sitting in this drawer, right beneath those illegal firecrackers I bought on the Indian reservation. Oh well...I can still send it out to magazines."
24 hours: "OK. Before I send this out, I should read through it one more time, just to make sure it's as perfect as I remembered."
24 hours, 15 minutes: "I have made a terrible mistake. I am about to embarrass myself. This needs to be edited, heavily."
One week: "Seriously, I should edit that piece. Right after I finish this boss level. Focus, Todd: strafe, strafe, missile. Strafe, strafe missile."
12 days: "Cool. Now this story is nearly twice its original length. Looks more ambitious. Fuck Hemingway."
13 days: "Holy shit, how did this story become so bloated? It's like a canvas that's six inches thick with paint. I have ruined my perfect story!!"
6 months: "Hmmm...There's a new literary magazine. Maybe that old story I wrote a few months ago would make sense for submission."
6 months, 1 hour: "DID A RETARDED EIGHT YEAR-OLD SNEAK INTO MY APARTMENT, BOOT UP MY LAPTOP, AND WRITE THE WORLD'S SHITTIEST STORY????? How could I have possibly thought this was appropriate for publication? And what kind of title is, 'The Things We Said, and the River That Passed Through?' I might as well have named it 'The Whole Ten Yards.' I am a phony. If I send this turd out, everyone will know I'm a phony. THIS MUST NEVER BE SEEN BY ANOTHER SOUL."
14 months: "Crap. I've got a reading tomorrow night. Time to dust off 'The Things We Said, and the River That Passed Through.' They asked me to read something funny so I'll just change the title to, 'All Wet.' Perfect."
If I can just figure out a way to preserve that "3 minute" feeling long enough to stuff a few envelopes, I may actually legitimize myself as a writer. That is, of course, until everyone discovers what a tremendous phony I am.