On Being a Don Quixote

Most people that write are compelled to create. It doesn’t mean they’re the next Hemingway, or that you should care. It’s just they can. They’ve figured out a process. The words spin around their heads, an idea they want to explore, an arc or way of approach. They have a vision and a process and create. Of course, this compulsion to create could be simply associated with a common positive side effect of mood disorders, hypomania. I could site a study of the percentage of mood disorders present in the students of the prestigious Iowa Writer’s Workshop, but most likely, you, the person reading this, likes to write, and can relate to the idea. You were 16. You had started to become depressed and anxious. Words just spun in your head. You couldn’t turn them off. You wrote poems with your thoughts and then wrote them down. Seemed similar to drawing as a child, or playing with toys. Your mind felt connected to something, and you felt like you had a purpose. This was your joy. Aren’t we supposed to follow this joy? I’d say yes. Double and triple yes. But don’t expect anyone to care.

Graduate college. Maybe get your MFA. Have some sort of qualifying factor to yourself because other people simply don’t have time for the mediocre. And if you are unknown, they’ll assume you’re mediocre. I read a quote by Neil Gaiman on tumblr about writing a novel, and I have it paraphrased in my head: have a story and write about 80,000 words. I dropped out of college and wrote a novel. 208,000 words in a year; I can shit words. I’ve unshit these words 10 complete times, and now have a draft that’s about 50,000 words. Following dropping out of college, I started working at Kinko’s fulltime and moved out of the suburbs. I lived in a studio apartment, didn’t have much money, and wrote another novel. Seemed romantic. Seemed like something I could do. But it seems like something many people could do. In fact, it seems so common that the first modern novel’s title character, Don Quixote, I relate with the most. But all unknown artists are Don Quixote’s holding on to a delusion that all the work they’ve put forth will someday be validated when the art they’ve created would be accepted and deemed worthy. That their vision is not only aesthetically magnificent, but also captures the human condition in a new and highly relatable way. Perhaps it helps to think that great men like F. Scott Fitzgerald, Herman Melville and Columbus (I know, not a writer) all died considering themselves failures. Perhaps the ego and the art that is created are always separate. That liking, or not liking, what they created isn’t related to their own self-worth. But when you submit, you submit yourself to examination. No, damn it, you submit your work. I have to keep telling myself that.

I work in an office. I make copies and scan documents. My job is so easy that my boss doesn’t care how much I look at the internet. I push buttons like George Jetson. I’m delusional like Don Quixote. One day I went into the small room before the service elevator and cried. I had just finished editing 2 novels, a novella and a short story collection, and typical to a writer with a mood disorder, I crashed from my creative high and felt delusional. I realized I’d probably never sell them. I had spent years of my life creating things, which if I were lucky, would be published, but would never provide financially for myself, or my possible family. I was 32. I had a girlfriend I lived with, and could see marrying and having children with. And here I was the delusional person who spent a decade writing a collection of books, hadn’t graduated college, and made less than 30,000 a year. Never writing a word, majoring in business, and being able to afford a car payment and a family, clearly was the realistic choice I should have made. But I enjoyed writing these books. When I was writing and editing, my mind found that joy. I felt connected to the world. I really never expected to make money, but never really thought a decade would go by so swiftly. That life wouldn’t wait till I was ready to be a responsible middleclass family man.

I’ve only submitted my novella once, last year. I received a form letter back. I’m going to send in my first novel next month to 4 places. I write unsolicited articles for websites hoping just to be read. I’m not entitled to be read, or to be published. If my first paragraph or page doesn’t grab the gate keeper than the rest of the article doesn’t get read. If it is good enough to be read through, but the grammar is off, or the tone/subject doesn’t fit the website/journal, then it will be passed upon, and I’ll never know why. Some places will send a form response, thanks for submitting. This makes me feel like I exist. That my submission was acknowledged by the universe. But most submissions will just fall into a void; a file downloaded and read, part of at least, and passed upon. The great idea I spent hours writing and typing, editing, playing with, that my fiancé said was great, takes it place among the rejected works of other delusional Don Quixote’s like myself, hoping one day just for their art to be read, the catharsis and insight to be passed on. To feel like they aren’t delusional and living in a vacuum.

But there is strength in being a Don Quixote. Your noble journey full of hardship will be met in Book 2 by a King and his court who, having read Book 1, will know about your delusion and not treat you as a ‘country gentlemen’ but as a Knight Errant. You can ignore the fact that they’re just laughing at you, and that your Sancho will never have his island. Chasing windmills, being beaten by sheep herders, and losing all of your teeth will only be the funny pain you must endure. For when your delusion dies, like Don Quixote’s, you will die also. The only payment your joy will bring is in your heart. In the flush of your cheeks. In the transcendence you experience when you feel connected to something more. As transient as that transcendence is, it is the inertia that pushes our fingers to keyboards and steers our pens. It maybe the closest to Cervantes or James Joyce you’ll ever feel. Even if it is only epic in your own mind.

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About Brian McElmurry

I live in Denver with my wife and dogs. I'm the author of the novella Rocket Man and have written a few unpublished novels (that are awesome, if you are a publisher/agent). http://thoughtcatalog.com/brian-mcelmurry/ My novella Rocket Man is available here: http://www.amazon.com/Rocket-Man-Brian-McElmurry-ebook/dp/B00DLCWO44
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4 Responses to On Being a Don Quixote

  1. David says:

    There is some strength to being a Don Quixote indeed. And this you have proven with this piece, among others, which is so personal and so honest that it cannot but be moving. Life seems to happen along the way to the goals we set for ourselves. And this is the case whether the goals ever come to realization, or whether they remain windmills mistaken for giants. But, in the end, there may be redemption in the fact that one does not ride along this way alone. And, just as Sancho came to love his master, and just as his master came to love him (this is my reading of their remarkable friendship, at least), so do we come to love those who we ride with–at work and at home, in coffee shops and over the internet. And in this something more meaningful than material success or market-recognition lies.

    • Brian McElmurry says:

      I’d say a laugh with a friend along the road to the windmill is a very fine payment, possibly greater than an island. Also an island would take millions of dollar of infrastructure to make it livable. Johnny Depp, who actually was to star in a doomed-Don Quixote movie-turned Terry Gilliam documentary, actually owns an island. Not sure my point on this, other than Johnny Depp is pretty cool. … oh yes, also, your role Dave, in the Don Quoxite analogy, would be the young bachelor of arts that tries to track down Don Quixote and plays the role of the fake “bad knight” but is really looking out for Don Quixote. Good looking out.

  2. seth says:

    This is good. But are we (you) as delusional as don? I think it would be great to be as ignorant as this to not know. But the anguish comes at knowing it will likely cometo nothing.

    • Brian McElmurry says:

      Interesting how Sancho is the symbol of ignorance and Don Quoxite is the symbol of delusion, and together they work so well together.

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