July 7th, I turn 37 years old. This means that I've been writing for 30 years and been a published writer for 20 years. My first sale was to a magazine called Ouroboros way back in 1985, with my first "professional" sale to Amazing Stories--a long poem called "Four Theories of Earth Moon-System Formation"--way back in my first or second year of college, followed by fiction sales to Asimov's and others, before I started writing book-length work.
I started out in the mid-80s in the literary mainstream, writing poetry and founding a mainstream indie press, and then did a 180 into the surreal and fantastical.
My point of entry was the horror field, to begin with. (Most of what I was writing at the time had some real-world setting into which a horrific or fantastical element entered.) The horror field has always been somewhat reactionary, but I loved horror at the time--books like S.P. Somtow's Vampire Junction or Patrick Suskind's Perfume--and I enjoyed being a small part of that scene.
It wasn't until I started writing Ambergris stories that I became more aware of the SF/F scene. Although some large publications took stories that could be considered, in the fractured parlance of the day, Slipstream, in the main cross-genre and baroque urban fantasy that incorporated both genre and mainstream influences was at the fringes of the field. I spent a lot of years garnering rejections, many of them warranted as I learned my craft, and others the result of a conservative bent to the mags.
Today, things have changed to an extent, especially inasmuch as there are so many writers who, without thinking about it, mix and match influences to create new mutations and variations. It's a wonderful time to be writing, because I feel such a sense of camaraderie and recognition in reading the work of others.
I do wonder where I would be if I hadn't started writing longer work. For me personally, I rather think that I'd still be at the absolute fringes of genre. Whereas the novels and novellas have garnered major attention in book form, I still find it hard to place novellas and short stories at the genre's heart, in the digest magazines and major anthologies. (Part of this might be that many of the major anthologies these days are closed anthologies.) Luckily for me, I don't need those markets to find readers so long as I have books coming out from major publishers.
But it does make me wonder why editors at major publishing houses (thank you Peter Lavery, Juliet Ulman, Jim Minz, Liz Gorinsky, Hannes Riffel, Sebastien Guillot, Martin Sust, and anyone I've forgotten) would take a chance on my surreal fiction but many magazine editors, who have much less at risk on any individual story, wouldn't. (That said, there would be so many people to thank over the years for being supportive, from Stephen Jones to Ann Kennedy, Michael Moorcock to Jay Lake/Deborah Layne, and tons more, all of whom will no doubt be offended I didn't name check them here... :) ) I'm not basing this on anything particularly non-scientific--I'm basing it on the critical and awards recognition for stories and novellas that I couldn't place with the magazines, which then appeared in book form first or in small press mags first.
Everybody's different career-wise and nothing's a given and no one owes you anything. So I mention these things not from any sense of sour grapes, but just as a fact of my writing life. In a way, I mention it out of gratitude. The best thing for me as a writer has been to have a sense of opposition or indifference to my work during certain periods of my career. It makes you tough and makes you not worry about what markets want, and it makes you really think about why it is that you write. Do you write because you want to be famous? Do you write because you want money? Or do you write because you're in some way driven to write and because you really enjoy the physical act of putting words on paper?
As I look back over two decades of being in the game--sometimes at the fringes, sometimes more toward the center--I get a real sense of perspective and a kind of calm appreciation for life in general. You cannot be anything other than an absurdist to endure and appreciate the ups and downs, the highs and lows, of entering as subjective and unpredictable an endeavor as writing.
I'm riding high right now, but I know it could all be gone in the career equivalent of an instant, and I'm cool with that. At the end of everything, it's just you with a pad of paper and a pen, and all the rest of it is, over time, rendered startlingly irrelevant.
(Evil Monkey: "If you're feeling at all down about being 37, maybe this will help: There's a good chance in 37 more years, you'll be dead." Jeff: "Thanks, but I'm not depressed about turning 37." Evil Monkey: "Oh. Well, maybe this will depress you: You share your birthday with Ringo Starr." Jeff: "Okay, now I'm depressed." Evil Monkey: "Thought that might do it." Jeff: "Not for long, though--Ann's taking me to Chamblin's Book Mine next weekend. It's now, with a new annex, bigger than the Strand. Gonna trade back about 500 books and pick up some cool new stuff." Evil Monkey: "Do they have books on monkeys?" Jeff: "Everything except monkeys, dude.")