Thursday, November 15, 2012

The Arc of a Writer's Life

The arc of a writer’s life.
Paul Clayton

Thanks to author Paul Clayton for this most interesting guest post. Clayton is the author of White Seed: The Untold Story of the Lost Colony of Roanoke You can find my review of this book here

The end is near! Sorry, this post is going to be a bit of a lament. But I will try to leaven it with some humor so you can enjoy it. Back when people read newspapers, a bearded, sandal-wearing ‘John the Baptist’-type character carrying a sign reading, The End is Near, was a staple in the comics section. So there is certainly a precedent for this kind of piece. This piece isn’t about the end of the world, like when the Mayan Calendar times out this December 21st, the day before I’m scheduled to retire from my job. No, this piece is about the end of an era (and the birth of a new one). So hang in there. I promise you won’t be searching for the hemlock or an asp. As a former mid-list writer who’s been pounding the keys for over forty years, I have some perspective on the writing scene, and I see the end coming. Not the end of my life as a writer, and not the end of books or publishing, novels, memoirs, etc., but the end of something else, the end of the romantic notion of ‘the writer’s life,’ and, more personally, the end of a dream. Let me say before I go any further, that there are a lot of new writers that will laugh at my quaint notion of what a writer’s life is or was, but this is my piece and so I will say it.

I will put this ‘end of a writer’s life’ in the same trunk with other dreams I’ve had which I now know will never come true, or at least not in the form I originally envisioned them. And to put what I just stated in perspective, these are minor, fanciful dreams, not really important ones, like: I want to be a scientist and cure cancer, or I want to be a benevolent dictator and force everybody to love everybody else, or else. For example, I’ve always wanted to drive a Cadillac. When I was a boy, rich successful men, usually in their later years, drove Cadillacs, not Chevys or Fords, Mercurys, AMCs, Pontiacs, Studebakers, Oldsmobiles, Packards, Hupmobiles, DeSotos or Nashes, but Cadillacs. But now I’ve come to accept that when I retire in two or three years, they probably won’t even make them anymore. Or if they do, they’ll probably all be little boxes made in China, in which case I will refuse to buy one (I’m an American and I buy American made if I can, ensuring the money stays in America. Another quaint idea; I know, but forgive me.) Now, and understandably more so in five years, wealthy successful men (and women) drive Mercedes or Lexus exclusively. So given my bias against foreign cars, which is probably some kind of hate crime now, I won’t do that.

So anyway, getting back to that other dream, I fell in love with writing and writers when they seemed as rare as Gods, not as common as commuters on the interstate at 7:30 AM. Sure, there were certainly a lot more writers working during the fifties and sixties than I knew about, but this was before the internet and we only heard about the big ones, the superstars, and they’re the ones I set my sights on. And the others, the obscure but serious ones… well they probably numbered in the hundreds, not the hundreds of thousands like now

Anyway, before my brother and sister writers come after me (I can hear them sharpening their no. 2 pencils), I admit that by virtue of my own drawing of breath and my arrogant habit of putting my thoughts and deeds, and my imagined thoughts and deeds. down on paper to be displayed in front of the eyes of strangers -- that I am a part, although a long, somewhat established part, of this growing demographic which I will describe in a moment. I’m not denying that. But as I said earlier, this is a lament, and just because everyone on the planet with the possible exception of Elijah and Enoch, dies, does not mean we should stop mourning death. It’s simply a human need, as is what I’m attempting to do here.

Back when I was a reader and not a reader and a writer, which I am now, I had an almost-holy reverence for writers and books. Books were magical and writers were magicians or maybe even gods. They would occasionally come down from the mountain like Moses with their work cradled in their arms, and readers and their spokesmen and women would assemble before them, ready to receive their wisdom and words. There would follow earnest, respectful interviews by serious commentators. Lines of nicely attired, polite patrons formed at the bookstores for readings and signings. There were reviews, maybe even an interview on TV. But it wasn’t all just quiet, but possibly boring, intelligent banter either. There was drama, akin to the life and death battles of whales and giant squid. I remember Mailer and Vidal (no, not the hair guy) on the Dick Cavett show insulting each other, and Mailer’s New York Times takedown of Mitchiko Kukutani over her nasty, dismissive review of his latest book.

Nowadays us writers are as prevalent as the weeds on the lawns of oversold housing developments in default, and, to read some of the snarky and/or vicious reviews on Amazon and other books sites, just as welcome. Perhaps we deserve some of this scorn for having become annoying -- for now, not only do we beg you to read our work, but we’ll give it to you for free. What’s that you say? Everybody else is already doing that? Well, then, we’ll wash your car while you read our stuff, mind your kids or rub your back while making you a cup of tea – all for a read and maybe a review.

For some writers, this strategy has led to best sellerdom and money pouring in so fast they could hardly sign the checks fast enough. But for many it does not. For some of us writers our neediness has gotten us paid back with the dented and scarred coin of vile vituperation. And I think we’ve earned some of this disrespect with our constant neediness. Oh, I can see some readers with their fingers twitching to get to a keyboard. “Yeah,” they’ll type, “but what about the lack of editing, all the typos, the cheesy homemade covers, the faked, gushing 5-star ‘sock puppet’ reviews and all the other excesses of self-publishing?” Well, they got me on only one count there. I went out with what I thought was a ready-for-prime-time work, over four hundred and fifty pages, a finalists in several writing contests, a review from Publishers Weekly, professionally edited on my own dime. The book received some good critical, but complementary reviews, but also several suspicious ones, tearing the work torn to shreds and tossing it to the winds for ‘bad writing,’ and ‘being offensive,’ whatever that means.

My youthful dreams of being a writer who is respected, with thoughtful, critical, but fair, reviews, perhaps a review in a big city daily… that’s dried up long ago and blown away. Now all I long for is a growing on-line readership of thoughtful, serious people who want more than to be merely entertained, who want more stories from me. And Santa, are you listening), maybe a few critical, but respectful reviews by serious readers wanting to discuss the human condition. But like a swimmer caught in a rip tide, I keep getting pulled back further and further from that shore. And, buried in the sand on that shore, my book is but one grain, becoming more anonymous as time drifts by and I’m pushed backward.

What do you mean by this ‘grains of sand’ stuff? you say. Well, an ebook might start out in the lists (let’s take Amazon, for instance) as, say, number 55,007 in a pool of 1,235,083 books. The next day Amazon purchases the existing stock of an ancient, respectable bankrupt NYC publishing house, digitizes it and drops 285,431 ‘unit’s of it into the pool. Now your book’s slot at 55,007 has been pushed back to 129,392 and becomes much harder to find. Then there are the literal millions of new writers uploading their works every day. According to the New York Times, 80% of people believe that they could write a book. 80% of the population of the U.S. is approximately 310 million people. If just ten percent of them eventually get around to it, you’re looking at another 25 million more competitor’s books. As you can see, it’s getting easier and easier to get lost in the crowd. The numbers swell and your wonderful, unique tale, the one your Aunt Mary said was bestseller material, and your girlfriend said was aw… (no, before you broke up)… awesome... becomes just a tiny, tiny molecule in a vast, anonymous sea.

The process has already been brilliantly described by some old, un-named Irish bard in a story about a wood chopper who catches a leprechaun in the forest. Back then there was an accepted code of conduct for Irish wood choppers and leprechauns. When a wood chopper caught a leprechaun, he was required to grant one wish. Every Irishman worth his whiskey knew that you didn’t just set the little fellow free. And so he asked the leprechaun to show him where his pot of gold was buried. The wood chopper then dug it up only to discover that it was too heavy for him to carry home. The code dictated that once a leprechaun gave you something, he couldn’t take it back. So the wood chopper buried the chest under the tree where he had found it, knowing that the gold would be there when he returned the next day with his donkey and cart. He took the yellow ribbon he wore around his collar and tied it round the trunk of the tree. Then he went home.

The next morning when he returned to the magical forest he fell to his knees and cried out in astonishment and grief. Neatly tied around ever tree trunk in the forest was a yellow ribbon. Such is the state of affairs of the book market today.

As discouraging as this scenario is, there are ways to get your book noticed, but they are expensive (spending $500/month on ads for a book that’s only earning about $200 to $300/month) and/or time-consuming -- contracting with New York ad agencies tied to the dying book biz, ceaseless networking via the internet, glad-handing on the book blogs and Amazon and other book sellers’ web pages. But this takes a writer away from the very thing that he or she supposedly loves to do, namely writing. I, personally, am loathe to use the precious moments I have left on this earth selling books like a door to door vacuum cleaner salesman (actually, they probably make more money than most Indie writers).

My strategy to succeed — and the way I define success — is to write serious books

about the world I live in and how to make one’s way there. I’ve seen advice from some folks in the Indie book writing community to ‘bang ‘em out,’ publishing them as fast as possible, perhaps do a series, or go for the best selling genres, YA, with vampires, of course. But I can’t bring myself to do that. I still retain a reverence for the process of writing, the slow meditative formation of a story, like a fetus slowly developing in the womb — spine and brain stem first (outline), then limbs, flesh, features, hair, slowly but surely spending all the time it takes to make my stories hit and stick in the craw. I want them to lodge in someone’s brain and soul for a long, long time, a pebble in the shoe, a belly laugh at an inappropriate time, a sense of deep, unachievable longing.

So how do I get there? Well, I occasionally take a break from my book writing to write posts like this. Hopefully this will reach a few friendly readers — my message in a bottle. (Thank you, Flo, for giving me this opportunity.) And I also restarted my blog, A Beautiful Spleen, to showcase my writing.

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