I’d like to write about writing today. Actually, I’d rather not, but I must expiate me pain. I’ve been writing now for, oh, since about 7th grade when I wrote a parody on an old Mennen Skin Bracer commercial, with a disembodied hand that slowly crawled up a poor dude’s face and then slapped him and said: Thanks! I needed that. The whole class whooped and roared at that one. Don’t get it? That’s because you’re not fifty-something fucking years old. My second effort, about a pregnant car, was both bad and met with opprobrium from Ms. Howell, who lambasted me for my dirty mind, for some reason. Must admit, I felt ashamed. My mother the car? I should’ve quit right then.
Shame. That’s the tough part about this writing thing. I’ve spent the better part of me life (yes, the ‘me’ is intentional. I’ve decided to be Cockneyfied today) sitting alone in coffee shops the nation over glancing at pretty women between chews of bits and bytes of narrative on a flat screen.Then I’d quit. Then I’d go back to it. I must admit, the pattern was akin to that of a compulsive gambler’s
This on again, off again affair continued despite earnings. An alarming flash of intuition years ago came out of nowhere as I tried to fall asleep, me cats warming on me delicates. An inner insistence shrieked at me to discontinue writing, warning me that I’d waste my life doing it. And so I have.
People read your book, and no one tells you it’s any good. You look at your Amazon sales rank and your 2,999,999 out of 3,000.000. Not even your own mother likes your work. Your royalties come to 33 cents for the month, and when you tell your best friends about that, they laugh. At you, not with you. Because you ain’t laughing.
Most people will tell you that positive feedback, acclaim, money, they have nothing to do with why you do it. If you enjoy the process, they say, then just do it. And you do enjoy the process. That’s why you’ve been writing everything from novels and short stories to inspirational tomes for almost 30 years.
But writing isn’t like painting on a canvass or writing a song. To look at your still life or listen to you on guitar, the time investment is minimal. If you write a novel, you commit to a project that takes months, sometimes years. People aren’t really interested in committing hours of their time to see whether your book interests them. Reading’s down, number of titles published is way up. Your car wash attendant has his own mss. Fiction in particular, most of what I write, is less read and more competitive than ever. Even if you didn’t waste your time self-publishing, a book deal with a traditional publisher today requires you to market. And that’s a skill I don’t possess. I still haven’t figured out Facebook.
You can’t hire a publicist to do it for you. They’re just not all that into your book either. It’s like parenting. You can’t hire someone who’ll be as invested in raising your kids as you are. Scams abound. And at the bottom of all your self-doubt and questions is this beauty: What if my book sucks? I mean, what if I’m just not good enough?
So, most of your work ends up on a thumb drive, or on a closet shelf somewhere. Every once in a while, after you’ve shoved enough of it into boxes, and seen the remainder of your story set-ups used, purely by coincidence, on network television, you get damned determined enough to shake the dust off the pages and self-publish, only to sell far, far less than the 250 copies which the average self-published book sells in its first year. So you come back to the beginning. You begin (again) to write just because you like to, just because you love to, just because you have to. If you don’t understand that last mandate, you must not be a writer.
The people who tell you to write just because you love it, because you’re in love with the process, none of them are writers either. They don’t get that your characters are your children, because you never had any kids of your own. They don’t understand that when agents and publishers and readers reject your work, it’s as if they’d told you that your children are worthless. You feel kind of ashamed to let them see the light of day, reflected in a human eye. So you put your characters up on that shelf again, where they gather dust. And one day it dawns on you that that voice which warned you years ago that you’d waste your life writing was dead on. Your intuition never lies to you. You may repress it, act opposite its guidance, or listen to a voice inside that masquerades as your intuition. But your gut is never wrong.
The sense of emptiness you feel, of unfulfillment, of a wasted existence, becomes so profound, that eventually you seek validation once again. You publish. But validation never comes. What comes is an abiding sense of rejection, a pervading loneliness in which you realize that no one’s listening, that no one cares. Maybe you don’t care anymore either.
You come to see that you could give your work away, offer it free on your website, and people still wouldn’t read it. You used to be paranoid that other writers, that producers would steal your work. Now, you only wish they would. At least it would’ve meant something to someone besides you.
Human beings share an ironic fate. We need each other desperately, and are joined at such a fundamental level, that our connection and mutual need can’t be denied. Yet when we seek the approval, the praise of others, it smacks of desperation, of a superficial craving for acceptance that never satisfies, since it comes from the world. And the world, the collection of ideas between my ears that tell me I’m no good until I make it on my ego’s terms, is just a sham.
And that leaves you with just the work, the collection of black words on white background, a lost, arcane art. It’s just you and the page in the end. And all that means is that it’s you and the truth. Because without the truth, you never had anything to begin with.
I’m fond of saying that a writer’s greatest enemy is her own sense of discouragement. but maybe it’s really ambivalence that destroys. I either give myself to this or not. It’s being half-in, half-out that kills.
It doesn’t matter if the writing is ‘good,’ or whether other people like it. It only matters if it says, as truthfully as possible, what it’s supposed to say. In the end, it’s not between you and them. It’s between you and yourself.