Sunday, July 10, 2005

"[A] healthy dose of the Romance of the Literary Life"

"Any time I see a movie that has more than three extreme close-ups of a gold-tipped fountain pen skritching across a piece of paper -- or any time I read a text that relies heavily on the words ''writings'' or ''scrivenings'' -- I know I'm in for a healthy dose of the Romance of the Literary Life..." so writes Henry Alford in today's New York Times Book page. I'm taking his words entirely out of context, but they so perfectly embodied the unrealistic cliched image of "The Writing Life" that I just had to swipe them.

"The Writing Life" as lived by this writer involves stacks of bills as high as my nostrils, all vying to be paid, and all to be sorely let down. John Steinbeck once wrote a marvelous one-page essay titled "The Danger of Small Things," in which he riffed on the notion of "that which does not kill you, strengthens you." But he wrote about the small annoyances in life that have no chance of killing a person, but whittle down one's sanity and will to live, just the same, like the phone bill, dentist appointments, and so on. These tiny "death-of-a-thousand-cuts" digs don't build us up in any way, but slowly grind away at our foundations. This is the hallmark of The Writing Life.

Far from watching boats on the harbor from my writing turret, quill in my hand, symphony in my mind, and sonnets pouring forth, I'm holed up in my small office, overcrowded with books, papers, and unwashed laundry, seated at my cluttered desk in boxer shorts and bed head and whatever shirt I plucked from the pile as I wandered in at five or six a.m.. I'm a grudging early riser. What does it say about my horrible physical condition that my body aches after lying in bed after four or five hours? Don't worry, I get my eight hours of sleep a day, and more, but in snatches throughout the day and night.

I have been writing for fifteen years and so far three books of mine have been published -- with a fourth, a novel, having been accepted for publication and set for release in late 2005.

Recieving that first acceptance letter, whether from a magazine for one of your stories or poems, or from a small press publisher for one of your books, is like mainlining Plutonium -- but in a good way. It's a kind of nourishment and affirmation that surges through every sinew, like the raw end of a live electrical cable being dropped into a pool of water. Your ideas, the stuff that has kept you up nights, distracted you at work and at home, the stuff that has you rising early to write, staying up late to revise, has connected with another person -- often someone you have never even met.

"So, how much are they paying you?" comes the Philistine's question when the news of the victory is shared.

Usually, there is no pay beyond contributors' copies of the magazine in which your work appears, or a small percentage on the cover price of your book, of which you'll be lucky to sell one hundred copies. Ready yourself for one cliche -- the satisfaction is pay enough. You can't pay your mortgage with satisfaction, nor can you purchase groceries, granola bars, or the entire Yanni CD collection with satisfaction. But that satisfaction fuels to face the work you need to do in order pay for such things.

Am I complaining? Actually, no, though it sounds like I am. I enjoy being a writer. I'm writing this entry as a shot against, and to uncover, all of those psuedo-artists walking around with their berets -- real or figurative -- feigning existence in some rarified, artistic ecstacy. I got my fill, and more, of such poseurs during the writing courses I took in school; those flightly, always-late personages who felt the essence of an artist was absentmindedness. Truth be told, these were simply lost souls looking for something to which to attach themselves. If you're going to be a writer with any level of seriousness, flightiness and absentmindedness won't help you. It's takes discipline and actual physical strength to write a book. After finishing writing a novel a couple of years ago, I had a renewed respect for anyone who could achieve such a feat, whether it be the basest romance novel, most hackneyed sci-fi, or eye-wateringly literary. The effort is similar and rigorous as bricking every wall of your house on the inside (some might say, and as useful), away from where outsiders can see. So, when you come stumbling, exhausted out of your house, and talk about the work you've just performed, anyone who hasn't been inside your house looks at you like your crazy.

No, I'm not complaining about my writing life, but only attempting to paint a realistic picture. This is how it is. I had no more choice in becoming a writer than I had in choosing my eye and hair color, or eventual full-grown height. I guess I felt compelled to do this because of the latest "writer windfall" story in the news -- Elizabeth Kostova and novel The Historian, for which Little, Brown paid $2 million. Good for her. I plan to read the book. As far as writers pulling in this kind of money, my experience has been: finishing writing a book isn't winning the lottery, but being only issued a lottery ticket.

In my experience with actual lottery tickets, they tend to make good bookmarks, as they've been of no other use to me.

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