Thursday, June 9, 2011

The Q: What if there is no success?

[The Set Up: This past week, I put a note on Facebook which was basically a call for questions. A number of people sent me messages and I'll be getting to 'em. If you have more Q's, send them to me through my web site contact or through Facebook, Twitter...]

One question that surfaced a few ways in various forms was this: Would I have kept writing if I hadn't had early success? Another related question was: What if you devote your life to writing and you never publish a book?

First things first, one of the most stunning things to me in the world of writing is when people quit. They quit at every step along the way.

Most quit before they start. They hear that FAMOUS sentence opener (known by every aspiring writer painfully well) -- it goes like this: "Do you know how hard it is..." After that, it varies -- Do you know how hard it is to find an agent, get into grad school, publish in literary magazines, get a book deal...

They're right, of course. But they should be largely ignored -- why? Hard things are worth shooting for.

Others quit during grad school or after. Some get a job that offers a creative outlet in some other way and they stop writing because they no longer need to. Some write because they long for a connection. They fall in love and no longer need the reader. Some quit after they start succeeding. The success doesn't mean what they thought it would. Some quit after they've published a few books. The industry is brutal. They turn their back on it. Some have a very important story to tell -- a personal one. They tell it. They're out. Some get huge early praise and balk.

There are millions of reasons to quit -- good ones, too -- and few to soldier on. (The page, the page, that relationship with words on the page...)

(And those who quit for one reason or another often wind their way back.)

I will say this. I never expected to have success. I never imagined my name in print or on the spine of a book. I never was very moved by it (except the way my hometown of Newark, Delaware celebrated my first book -- for another post) -- at least I don't talk about it the way other writers I know speak of the experience. Instead, I imagined living in my parents' little attic room, having kids (without a husband) and writing -- a knocked-up Emily Dickinson.
It was a strange fantasy and yet that's about all I had. Would that have pleased me? I really don't think so.

So, yes, I had early success. But I've made a vow to try to stop using the phrase, "I got lucky." I saw this TED Talk by Sheryl Sandberg. Women chalk their success up to luck when they should take some measure of credit. So I'm trying to curb that in others by setting some kind of example. (But I can't help it! Honestly, I've gotten lucky in a brutal industry -- but I have MUCH more to say about the term -- for another post. Oh, a dark tale to tell....)

The truth is that there are a few differences between me and some other writers I know that do have a DIRECT correlation to publishing.

The biggest of which is this: Some writers want to publish the book they've written. Period. They don't want an agent's opinion about what editors are looking for. They don't want that agent to tell them that they need to build a fifty-page bridge in one area and trim the whole novel down on a sentence level. They don't want an editor to tell them that the ending needs an overhaul. They don't want to discuss a bunch of possible titles.

I want all of those things. Before I get thrown to the wolves of going public, I want as many smart minds on my books as possible. I'll sort and pick through their comments and apply the ones that resonate the deepest.

These writers often tend to talk about withstanding the test of time. They aren't as interested in connecting with readers today, now.

This, by the way, is all fine. In fact, I have no problem whatsoever with these writers. I love them and I often love (and rave about) their work.

I will say though that it must be a conscious choice. I was talking to an agent once who told me that she was frustrated with writers who shunned the idea of entertaining a readership instead praising their own aesthetic of inaccessibility but then turned around and were angry and distraught and resentful that they didn't have a wider readership. She said, "You have to pick one and go with it."

I agree.

And I write both. I write poems, for example, that I don't even expect much of a readership for among people who read poetry (already a small audience), and I have books that I've written for an audience, and I hope they show up.

In short, I write art and sometimes entertainment happens. But I also write entertainment and art happens.

So, one might say that because I'm interested with connected to readers I'm a sell out. Actually, I'm just being authentically myself. I have a very buckshot mind. I swim out in one set of open waters and land on some very strange shores -- in fact, recently, those shores have gotten stranger and darker and more twisted (see this write-up about my new trilogy PURE).

1. I live for criticism -- praise is nice and all, but tell where I'm failing you. Some other writers hate this. They take it personally. They defend.

2. If I'm reading to an audience and everyone seems to dig it -- but there's one kid in a baseball cap sulking in the back row, I read for that kid. I'll change my whole line up just to get him to lift his sullen head. I write for toughened readers, not loving ones.

3. My 11 year old recently watched a video of Dempsey's soccer clips set to swelling music and Rocky's speech on taking a hit and getting back up. (Which Rocky movie? No idea.) Embarrassingly, I love this stuff.

So, would I have kept writing if I'd never had success at it?

There's a great Doris Lessing quote that I might not get right but it goes something like: Writing is a hard way to make a living but a great way to make a life.

Why is that? Writing is the daily practice of empathy. It demands that you pay close attention to your life, your world. It demands close observation and therefore a different level of engagement. For me, this is a better way of living.

I'll never know if I'd have kept going just as I don't know if I'll keep going.

But, honestly, if it weren't writing, it would have been something else. I have the instinct to make -- a compulsive instinct -- and not just to make but to make in order to understand the relentless world all around me. I think not making would have felt like not breathing. So my choices would have been to make or to suffocate.

I choose the former.