One year, I made the mistake of agreeing to judge our state novel writing contest. It shouldn’t have been bad; there were only five or so manuscripts entered. The first one I looked at was all about “flatulence man,” a superhero(I am not making this up). One was a fairly creditable historical novel. But the rest of them were these stories about wanna-be writers meeting real authors and getting mixed up in steamy mysteries—or in what wanted, very very badly, to be steamy mysteries.
I sat with that mound of misery in my living room for a solid week. If I’d been a drinking woman, I’d have poured my hooch over all but the passable one and then put a match to the pile. Not in my living room, though. Outside. On the driveway. Oy. As it was, it took me months of washing out my mind with Gouge and Shinn and a little bit of Dickens to clean up the hard drive. My brain, I mean.
I’m telling you this because those manuscripts taught me something: what the last three mentioned had in common was their naive and purely fantastical sketches of the State of Authorness. I suffered through the sexy, glamorous Author. But writhed at the celebration of the dashing rogue Author who spends his time in the jungles of South America aping Indiana Jones. What I came away with was the realization that the world at large just must not have a very clear idea of what actually being an author is all about.
Do you know how many novels are published every year? Or used to be, anyway? I don’t either. But the number is in the thousands. Thousands of authors published. Many of them terrible. Most of them forgotten in a year. Some very few – very, very few – are remembered for more than three years or five. And then there are the famous ones who are read for decades. This does not mean that they write well – but it does mean they tell a dang good story.
I have never met an author who actually vacations with a bull whip and a leather hat. I’ve come across precious few that are rich. Some of the wildly successful ones are really nice people. Some are not. Some are intelligent and deserving. Some are not. But very few have the Hollywood kind of glamour most people associate with fame.
When you realize that most royalties come in at ten to fifteen percent of book retail, you begin to see how tough it is to get rich: two bucks (for a hardback – paperbacks come in often at five percent of the sales price) or maybe seventy cents at a time. A healthily selling book – maybe eight thousand copies in hardback? Not going to make you rich.
But this isn’t really what I’m wanting to write about here. Storytelling, in the traditional sense, was a performance art. You stalked around the campfire, using your voice to set the tone – speaking softly and slowly – then exploding into volume and speed – mincing around or tramping out the vineyard as required. All of this pretty much requires an immediate audience.
But book writing isn’t like that. It’s a solitary art. You can’t chat while you do it. Or watch TV. Most of us retreat into bedrooms or closets or the dead of night (face bathed in the unhealthy glow of a compter monitor) or to mountain cabins far, far away from any human interference while we tell our stories. You don’t have to own a wardrobe to do this job: sweats and bunny slippers are just fine. You can stutter. Or be tone deaf. Or be bald (thinking about the women, here). You can weigh too much to get through the front door of your house. In short: a great author is usually not a glamourous trailer-and-special-diet-demanding person. In fact, many a fairly notable author has been nothing short of a recluse. As I recall, it was very rare for anybody to see Salinger. And Beverly Cleary disliked author visits because she didn’t enjoy being around children (or so I have heard).
Books about the lives of authors? Wouldn’t sell. Maybe a book about F. Scott Fitzgerald, who was clearly crazy and made horrible life choices. And whose books had to be heavily edited and reconstructed by their editors (or so, again, as I have heard). But most of us? Boring as sand. And, if not boring, as people – often less than stellar.
In truth, sometimes I wonder how people who have time to write about life ever work in actually living it. Somehow, there’s this conception that authors – often being people who like to stand on the sidelines, not so much participating in real life as constantly kibitzing and feeling superior to it – know more than the rest of humanity. As if THEY are the ones who have not been fooled. As if THEY see clearly. The exceptions that prove the rule, then? And we happily take their stories as more true than our own.
In fact, many English teachers use “literature” as sermon fodder – at least in my experience, moving all over the country as we did – teaching not so much the art of language use as morality, psychology, social duty, and political perspective. They use the perspective of the spectator to build behavioral models for the people in the trenches. Isn’t this the kind of thing that irks us in the corporate and political world? Policies made by people who have never dug a ditch, made to regulate the ditch diggers?
I would paint a picture here: the author as a fairly self-centered person hoping that what they want to do will turn out to make a living for them. Some write because they have this romantic vision of what being a writer is. Many write because they can’t stop writing. Some write to escape their real lives. Some write simply to make a buck. But few writers become published authors. And probably, few deserve to (some of whom do, in fact, end up published).
Whatever. In the end, it’s cool to hold a book of your words in your hand. And to be invited to places where people will ask you lots of questions about how THEY can become authors. But almost nobody recognizes you in airports or restaurants or Disneyland lines. And when you are pitiful enough to casually mention the fact that you are an author, very, very few people will recognize the title of your book. They still make you show your card at Costco, the bills still show up monthly in your mailbox, and your spouse will not let you out of doing the dishes.
So what I’m saying here is this: if you think it’s fun to tell stories, or if you can’t stand not to sketch in words – then by all means, have at it. But if you are looking to get rich, or become glamorous or suddenly have a use for a bullwhip in your life – well. Just – keep your day job.
You might have more fun buying your own hat and bullwhip and making up stories on the fly – say, at dinner with your boss.
I’m just sayin’.