Many moons ago, I used to be part of Austin’s slam poetry community. While there were and still are many incredible slam poets, one thing I got really sick of was slam poetry about slam poetry. I mention this simply to call out my own hypocrisy, as sometimes I simply can’t resist writing about writing. There’s nothing original about this. I think some of us who visit the territory at least try to rationalize the self-indulgence by suggesting we are hoping to offer great insight to those wondering about the writing life and/or to commiserate with so many other writers who have also experienced the less pleasant side of trying to “make it” as a writer.
I think I’ll skip the rationalization here and just say that what follows is a cathartic rant, but not one without some bright points. This week was especially “writerly” for me, beginning with a rejection letter on Monday from an agent who said no thanks to my new novel using some pretty classic rejection letter techniques. In short, at least to my eyes, her message read, “I love your writing, I hate your book.” (Do agents have a secret handbook to which they refer called Don’t Call Us, We’ll Call You: Discouraging Writers With Rejection Letters that Include the Occasional Confusing Compliment Couched in an Otherwise Heartbreaking Send Off?)
The week ended – work-wise anyway— a couple of hours ago with me pronouncing a young couple married. I count this as part of my writing life since it does involve words on the page, some written by me, some cribbed from outside sources. I also count it because this side wedding business of mine largely supports my other writing— i.e. the stuff I’m passionate about but more often than not doesn’t pay shit.
Before I tell you about the middle of the week, a quick aside about money and writing: some— perhaps many— of us writers will lie and say we don’t do it for the money. That’s not necessarily a total lie. If I never made another cent off of my words, I’m positive I’d still keep hammering away at the keyboard. Writing is a compulsion for me, like breathing, to use a tired but apt simile. I’ve been doing it since I first learned how to put words together and, though my plan is to be cremated, I can’t help but sometimes imagine a tombstone bearing my name, one that is inscribed with a few last thoughts I’ve composed, my final written offering to the world. (Currently I’m leaning toward: Skinny At Last.) Still, at some point pretty early on (19 to be precise) I began receiving payment for my writing, prompting a sort of ongoing Pavlovian scenario in which I have come to hope/expect that my sentences will result in a check somewhere down the line.
The Pavlovian comparison loses steam however, when I stop to actually consider how much of my work has netted income and how much has not. When I do this, I’m left switching to what I learned in therapy about Random Rewards. Something about how certain lab rats learn to press a button, which sometimes leads to a pellet being released. Other times? Nada. Unfortunately, the rat never seems to figure it out and just keeps punching that button over and over and over until it dies or goes insane waiting for a reward that may never come. (In therapy I actually examined Random Rewards to scrutinize many of my dismal relationships with men but it works just as well to examine my relationships with editors and publishers.)
So yeah, I want money for my writing. Try as I might, I have yet to figure out how to use rocks and shells for currency and to operate inside of our society— that is, to keep roof, food, utilities, and travel in my life— I need cold hard cash. Sure, I write for the passion of it. But don’t think for a minute that the notion of a potential paycheck isn’t lurking around the nearest corner. Toward that end, I’ve done okay for myself – not phenomenally well but enough to stay afloat— in large part because early on I readily adopted a whoring attitude. In the name of professional writing I’ve taken work describing thousands of calendars, creating white papers about document management for Google, ghost writing, and cranking out more mindless women’s magazine articles—including one of those classic I Lost Fifty Pounds pieces replete with before and after pictures—than I can count.
I’ve also been a columnist, an essayist, a professional blogger, and—ring the bell, people— author of six published books, eight if you count two textbooks I wrote (which I don’t). Considering the original goal was to get one book published before dying, that’s not too shoddy. The cumulative income of these books, written over the course of eleven years, doesn’t add up to much, even if you do count the textbooks. I can therefore state with authority what so many others have stated before me. Writing is, for the vast majority of us, not a quick (or even slow) way to the high life. Still, I’ve gotten by, raised a kid, met a lot of interesting profile subjects, and gone on some pretty amazing all-expenses-paid assignments (including snowboarding camp for a week). So if you asked me if– knowing what I know now— I would go back and pick a more stable and financially rewarding career, I can also state with authority: No. I would not.
Okay: middle of the week. I taught two adult writing workshops and four kids’ writing classes. I used to have some trepidation about this teaching stuff, feeling at times fraudulent presenting myself as a writing teacher. I’m not actually sure you can teach writing, at least not in a rote fashion. Once I said to an acquaintance that I thought my ability to write was a gift. He took great offense, thinking I was suggesting I have some special powers that others cannot access through hard work, that either you have it or you don’t, and therefore I must believe myself somehow “better” than these “lesser” beings. In fact, my statement was an attempt at humility. As in, “I can’t take total credit for the success I’ve had and actually, though I can see how some of it might be connected to hard work, honestly I have no idea where this ability to write came from.”
These days when I am in front of a class I feel a little less fraudulent. I’m still not sure I can teach others to write. But what I’m sure I can do is give people permission to write, to help them get the inner critic to shut up for a little while, and to offer a little cheerleading. Some might dismiss the latter as blowing smoke up ass in exchange for cash. I beg to differ. Overwhelmingly our society sets us up to think we need permission— little children are told “no” repeatedly from an early age. And they are also told what they may do and when they may do it. This continues into the school years and then, for many, into the workplace. The ubiquity of “no” coupled with an insistence that there are rules that must be followed stymies and stifles. We wind up wallowing in thinking we can’t do this or that, or that we aren’t allowed, or that we aren’t good enough, and that trying is going to lead to failure and failure will yield ridicule.
So I cheerlead. I don’t do this to mislead students into thinking I believe they are fated to pen some novel on par with the Russian greats. I do it in hopes of getting them to relax into it, to stop worrying what others think, and to stop thinking they can’t. I tell them that maybe they will decide, in the end, they really can’t write, or shouldn’t write, or don’t want to write. All of which are fine. I applaud them for at least trying. And I know that some of them will keep trying, will be unable to stop trying, will also suffer/enjoy the compulsion to write. My courses are like appetizers: taste this prompt, try this approach, nibble on the memoir style, see what—if anything—leaves you wanting more.
Now let’s take a look at Friday, shall we? Friday, after teaching all day, I stopped by the house for a moment to let the dogs out for a pee before dashing off to a wedding rehearsal. There on the doorstep was a FedEx box. I knew it was coming but had forgotten. I carried it in, ripped it open. An advance copy of my new book, number six. The cover is very, very pretty. The book weighs about fifty pounds. It’s a massive history of quilts that begins thousands of years ago and continues on through the past year or so. I looked inside to make sure the dedication was there. Then I closed it and put it on the table. I can see it sitting over there. I can’t bring myself to read or even skim it.
Rewind. Summer 1999. An advance copy of my very first book, a memoir, had just arrived. I wept when I saw it. A book. I wrote a book. My dream had come true.
But this latest book— remember what I said about the agent’s rejection letter on Monday? How she seemed to suggest both love and hate in the same space? I should love this new book. I busted my ass writing it. I used over 100 sources, included chapters solicited from experts, and personally amassed something like 400 photos from museums, artists and collectors around the world, a task for which I was not prepared, a task made more daunting by a pathetic budget and an inability to speak more than one language. Along the way, at least three experts— academically trained quilt historians—spewed insults at me when I approached them for help. I think they hated me because they thought I was utterly sans credentials, stepping into territory they had clearly marked as their own. How dare I?
Do you know what it’s like to be called a hack writer by an historian in a microscopic field? To be insulted after laboring over ancient, often barely comprehensible primary sources until your eyes practically bleed? To be mocked for seeking help despite uber-cautiously written query letters, acknowledging one’s own blank slate status and the recipient’s expertise?
Actually, in retrospect it’s pretty fucking hilarious. But in the throes of writing that damn book, it wasn’t funny at all. Nor, for that matter, was my contract. I have to say that I probably would have taken that contract even if I hadn’t been in dire straits because I didn’t know, going in, just how bad the deal was. Sure, I knew the contract was small, but using the creative math system I have invented, and knowing just how fast I can sometimes write, I rationalized that it wasn’t the worst offer in the world. Too, I had just been “let go” of another job I had, let go without notice, and told that $5,000 worth of back pay would not be forthcoming, this while I was in bed recovering from major surgery and in no position to go looking for work for at least a month. Thus, in fact, I was in dire straits.
So I signed on for the project, practically begged for it. Most book contracts come with a royalty clause, which, even if royalties never materialize, at least you can hope, for a while, that they will. Not this time. A work-for-hire project with the distant promise of a small bonus if an ungodly number of units moves, and a second small bonus if a super ungodly number moves. The end. After that, all profit is realized by the publisher and none by the author.
I look at that book, sitting on the table, uncracked, and it says to me: This is what it’s come to. And it also stands as a reminder of other less than savory thoughts. Two weeks ago, I got an email from a source that had, above and beyond all others, provided me with more photos and research materials than any of my other sources. All of this assistance was provided for free, due in great part to a nearly decade-long relationship I had fostered and nurtured with the source. My source required just one thing in return: a chance to preview the book before it went to press, to check for any errors.
It was such a small thing to ask for. A small thing and a smart thing. Because despite my anal tendency to fact check every last detail fourteen times, the sheer quantity of information provided by this source invited at least a few errors. Months ago I sent word to my publisher of the requirement and was assured it would be met.
And then the book went to press. The source never got a copy. And worse, the source found out about the book going to press by my inept book publicist who wrote to the source requesting a publicity favor which, though I will spare you the details, would sort of be like asking the pope to man your bake sale table for a few hours. This reflected very poorly on me, as if I had condoned the publicist’s actions. All this led to a flurry of emails in which I let the publisher know how my relationship with the source was now totally fucked. Not a small thing, as this means I won’t have access to the source for future works. Then I got another note from another source pointing out that the publicist had made a major gaffe in her press release.
What is wrong with these people?
Two of my favorite jokes are favorites not because they are wildly funny, but because they perfectly capture the less savory aspects of my career, and come in mighty handy during times like these. The first involves a plane crashing in the desert, the only survivors a writer and an editor. They crawl through the blazing desert for days and, just as they are about to perish, come upon an oasis. The writer drags himself over and starts slurping down water. The editor staggers to his feet, pulls down his zipper, and pees in the water. “What the FUCK are you doing?” asks the writer. “I’m making it better!” answers the editor.
The other joke is about the guy that cleans up elephant shit at the circus. Night after night he comes home and bitches to his wife about his job. Finally, tired of hearing it, she says, “Then quit your job!” To which he responds, “What? And get out of show business?”
I said there would be bright spots in this rant. For all the bellyaching I do, I take my own whining with a huge grain of salt. I can grumble with the best of them about how the publishing business has gone to hell. I can lament that I never got some “big break I deserve.” I can and I do, but only half-seriously. Because if I trade out the half-empty glass for the half-full one, the bottom line is that I might not be “making it” in the fantasy, bestseller sense of making it, but I am still managing to have an awful lot of fun quite a bit of the time. If it means sometimes having to haul around the shit shovel, then quick, somebody hand me my shovel.
Which brings me back to the recently rejected novel. It’s actually my fourth rejected novel. Curiously, the sting of rejection never lasts too long with my fiction. Some days I think I just have to keep trying. And other days I think the fiction thing is just not my calling. I don’t mean that in a self-pitying way. I mean it in the same way I never got my black belt in Taekwondo. I dropped out two or three tests before achieving that goal but I didn’t care. I learned what I set out to learn: how to kill people with my bare hands and feet. I also learned some other cool stuff like how to walk (or run) away from a threat. I was never going to master the spinning, jumping, double-back kick needed to get that black belt, and in the big picture, that didn’t bother me. I improved myself and I had fun doing it. That was enough.
So maybe I’ll never master the art of fiction, and I’m absolutely certain that will be fine. I had a shit-ton of fun writing all four novels and I improved my writing, too. The only problem I have for now with the rejection is that I have, just a little, allowed it to plant that seed of doubt, the one I work to help my students eradicate. The agent who read my book thought it was too snarky. Funny thing is, my big goal was to make it snarky. The book is a parody. The protagonist I created is an exploration of super cynicism. In a way, the agent’s distaste for my snarkiness is a perverse compliment—apparently I captured the very thing I set out to capture. Too bad I did a good enough job of it to make the finished product a total turn-off.
Too, I worry—Does she think I’m that snarky?
I wanted to defend myself. I am defensive by nature. Warren loves watching me debate whether or not to respond to the trolls who sometimes visit my Austinist column and lay down bait to piss me off. I fight the urge, I fight the urge, I fight the urge… then I give in, gift the boneheads with freshly ripped new sphincters, and then, in an instant, feel bad and stupid I ever engaged in the first place. Warren sums up the whole cycle as me wanting to proclaim to these idiots, “I am too nice, you asshole!”
The agent that rejected me is hardly an asshole. She’s been very kind over the years, hearing out sundry proposals I’ve made. She’s been patient and encouraging. Her reputation is excellent. But her words this time, even with a few compliments sprinkled in, still stung. “I am too nice!” I wanted to fire back, even though she never said I wasn’t.
Then there was the fear—maybe she’s right. Maybe it is too snarky. Maybe it’s horrific. Maybe she’s done me a huge favor. Maybe I need to burn the fucking thing now before anyone else reads it.
And so, life’s ubiquitous no rears its head once again. Do I defy the no just for the sake of defying it? Do I sent the manuscript out to a hundred others and thus potentially invite a hundred more rejections? Do I self-publish and tell myself I’ll show them all! and then find myself sitting with a roomful of hardcopies nobody wants?
I’m not sure yet. Stay tuned.