I am an invisible man. Though you might see me when we transact business or exchange pleasantries, in the deepest core of my existence I am invisible. This struck me as I walked miles around town today in one hundred degree weather to go from one bank to another. The public transportation in this town is execrable, and I can’t afford a car. Why not? Because I am invisible. Professionally invisible, that is. Though I have published fifteen books, readers have not discovered them. Recently on the Passive Guy website there was a long thread of testimonies of success by independent authors, story after story of paying bills and quitting day jobs and even making it possible for spouses to quit day jobs. And I am very happy for all of these people, but at the same time I experience a deep envy. Somehow they have avoided the curse of invisibility.
As I walked and ruminated, it came to me that only two solutions to this problem are possible. Either I need to find a way to become visible, or I need to embrace the invisibility by finding something positive about it.
I know I am not alone, by the way. There are many people out there who feel it is their calling to be a writer but have not found readership or achieved commercial success. It is to you that I dedicate this essay. You are not alone. Success does not usually come easily or quickly. Perhaps some of the greatest writers, artists, and musicians in the history of the human race never achieved conventional success at all, but despair lies down that path, so we will not go there.
How does an invisible person become visible? It’s not a matter of mere paint or magic markers. It reminds me of one of my favorite films, “Flashback”, with Dennis Hopper and Kiefer Sutherland, in which the aging hippie has to simulate his own death in order to help his memoir, the only achievement of his poor wasted life, become a best seller.
Let’s hope it doesn’t come to that.
There’s all sorts of help and advice on the web about it. After a brief comment I wrote on the Passive Guy site, a few writers even wrote me back personally and suggested various promotional things I might try to increase my exposure. I considered all of the ideas and even attempted some of them. Yet I remain invisible. The last straw was when I finally broke down and decided to invest in some advertising. I applied to Book Bub, one of the largest and most successful online book advertisers, with several of my books, and was turned down. I researched some of the other advertising sites, and discovered that they only accept books with a multitude of high ratings on sites such as Amazon. In other words, they will only help you become visible if you are already visible. Finally I found an advertiser whose fee was modest that accepted new books that did not yet have abundant ratings, applied, was accepted, and scheduled for a discount promotion on their subscriber’s book list. You know how many books I sold as a result? None. Not one. You see what I mean about being invisible?
There is an alternate theory, of course: that my books suck and are unworthy of readership. But I know that is not true. I have been at this more than four decades. I have traveled the world and put my life on the line for the sake of my writing. I have written the books that I, as a reader, continually search for and hope to discover.
No, the problem is invisibility, not lack of worth.
But I have strayed far from my theme. The fact is, invisibility happens, no matter how talented you are. And all you can do is keep working and keep hoping. The one thing you cannot do is quit. Unless you want to remain invisible forever.
Because I have worked so hard and tried so long to become visible, and because I know through experience that I cannot force it, cannot make it happen, I realized today on my walk that to continue to justify my invisible existence, to continue fighting the good fight, I had to come up with an advantage to being invisible. And I did. But before I share it let me say that for me personally, at least, I have endured invisibility long enough. I would much rather other people could see me.
Having emphasized that point, the advantage of invisibility can be summed up in one word: freedom.
When you are invisible, you can do anything you want. Nobody can see you. You are free to run naked through the streets, expose your deepest and darkest secrets, dance and sing and turn cartwheels for the sheer joy of the experience. This is imperative to a writer finding his or her own voice. Write what you love, the saying goes, and it is true. As I thought on this, it rang true both in my own experience and in my literary past. The example that occurred to me was that of Henry Miller, abandoned in abject poverty to roam the seedy streets of Paris. Out of the experience burst the literary light of his first book, “Tropic of Cancer” – which was privately financed and published at the time, made him little or no money until much later, and did not get him off the streets. Yet now it appears on prestigious lists of the greatest novels of all time. I know the book is controversial; it always has been. But despite the poverty of the author, despite the fact that for all practical purposes he disappeared off the face of the Earth to all who knew him, his literary efforts became a song and a celebration to him. He says at the beginning of the book, “I have no money, no resources, no hopes. I am the happiest man alive.” He says, “I will sing for you, a little off key perhaps, but I will sing.” Henry Miller was invisible in Paris, but through the words he wrote out in longhand one after the other, he sang for us. Most readers would not hear his voice for many years. His books were banned for decades in the United States. It wasn’t until he was an old man that he managed to accumulate enough royalties to pay off his many debts to his friends and buy a house to live out the last years of his life.
I know that for some of you Henry Miller might not be the best example, as his writings still ignite controversy after so long. But his works, especially “Tropic of Cancer”, were formative for me as a writer. I too left my homeland in search of experience with which to fill my writings, and I stayed gone even longer than he did, about thirty-five years. Now I have returned, and I am invisible, and it irks me. Yet I will continue to perform, albeit on an empty stage. The great thing about this new era of writing for all us invisible people, though, is that all that I write stays there on the virtual shelves. Despite my invisibility I continue to increase the number of volumes that lie hidden on my shelves, so that someday when I begin to appear before you all, first with a slight glimmer, perhaps, and then a shimmer, a flash, and I burst into view, my vast array of publications, like an army of progeny, will be ready there with me to go forth and conquer.