My son and I have been making frequent trips to the local library during these final weeks of summer. I browse through the new book shelves and he looks for DVDs and graphic novels. On my last visit I came across a supposedly inspirational book for writers and other artists. I don’t want to mention the name because it is never my intention to denigrate other authors in these essays and reviews. I write reviews to tie in my reading to the larger body of my fiction and memoirs, and I try not to read what I don’t like. If I start a book and it leaves a bad taste in the early stages, I usually put it down and go on to something else without mentioning it, with a few notable exceptions.
Anyway, I started paging through this book. It was a fairly short book and large print besides. I’ve started to read large print books sometimes for two reasons: first, my eyes aren’t as good as they used to be; and second, sometimes popular books that are unavailable in regular editions are often more easily available in large print.
I was feeling discouraged with my own progress as a writer that day, and some of the passages gave me a slight lift. To clarify, though: I am not discouraged with my own work, but only at the slowness of sales and lack of sufficient financial remuneration. I’m very satisfied with the work itself.
So I took the book home and set aside my current reading project and started into it, but it didn’t take me long to realize I’d made a mistake. It was like that large, fancy-looking sweet you see fresh in the bakery window. You feel you’ve just got to have it, but after a few bites you realize there’s nothing to it except sugar and flavor, nothing good for you at all, and you have to set it aside unfinished lest you become sluggish and bloated. I couldn’t read that book; it would have been an unconscionable waste of time. It would possibly be suitable for hobbyists – but not for anyone for whom their writing or other artistic pursuit is a consuming passion.
Why not? To find out, I read more about its author. It turns out she has written a very famous travel book that made her millions of dollars. Well, travel is something I can relate to, having done a considerable amount of it myself. However, to write the book she was given a two hundred thousand dollar advance by a major publisher. In other words, she could travel first class in a manner know to less than one percent of all travelers, cool and easy, with never a care or a danger or any sort of stress. That’s fantasy, not something that has anything to do with the real world. Not that I wouldn’t mind traveling that way myself as a sort of contrast experience. When I set off on the road to find my voice as a writer, I hitchhiked across the United States, bought a round-trip ticket from New York to Luxemburg on Icelandic Airlines for one hundred dollars, and arrived in Europe with less than two hundred dollars to my name. I ended up roaming all over Europe, the Middle East, and the Indian Subcontinent for a year. For me that was luxury mode. For my second trip, I bought a one-way ticket. When I crossed the English Channel from Great Britain to France, I had exactly one dollar and one English pound in my pockets. And this time I stayed gone for thirty-five years.
I just couldn’t get behind this advice from someone with such a large silver spoon in her mouth. Hell, I probably haven’t made two hundred thousand dollars in my entire life. Well, yeah, maybe. I don’t know. The point is, I have been desperate in seeking the things that are important to me – so desperate that I have been willing to give up everything else, including my own security and safety, to achieve them. And I have been frustrated and disappointed and ground down into the dust and have had to pick myself up and try again countless times. It’s just not true that I can think of my writing as a light, fluffy, saccharine pursuit that I can take or leave, as nothing more than a pleasant-looking feather in my cap. That’s not the way it is, at least for me.
I was going to merely let this pass and return the book without a word, but last night I was uploading a couple of my novels to new sales channels. These novels are really good work, and I read a chapter or two from them as I was giving their formatting a final check, and I felt deeply disappointed that they were not selling better. I know that some of my former mentors would say that I should not let it bother me. Sales are not in my hands; they are not my choice; they are the choices of readers. My triumph is the writing itself. Well, sure, but I write to be read, damn it; I write what I feel is unique; I write the type of books that I would like to read but can’t find. I can’t help but be bummed out when they don’t receive the appreciation I feel they deserve. I know I’m not alone. I could give many examples of writers who composed masterpieces that remained unappreciated until long after they were dead.
Sigh. All that from a too-sweet self-help book. The moral of the story, artists, is this: don’t settle for the easy way out, the feel-good attitude that it’s all an effortless walk in the park. Sometimes it isn’t that easy. Sometimes you may have to walk your path alone, without anyone else to protect or encourage you, and with no other inspiration other than that you believe it’s the right thing to do, the thing you were made for, and you’re willing to go it alone straight out into the unknown and drag your insecurities and fears and issues of low self-esteem with you. Once you begin the journey regardless of the obstacles, the problems often slough away, at least temporarily, but they often come back to plague you like the many-headed hydra. That’s just the way it is. You gotta do what you gotta do. And if you really gotta do it, you will do it with or without sugar-sweet self-help books.