Was reading the Kindle preview of this memoir, Breakfast At Sally’s, which is about a prosperous guy who becomes down-and-out and homeless, and it begins with this anecdote, which happens when the author, Richard, who’s attempting to write on a typewriter while sitting in a park, encounters another guy, Michael, who asks him what he’s doing. Richard says he’s trying to write a book, and Michael says, “Always wanted to write a book myself,” he said. “Maybe about cars. But it takes a lot of talent and time to write a good book, you know? Not everybody can do it.”
Richard chats with Michael a bit, and then Michael goes on his way.
Anyhow, I bought the book, because I was like, this is a perspective I want to see. There’s a quiet humanity there, in its description of Michael, that you often don’t witness when writers talk about other aspiring writers.
I think writers can sometimes get bitter. Not just about the publishing industry, but about the general public. You see so many older writers talking about how people don’t read, or about how stupid people are, or how they don’t have any taste. And I understand that. It’s hard to put something out into the world when, really, nobody wants it or is asking for it. There’s a metaphor, in here, about life. How people are only valued when they do what other people want, but whenever we attempt to live for ourselves, and for our own values, we’re met with indifference. And, on some level, that’s appropriate. I mean, why should anybody else care about what you’ve written? Why should they give even an ounce of their time to you? And yet…you think…I worked for this. I slaved away in my room, for hours and for years, to dream this up for you, and I know for an absolute fact that it would enrich your life.
So I understand how it’s embittering to spend your life trying to give away your riches, only for them to be like, meh, I don’t want that shit.
It’s thoughts like these, I think, that put writers into a defensive crouch, and that make us jealous of whatever little amount we’ve managed to receive. If you’ve sold a book, you’re like, 99 out of 100 people who write a book never manage to sell it. If you have an agent, you’re like, well, my agent gets 500 queries a month and they decided to sign me. If all you’ve done is completed a novel, you’re like, well, most people who want to write novels never manage to start one.
To bring up an overused term, it’s a very bourgeois way of thinking. Because, like the bourgeois, most writers are trapped between the aristocracy, who have all the power and wealth, and the proleteriat, who have nothing. And because of this, most writers are, like the bourgeois classes, very keen to assort themselves into hierarchies that prize extremely minor points of social difference.
Because the truth is, it genuinely makes no difference if your book is published or not. It doesn’t make you a better human–we all know that–but it doesn’t even make you a better writer! I’ve met aspiring writers, unagented and unpublished, whose work, when I read it, was as good or better than my own. And even if somebody is a worse writer than you, it doesn’t stand to reason that they’re going to be worse tomorrow or next year or in ten years.
I actually think one of the major stumbling blocks that people in middle age find in their careers is the moment when people younger than them start being promoted above them. In small fields, this is the moment at which you either are punished or rewarded for how you’ve treated your subordinates in the last twenty years. Some people are never going to rise again, because their former assistants and direct reports just don’t like them, while others will always find a helping hand in unexpected places.
In this case, Richard has literally just started to write his book, and he’s meeting somebody who has never tried to start, and this is exactly the situation in which people tend to get snooty and be like, well, how dare you compare your vague wish to write a book with my sitting-down-and-actually-doing-it!
But why get into such a huff about it? What purpose does it serve? I think writers forget how privileged we are. Writing is the one creative art where people can perform at the highest level without a lifetime of training. You don’t see a lot of successful painters or musicians who began after age 40. In acting, it’s a little more common, but still not very. Whereas in writing, particularly in commercial fiction, it’s almost the rule that it’s something people come to later in life.
And to a large degree, I think, this is because writing is rooted in the faculty of language, which is something that every human practices every single day. We are all constantly using our words to tell stories: to ourselves, if to nobody else. And in some of those people, these stories might be spectacular.
Now I know somebody out there is gonna be like, “But I practiced every day for ten years and wrote ten novels before I sold a single one.” Well…okay, that’s cool. But when did you start? Did you start at age 4, like a violinist? Did you have to rack up tens of thousands of dollars in fees for instruction, like a dancer? Did you need to move somewhere to LA and work a low-paying job with flexible hours, like an actor?
Writers benefit immensely from the accessibility of our art. Not just because its low barriers to entry mean that we–that you and I–could actually get into this thing, but also because those very same low barriers are the reason why writing has such a privileged position in people’s minds. I mean think, for a second, how insane it is that millions of people–literally millions–in this country want to do what we do?
And in a lot of people that dream is linked to the desire for fame and ease, but so what? It’s linked to that desire in my mind too! Writing is connected to so many dreams. It’s about working for yourself, rather than other people; producing what you want, rather than what other people tell you to. Writing is awesome, and I’m not at all surprised that lots of people want to write. They should want to!
Now I’m not suggesting that you give more of yourself than you can. I understand why people put limits on their time and energy, but at the very least, in your own mind, if nowhere else, you should be nice.
You know, I think a lot of writers can point to moments in their own history when just a few encouraging words meant a lot to them. “That’s a good idea” or “You should write that” can go far.
I honestly don’t have a lot of memories like that. I’ve been writing for almost fourteen years, and in that time what I can mostly remember is authors who were uncharitable. Writers at conventions who didn’t have the time for me. Instructors who played favorites and begrudged praise. Authors–acquaintances of mine–who dropped me after their books got big. Journal editors who rejected me in condescending ways. I’m not saying it was everybody. Like most people, I’ve had good teachers and good interactions with authors. But I’ve noticed that even when people in the literary world help those below them, they always want to help a rising star. People get help if there’s a perception that they don’t need it.
That’s not the fault of our world, it’s simply human nature. Once I went to two parties in one night. At one, I was relatively new to the scene, and when I talked to strangers, I could feel their wariness and disdain. At the other, a group of friends gave me a big greeting when I walked in, and at that party when I talked to strangers they were immediately open and welcoming. It is the rare person who can break through all this bourgeois bullshit and even attempt to see the human being that’s underneath all the social posturing.
And I know there are reasons for wariness. Women, in particular, often find themselves saddled with guys who are simply awful, and for this reason they sometimes learn to ignore and shut out strange guys. But these excuses only go so far, because most human interactions are between people of the same gender. And this is particularly true in the writing world, where most of the writers and readers are women.
I don’t know. It exhausts me, the level of inhumanity and indifference in the world. People spend so much time worrying about the victims of some natural disaster or some foreign war, and then they shit on and shut out the person who comes to them, hoping to be told, “You can do it too!” We so often ignore the differences we can make in this world, and to be honest I’m often no better than most–I can recall so many times when I’ve failed to extend an open hand. But at least I try to be better.