July 13, 2009

On writers, and those who listen to them

In 2000, I self-published a small book entitled What Saved Me: A Dozen Ways to Embrace Life under the pen name, Claire Starr. Only 500 copies were printed; all but a dozen have been sold or given away... and now, ten years older and wiser and many new experiences since, I'm musing on updating the book, expanding it to be about double the size, and incorporating links to sources of inspiration found online. I could then offer the book in Kindle format and through venues unheard of a decade ago.

What Saved Me told, within the confines of a dozen theme words, my individual story. Everyone has one and most of us think ours is unique and worthy of being heard. It very likely is. Certainly there is nothing groundbreaking in my little book; nor would there be in an expanded version. I suppose one could argue that I could, I should, forego the memoir, the "inspirational self-help" book, and stick to writing about pets, to finishing that contemporary womens fiction manuscript languishing in my drawer, to something, anything else. But, those wouldn't be people who know me.

Working with a lot (200 +) of small publishers and self-publishing authors, I can attest that the desire to "share what we've learned" is very high. More people write books, have written books, want to write a book, have been told they should write a book, or have a close relative who's written a book, than you might guess. I edit/design books, and I also publish books by others (see luckypress.com); this brings queries my way. Writers, myself included, often have this balancing of opposites going on within them: "I have something important to say," on one scale and "Will anyone listen to me?" on the other. Perhaps these two utterings are within every human being at the time of birth. Every child's innermost longing: the confidence to have something important to say. The hope someone listens.

Unfortunately, life can take away the confidence and hope. Parents, teachers, mentors, lovers can restore it. It seems to me that in a marriage one of the most wonderful things is feeling assured that when we have something important to say our spouse will listen to us. And, likewise, that is one of the most vital gifts we can impart to those we love.

So, sharing what we have to say--whether as memoir, essay, or nonfiction. Or as a fictional story... is not only an act of confidence and love, but a selfless act of giving and a selfish act of attention-seeking. As writers, we have to be comfortable with both sides of the modern writer's penny. You know, the penny you get for your thoughts...

Side one: Writing is a selfless act of giving...
Writing usually happens when one is alone. Even if you write in a coffee shop. Even if you write with children playing under your desk. Each word that goes from brain to paper or laptop exists, if only for a brief second (in this age of instant blogging and pretty-darn-instant publishing) alone.

Yes, the alone time has changed. Today, it might only be seconds. The seconds it takes to think a thought, then type it. And the seconds it takes for someone to read it on their cell phone, iPhone, or laptop. Or running as a banner at the bottom of Larry King's show on CNN.

But I'm thinking, back to "side one," of those writing a book. Typically, even in 2009, book writing is a solitary endeavor. Apply rear end to chair. Stay there. Stay there a long, long, long time. (See one of the latest issues of Publishers Weekly, where several authors share their process. I noticed one spent 12 years on his novel, the other 6.) It takes some confidence (or perhaps desperation) to do this.

Years ago, before I started in this business of publishing; before I found my voice at all (a whole 'nother story)... I read (to paraphrase) the only difference between Michaelangelo and anyone else who wanted to paint was that he could "see." Also, that the difference between those who succeeded in reaching their dreams and those who did not, was that those who did worked while their peers slept.

Those two ideas: learning to see, and choosing to work, even when there was no sign of an audience, let alone a financial payoff, took root in me and grew, bearing fruit in my life I didn't think possible.

Writing is a selfless act of giving because words are put to paper, the work is done, without (usually) assurance of income. Without assurance of positive reception. Without confidence, even, of an audience. It is selfless in the aspect that giving of one's thoughts, or history, or dreams is a way that we reach out to others and say: you are not alone. I want to connect with you on some level. Let's spend time together. Especially with today's technology, where writers and readers can, and from a marketing standpoint must, engage in dialogue.

Side two: Writing is a selfish act of attention seeking...
If a writer is not seeking attention, by the time they've learned what it takes to write a book proposal, submit it to agents and editors, bring a book to publication, and then, pleaseGodyes, sell that damn book... they will be. They will learn all about seeking attention, gaining publicity, and draining every marketing opportunity, every contact, every lead, and every possible reviewer. Like literary vampires, only a shadow of their former solitary selves, they will drain the lifeblood out of any marketing opportunity, in order to "get the word out" about their book. It can be difficult to watch; especially if you're the one encouraging it.

Fortunately, ?, since most of us want attention, whether we admit it or not, and since any writer who is published now wants to please those who've brought their book to print, it is not a leap to take a writer who writes in solitude and turn him or her into an attention-seeking, blogging, podcasting, Kindling, TV appearing, magazine article seeking, book-signing, seminar-giving Author.

Guilty as charged.

Somewhere between writing the concept for What Saved Me on a length of toilet paper taken from a roll on my nightstand one winter night when I was suffering from a cold and now 200 + books and all their authors later... I too turned from the selfless act of writing, the solitary act of writing, to the modern myth of the Benefit of Garnering Attention.

Attention, dear Reader, can be a two-edged sword.

I learned this in my own, small part of the world, when I was raking leaves on a cool autumn day. A car pulled up with a handyman who had painted my porch the previous summer (and not very well either). He rolled down the passenger window. "Here," he said. "My son likes to write. Wouldja mind readin' this and let me know what you think?" His son, was in elementary school. Not middle school, not high school, not college. Elementary school. Apparently without a teacher to guide him.

I took the papers, procrastinated, marked some thoughts and encouragements on it and mailed it to my best guess as to father's known address. Never heard back.

But, I resolved that should I ever publish a bestseller, I will not rake leaves without wearing undereye concealer and lipstick and having a big dog with me in the front yard.

What Saved Me was not a best seller. It was barely even a seller. Because that's not what I cared about? Maybe. I wrote it as a thank you to those who had encouraged me, and as an encouragement to readers I would never meet but who might need some hope. But, I would be dishonest if I did not admit that some of the motivation stemmed from "I have something important to say. Please listen to me." I mean, really, isn't there a child inside most of us who just wants to be heard?

Somewhere, in my metal file cabinet (the one I'm going to get rid of when my office goes paperless), is a folder containing letters written to me from a prison in Ohio. From a reading group where my little book was read. Women at the local women's shelter were given the book at a "take back the night/antiviolence" gathering. A few parents of challenging children have read it. For those 500 copies, my goal was met.

So, in this day when everyone wants their 15 minutes of fame, and where notice seems so easy to garner and regret for not getting it seems so bitter... embrace the selfless act of writing. Have hope that if you do the work, and work the process, that the attention will come.

What else can a writer do?

Here are related links:
Life is an Act of Literary Creation

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