Today’s post is inspired by two wonderful pieces of art. The first is a brief documentary of the Scottish poet Robert Fullerton, originally trained as a shipbuilding welder. He says: This is the wonderful thing about both these trades. They are both done solitary and in silence. The second is a late-1980s essay by the San Francisco Chronicle writer Jon Carroll which no longer seems easily found online, in which he writes about the visit of Tibetan monks who were spending the week at the Palace of Fine Arts, creating a sand mandala that would then be swept into a bowl and cast into the sea as a teaching of non-permanence and detachment. But then a crazy lady walked through the middle of it while they were still making it. They looked at each other, shrugged, and said, “well, guess we’re done early, then. Lesson over.”
Writing is indeed done solitary and in silence. But then the moment comes when it’s done. What do we do then? The notion of detachment, as practiced fundamentally in Buddhism but really in lots of different faiths, is that suffering is born of desire. Teaching ourselves to renounce desire allows us an enlightened view of a world that needn’t respond to us, that needn’t implicate us at all. We have dedicated ourselves to the work, because the work is worthy. And then we let go of the work, because the attainment does not matter.
So here’s today’s quiz, to see the level of enlightenment that we may have reached around our work. Let’s say that you’ve spent a year or so writing a novel. You’ve tuned and revised, you’ve cut and arranged, you’ve brought it to a place where it feels true and real. It is done. Do you:
Immediately start to think about finding fame? Or wealth?
Immediately start to think about finding readers who will love you because of the work?
Accept readers, or not, as emerges in the course of the world?
Put it into a drawer or on the hard drive and look at it again occasionally in years to come?
Put it into a drawer or on the hard drive and leave it there unregarded?
Delete the file?
The work was the work. The work drew your attention and devotion. The work was worthy. But the work is done. The work no longer exists. The resultant object is not the work; it is an historical artifact of work that was once done, by a self who no longer exists. A self who typed “the end” some increasing number of days or months or years ago. In fact, the self who did the work isn’t even the same self as the one who now owns it. They wanted different things, and conducted different efforts to reach for it.
We contain multitudes, right?.
I vacillate between Levels 2 and 4 of the scale above. Level 1 is stupid, and Levels 5 and 6 are well beyond me. I have a long way to go to reach apatheia, may not reach it in this life. Should I? Or is the renunciation of desire its own form of self-regard, the snake consuming its ever-so-noble tail?
I read a book earlier this week that I’d written six years ago. No other human being in the world has seen it, and likely never will. It’s a good story. It made me happy to revisit those people and their affections and adventures once again. That’s my Level 4 experience. I can live at peace with that. It’s Levels 3 and especially 2 that ache, that burn. But as they say, time heals all wounds. Perhaps we natively inhabit different levels of detachment by temporal distance from the moment of completion. My first book, now over twenty years old, doesn’t even feel like mine any more. I’ve got a bunch of copies in the garage, a holdover from when I had some shipped to a speaking event. They are silent and inert. I’m not ready to put them into the recycling yet… but if someone else did, I probably wouldn’t be angry with them, and after a couple of days, I’d appreciate the empty shelf space. I’m at Level 5.8 with that one.
A different one—the one I just printed and sent around—is a red-hot Level 2. I want people to tell me how wonderful I am, what a great story it is and what a great writer I am to have devised it all. I’m a long, long way from detachment on that one. But in a few years, maybe I’ll buy a new computer and just not transfer that file over.
What an odd business we writers find ourselves in. We are at peace when we do the work, and then drive ourselves nuts every day once we’re done.
Here’s three connected things for the day. At least, they’re connected in MY head.
Thing One. I have a morning ritual. I check my email to see if anything’s on fire. Then I go to the Comics Kingdom website and do the Battleships puzzle, the Calcudoku puzzle, and then read the comic strip Zits. And one of the things that I think is remarkable is that the comics all have comment sections. I’m picturing some recently retired guy in a trailer park in Florida, reading the day’s installment of Jeremy and his parents and his friends, and imagining that the world needs to hear his thoughts. Today, Jeremy and his friend Hector are goofing around in a little kids’ playground. Some comments include:
Young, inexperienced, adventurous, and not a lick of sense….as Granny would say.
How today, ignore all rules…
That’s not a playground, it’s an entertainment center for snowflakes, people that will grow up with absolutely no ability to cope with a cloudy day
I understand the grumpy old man impulse. I have it all the time. But really, dude, do you need your inept social commentary attached to a freakin’ comic strip?
Thing Two. I was walking the cat this morning (yep, cat on a leash) and we went by the vacation house down the road. Nobody lives there full-time, so they only get junk mail, and the mailbox door has fallen off years ago. The cat was eating some grass, so I was stopped for a minute, and glanced at the mailbox where I was standing. A couple of envelopes and the most recent copy of the Lakes Region Free Press, rolled up and crushed in. The LRFP is a free weekly ad newspaper, with inserts from the supermarket and the hardware store, classified ads and a few display ads, surrounded by photos of kids sports teams and other small-town Rockwelliana. They send out tens of thousands of copies every week, one to every mailing address in our region, which is great because I need to light the wood stove with something.
Really, there’s a significant amount of creative energy invested in every week’s copy of that paper, (which they pay postage for to give it away to me for free!!), and it has almost never contained anything I chose to read. Literally, it comes in the door, I put the glossy inserts into the recycling and the newsprint into the basket next to the wood stove. It never even sits on the kitchen table for half an hour to raise the question about whether it’ll be read. It just won’t be.
Thing Three. I had a random thought this morning, about comedy clubs. They’re the bravest environment I know of. You don’t have to be brave to be an established stand-up comic, because you have fans. People come to your shows because they know your stuff, and already like it, and want more. You have a brand. You ARE a brand. If you’re Nikki Glazer, you’re the pretty, slutty sex comic. If you’re Ali Wong, you’re the angry, potty-mouthed mommy comic. If you’re Bill Burr, you’re the reactionary, “everybody’s stupid” Bostonian-barroom comic. As audience members, we know that coming in the door. We bought tickets specifically to see that. It’s a safe room, for audience and performer alike.
But comedy clubs are a dog’s breakfast. Four or five performers you don’t know, each with a radically different style and tone and topical content. If you like Nikki Glazer but go to a club and get Ron White, that’s just not going to speak to you the same way. You’re buying a product that you know nothing about in advance. And for the performers themselves, they go in with absolutely no warm-up and no reputation points on the board. They have to work from raw skill, as performers and writers. They have to earn every laugh.
Sum of Three Things. My writing group met on Sunday, and we had a long talk about motivation and purpose. We talked easily about our motivations for writing, for actually sitting down in front of a keyboard and making stories. But it was much harder to talk about our motivations for wanting readers. That’s embarrassing. It’s needy. We’re asking other people to pay attention to us.
I mean, I have a blog. This post today is the 295th in the past two years since I started it. Nobody asked for that. I’ve written a bunch of novels. What makes that different from the grumpy old guy in his BarcaLounger shaking his fist at the online comic strip because nobody else will listen to him anymore? What makes it different from the Lakes Region Free Press?
Nothing, that’s what.
But I prefer to think of it in the bravery mode. I’m going to take my few minutes in the club, as an unknown, and see if I can help my audience have a good time. I’ve invested the effort in the craft, and now I’m setting it out into the world to see if it connects, like pollen, to a receptive reader.
So just for fun, here’s the offer. I’ve had a few copies of my most recent novel, Trailing Spouse, printed in paperback. Here’s the blurb:
From grade-school spelling to top-tier PhD, Kurt Genier had always been an academic star. But his university career failed to launch, and he followed his wife Megan to her new faculty position at a third-rung college in rural Vermont. Kurt was just a trailing spouse, far away from friends, from scholarly life, from urban diversity.
When their closest friends were deported, Kurt and Megan were called upon to serve a child they’d never met. They fought against the weight of bureaucracy and habit, defended an unfamiliar family life from those for whom differentmeant dangerous. Kurt had to use his intellectual gifts in an entirely new way—to move from star to servant.
Trailing Spouse shows what can happen to a child when the interests of individuals, families and cultures collide. Shows who we can be, after who we were has collapsed. Shows how far we would go to protect the future of another.
If that sounds like a book you’d be interested in reading, let me know. I’ll send a free copy to up to ten people. Here’s the rules:
I’ll take the first ten requests I receive. One copy only per request.
You can contact me by e-mail, if you know it, or through messaging me on LinkedIn, if you’re a member, or through the Keep In Touch tab on the website.
Include your name and mailing address. (US addresses only! I’m willing to spend three bucks to send it out domestically, but not twenty-five for international mail.)
There’s an old saying in building design—you can have a building fast, you can have a building cheap, and you can have a building good. Pick any two.
This formulation has been repeated across many fields. I heard it at Duke, for instance, about student success—you can get good grades, have a good social life, and get enough sleep…Pick two. It seems to be impossible to optimize for everything simultaneously. That simple insight has made uncountable millions of dollars in consulting fees for business gurus who conduct cost-benefit analyses. Costs and benefits are always paired (and we’ve usually resolved that dilemma by maximizing the benefits to ownership and shunting most of the costs onto the workers or the people who live next to the factory or the mine or in another country or in the future). Any political policy decision can be picked at because it does 86% great things and 14% bad things, and we’re only going to hear about the bad things from the noise machine. But the fact is that every decision we make requires us to think carefully about the good and the bad, and then revisit that over and over as we start to see the empirical facts of its impacts and not merely our imperfect and delusional forecasts.
I was put in mind of this by an email with a friend yesterday. She sent me a Margaret Atwood quote: Any novel is hopeful in that it presupposes a reader. It is, actually, a hopeful act just to write anything, really, because you’re assuming that someone will be around to [read] it. And that’s true, but only partly true. And the reason it’s partial is that the “act of writing” is a lot of different and only mildly related acts, each of which optimizes toward different benefits and offers different costs.
Here’s another quote about writing, from the theater artist Kaneza Schaal: There was theater that I wanted to see that I wasn’t seeing, and I was tired of complaining about what I was seeing. So at some point I was like, “I guess I need to make some stuff.” That’s the origin moment, the spur to action that has no relationship at all to any audience beyond oneself. I’m not seeing the story I want to see or the book I want to read or the song I want to listen to, so I have to make it myself. That’s not a hopeful position. It’s more an exasperated position, an obsessive position. We’re scratching an itch that no one else has been able to reach.
Then we get underway with it, fretting every day for a couple of weeks that we’re wasting time, that there isn’t really a story there, blah blah blah. But what we’re actually doing is laying out the kindling. It only looks like pine cones and wood chips; what it really is, is the stuff that’ll catch and let us put the big wood in there later on. It feels futile until the moment it’s not.
Once the fire’s lit, though, we get the daily pleasure of watching the flames and feeling the warmth. Another log, and another log, and another. It just works, and we feel…well, I was going to say that we feel competent, but that’s not right, really. We don’t feel anything. We’re lost to flow, just watching the story. It’s like we’ve got the exclusive months-in-advance preview of a book we’ve never seen before. I don’t know how many times I’ve gotten ready for bed and said to Nora, “Something just happened today. The story went a really different direction than I expected, and I have no idea yet what’s coming next.” The story tells you, if you let it.
There comes a point about 85% of the way in when, for the first time, you spot the finish line. You know how this bird is going to land. You still have to be vigilant about the wind currents and the glide path, you can’t get sloppy, but you know that this story will have a conclusion that feels right. And once that conclusion’s reached, you roll up to the hangar, and run through your post-flight checklist, walking it all again from front to back to make sure the story’s intact, tightening and replacing any loose bits you discover on your tour.
None of this work of writing has any concern for external readers at all. It is a bespoke novel, written exactly and only for its author. And it’s at this moment, once the story has safely arrived, that represents the hinge to not merely different aspects of “the act of writing,” but a whole different family of acts. The novel, once innocent and isolated, now asks to be introduced to the world. You want the best for it, but you can’t protect it from bullying and being ignored in gym class. You have no control over what happens to this story once it’s appeared. You introduce it around, sent application packages and letters or recommendation to agents and editors, but those institutions will or won’t accept the story and you’ll never know why, usually will never hear back at all.
The last couple of things I’ve written, I’ve worked up a page layout and a cover design and sent it off for a small-edition printing that I then give to friends. (And here I offer my recommendation for Mixam, a printer that’s been remarkably accommodating and affordable. I’ve done print runs as small as thirty copies, and their staff has worked with me on layout issues and done terrific quality work. And even at thirty copies, no cost advantages that come with high volume, I can still get them printed and delivered to the porch for barely six dollars a book.) It feels good to share my stories with some readers, storytelling at the retail rather than wholesale level. Like being back around the campfire.
Maybe you share it with a writing group, a workshop, a conference, where each participant tries to drag the story into their own circle of allegiance. It could be more like this, or like that, or like the other. Writers are writers for a reason, after all; give them characters and a setting and a problem, and they’ll listen to their own inner voices and the story will suggest itself differently to every one.
Let’s say you get a publisher, a contract. Your agent and your editor now want your book to become their book, because they need to sell it and they track the market far more closely than you. The book, because it’s now an economic as well as a literary object, also enters the world of commerce, selling or not selling copies to meet a publisher’s expectation. The book market provides a sharp upward curve followed by an equally sharp downward curve, the book achieving most of the work it will ever do in the world within the first two months of its public life. It becomes an annual royalty statement of disappointment
Then the book enters the world of commentary, with professionals and (innumerable) amateurs offering their judgment, their stars, their thumbs oriented upward or down. For my most recent book, the Amazon rating is 4.5, Goodreads is 4.01, 3.50 on LibraryThing, each site with reviews covering the full range from best thing ever to unmitigated trash. (“For a seemingly smart guy, Childress has written a stupid book. It’s full of useful facts & stats, so it’s good research fodder but his analysis is so simple-minded that you almost feel sorry for him.”) Some magazine and newspaper writers get in on the act as well, using your book to make their point. Writers are writers for a reason, after all.
And all of those reviews and stars from the last paragraph now become part of your sales team as the book goes forward, their interpretations becoming far more expansive than the press’ marketing materials. The collective word count of the reviews of my last book is greater than the book itself, which was relatively short. Imagine a poor little book like Gatsby, its 47,094 words having been completely overshadowed by the hundreds of thousands of bad student essays about it, Jay Gatsby now fixed in mind for millions of people as Leonardo DiCaprio.
No, this “act of writing” is a vast number of things, each bearing little enough relation to the others. So let’s go back to our original formulation. You can write because you need the story. You can write because you want to please your friends. You can write because you want to be acclaimed and/or rich. And I really don’t think you’re going to get all three.
So the question of optimization becomes individual. What is the cost and benefit analysis that makes this work even remotely reasonable? Margaret Atwood and Stephen King would answer that question differently than I would, and differently from each other as well. “The writing life” is a sham concept, covering hundreds of thousands of unique stories. And as storytellers, we ought to find the uniqueness comforting. We are strange characters, all of us, doing what we do for reasons invisible to others and often enough opaque to ourselves. And that’s what makes characters interesting.