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Posts Tagged ‘John Grisham’

“Are you still writing?”

In art, behavior, blogging, books, business, culture, family, journalism, life, Media, work on May 15, 2012 at 4:04 am
Homework Session

Homework Session (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

They always ask this with a little chirpy voice. Like…really?

They’re usually people with office jobs and big paychecks and paid sick days. People who line up every morning to catch the bus or train or subway and some of whom pray for reprieve from the vocational choice they’ve made.

Writing for a living looks so damn easy. No stress! No boss! No demands or deadlines!

Anyone can do it, right?

I thought I was alone in hearing this annoying question after spending my entire life as a journalist and author.

But Roger Rosenblatt, a much bigger name than I here in the U.S., gets it too, as he writes in The New York Times Book Review:

And, as far as anyone in the family can see, I do nothing, or next to it. This is the lot of the writer. You will hear someone referred to as “the writer in the family” — usually a quiet child who dresses strangely and shows inclinations to do nothing in the future. But when a supposedly grown-up writer is a member of the family, who knows what to make of him? A friend of my son-in-law’s asked me the other day, “You still writing?” — as if the profession were a new sport I’d picked up, like curling, or a disease I was trying to get rid of. Alexander Pope: “This long disease, my life.”

Writers cannot fairly object to being seen in this way. Since, in the nothing we do — the “nothing that is not there and the nothing that is” (Wallace Stevens) — we do not live in the real world, or wish to, it is fruitless and dishonest to protest that we do. When family members introduce us to one of their friends, it is always with bewilderment camouflaged by hyperbole. “This is so-and-so,” they will say, too heartily. “He’s a great and esteemed writer.” To which their friend will reply, “Would I have read anything you’ve written?” To which I reply, “How should I know?”

Everyone wants to be a writer — it looks like so much fun! Sit around the house in your pajamas all day waiting for inspiration. Sign me up!

Even the plumber who recently came to my apartment, and socked me with a $225.00 bill for fixing our only toilet, said “Oh, when I retire I want to be a writer.”

“You don’t,” I warned him, wincing as I wrote the check. “Most of us don’t make a lot of money.”

“Oh, I just want to be a successful writer,” he replied. “You know, like John Grisham.” (Who last year raked in a cool $18 million.)

Those of us who’ve been cranking out journalism or book-focused copy for a few decades, even with some nice reviews, (my first book was called [swoon!] “groundbreaking and invaluable” by one influential publication), know it’s a risky way to make a living. Because your “living” can vary from $4,000 a day to $4,000 a year.

Last year I made more money from public speaking engagements and a TV option from CBS for my memoir, “Malled” than I did from the book itself. It cost me 10 percent of the option income to have an entertainment attorney review the inch-thick contract with CBS negotiated by two agents — now taking 20 percent of the option cash for their input.

I waited 12 months after publication for the final instalment of my advance, which, after my agent took her standard 15 percent cut, came to $8,500. That’s a year’s income, or more, in sub-Saharan Africa. In suburban New York, (with no kids to support), that lasts quite a bit less.

Here’s a great list from Forbes.com, and fellow journo/blogger Jeff Bercovici, why journalism still kicks ass as a way to make a living. Because it just does.

(Here’s a brilliant blog post with a visual of how “success” appears to different people, including writers.)

So, why do so many people long to be writers?

People want to be rich. If writing doesn’t make you rich (and it certainly can for those who hit and stay on the best-seller list and/or sell their work to film or television), then why the hell are you bothering?

People want to be famous. If your book is on a shelf in a store, you’re the bomb! (So is weed-killer and diapers, but hey, retail exposure is cool, right?)

People want to be on TV/radio/blogs. They crave global attention. Because then life will be so different. (Not!)

People want to feel cool and creative. As opposed to cube life with 10 days of vacation.

People want to have other people quote them as wise and witty experts. Not just their Mom.

People want to feel validated as having something compelling to say, with millions eager to listen to them. Not just their Mom.

So, having published two non-fiction books (so far), is any of this true? Does it happen?

Sort of. I’ve met a few people who knew my name before I walked into the room. That can be pleasant.

I write because it’s how I make sense of the world.

I write because it stitches me back into the crazy quilt of other people’s ideas and feelings.

I write because my skill and talent and hard work, even working freelance for most of my life, have still allowed me to earn and save more than the average American with a steady paycheck.

I write because it allows me to indulge my insatiable curiosity about the world and get paid to do so.

I write because it has allowed me to meet everyone from Queen Elizabeth to convicted felons to Olympic athletes to a female admiral to the Inuk man who greeted me on a snowmobile when our tiny plane landed in his village just south of the Arctic circle.

I write because…

I’m a writer.

Why do you write?

The bitterly disappointed reader — who’s to blame?

In books, business, culture, women, work on February 28, 2012 at 12:33 am
Popeye

Image via Wikipedia

Here’s the problem:

You, the reader, want someone to write a book that resonates with you. It’s all about you!

Except, sadly, it’s not. It never will be.

Writers, certainly of non-fiction, write what they know, how they think, what they’ve studied or taught, how they were raised.

Every single one of us writes through multiple filters: race, age, gender, nationality, religion, political beliefs, income level, ethnicity.

Then we have to pass the gatekeepers of agents, editors, publishers and their sales and marketing staff. And, oh yeah, the retailers who only order our books on commission, shipping them right back within six weeks unless the merch is moving.

So when readers expect writers to write in a way they find cosy and comforting, a peculiar and somewhat infantile rage often emerges when some of them, inevitably, find our work disappointing.

“It’s not what I expected!” they wail.

Well, what did you expect?

Some readers who feel a writer has failed them not only dislike our books — they dislike us personally.

Which, while I love the passionate involvement readers can have with our books, is also a little weird — I don’t loathe Alexander Payne as a human being if I hated (which I didn’t) — his new film, “The Descendants” or his hit “Sideways.”

Separating the creative product from its producer seems a challenge these days.

I’ve seen this in four instances and I think it really bears discussion and reflection.

The first, of course, is the huge best-seller “Eat, Pray, Love” written by a childless, educated white woman who left her suburban marriage to travel the world in search of herself.

The very idea! Jowls shook worldwide in horrified indignation. How dare she…pursue…pleasure?!

If I pick up Dickens or Balzac or John Grisham or David Sedaris, I know what I’m getting into. I’m an adult making an informed choice. If I loathe the book — its tone, content, voice, pacing, dialogue, plot (or absence of same), well, tant pis! It’s the price of admission, kids. Just because it’s for sale doesn’t guarantee it’s great or that it will make me happy.

So when this blogger was chosen for Freshly Pressed, I took immediate exception to her decision to tear up the book she was reading because she disliked the author’s point of view.

Part of her objection was the privileged background of its author, Gretchen Rubin, whose father-in-law is the former secretary of the Treasury Robert Rubin. Her book, “The Happiness Project,” has been a huge best-seller.

She is who she is.

I chose the cartoon of Popeye because I live and write by his motto: “I yam what I yam and that’s all I yam.”

Expecting any writer to write as if s/he were someone else you might have a beer with instead burdens even the smartest authors with an added hurdle to clear when trying to find and grow an audience.

Same criticism has followed Laura Vanderkam, a young Princeton grad whose third child’s arrival just preceded that of her third book. For a woman in her early 30s, that’s a whole pile ‘o achievement.

I know Laura personally. She’s privileged, well-educated, a driven, goal-oriented woman.

She is who she is, and whether you agree with her gogogogogogogogo mindset, her worldview inevitably colors how she thinks, the subjects that engage her and how she approaches them.

If you don’t share her worldview, you probably won’t enjoy her books either.

My memoir of working retail, “Malled”, has drawn some of the most vicious comments I have ever heard anywhere, including three years of relentless high school bullying.

“I actually started to hate her”, wrote one woman.

“Bitter, pretentious and lazy, lazy, lazy,” wrote another.

These are not book reviews, dear readers.

These are character assassinations, written under the soothing cloak of anonymity, and posted forevermore on Amazon.com — the place where would-be buyers, you know, make decisions about our work.

I can assure you, if someone stood outside my store or my home, shouting how nasty my food or products or service were, I’d take direct action.

But in this virtual world, where total strangers make snap decisions about who we are (based on — hello! — a deliberately chosen and heavily edited narrative voice), the real person behind the words on the page becomes some weird, annoying ghostly abstraction.

The writer you meet, certainly in non-fiction or memoir, is but one facet of that person. Judging and dismissing them with a sneer only reflects a sad lack of sophistication about what book-writing is.

My readers no more “know me” than someone who sits beside me on the subway for 30 minutes.

The next time you loathe a book — or love it — try to remember that a real person wrote it.

With their best intentions.

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