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Monday, April 04, 2011

What It Means to Be a Writer Today, Part 1: The Good News

Part I, The Good News

By Don Wallace

Sitting here in publishing limbo, bracing ourselves for waves of change and tidal surges of destruction, we may feel compelled to ask what exactly did we get ourselves into when we decided to be writers. After all, the consensus of media and other anointed commentators seems to be that the whole writing game is over. To give it a catchy, twitterable title: “Print is Dead, The Book is Toast, And William Shakespeare Were He Alive Today Would Be Writing For HBO and Doing Slam-Tweet Contests–LOL!!!” None of which is refutable.

As this new year dawns, Borders may already be in bankruptcy. E-books surpass print books in sales. And somewhere, in a rude straw-filled library carrel, another would-be writer slouches toward a coffee break. Another would-be writer pauses in making that latte (skim, extra espresso shot) to mentally jot a note about a story unfolding in her head. And in far-off Colombia, a coffee grower’s cocaine-addicted son is typing as fast as his fingers can fly, chasing a vision that nobody can deny and may even get him admitted to an MFA program in the U.S.A.

That’s the beauty of this thing of ours. Publishing may be going to hell, or heaven, who knows. But writing goes on. Writers stumble on their vocation every day.

In future posts, I’m going to try to stick to one topic: What it means to be a writer today. It takes chutzpah to call this first post “The Good News,” but what the hell, it’s a new year and the slate is clean and as I will soon point out, even the “bad” news is good.

As to where I’m coming from, always a valid question with writers on any subject, I figure that in my own way I’m in a perfect position to judge the current scene. I’ve been at the writing thing for my entire adult life, I’ve straddled the academic and “real” world, written for a living and for no reward except the rapture, been inside the beast called publishing, lived on both coasts and in the middle, and I’m not a big success.

I think that last is crucial: success ruins writers in terms of advice. Either they tell you stuff to discourage you (because they’re so unique, and you’re so jejune) or they make it seem so elementary that you feel you’ve been a slacker not to have written and published at least a trilogy by the time you’re twenty-five.

Now for the good news. First, location does not matter. Sure, all the media attention makes it seem so necessary, somehow, to get published before you’re twenty, acquire a quirky ethnic or foreign accent, pal around with the future famous, grow a scruffy beard, and move to Brooklyn or even better, Williamsburg. Well, no. Most of the so-called great writers didn’t come from New York or do their great work there; most still won’t.

If you drag yourself across the country because you think Brooklyn will water your roots, by all means, do it. Rude shocks make for better writing. But thanks to the creative destruction of the publishing mechanism, times were never better for getting your work out into the readersphere.

Second, the door is open. The above-referenced creative destruction is opening a million or more doors for those who, for the first time in history, can bypass the filters that publishing used to weed out the hordes of would-be writers. Not to knock the hard and ill-paid work of agents (the first filter) and editors (the second filter) and publishing executives (the third, hidden filter), but the world they made was never a meritocracy of literature or even storytelling. It was more like a bodyguard working the velvet rope at Club 54. The amount of slush pile submissions was simply overwhelming. And depressing. There was no way to sort it without adopting the most callous triage.

In the end, most books were published by word of mouth–a friend who knew a friend passed along a name, someone sighed and said, “Okay, I’ll take a look.” For those who had really powerful friends, the process was easier and the results often were meretricious: in the ’50s, white males in snap-brim hats apparently had a field day, effortlessly drinking martinis and smoking Chesterfields and single-finger typing huge novels; in the ’80s, any reasonably pretty daughter of a CEO who could put her hair up in a chignon and pout for a photographer could publish her slim volume of stories. (Not to be unfair to pretty daughters of the rich, but writing is a zero-sum game when it comes to reviews and column inches of press coverage, and Daddy’s empire also monopolized attention.) Today, you don’t need to be anybody’s daughter, or white, or male. You just digitize and self-publish and flog that blog of yours. It can happen to you.

Third, the field is clear. Nobody is stopping you. Because the value that the marketplace attaches to books is always much lower than the effort it takes to produce them, those with the drive, obsession, mania or serenity to keep writing and improving (and self-editing) can just motor along and watch the wrecks of wannabe writers pile up on the roadside.

If you start out writing at twenty, by the time you hit forty you’ll be among a very select group–those who kept going. Not that this promises any satisfaction other than that. But as an indicator of mental and psychic engagement in the world, chasing a dream is much better than sitting around wondering where it all went.

That’s enough good news for one day.

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