Amateurs climbing the walls
January 1, 1970Amateurs climbing the walls
The quotation/solution to last week’s acrostic puzzle in the Sunday New York Times was from Edna Ferber: “Only amateurs say that they write for their own amusement. Writing is not an amusing occupation. It is a combination of ditch-digging, mountain-climbing, treadmill and childbirth. Writing may be interesting, absorbing, exhilarating, racking, relieving. But amusing? Never!”--A Peculiar Treasure (Ferber’s autobiography), first published in 1938.
I used to do the acrostic. It’s so much more satisfying than a plain old crossword. When you solve it, instead of a matrix of random words, you have an author, a title and a quote; it’s like an oracle from the writing gods. But I’ve been working on my second book for so long (feels like half my life), that I’ve put aside almost every superfluous activity. These days I simply look up the solution a week later to get my belated Delphic prophecy.
This message naturally made me wonder all over again whether I’m an amateur or a "real writer." Back at the beginning of this year, I was sure I knew the answer. I even posted to this blog on that very topic (“Coming out as a writer”). All writers are familiar with this idea, that writing is hard work, that the quality of your prose is directly proportional to the amount of sweat and suffering that went into producing it. The more readable your novel, the better constructed it is and the deeper its meaning, the harder you must have labored. As Red Smith observed: “There’s nothing to writing. All you do is sit down at the typewriter and open a vein.”
But things have changed. I don’t mean that writing has miraculously become easy. Just because most of us sit down at a computer instead of a typewriter hasn’t made the creative process any less challenging, although it has done wonders for editing and revision. And certainly the modern writer’s precision tools for time-wasting, the Internet and computer solitaire, are a vast improvement over the blunt instruments previous generations had to make do with: a bottle of bourbon and a pack of cards. But I digress.
No, what has changed is the peripheral stuff: the publicity, the marketing and the whole process of being a "professional." There are so many of us writers, working very hard at making a living from this marginal occupation, that some of us have become...drudges, wage slaves. Just last year, I went to Daniel Silva's book party for his tenth novel, The Secret Servant. (How did I crash this event? I happen to have spent the first twelve years of my life in the same apartment building where his wife spent hers). Daniel had the kind of bash that a writer like me can only dream of: a blow-out at his in-laws' swanky Midtown apartment, a real crush, dozens of free copies blithely signed and handed out. When it was my turn in line I asked Daniel how it was going, although I already knew the answer. "Great," he answered in glum tones. This was a tired, world-weary laborer. It's a seven-day-a-week job, you see. This party is just lost time from researching and writing the next book. When one book is extruded, another one must enter the pipeline. He can barely afford to take a bathroom break from the assembly line for fear the entire factory will shut down. Now, barely a year later, his next book, Moscow Rules, is ready to roll.
I know, I know. I should have such problems, you say. I've said it myself. But there are different kinds of ditch digging, after all. Digging to unearth a priceless archaeological relic or a fossil of a heretofore mythical extinct species is a far cry from digging the trenches for the gas lines or the highway. A treadmill is still a long walk to nowhere, even with the illusion of a computer screen showing us an enchanted forest or an unspoiled beach. Daniel Silva, along with many other successful novelists, is locked into that death march to success that has turned a creative, anarchic, "bohemian" existence into just another rat race.
Now, writing is the "fun" part. The real treadmill is the selling. Publicity and marketing are where the ditch-digging and mountain-climbing come in--literally. I was both delighted and dismayed to learn that the third person to climb The New York Times’s building last week was a self-published author, David Malone, trying to get publicity for his book, Bin Laden’s Plan (2005).
Unlike the two previous climbers, who saw the building as an urban mountain to be conquered (because it’s there), and were aiming for the summit, made accessible by its convenient horizontal rods, Malone simply wanted to hang a banner for his book.
These days, it seems to me, a writer had better be doing it, at least on some level, because it amuses her, or else why bother? Yes, I understand what Ms. Ferber meant. There’s no question that serious writing is work, not a pleasure cruise; and finishing a book will (I hope) continue to make this childless woman feel as if I’ve gestated and delivered another beautiful baby. But why would I go through it at all if I didn’t enjoy it; if it didn’t, on some level, make me happy—even, yes, amuse me?
All I can say is, when the writing stops being amusing, I’ll be climbing the walls, too.