The Book Bug

Humans are storytellers. Everything is a narrative with us: Wait’ll you hear what happened to me today at work!

I get it. I do.

I get that your air force pilot daddy was the best ever, that he was the embodiment of “top gun” before Tom Cruise was a gleam in his mother’s eye, and that on his preflight inspections he (your daddy) walked around the fuselage and tightened bolts with his bare hands.* And I get those intense dreams you have, too, the kind that make you think you should write them down, turn them into a novel or something.

But why do you want to publish it? No, really, I’m curious.

A good friend of mine wrote a memoir and I read it, critiqued it, and told her, gently, that she shouldn’t give up her day job. But she wanted it to be published. She pursued traditional publication until she realized it wouldn’t happen—and she had an “in,” more than one, friends who hand-walked her manuscript in and because of that she got nice long critiques from in-house editors explaining in great detail why the answer was no (things I’d already told her)—and then, because she believed so strongly it was a story that needed to be told, she self-published it. She’s sold a few copies to friends and fam.

Some time ago the New York Times ran a piece about this very subject. It said 81 percent of Americans feel they have a book in them. I heard on NPR once that some folks see having published a book as a form of immortality. Note that word published. Writer (and writing teacher) Anne Lamott, speaking about her writing students, says (in her book Bird by Bird),

The problem that comes up over and over again is that these people want to be published. They kind of want to write, but they really want to be published. You’ll never get to where you want to be that way [simply by being published], I tell them.

Why do you want to do this? I asked my friend. “I want to leave something behind,” she said. About this the Times says,

Beyond the obvious motivation for wanting to write a book—hoping to win fame or fortune—my guess is that many people who feel they have a book “in them” doubtless see writing it as a way of establishing their own significance. … If only oblivion awaits, how does one leave behind evidence that one lived?

Write a book, of course. Not … paint a picture, build a monument, climb a mountain, or even, you know, run naked across the field at a Major League baseball game. No, write a book.

The Book Bug—it’s like the imperative that makes those salmon swim upstream (and believe me, writing a book that will get published is absolutely that hard: it could kill you). Why would anyone want to do it? When the Boy was in high school he declared his intent to go to college and major in music, and every one of his music teachers said a version of this: don’t do it unless you can’t imagine doing anything else (because it’s hard) (and it doesn’t pay well).

This will sound familiar to my friends who are published writers. Many of them have been writing since they were very young. Like the Boy, they simply can’t imagine doing anything else.

And they worry when they’re between book deals. Because the road to publication is hard. It takes years of practice. And there are no guarantees.

But I can guarantee that there are good reasons to write. Don’t worry about the rest. Write to express yourself, write because it scratches a creative itch, write to organize your thoughts (I do this a lot). Write, perhaps, because you have a story to tell. Lamott says even if your audience is small, “to have written your version is an honorable thing.” I told my friend, “Your children and grandchildren will be really happy to have this.” And they will.

*I’m not making this up. My father’s old crewmembers actually told me this at his funeral, though I believe it was a combination of grief and love talking.

 

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5 Comments

  1. Wonderful post, Jamie.

    I have heard the same advice about getting an MFA, going on to more grad school, writing a book… (don’t do it! Unless you have to ).

    And while I appreciate the honesty in that advice, it can be really damaging.

    Like, I spent a lot of time trying to be something, anything else. I forget who said that. “If you want to be a writer, first, try to be something, anything else.” It was a writer. It is familiar to me from a number of places. Maybe from Lorrie Moore’s short story, “How to Be a Writer”? (which is great, even if that’s not where this quotation is from)

    I leveraged my natural talents to sell things, tried my hand in all of the other arts (music, visual art, theater), and those were all fun. I was competent. I have been a part-time nanny, laundress, worked a million and two tiny half jobs so that I have time for writing.

    But writing keeps me up at night. If I don’t do it, I lose faith, perspective, the very will to live. I’m saying that that advice, that “No! Head for the hills!” advice comes from a really solid, honest place. But I think more helpful would be to utilize our penchant for the dramatic and tell stories about how sometimes it is physically painful to write.

    And lonely.

    And it feels like you are bleeding from your soul via your fingers, from a gash that will never heal.

    And how it makes you feel crazy sometimes, because all this stuff that comes out is alive inside you and you don’t really always have total control over it.

    And how if you are a writer, you are pretty much destined to a life of social awkwardness except around other writers who have the same kind of broken relationship with the world around them as you do.

    And how if you love other people sometimes they’ll be in your stories, and it’ll piss them off, unless they’re other writers.

    And sometimes they will beg you to be in your stories.

    And how if none of that happens, you’re not doing it right.

    And sometimes people will come up to you and talk about this work you do, and how great it must be, and how they have a cousin/aunt/uncle who’s got a book under their bed and could you pretty please take a look at it?

    The underlying sentiment to that sometimes flattering conversation is one of envy that is surely born of ignorance. Of the notion that being a writer is something that’s so friggin easy. That we just lie around all day dreaming, then we sit down at the keyboard or pad of paper and Athena springs from our brow, fully formed, ready to hot foot to the publisher.

    But I hate when writers say it’s a big burden to be a writer. I get the sentiment, but I choose to focus on the positive. Like about how well I understand myself via my writing, and about how I am so, so lucky to have this gift, even if it causes me pain. And affirmations that are few and far between are much more meaningful than those that come in batches. I mean, every published writer I know has published at about the ratio of one published word for every ten thousand unpublished ones. Unless they are self-published, then there is a different metric, and I can talk bitterly about that, later. Though not as bitterly as Franzen does. ;-)

    And truly, I can’t be anything else, so even though I am broke most of the time and right now I am so busy I can barely breathe because I’m actually making enough money AND writing a book, being a writer is a pretty great thing.

    And I encourage others to aspire to it, but with the knowledge that it has to be for its own sake, as you say so beautifully in this post, Jamie. You can’t wanna be a writer because you want to be published. If you want to be immortal, start a photo blog or do any of the things Jamie suggests… I like the one about running across the ball field naked the most.

    Maybe I’ll do that, just in case none of my books ever get published.

    xo,
    April

    • Jamie says:

      OMG. :) Well said. I think I may run this comment as a Short Saturday post. Or you should. It’s a great post. :) xoxox

  2. Jamie,
    Thanks for an insightful post.

    My grandmother never discussed wanting to be an author. She never talked about writing a memoir. She never told anyone she was working on a book. But one day she handed my mother a stack of legal notepads and ask if she could type up the handwritten notes. It turned out to be the delightful story of her life.

    My mother dutifully transcribed it, had my sister-in-law design a cover, had the notes printed and spiral bound. Her family has ever been grateful that she decided in her mid-eighties to write her story. Great-great grandchildren are especially fascinated that as a young girl she actually traveled from one state to another in a covered wagon!

    Your advice…“Your children and grandchildren will be really happy to have this”….is spot on!

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