“After the Goldrush”
What happens to a dream deferred?
Does it dry up
like a raisin in the sun?
Or fester like a sore–
And then run?
Does it stink like rotten meat?
Or crust and sugar over–
like a syrupy sweet?
Maybe it just sags
like a heavy load.
Or does it explode?
I wasn’t exactly sure what I was going to write about here until Monday night, when I sat down with my wife to watch American Experience on PBS. The episode was focused on the San Francisco gold rush of 1849, told through the words of those who lived it. One story in particular, that of Hiram Pierce and his family, struck me as preternaturally relevant to the trials I’ve been going through with my own life and career.
Narrator: In the industrial city of Troy, New York, Hiram Pierce, a 38-year-old blacksmith, and his wife Sara talked long into the night, weighing the pros and cons of California. If Hiram went to the gold fields, he would leave behind not only his successful business, but also his responsibilities as church elder, city alderman, and president of the local fire department. Sara would have to look after their seven children alone.
Brian Roberts, Historian: Hiram Pierce was clearly very well connected in his community and very well established. He’s not the kind of person you would expect to join the Gold Rush. There was probably a lot of stress on Hiram, especially in thinking about what the future was for blacksmithing. And of course with seven children, he felt, I think, certain pressures to do more for his family.
Richard White, Historian: The United States is moving away from a society in which most people were independent producers, and it’s moving towards a wage labor society. This means for a lot of people, the future does not appear as bright to them as it should be. The Gold Rush gives them a chance to erase all that.
Narrator: But first, the Pierces and others would have to address crucial questions: Where would the money for the journey come from? How would the farm or the family business stay afloat? And how long, exactly, was this absence to last?
Richard White, Historian: The Gold Rush ends up being a series of negotiations. They reach a deal. I will go, but only for a limited amount of time. I will send money back. If I don’t succeed in such-and-such a time, I will be back.
Narrator: In the end, the Pierces decided to gamble their future. Just after dawn on March 6, 1849, Hiram said goodbye to his wife and children, and boarded a train bound for New York City. From there, he would set sail for California.
Malcolm Rohrbough, Historian: Sara Pierce and women like her would have regarded the departure as a kind of watershed in the history of the family. Nothing like this would have happened before. Nothing would have prepared them for the departure of members of the family, particularly for long periods at such a long distance. It would have been devastating.
Reading, Sara Pierce: When I think of the responsible place I occupy, my heart almost fails me – I was so near destructed when you left that I did not know half the time what I was about – it seems like an ugly dream.
The similarities between this gold rush story and my own life as an aspiring writer are resounding. No, I never left my family to seek fortune in some far off land, not physically anyway. But in another, very real way, I’ve been gone for a long time. It all started right after I graduated from college in 2002. I’d won a handful of awards for my writing while in school, was one of the first to graduate with a degree in the creative writing program, and had landed a grant to attend the highly lauded Skidmore Writers Institute in upstate New York, a program established by William Kennedy and Joyce Carol Oates. The two weeks I spent in Saratoga Springs were intoxicating…literally (we’re writers, we drink!)…and through more lofty avenues, as well. I spent my days sleeping late (a real treasure when you’re used to waking at 6 a.m. every morning to the sound of screaming children), then ambling down to the mess hall for grub with hundreds of other aspiring writers just like me (though obviously less talented :)). I spent my afternoons attending writing workshops with critically acclaimed, published writers. I spent my nights attending readings by emissaries of letters such as Rick Moody, Anne Beatty, Jay McInerney, Russell Banks, and yes, William Kennedy and Joyce Carol Oates. After each of these readings the authors would meet with all writers who were so inclined (and we all were) for free drinks and casual conversation.
At the insistence of a new friend I met there, one Brandon Stickney, I began writing what would become FUTUREPROOF. Then, two weeks later, it was back home to my wife and children, where I was to begin construction work on my way to graduate school. I figured I would spend the day at hard labor, my evenings with my family, and my nights working diligently on bringing my artistic vision to life.
Things don’t always turn out the way we plan.
Reading, Hiram Pierce: Rose early and walked to the diggings. Made a small show. All of us got much less than an ounce. It is very much like work.
Brian Roberts, Historian: As soon as he arrived, Hiram discovered, like virtually all forty-niners did, that gold mining was enormously hard work. They had envisioned just picking up gold, and here they were literally turning the landscape inside out.
Malcolm Rohrbough, Historian: A company of four miners, in order to achieve 20 dollars each, which was the hoped-for wage, would probably need to wash 800 buckets of dirt a day and you divide that by 10 hours, and you think about washing 80 buckets an hour. This is very, very difficult physical labor on a continuing basis.
Narrator: Worse still, everything in the gold district was wildly overpriced: one dollar for an egg, five for a pound of tea, and upwards of eight for a second-hand shovel. At his general store in Sacramento, Sam Brannan was now pulling in as much as 150,000 dollars a month.
Hiram Pierce found it difficult even to meet his daily expenses.
Reading, Hiram Pierce: My dear and faraway wife, this gold is by no means diffused over the whole country. Some get one, two, or even five hundred dollars some days. But half an ounce – about eight dollars – is the average. You see from this how grossly things have been misrepresented.
Malcolm Rohrbough, Historian: The great bonanzas of the summer and fall of 1848 were behind them. The stories of men who went out and found a couple of thousand dollars in a week at the time were true. But they were no longer true.
As a new year dawned, many wondered how gold would shape the future.
Reading, Hiram Pierce: Ten months since I left home and have not made a dollar. The Lord must open something entirely unexpected to enable me to do much of anything.
Reading, Sara Pierce: How I wish you were here. I must try to be as patient as I can, but, oh, how long time seems. How can I endure it? Do come home as soon as possible.
I quickly discovered the toll that hard labor takes not just on the body, but on the mind as well. I had worked in construction before I’d ever gone to college, yes, but I had never done it with the demands of supporting a family and writing a book on top of that. By the time I returned home from work, it was near dark and I would be exhausted, many nights unable to expend energy on a board game, much less on pulling my mental faculties together long enough to string multiple sentences coherently.
My novel was placed on the back burner.
I didn’t look at the pages I’d managed to write, or even think about them. I slowly learned the misery of a work-a-day job and wondered why I’d ever bothered to attend college. Then something happened that at first seemed devastating, but that I later looked at as Divine Providence: I injured my knee at work. The injury would require surgery. I’d be out of work on disability for the rest of the year. I would use this time to write.
And write I did. I wrote and wrote and wrote, disregarding everything else but writing as much as I could every day, then spending glorious evenings with my family when they returned from school (my wife was working on her teaching degree). By the time I finished, I had close to 150,000 words. The book was sorely in need of heavy slash-and-burn editing, but I had the frame-work and the substance of a full novel before me. All that was left now was the critical eye, which I prided myself on possessing, in my evaluation of all things art. If I could apply this same unforgiving eye to my own work, I had no question that, even in a glutted market, my work would stand out. It was not only well-written, natch, it had a message I knew would resound with a lot of readers, particularly young people hailing backgrounds disparate from the so-called American Apple Pie norm.
Narrator: How would the thousands of families torn apart by the prospect of instant wealth weather the strains of separation?
Could the opportunity that California offered be extended to all? Or would competition and greed cause the violence in the gold district to spin out of control?
And could a transient place like California, a place where the primary motive was to get rich and get out, ever truly become like the rest of America?
In the days and months to come, the quest for gold would create an entirely new society on the Pacific coast. Along the way, both California and America would be forever transformed.
Reading, Hiram Pierce: Monday, February 25, 1850. Worked hard and got nothing. My back and one leg quite lame.
Narrator: More than a year had passed since Hiram Pierce had left his family in Troy and come to California in search of gold. In that time, he’d lived in a crude log cabin that he’d built himself, slept night after night on a mattress of pine needles, and suffered everything from back aches and chills to scurvy – all in the now-fading hope that he might strike it rich.
Reading, Hiram Pierce: Friday, March 1. I feel uneasy about my back and legs. I rather fear for the future. Dug eight dollars. Thursday, March 21. Prospected and dug … and got nothing.
I started sending out query letters, as I was instructed to do by Writers Market. I took the flood of rejection slips in stride, knowing that the nasty little buggers were merely part of the process. I knew it would only take one agent with a taste for blood and a wild streak to get my book where it needed to be: in the hands of a highly successful editor at a New York publishing house. But then the rejection letters became the norm…no, not just rejection letters, but form rejection letters. I had received over 60 of them, with only three agents asking to see more of the manuscript, and of those three seemingly interested agents, not a single one ever got back to me again. I figured I was delusional and deceived. My critical eye had perhaps become disconnected when looking at my own work. My ear, which I’d known for sure was tuned to the cultural underground, had gone deaf. I contacted my brother in Atlanta and told him I’d take him up on the warehouse job he’d been offering me with his corporation for the last several months.
The first month in Atlanta sparked new life in my quest for publication, brought mainly by the confluence of two specific occurrences. The first was that I met James Frey at a reading in Atlanta. Frey had just released a new book, and I was eager to meet the man who’d had a good amount of success writing in basically the same genre that my novel occupied. I wanted to ask him if he had any advice to offer on writing a good query letter. He one-upped that request by telling me to send him my book. I did; he told me he liked it. I realized that there might be something to completely foregoing the traditional routes of publishing and simply blazing my own trail through mining the connections I already had with many established authors, as well as taking my book directly to readers. This was the second prong of my new attack on publication. I would go to the internet, using its many resources to find readers that I knew would appreciate a book like FUTUREPROOF. I contacted reviewers on Amazon who had favorably reviewed books and authors that I held in high regard and offered to send them the first 100 pages of my book for their free perusal. Many accepted my offer. Within a few short months I had a virtual army behind me, damn-near begging to read the rest of the book. I decided that I would accommodate this clamor by self-publishing through one of the many print-on-demand companies now online, which made it possible to get your book listed on Amazon for very little investment cash, as well as allowing the author to retain rights to the work, should he ever have the opportunity to sell it to a regular publishing house. Then the word-of-mouth would take off, the publishing houses would take note, and it would be mere months before a “respectable” house came calling. Maybe more than one”¦.Maybe a bidding war!
But despite the great word-of-mouth and the long list of writers I had proclaiming my book’s worthiness, every editor and agent I came into contact with was condescending and arrogant. To a one, they all wanted me to fundamentally change the book, despite its successes as it was already constructed. I decided I couldn’t, in good faith to my nearly 1,000 current readers, make such sweeping changes (Have the entire thing take place in high school! Eliminate all but four characters!). And so, despite making it into Entertainment Weekly (something that 99% of “properly” published books can’t claim), I was once again left holding my dick in my hand, wondering how I could have done so many things right, only to have the end result be so wrong. I watched my children play in my yard and wondered how I could have been so stupid to have assumed that things were going to be just fine if I decided to press on full steam ahead with writing, of all things, as a career. My wife was now the breadwinner and I was just some hack chasing a pipedream.
Richard White, Historian: The Gold Rush really seems to offer this chance for independence. American miners really believe any man who’s willing to labor will be equal to other men, and will be able to get large rewards for their labor. But gold quite simply is in some places and not in other places. So men can be 20 yards away from each other, working just as hard, one man strikes gold and the other one doesn’t. One man makes his fortune, the other one doesn’t. So as miners begin to see it, it’s not just labor they’re talking about now. This is about luck.
Narrator: Hiram had given mining his all. He’d toiled from sunup to sundown, day after day. But time and time again, in his letters home to Sara, he had been forced to admit defeat.
Reading, Hiram Pierce: I feel most deeply to regret that I have earned nothing to enable me to make any remittance. I am sorry I cannot fix things up as usual or better for you.
Brian Roberts, Historian: Sara really counted on the gold to come at a certain time as her family’s needs became pressing. When she received the news that Hiram was not going to be able to send any money back home, it was extremely disappointing, but you get the feeling that Sara immediately started to kind of adjust to that reality.
Narrator: Sara learned to fend for herself. She borrowed money from family members, called in debts owed to Hiram, and rented out his blacksmith shop.
Reading, Sara Pierce: I guess you will begin to think I am getting to be quite a business character. You would laugh to see me at work. I am my own tinker, have set nine fruit trees, mended my own stove grate in the oven, moved the front-room stove out alone, in fact, I am kept very busy here.
Still, I pressed forward. I’d had ideas about writers uniting and forming powerful collectives that would make them more visible and more vocal among a field of thousands of cluttered voices. I spent hours every day on Myspace, sending out bulletins and posting blogs and commenting on blogs and commiserating with readers and other writers. Meanwhile my wife continued working, raising our children, for all intents and purposes a widow to my obsessions; not only with getting published, but making a lasting mark in my field. She, too, is a writer, and had actually won a writing contest held by my friend Josh Kilmer-Purcell’s memoirist collective. But she couldn’t take any time to actually follow through on her win because she was working a full-time job teaching sixth graders (and if you’ve ever been a teacher you know that the job doesn’t end when you walk out the doors of the school). My own collective, RiotLit, got up and running, right around the same time that my book appeared in Entertainment Weekly. The promises of hard work, I could tell, were about to pay off.
Then I went on my first, self-funded, book tour.
Brian Roberts, Historian:As Hiram’s absence continued, you can see Sara becoming more confident with her abilities. Women were not supposed to engage in public business, and yet here is Sara, thriving in the business world. It became, I think, an enormous source of pride to be able to do Hiram’s work plus her own.
Narrator: But when Hiram’s stay in California stretched into a second year, Sara began to grow impatient.
Reading, Sara Pierce:My dear husband, if I can get you back, I should be willing to live on very small fare. Your presence here is better far than gold. All there is would not tempt me to endure half the anxiety of the past year.
Reading, Hiram Pierce: I am more anxious to get home than you are to have me come. I saw a man picking up a piece of gold near our house worth one hundred dollars. Such seems to be the luck of some. It may not be my fortune to get much, but I shall make an honest effort.
Malcolm Rohrbough, Historian: The more difficult it was in the gold fields and the fewer the returns, the longer they saw themselves as having to stay in California. They were engaged in what they themselves saw as a lottery. And whatever the odds, if you had a ticket in the lottery, you might win. If you weren’t digging in the mines, you didn’t have a ticket.
H.W. Brands, Historian: You could try and fail, try and fail, try and fail, do it ten times, do it twenty times. But if you kept at it, you might finally strike it rich. And that would pay for all of your failures in the past. Now, this is quite different than the attitude that most people had back in the East, where failure in business was connected to a sense of moral failure. Virtue as a basis of success in California was almost beside the point.
Narrator: Desperate to turn a profit, Hiram Pierce threw in his lot with a group of miners and headed north – to a steep canyon along the Merced River, inhabited mainly by rattlesnakes and grizzly bears. The plan was to stake a claim there, and try out a costly new technique known as river mining.
Malcolm Rohrbough, Historian: What had been kind of a day-to-day harvesting of gold is now deferred to the end of the mining season, when they have mined the river bottom. Thus it raises the stakes and it raises the dangers of failure.
Narrator: Pierce had risked his last dollar investing in the scheme. Now, there was nothing to do but pray that it worked.
Richard White, Historian:The hardest thing for most people to do is to go back and admit failure. They’ve committed themselves – both in their own eyes and, remember, the eyes of people they left behind – to be a success. California is a very hard place to get out of. And one of the things that keeps you from getting out is your own pride, your own sense of disappointed ambitions.
Narrator: When Hiram Pierce first arrived in California in 1849, it was with the idea of filling his pockets with gold and making a speedy return to the East. But more than a year had passed, and so far nothing had gone according to plan.
Now, he had invested everything in one last-ditch effort. He and his mining partners had spent the past six weeks digging a canal – a trough some 700 feet long and 16 feet wide. The next step was to divert the river and mine the riverbed.
Reading, Hiram Pierce: We have expended about 3,000 dollars in time and money – 12 of us – and I am afraid it will not pay. It is going to be a difficult job to get the water out.
Narrator: For several weeks, Pierce and the others worked the riverbed furiously. But instead of a vein of gold, they found only an impenetrable mass of rocks and boulders.
Reading, Hiram Pierce: It is impossible with our tools to get down to the ledge. We concluded to abandon it and give it up as a total loss.
I was out of options. The great shamrock in the sky had failed to rain down its green blessings upon my head. It appeared I was not going to sell my book. I came home from my tour a shell of the man I’d been when I left, both as a writer and a husband & father. I was, for all intents and purposes, demoralized, defeated. I would log in to my Myspace page and marvel at the sheer number of other struggling writers and artists trying to do the same thing I’d had the audacity to relentlessly chase…with the main difference being that I was one of the few without an alternative source of income and a family depending on me for my time, attention and income potential.
I had one final option. I decided to play my hand.
I approached my friend James Frey about investing in starting up an independent imprint that would publish not only my book, but also his future books, as well as other books in the same vein; a sort of 21st century version of Grove Press. I told him this would eliminate the need for him to kiss any publisher’s asses and would give other writers like us hope that they could find an avenue to publish more controversial and less linear material than what mainstream publishing is comfortable with.
He never got back to me.
A hard, fast rule in this business is that if you have money and influence, you have power. Otherwise you are seen as little more than a desperate leech. Everything looked grey – no, black. I realized that I couldn’t keep up this goose chase, in all its wildness, any longer. It was, on many levels, a failed venture, the whole fucking thing. I couldn’t, with an easy heart, continue on the same trajectory indefinitely.
“But I tried, didn’t I? Goddamnit, at least I did that.”
~Jack Nicholson as R.P. McMurphy in ONE FLEW OVER THE CUCKOO’S NEST
Narrator: Pierce finally had had enough. A few days later, he sold his shovel for two dollars, along with some other personal effects, and headed back to San Francisco. From there, he set sail for home, not a penny richer than when he left.
Reading, Hiram Pierce: My dear but I hope not lonely wife, I have made an honest effort but the Lord has for some cause unknown to me ordered it otherwise. I will not longer sacrifice all that is dear on earth or worth living for, for the hope of gain. I have suffered voluntary banishment long enough. I cease and subscribe myself, Your Returning Prodigal.
H.W. Brands, Historian:The gold rush was all about people willing to make great gambles. California presented to people a new model for the American dream – one where the emphasis was on the ability to take risks, the willingness to gamble on the future.
Brian Roberts, Historian: Prior to the Gold Rush, you see every once in a while in newspapers talk about a transcontinental railroad. And typically, it’s seen by observers as funny. I mean, this is a wild dream. You know, why not build a railroad to the moon? After California, people don’t mock that kind of idea anymore. You could have these enormously large dreams.
Isabel Allende, Writer: It was a time when the best and the worst of people was on the surface. All lives were extreme. People were living, uh, on the edge. The gold rush created this place that we call today California, and changed thousands of people. Everything was possible. And I think that’s what the gold represented. It was a metaphor for a new life.
Narrator: Nearly two years after he had left home, Hiram Pierce was finally reunited with his family in Troy. He was so changed by the hardships he had suffered that few of his friends even recognized him.
Having found no gold to speak of, Pierce was soon back to blacksmithing, working day in and day out, just like before. But as his daughter put it: “he never got over his California fever.” More than a decade after he came home, he was still talking of the Golden State, and laying plans to return there, buy a farm, and give mining another go.
Hiram Pierce died before he could make his dream a reality. But in the years that followed, four of his seven children would leave Troy for good – and go to live in California.
We, all writers, are engaged in a similar gold rush of our own. We put ourselves out there and hope that something about our work speaks to people, that we can add something to the ancient themes that separates what we have to say from the rest of those trying to say the same things. Some of us will succeed, through a variety of means, some of us will end up packing it in for the greater good.
Me, I will continue to write, will continue, on perhaps a much smaller level than before, to network and commiserate with other writers and readers. But I’m out of this for a living. I’ll work in the factory of the warehouse or whatever the fuck I can find to supplement income. I will no longer dedicate myself to this ridiculous and ultimately humiliating chasing of a pipedream. And that’s really what all of this is. We are dreamers, every last one of us. I told everyone when I started this that the book would either succeed or fail on its merits (or lack thereof). It succeeded with the limited amount of people I was able to reach through my limited means, it failed with the powers that could have given it a broader audience.
At some point you have to realize that the dream you chase becomes a rat race that leaves all but the most stubborn and unattached a shell of what they were. This shit tears you down, the futility of it all. And the most disturbing part of all of it, for me, is that what determines who succeeds and who fails is almost 100% based on luck. I don’t give a fuck who you know or how good your writing is. We are all dependent on the good-heartedness of someone more powerful than we are. I’ve read all the guidelines to getting published and getting recognized and I’ve fulfilled every element on every one of these guidelines. But you have to have that little extra something, that chance meeting, that Dr. Dre taking his Eminem under the wing, if any of us are going to parlay our talents into something more than dreams deferred.
“I wasn’t going nowhere because ain’t nobody take me off this motherfucker till I’m ready to leave this motherfucker… Hell no. I don’t play that dying shit.”
More next time.
Frank Daniels is the author of the acclaimed novel FUTUREPROOF. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Myspace at www.myspace.com/nfrankdaniels.
The literary collective he founded, RiotLit, is currently holding the first of three major talent contests. Check out the details at www.riotlit.com or www.myspace.com/riotlit.
LanceNovember 11, 2006
well said there Mr. Daniels.
one of these days we’re gonna have to bowl a few and have a couple of drinks.
keep rioting and writing.
amyNovember 11, 2006
Man, this whole thing made me want to cry.
I read all those agent blogs out there (you know the ones), and they love to say that “good writing trumps all.” They love to suggest that 99% of everything they get sent is awful, illiterate, unreadable _crap_, and if only someone would send them something halfway decent, they would give that author a chance.
But everything I’ve heard from authors, published and not, seems to give lie to this claim. How many brilliant authors toiled away in obscurity before some stroke of luck brought them into light? A great many.
And how many more brilliant writers never have that luck? How many brilliant writers give up and conclude that they _must_ be illiterate hacks, just because agents and publishers won’t give them a second look? We’d all love to imagine that never happens, but I’m starting to suspect it happens all the time. We’ll probably never know exactly how often.
There’s got to be a solution to this mess, but I’ll be damned if I know what it is.
Susan HendersonNovember 11, 2006
Beautiful and heartbreaking, Frank.
And Amy, I agree. We all know too many stories where good writing doesn’t trump all. Good writing plus doggedness plus being patient plus being well-connected plus staying in the game doesn’t trump all.
This is why writers band together, isn’t it? Because all the logical people around us tell us to quit but our souls won’t be told no.
Robin SlickNovember 11, 2006
Ohh…I’m sitting here weeping right now. What an unbelievably well written and gut-wrenching column, Frank.
I believe in my gut that you will succeed beyond your wildest dreams and I’m always right. Ask Susan.
AnnelieseNovember 11, 2006
Well I love this piece, Frank – being a native Californian and a California Studies minor, I love the analogy between the Gold Rush and Writing! Perfect!
Perhaps Americans’ days of finding the next bonanza are over. People may find peace in accepting that life is just about living each day in relative comfort. The gold deposits and new dot-com technologies are fleeting and full of their own demands.
Besides, being a star isn’t all that it’s cracked up to be – see TomKat, Britney, and Reese for current examples on life being a bumpy road no matter the famedom. Or Sylvia Plath, James Frey – even John Steinbeck.
It’s all about today – damn those AA’ers, they were right all along, it is One Day At A Time.
I’ve got my day job too, with a bi-weekly paycheck, medical/dental, and a 401K. I write when I can, even when I’m at work (shhh, don’t tell – but you understand, when the muse strikes…) I work at a biopharm and these guys who are the CEO/CFO/CMO/scientists work long hours to try to get this product approved so that it can get to market. It’s now been six years and we are still not at the approval stage in order to launch our product to market. Every industry takes hard work and time – and still there are no guarantees, we may not get FDA Approval no matter what our clinical trial results prove.
Writers love to write and feel compelled to write, so none of us will stop. But to ensure mental health and foster contentment, maybe it is best to not look towards getting published as a gold strike – a be-all, end-all? No tying up the ego by someone accepting our work for publication. That’d be cool, but it won’t make us a better person.
May each of us have many happy days with our friends and family. Of course, keep writing. 🙂
TracieNovember 11, 2006
Even though the tour and all your efforts weren’t the “Gold Rush” you hoped for, I admire you very much for trying. Too many people never take the chance to reach for their dreams and you did. I think that says a lot about you and the family support you have.
Keep on writing, you never know when that struck of luck will hit you.
michael r. williamsNovember 11, 2006
A very great piece Frank, I watched the same program on pbs. You have a talent that inspire’s us all. Thank you and I wish I lived closer to you so we could go bowling.
Michael R. Williams
JulietNovember 11, 2006
I’m with Lance, Frank.
I think the three of us should team up with Frey and have a Gold Rush of our own.
As I’ve said before, when the writing is done, it’s still marketing and self-promotion. It’s a business.
But it’s OUR business.
Rock on, Frank.
EmmaNovember 11, 2006
I feel for you. I do think being a good or great writer and working hard does not always ensure big success. I think big success has a lot to do with the market forces and our individual destinies. Rethink what not achieving a goal means. Does it mean you give up? Does it mean you lower expectations? Does it mean you change direction? I don’t know .That is an individual decision. But if something doesn’t happen for you it doesn’t have to break your spirit.
Writers have such a button about getting th big book deal as validation. I think our validation as writers needs to come from within and if we have done otr best to hit the publishinbg glass ceiling so be it. It was not ours to have( at least for the moment). There is more to life then the big book deal. There is the inners satisfaction from knowing who you are no matter what any one thinks of you, AND in the huge scheme of things who knows who is a success or failure. Don’t give up your dream but don’t let the weight of achieveing it crush you. Life is filled with disappointments and triumphs in every arena.
The glass may seem half empty but with new eyes it is half full and may get fuller with eyes increasing to see seeming heartbreak as heatbreak.
Kristopher YoungNovember 11, 2006
In ten years, you’ll come back to this post and laugh that you ever even entertained the idea of giving up writing.
LaurenBaratz-LogstedNovember 12, 2006
I’m sorry, and I know that isn’t terribly profound, but I just really am: sorry.
n. frank danielsNovember 12, 2006
Hey guys, thanks a million for reading and commenting. I think a couple of clarifications are in order:
a. I never intended this post to be a pity [party. I know that you can’t and dopn’t go in front of a million other writers and lament your failures. This post was not written to solicet apologies or sympathy. I am a writer, like all of you, and also like you all, I am a warrior. But we’d all be kidding ourselves if we didn’t acknowledge the defeats and let-downs that occur in this business. We are all in the same game, by choice, and must all deal with our own personal victories and defeats alone.
But my personal goal has always been to lay all of it on the line, warts and all. Maybe sdo that we can all share in the victories as well as the defeats–but also so that this kind of down time can find some kind of positive release. Like therapy.
I’d be honored to go bowling with all of you. Any time.
Mike SmithNovember 12, 2006
I can only hope this is merely a dejected phase you’re going through, because you are wrong about the publishing business being nothing but luck. I think you’re awesome, man, but in this case, I think you’re wrong.
Hear me out.
Luck is definitely a part of it. For sure, there’s no denying the importance of luckiness. But more than luck, much more than luck, is persistence, endurance, and dogged determination.
Writers who don’t write don’t get lucky. Writers who keep writing, who keep putting themselves out there, who never give up, do.
It might take years. It might take a decade. It might take even longer. But whenever it may happen, it will only happen if you’re ready for it. If you’re waiting, coiled and ready to pounce.
“I find that the harder I work, the more luck I seem to have,” Thomas Jefferson once wrote, and nothing could be truer.
Luck is not some random something that happens to no one for no reason. Luck is, at its essence, poetic justice. It’s fate’s reward for something: for being great, for being good, for not giving up.
Frank, I can’t say I blame you for deciding to take a job to help support your family. There’s nothing wrong with that. (I deliver newspapers, write promotional propoganda for movies I hate, and occasionally paint a house, in addition to writing articles, a column, and regional books.) However, your attitude of defeat is not going to do anything good for you. Your relegating of your writing to the lowest ranks of your priorities is going to turn your passion, your gift, your calling into little more than a hobby–and why would luck come to hobbyists?
Luck comes to the bold.
C’mon, Frank–be bold. You have been before, now keep it up. There’s a reason the bands the kids all rock out to are in their 30’s–because these bands have been being ignored since high school. They had to earn their fame.
John Grisham wrote twenty-six novels before finally being able to suck for a worldwide audience. Stephen King had three kids and was living in a singlewide when someone finally accepted “Carrie.” Emily Dickinson had to die before anyone would pay attention to her!
Listen, Frank, you are awesome. Your book is awesome. The system we’re working in…is maybe not so awesome. But it’s huge and immoveable. It’s a mountain, and we’ve got only hiking boots, not blasting powder. Not yet anyway. All we can do right now is work with it.
So your book hasn’t made it yet. So what? You’re a great writer. Write another one. Write another three. Write another ten. Write articles and sell them to get your name out there. Write the book the Entertainment Weekly crowd you attracted wanted to read. Sell it, and then use your newfound fame to go back and give “Futureproof” the recognition it deserves.
Your RiotLit blog saddens me, Frank, but not because I pity you and not because I think you’re a victim who deserves my sympathy, though you have been through a lot. It saddens me because I envy you for your writing abilities, because I know you’re a great writer, and because I know that if you keep at it, you will be successful.
You will be.
If you keep at it.
Reassess…but never retreat. Be bold and be committed. No Matter What.
Kristopher YoungNovember 12, 2006
Frank – I’m glad you came back for that clarification. It was, I think, needed… it’s good to know that you know that your current frustration is temporary and simply needed venting.
Mike Smith pretty much nailed my own thoughts on the matter (except for the “Write the book the Entertainment Weekly crowd you attracted wanted to read” – I highly advise against that one – I for, one, actually want to read your next book). But yea, other than that he’s dead on.
It sometimes feels like we’re moving in slow motion; all this energy that’s gone into living, into writing, into getting Click and Futureproof out there is now sort of sitting out there in suspended animation as we wait for the audience to catch up. It takes time. A book can sit idle on a shelf for years before being read. But merit trumps hype. It’ll take time, but seriously, you’re in it for the long haul just like I am – and as I said in my previous response, in 10 years we’re gonna be laughing at these times, reminiscing about how much ass we kicked.
CarolynNovember 12, 2006
It seems we’re all miners hoping to hit the mother lode. From the writer who digs out the stories buried in the mud of his imagination; to the agent who slogs through thousands of manuscripts hoping for that golden nugget; to the editor seeking to launch tomorrow’s next big book/author; to the publisher wanting sales and big, fat profits; to the reader who wants to sound hip and literate at the next book club meeting, soccer practice, cocktail party, or rave.
You’re a story miner, Frank. There’s another book buried inside you. One day you’ll pick up a shovel and start digging again. Thanks for this amazing piece.
AurelioNovember 12, 2006
Frank, your gold rush analogy with we writers’ struggle toward publication is so apt, and it occured to me that mining the gold takes place in our own heads as the actual nuggets are formed of our own good creative diligence.
That others don’t see their worth is more to the problem. “Cast not your pearls before swine” is considered sage advice, but in a culture dominated by capitalism and greed (read: swine) who then are we left to cast them before, publication-wise? It is a dilemma for which there is no clear answer, and therein is the rub.
So, do we just stop mining the gems? (How they sparkle though, and some are so close to the surface that you only have to scratch at them – and who knows, it may be the tip of a mother lode?!)
Perhaps we’ll all die with unrealized fortunes stuffed under our mattresses, but what can I do?
michael r. williamsNovember 12, 2006
Yo Frank you rock and don’t you ever forget it. It is my privilege to know you and I really do mean it. I am having 5 poems published and it truly rocks. The book will be called Immortal Verses and as soon as I get my case of 12 books one will be for you as well as for James. Thank you for showing me that we all make a difference and you are my brother from another mother.
Michael Ray Williams
Lance ReynaldNovember 12, 2006
as I tend to be ever prepared with quotes…
I’ve one to fit here for everyone to roll around in.
“any writer, I suppose, feels that the world into which he was born is nothing less than a conspiracy against the cultivation of his talent.” ~james baldwin
certainly, if baldwin saw it that way, the rest of us are certainly entitled to our struggles and doubts. 😉
Pearce HansenNovember 12, 2006
I’m discovering the same thing with my first novel STREET, with a big “BUT” . . .
For myself, I first started writing to make sense of a very strange childhood & youth, with scenes & experiences worthy of Fellini or Bosch or maybe Lynch when he’s really getting his freak on. In THAT regard, my writing has already been a success as a personal catharsis.
But we don’t write merely for ourselves, otherwise we’d only keep journals that our heirs would probably relegate to the landfill after our passing 🙂
Just finished reading WRITING THE BREAKOUT NOVEL, by Donald Maass. The guy’s been one of the top NY lit agents for 30 years, and his input is VERY useful (but only to us journeymen authors, I fear it would be useless to writers just starting out). It’s not a “hack template” to ho yourself paint-by-numbers style, its more an examination of the common factors he’s noticed in all the “dark horse” blockbusters that reached a large readership despite all expectation.
In Maass’s opinion, there’s no substitute for quality writing (surprise!) BUT, interestingly, he felt “word of mouth” was the only REAL factor in a book’s success — while marketing, distribution and promotion are useful and important, if enough people are seduced by your book, they’ll tell their friends, who will tell theirs, ad infinitum.
The momentum may be slow to build, but if we write a good book and get it out there, it WILL ultimately snow ball into something. Guess the only question is, how long do you have to wait?
Immortality is part of the draw for most of us, I think: like Thucydides 2500 years ago, we dream of writing a book that will be read forever, we imagine strange posterities marvelling over our genius LOL.
Jim Thompson, close to the end, told his wife to guard all his manuscripts carefully. “I’ll be famous ten years after I die,” he assured her.
He was right.
Julie Ann ShapiroNovember 13, 2006
I wish the world was different and that writers didn’t have to have other jobs. I’m here working on client work now on Sunday night knowing that it has to be done when all I want to do is work on my novel in process. But I’m thankful that yesterday I had lots of time to write and to read and relax.
The key with a job is to find one that doesn’t burn you out too much so that you can devote time to your fiction. I try to write two hours a day every day, but some times it doesn’t happen. Some days I’ll have an hour and other days I’ll have three hours.
Just keep writing. I share your disappointment. My first novel didn’t get published, not unless I count the future serilization in 07, but still it wasn’t what I dreamed or thought the journey would be like. Now that the second novel is making the rounds I worry less about it and just focus on writing more flash stories and working on the novel in process.
Writing itself may mean lots of things to lots of people, but at the root of it is a love of language and of expressing onself creatively. That love is what drives me to write again and again. The business side that’s filled with submissions and and those other less enjoyable things called rejection I just view as part of a job. It has to get done. If not for the writing there wouldn’t be anything to be accepted or rejected.
Just keep writing for the love of it, not the business side. Remmber the business is just that, it’s a job.
If the novel feels like too much work I break up the routine and write a flash story or see a friend.
AnnelieseNovember 13, 2006
Frank I never took this a pitiful. You were airing The Frustration.
There are no guarantees no matter the profession, whether that be an attorney, a stockbroker, an actor, a biopharm CEO, a musician, …
But we keep doing it because it’s what we like to do. I’m with Julie about finding a j-o-b that doesn’t suck the life out of me. One that I put in my eight hours and flee.
Ric MarionNovember 13, 2006
thanks for sharing. The whole process sucks. More than a couple agents who would call (yes, actually call) me back in the early days are now so highly placed they won’t acknowledge me at all.
Perseverence – and I’ve been doing this a helluva a long time – is still the key. Oddly enough, I caught Hiram’s story the other night and it says much about who we are and what we’re trying to do.
The hardest part, I think, is knowing your novel is the greatest thing ever written – your heart, your soul, the first time the characters took over the voice, the omens, the signs, the fortune teller who said this was the one – and, then, after 140 rejections, saying to yourself, oh shit.
And then, like Hiram, risking it all again on another story, another novel, and going through the whole thing yet another time.
Now, you’re fifty years old, in debt up to your eyeballs, and still writing, still chasing the dream, still believing it can be done.
And the playing field has changed, agents are 30 years old, selling to editors who are 25, who don’t remember and could care less about draft notices, easy sex, drugs, and rock ‘n’ roll where you can actually hear the words.
But, like Hiram, I’ve pinned the future on that one gold nugget. Keep digging, keep digging.
Thanks again for sharing in glowing terms, the frustration felt by many.
LaurenBaratz-LogstedNovember 13, 2006
“Iâ€™d be honored to go bowling with all of you. Any time.”
Oh, sure you want to go bowling with me. Someone probably told you I once bowled a 28!
Dennis MahaginNovember 13, 2006
Excellent piece of writing. 🙂
The Gold Rush/Publishing metaphor could not be more on target–nor rendered with such grace and resonance. Keep on writing, because your skills are mad, and manifest.
Thanks for the read.
KasperNovember 16, 2006
A painful case, as James Joyce said.
Your memoir rings true, Frank. I particularly like this passage, detailing the response by editors and agents ( getting to be the same sort of co-mutual screen these days) to your already attentively-read manuscript:
But despite the great word-of-mouth and the long list of writers I had proclaiming my bookâ€™s worthiness, every editor and agent I came into contact with was condescending and arrogant. To a one, they all wanted me to fundamentally change the book, despite its successes as it was already constructed. I decided I couldnâ€™t, in good faith to my nearly 1,000 current readers, make such sweeping changes (Have the entire thing take place in high school! Eliminate all but four characters!).
( end paste)
I wrote three novels from the ages of 48 to 51. All were short. I accumulated about 150 rejection slips, some of them long, handwritten notes from veteran editors at venerable publishers . Some of these longer rejections praised my books. I also had an agent helping me.
But the tune that was played back to me by these gatekeepers was quite consistent:
1. Study Stephen King. He’s a success.
2. Eliminate the first 100 pages.
3. Your novels are too “character-driven.”
Concluding that I was not a novelist, I went back to the humble comic strip, something at my level.
I always enjoy these “riots”– thanks.
chrisNovember 16, 2006
I hope this is just a frustration with the rollercoaster of writing and trying to get published/make a living at it. Don’t give up hope. You are too talented to put this down forever. All creative people struggle as they try to pursue their talent and pay the rent. You have touched many people which I think speaks to your writing ability. Take a break, read some books, enjoy time with your family. But ultimately I hope you come back to your writing table.