Roundtable: 8 authors discuss the business.
I have a roundtable discussion today, so grab a cup of coffee and meet some amazing writers as they discuss the pros and cons of the business. All of their bios are listed below, and I hope you’ll click on their links and get to know them better. After reading these answers, may you feel comforted, alive, inspired.
What is the most rewarding thing about being a writer? What’s the most difficult part about this profession for you?
The most rewarding part is when you’ve been sitting a long time writing and you read it over and you feel the room vibrating.
The most difficult part about writing, in the immortal words of Stephen King is connecting your ass with the chair.
The most rewarding thing about being a writer is the knowledge that you escaped a life of doing something you weren’t passionate about. The writer’s existence is such a gamble and certainly isn’t the kind of thing anyone with your interests at heart encourages you to do, so when it works out, it’s like rolling lucky sevens. And that’s very satisfying, if not always terribly remunerative.
The best thing about being a writer – this week, the week I’m just back from a long trip into a rainy East Coast to sell books in what seems a totally antiquated way by reading and talking to people in great bookstores – is finding out how passionate and loyal readers are to novels. When you write, alone and for me, at night, in isolation and often ignorance about where your narrative is headed, you cannot wonder who will love the book, and then when you are finished, after a year or five years, you have to wonder who will love the book. Meeting readers and booksellers who say they stayed up very late and couldn’t put down the book because they had to find out what happened is wonderful, because that’s the way I feel when I read a novel I love, and it’s like being drunk, I guess.
(Don’t know – don’t drink at all, since my friends and I did all our serious drinking when I was twelve and thirteen.)
The most difficult part is the wondering, though.
Once upon a time, there was a stepfather with two missing fingers. He shot them off to avoid going to Vietnam. The marriage didn’t last long. Before it ended, he chopped up my dollhouse with an ax. Maybe that’s why I dig Kafka’s line: “A book must be the ax for the frozen sea within us.” That’s how I go at writing, swinging my ax. Infinitely rewarding. Chop chop.
But most of all, I’m blown away when a stranger is moved by something I wrote.
Most difficult? After penury, the blank page. Digging deeper, way down to my inner China. Getting it up every day. Why I start my day on my knees not performing fellatio, but praying. Praying and meditating. For faith. For flow. To write bigger than myself. To be of service.
The most rewarding thing about being a writer? (I can certainly think of the least rewarding: financial return!)
Taking your own experience and making it visible and even valuable to your readers.
Getting your own emotions and experience out of you and onto the page, so that they are at a remove from your own internal mess and more controllable – that’s a therapeutic aspect; one I don’t often think about but that I think is part of the good side of writing.
Making characters whom I love.
Writing something funny.
Most of all, making something beautiful. That’s when the act of writing is almost endurable, when you can see something of beauty emerging. It’s rare – so much, especially in a novel, is more a cobbling together of workable pieces, with the desperate hope that the final product sewn together will be beautiful. But there are those sections that really move, where writing feels transcendent, like passion and art, instead of dull and painful, like duty and obligation.
The most difficult part is sitting down and writing every day, filling out the idea; if you’re lucky enough to have one. Plotting – I hate making plots, yet I believe that plot is what really seduces the human mind. Plots are like math, awful and inexorable, the underlying structure.
The writing part of writing – that is, creating and fully entering an imaginary world, then describing it – is wonderful and gives the writer a great connection to living and love. The publishing part – ‘how many books didja sell’ , ‘how can we best market you’, ‘does Barnes and Noble like your book?’ – is awful. Just heinous. Sick-making.
That I can live in my own reality, create my own world and no one cares or will lock me up in the funny farm. Though this might be changing in Bushie’s America and the America of the future no matter who is president.
Most of what I’ve written I haven’t published and won’t- and I like that. There’s something very freeing in knowing it is just for me.
I don’t have to go to an office job every day – I did that for a while and I was so depressed and thought about suicide quite frequently – and I am not joking. But that’s when I knew I was doing the wrong thing cause lots of my coworkers loved their jobs.
That I don’t have to leave my house very often – I’m becoming more and more of an agoraphobe.
As I said in the earlier Q&A, the letters and emails from people who have been touched in some way by my work seem to make much of the bs worthwhile.
When it goes from being a creative life to a “profession” it is all difficult. Ya know, rejection and being demeaned, it’s what I live for . . . .
Books and what I took from them saved my life, shaped my life, in no small way. I find it incredibly gratifying to enter the larger conversation; what I mean is that I am continually humbled and inspired to realize that something I write essentially just for myself, alone in a room (because I always write alone in a room), will, at some undeterminable point in the future, be read by people I don’t know, in places I’ve never been. I hope those readers will be turned on by what they read, but even if they’re not, even if they hate what I’ve done, they will be provoked and spurred to consider their own opinions, maybe even to reflect on their own experiences. So, we are, in essence, in conversation with each other.
There is also the enviable wardrobe of a writer, namely the coffee-stained pajama bottoms and T-shirt, which comprise my winter and fall uniforms. For summer, I opt for a wife-beater over the aforementioned PJ bottoms.
The beauty of our “metier” almost makes up for the suck-ass way writers are paid, or should I say not paid. And yes I’m whining.
When all is said and done, how would you like to be remembered as a writer?
For being a Big Blonde.
I don’t think people really remember much about writers. Or much about anything, really.
Paul Elouard, the French poet, is another one of my heroes. He was a great poet and it seems, from what I’ve read, a greater person. So I’d like to be remembered as someone like that, someone who was esteemed by his peers, was generous to as many people as I could be without being an ass kisser or an asshole, and wrote and spoke the truth and confronted the hard questions of life to the best of my abilities. So basically, I’d like to be remembered as a better person than a writer.
I’d like to be remembered as a great regional writer. I love Ernest Gaines and Tim Gautreaux out of Louisiana, and Manette Ansay’s earlier Wisconsin work, and Chris Offutt and Gary Soto and Toni Morrison’s Lorain, Ohio, from her early novels. I think American novelists capture our different landscapes like no one else. I want to be remembered as showing everyone my postage stamp of Faulknerian soil – Riverside, California.
One: I would simply like to be remembered as a writer! Hard enough to make people notice your work while you’re alive and kicking.
Two: As someone who cared about humanity and was not trivial.
Truly, not to be difficult, but if I thought about this kind of thing I would be an even bigger nut job than I am now. It’s hard enough just to make it to the computer in the morning (and at night; personally I don’t work much in the afternoons…).
I recently discovered a writer called Ludwig Lewisohn, a German – American who wrote some brilliant books in the ’20s and ’30s. Today, he is forgotten and his books are all out of print. For me, being remembered at all would be an accomplishment.
The story I told was raw, true and spoke to the human condition like looking in a fragmented mirror and seeing some slice of oneself and imagining oneself whole.
In a perfect world, writers would have fame, riches, and immortality. But if you had to choose, what would it be?
Immortality. Because I have already learned to live well without fame and riches, but I want the work like my children, to survive when I am gone, walking forward on feet without shoes, learning to run.
Immortality second, because all art is produced in the face of death, as a kind of defiance.
BUT on the other hand, you can’t enjoy your own artistic immortality. What good is immortality doing for Charles Dickens, the actual man?? Still lies a-mouldering in the grave…
So fame is better.
Fame would be fun if it could get a person free plane tickets and nice, tasty food. The rest wouldn’t be very good, though.
Riches would be great because they provide free time and a sense of not fearing for survival.
Immortality doesn’t really matter to me, I guess.
So – I’d have to choose riches.
In Bangkok, you can eat Immortality Soup. I did. I would like to eat more of that. So I’d pick riches. That way I could fly back to Bangkok, eat more soup and maybe get two-for-one.
Oh, that “riches” thing is looking good right now, as I sit here at the computer eating my yogurt bought from the 99 Cent Store (true). But, honestly, I think the idea of having my work read after I’m dead is the biggest, the most exciting prospect – going back to that idea of being part of a larger, ongoing conversation that is part of the human experience. Fame in one’s own lifetime, from what I have seen, pretty much guarantees you’ll transform into some degree of asshole, so better to skip that one. Besides, we have to put “fame” as a writer on the relative scale of current culture – even Stephen King can walk down the street without the paparazzi stalking him; I’m pretty sure that were John Updike to ever walk into a Denny’s he’d have to wait for a table just like the family of four.
Given what can happen posthumously, I would choose immortality, since it’s the one I have a real shot at now.
And I’d pick immortality, because I’m a single mother in a crazy neighborhood, with three kids, three chickens, ten rabbits, and two jobs, so all the other stuff, as they say in my neighborhood, is not hardly happenin noway.
As a young person you have to believe in yourself and that these are all possibilities. Of course you learn that they are near impossibilities.
I remember this line from Fitzgerald to his daughter when she was contemplating becoming a writer, “The conclusion is: it will not win you financial independence or immortality.” In an earlier letter he’d talked about fame, and how he was famous at 27 and forgotten at 40. In the end, despite his books being out of print when he died and getting royalties of under 20 bucks his last year of life, he has gotten immortality, but his life is not one I would want and I believe he wrote the truth.
I realize that 99 and 9/10f all writers will not attain immortality. As smart as my students are, I bet only a tiny handful could name one great writer from each decade of the last century. And although I’d love to be in that select group, well -that’s out as a reality.
I might’ve taken fame if I were 25 and single. Now, I don’t even like being recognized by my neighbors.
So, I would take wealth – with the full knowledge it wouldn’t last – though we’d never worry about how to pay the next month’s bills, we’d buy art and help other artists and political causes. But that’s a kind of wealth that can’t be quantified.
Two last things, I want to thank everyone who participated – may you receive the accolades and rewards you so deserve.
And thanks so much to Sue who has been so
supportive of my work, even if she did tell the world I was watching Britney, but hey, I was also watching the baseball game.
Thank you, wonderful writers. Your answers gave me goosebumps.
My roundtable guests were so humble, I had to brag for them in their BIOs:
Bruce Bauman, my guest on this week’s blog, is a senior editor at Black Clock and author of And the Word Was.
Samantha Dunn is the author of Failing Paris, a finalist for the PEN West Fiction Award in 2000, and the memoir, Not By Accident: Reconstructing a Careless Life, a BookSense 76 pick. Her most recent memoir, Faith in Carlos Gomez: A Memoir of Salsa, Sex and Salvation, is published by Henry Holt & Co.
Kate Gale is President of PEN USA, Editor of Red Hen Press, Editor of The Los Angeles Review, Director of the Los Angeles Summer Institute, author of five books of poetry, one novel, one bilingual children’s book, editor of four anthologies, and has recently completed the libretto for the opera “Rio de Sangre” by Don Davis.
Seth Greenland‘s play Jungle Rot won the Kennedy Center Fund For New American Plays Award and the American Theatre Critics Association Award. His first novel, The Bones, was just published by Bloomsbury. Movie rights have been sold to Sony, and he is currently writing the screenplay. He also writes for The Huffington Post.
Joy Nicholson is the author of two novels: The Road to Esmeralda was chosen as a Los Angeles Times Favorite Book of 2005, and The Tribes of Palos Verdes was an L.A. Times bestseller. Her website, One Dog At A Time describes her mission to rescue dogs from euthanasia in animal shelters all over Los Angeles. Time permitting, she is currently working on her third novel.
Rachel Resnick, a writer based in Topanga Canyon, California, is the author of Go West Young F*cked-Up Chick : A Novel of Separation. Her fiction, essays and interviews have appeared in the Los Angeles Times, BlackBook, Women’s Health, Tin House, The Best American Erotica 2004, The Dictionary of Failed Relationships and Women On The Edge: Writing from Los Angeles, among others. She recently completed the mod-noir novel SWAY, with a forthcoming excerpt in Black Clock. A graduate of Yale and a former private detective, she has taught writing at CalArts and the UCLA Extension Writers Program, and owns a homicidal scarlet macaw named Ajax (and has the scars to prove it.)
Susan Straight, professor of creative writing at the University of California, Riverside, is the author of the newly-released A Million Nightingales , Highwire Moon, which was a finalist for the National Book Award, I Been In Sorrows Kitchen And Licked Out All the Pots, Aquaboogie, for which she won the Milkweed National Fiction Prize, Blacker Than A Thousand Midnights, The Gettin Place. She received the prestigious Lannan Foundation Award in 1999 and a 1997 Guggenheim Fellowship. Click here to read her work in Salon.
Amy Wilentz won the PEN/Martha Albrand Prize for nonfiction and the Whiting Writers Award, and was a nominee for the National Book Critics Circle Award in 1990. She is the author of Martyrs’ Crossing and The Rainy Season: Haiti Since Duvalier, and has written for The Nation, The New Republic and The New York Times. She was the Jerusalem correspondent for The New Yorker from 1995 to 1997.
Ellen MeisterDecember 23, 2006
Great questions. Fascinating answers. I love LitPark.
Katrina DenzaDecember 23, 2006
Thanks for this, Susan! What a smart, lovely group of writers.
amyDecember 24, 2006
Some of these authors took the words right out of my mouth — others inspired me in ways I never imagined. Thanks to all.
Carolyn Burns BassDecember 26, 2006
Susan Straight! I’ve been reading your stories and books for several years and am also a denizen of the great Inland Empire (residing in that once rural area wedged between the 60 and 91 and east of the 15). When I need an escape from the tracthouse walls of my life, I lug my laptop to Back to the Grind where the musty smell of all those books gives me a literary high.
Thank you Susan H, for this great day-after-Christmas read. I got some Barnes & Noble money for Christmas, so it looks like I have some new books to add to my list.