Response to Cernovich
Should we cede the field?
If you haven’t read this post, take a minute to. Otherwise you’ll be in the weeds here.
Where to start? Let’s start with a story.
In the mid-nineties Monica Drake got hired to teach creative writing at a local community college. Her students were all adults, former loggers and lumber-mill workers who’d been displaced. The government had given them a stipend to go to school and get trained in a new field. According to Monica her entire class wanted to be retrained as “famous writers.”
Around that same time, Monica tagged along with some friends to a party at the house of Jean Auel. Only one of several homes owned by the Clan of the Cave Bear writer. Rumor was Auel also had huge houses on Mt. Hood and at the beach. Monica described the house as sitting atop Parrott Mountain, south of Portland. As cars approached, visitors could see a vast lawn that sloped down. In the manicured grass, the landscaper had planted different species of taller bunch grasses. These formed the shape of a ginormous Chinese dragon. Above that reared the ginormous house of Jean Auel. As the party wound down, Monica was among the last guests to leave. Here Auel took her by the elbow for a tour, and what struck Monica most was one wing of the house. It consisted of seven bedrooms, each with its own bathroom. All the rooms were identical, the same artwork prints, the same color bedspreads. Auel called it “My Motel Six wing.” She asked if Monica would consider moving out to Parrott Mountain to live in one of the bedrooms. The two of them had never met until this party. Monica’s whole takeaway was that Jean Auel was intensely lonely in her palace. Monica didn’t move into the Motel Six wing.
Around that same time, maybe earlier, I went to dinner with a group that included a man named Oliver. Oliver repped books for W.W. Norton—the eventual publisher of Fight Club—and he hand-sold each season’s new list to West Coast booksellers. He’s dead now, but still much beloved, and over dinner he mentioned a manuscript called American Psycho. Oliver tut-tutted about the book, saying how it had bounced between publishers, but no one was worried about it because booksellers had secretly vowed not to order and sell any copies. Oliver said the novel would die a quick death.
At the time, I’d barely picked up a pen. No one at that dinner knew I was writing. Then, Oliver told us that Jean Auel’s publisher in Germany had planted hundreds of acres of forest in anticipation of her next book. When the book was ready to print, all those trees would be pulped. Hundreds of acres. For the writer sitting up on Parrott Mountain with a Chinese dragon carved in her huge lawn. That was—wow—what I thought being a writer was all about.
Those laid-off loggers and mill hands probably thought the same thing. So did many of Tom Spanbauer’s students. Maybe most of them. One in particular, long blond hair, a man with a degree in creative writing, who worked at Powell’s Bookstore, comes to mind. Forgive me, but I mentioned this guy in Consider This. He came to Tom’s workshop for a few months, and when he didn’t quickly break out with a book deal, he blamed Tom. Portland is a small town, smaller back then, and this student went around to local media and tried to drum up a story about Tom being a scam artist. It’s hard to picture the blond guy now, thirty years later, in his fifties. Just one of many people who dipped a toe into writing and gave up.
Tom’s take on writing
Tom always told us, “Writers write because they weren’t invited to a party.”
So Tom made every workshop into a party. A plan similar to David Mamet’s. The actor/director Clark Gregg had worked with Mamet on many projects, and Gregg quoted Mamet as always saying, “Every film set should feel like a party.” At the time Gregg was directing the film based on my book Choke, and it did feel like a party.
This strategy hits the nail on the head. Writers can be solitary animals, so if workshop guarantees them a party to attend each week, they will continue to write.
Most of our friendships are based on proximity—where we live, work, exercise—and when circumstances change those friends are gone. But friendships based on a shared passion—writing—will last the rest of your life.
A tangent with a crude ending
It wasn’t until my third or fourth book that I went to New York City and met my literary agent in person. Back then the agency was in a 19th Century townhouse behind the Chelsea Hotel. As the cab took me there the driver pointed out a high-rise with large, round windows—now it’s the Maritime Hotel—and as we passed, the driver pointed and said, “Covenant House, where all those priests fucked all those little boys.”
The old agency was in the lower half of the townhouse, a few steps down from the street. Dark wood paneling. Huge windows that looked out on a patio garden and a towering, weeping cherry tree in full pink bloom. A stairway led up to a balcony where the senior partner worked. The office had a fireplace. It was exactly how I’d imagined a New York literary agency would look. At some point an agent, Neil, said, “I probably shouldn’t show you this…”
He wheeled out a metal cart, the size of a shopping cart, heaped with paper manuscripts. As he told it, the agency received no fewer than ninety unsolicited manuscripts each week. This heaping cart represented just one week’s worth of hopeful writers’ work. Here, the agency accountant, Ernie, announced he was going to lunch and asked if he could bring anything back.
Neil shuffled through the “slush” pile of “over the transom” submissions. Each one was about priests molesting boys. They’d all been written by business executives while on long-haul flights to the far east. All fictionalized versions of something torn from yesterday’s long-distant headlines. The way old-school publishing works, a book typically takes a year from contract to publication. By the time any of these would ever be published—none would—they’d be even further out of date.
This glum fact sticks in my head because right here, Ernie the accountant shouted, “What the fuck!”
We all turned to see a man’s anus with a long snake of brown poo trailing out. Ernie had opened the street door just as this man had squatted on the bottom step to take a shit. The man wore a tailored, pinstripe suit and held the coat tails safely to each side as he pooped with his back to us, the poo coiling up on the office threshold. As we stared, he twisted his head to look back over one shoulder at us. His hair looked nicely cut. He looked like a lawyer or broker. Even as the poo dropped out of his straining hole, he said, “You don’t know!” It was more of a sob. He sniffed back tears and said, “You don’t know how hard it is in this city!”
And that’s the point of writing
In school I hated learning anything for which I had no immediate use. Be it Geometry or Trig, if I couldn’t apply it to some real-world problem I’d forget it in a flash. This test-and-forget culture in school felt like a waste of time. But writing does that, it gives you license to research, and a use for your new-found knowledge. Writing is all about problem solving, beginning with the biggest problem of all: What goes wrong?
That pooping man—his shoes were polished and looked custom-made—has been in my head for decades, and now he’s found a home. Or, now I’ve found a place for him. Writing allows you to create a grand problem that makes the ordinary mess of your life seem workable. I’m never as happy as I am while trying to scheme a character out of some dilemma. The day’s headlines don’t leave me feeling gutted and hopeless.
Which brings us to the other thing Tom would always say
“If you’re writing for any reason other than the love of writing,” Tom preached, “you should not be writing.” For example, if you’re trying to earn enough for a car. If you’re trying to impress your father. Or if you’re just bored on some flight to Hong Kong and you want to knock out a pedophile thriller… you should not be writing.
Cernovich was right about this point. If you’re writing just in the hope of making a boatload of cash, give it up.
But Cernovich was wrong when he suggested would-be writers work late nights in a gas station and read books. You can work in that Plaid Pantry and write on the sly at work. Talk about quiet quitting. You can bring your work to the guaranteed party of workshop each week. You can continue to study and learn, throughout your entire life, while having a place to apply all of that new info.
And, no, bookstores aren’t the level playing field you’d imagine
Booksellers tell me about zealots who browse while covertly damaging and misshelving books. People shove Salman Rushdie’s books into the store’s toilet. They take the Ann Coulter books and drop them into the dusty space behind the shelves. Entire churches will arrive to buy the same book—thus putting it on every bestseller list—and once the book is a “success” all those bought books will be returned for a full refund. A store might sell five hundred copies, but four hundred-ninety-two are returned and eventually pulped by the publisher. And none of this is new. Bookstores have always been political places.
As they are also very commercial places. In the recent past I visited Booksmith in San Francisco. I asked an associate how sales had been. As she unloaded a carton of books, she said, “We’re no longer a book store. We’re now just a distribution point for thousands of copies of Fifty Shades of Grey.” I kid you not, cartons of that book filled half the store.
I thought, There goes another forest in Germany…
Another reason to write
As if the weekly party isn’t enough, and the license to learn, and the peace that comes from resolving a problem of your own choosing—writing is a cheap pastime. The threshold for entry is low. Monica Drake had studied painting, but the cost! The brushes and canvases and paints, the need for a workspace. Once she tried writing, she could tackle the learning curve without going broke.
Early on, a fellow writing student mentioned that her tax preparer knew the loopholes for writers. At the time—maybe still—beginning writers could deduct their expenses for eight? Eleven years? Most businesses had to show a profit in three out of five years, but the government recognized that writing and the arts had a much longer incubation period. For decades we all dutifully took our taxes to this same expert. So there are some tax deduction perks. Consult your tax person.
Another reason to write
Name one social movement that was catalyzed by a film. Or a painting. Or a television show. Give up? Now consider books like Uncle Tom’s Cabin and To Kill a Mockingbird. Books like Walden or On the Road or The Jungle. Books like Atlas Shrugged. For some reason books have the lasting effect that triggers long-term social change. So if that’s your bag, and you love to write, good on you.
Another reason to write
If you keep expecting the world to give you exactly the books you want, you’re going to die disappointed. Nothing you can buy will ever satisfy you as much as something you create. Especially if what you create seems to be beyond anything you saw yourself capable of creating.
So quit bellyaching. If the library and bookstore don’t have the perfect novel you crave—write it. Nobody knows your taste better than you do.
Let’s touch on the changing culture
In his book, The Program Era, Mark McGurl describes American writing programs at the close of WWII. Staunch old writers taught classrooms of almost exclusively male students. These were all military veterans with G.I. loans and a long war’s worth of material to process. Compare them to Monica’s displaced timber workers who just wanted money and renown.
It was that surge of veterans who gave us Mailer and Heller and Vidal, and the entire macho American literary world of the 20th Century. Still, the culture changes. Those Hemingway aspirants had to run their course. Decades later the stores would be full of pink books featuring high-heel shoes and stemmed martini glasses. It was the golden age of Chick Lit and books like Bridget Jones’ Diary and The Devil Wears Prada gobbled up the market. Sex and the City and The Nanny Diaries. Appletini fatigue set in, and the trend crashed. Those books faded and disappeared, too.
My point is, no trend is forever. Maybe YOU are the next trend.
Maybe the biggest reason why you should write
As Joan Didion said, “We tell ourselves stories in order to live.” You are never not telling yourself stories—so-and-so hates me, life is unfair—so why not harness that impulse and put it to work?
There it is. I’ve covered a lot of ground.
In closing I want to say, “I know!” As I lay a fat, steaming turd at your door, I say, “I do know how hard it is in this city!” But only the impossible is ever worth doing.
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