Saved by The Idea
And a Short Explanation of Kiss-Off Money
The year Fight Club launched as a hardback, 1996, my family gathered for a reunion. We took over a motel in the center of tiny Hamilton, Montana, just a block west of the Chapter One Book Store. As a young man my maternal grandfather had been a fur trapper in the Bitterroot Valley. My maternal grandmother had been a teenage parlor maid in the summer retreat of copper baron Marcus Daly. The palace-sized house still sits along the east bank of the Bitterroot River. Tours don’t include the upper floors, and for good reason1.
Between day trips to visit family graves and taking group photos, we sat around the parking lot of the motel and drank beer. Everyone had heard I’d sold a book, and one of my brothers-in-law asked, “How much did they pay you?”
I hadn’t told anyone. Money as a topic is out-of-bounds in my family. But this was a man who’d married into the family, so I asked why he wanted to know.
“So,” he said, “I’ll know if it’s worth my time and effort to write a book, myself.”2
No way did I want to tell him, especially not in front of four generations of my family. They knew I’d been plugging away, writing bad short stories and novels I could never sell. I’d side-stepped promotions and turned down good jobs so I could focus on writing. Years I’d funneled down the drain, and selling Fight Club occurred for me as a beachhead rather than a windfall of cash.
He pressed the topic. I evaded.
In truth the publishing house, W.W. Norton, hadn’t wanted to acquire the book. I’d been courting and corresponding with an editor there. Gerald Howard3, a young editor with a track record of bringing edgy books to market and making them successful. All these details had come to me secondhand thru another writer4 at W.W. Norton. Out of fear of alienating Howard5, the acquisitions board allotted a small amount of money for my advance. As per my inside source, this small of an advance is known as “kiss off” money.6 The offer of even a small advance allows the editor to save face – “See, I got you a deal, kid!” – but the author is expected to feel so insulted by the amount that he or she will walk away from the negotiations.
But as I’d said earlier, I took the offer. It represented twelve months’ worth of house payments. That, and for years I’d been itemizing all my writing-related expenses on my taxes. It would look good to finally show a profit.
Besides, it wasn’t just the money. The money was a pleasant byproduct. It was because the process of writing had more-or-less kept me alive.
A detour here to Dallas, Texas. On book tours you’re pushed to stop by stores that stock large numbers of your book(s). By signing that stock you almost guarantee it will sell. Some writers even rearrange the shelves to put their own books at eye level. They shuffle books so theirs will have a face-out – where the entire cover faces out to the customer, instead of just the spine. Even if this means cherry-picking the books of their competitors and enemies and hiding those books behind other books.7
At a Barnes & Noble in Dallas an associate handed me books to sign.8 She was young, with long blonde hair, and her brown eyes never blinked or looked away from me. Unsmiling, she asked, “What sign are you? In the zodiac?”
This hit me out of left field. “Pisces,” I told me.
She nodded, slight, slow nods, as she said, “The only water sign without a shell.”
One hallmark of the truth is that when someone says it you want to smack them. The stranger had read me.
The world has always struck me as a horrible place where rules are changed on a whim, and violating any of those uncountable written and unwritten rules can leave you destitute or dead. As a shield between me and the chaotic world I’d begun to write. Really, first I’d begun to read, but as I found fewer books I enjoyed, writing became my shield.
In writing I got to choose the chaos. A chaos that represented something real-world that I could neither tolerate nor resolve. But by exaggerating the metaphor and spinning the worst-worst-worst case scenario I could exhaust my emotional reaction to the problem.
In a similar way, that metaphor – The Idea – kept my life on an even keel. I didn’t overreact, over drink, overdose on drugs because I was so in love with The Idea and wanted, above all else, to see it completed. The Idea kept me going to the gym. The Idea prompted me to eat green, leafy vegetables and drink enough water. When other would-be writers stayed out for another round of drinks, The Idea insisted I go home early so I’d have a clear head to write the next day.
Best of all, when I woke at 3:00 am with definite plans to tie a rope to the upstairs railing and hang myself… The Idea would present some new, fresh aspect of itself and my joy would drive me to find pen and paper to jot down this next scene or line of dialog.
Let’s not overlook how The Idea – and there’s always another New Idea waiting -- beats the new wife, the new job, the new drug, the new car, the new religion, and keeps the rest of your life rock-solid stable.
The Idea isn’t mine alone. Most of the creative professionals I know find their lives saved, again and again, by The Idea.
In his wonderful book The Gift Lewis Hyde explores the magic of creativity and how it seems to arrive as a gift. Across cultures, he describes how a spirit is born with each person. It’s their genie or guardian angel or idios daemon or genius, and it brings a gift to us at our birth. And if we sacrifice the time and effort to cultivate that gift the genie or spirit will become a protective power over us. In time our growing talents will free that guiding spirit to a new plane of existence.
If you cultivate your talent, your genie will be set free of the bottle. Your angel will get its wings. As per so many ancient cultures and Lewis Hyde. In other words, when I’m developing an Idea, I feel as if I live in a state of grace.
As further proof, when friends stumble across me overeating, or drunk or neurotic, they always ask, “You’re not working on anything right now, are you?” And they’re correct. Because when I’m thick in a make-believe disaster my clothes are pressed. My fingernails are trimmed. My idios daemon wraps me like a suit of armor, and this fishy Pisces has a shell.9
So getting the kiss-off money wasn’t the point. Not for me. At the family reunion, sitting around that parking lot drinking bottled beer in the sun, I told my brother-in-law the amount I got paid.
He grinned, listening. He shook his head and glanced around at other cousins and aunts as if looking for confirmation about what he’d just heard. Finally his eyes came back to me. “You worked all those years, and all they paid you was six grand?”
I didn’t tell him about how The Idea had kept me from driving drunk. The Idea had kept me working a steady job and living a stable life. The writing had never been about money or awards.
I didn’t tell him how the greatest minds in history -- Plato and Socrates and Aristotle – had lived in service to their own guiding spirits. And those guides had kept them safe and healthy. Had given them each a destiny and a place. I didn’t tell him that The Idea is as close as I’ve ever found to a soul. And to ignore my soul or neglect it struck me as a waste of my entire life.
Consequently, my brother-in-law never wrote his book. To him the $6000 reward was an insult. A year later he was edging the lawn in his backyard on a sunny day. Still in his forties, he collapsed from a heart attack and was dead before the ambulance arrived. This is not to make me right and him wrong. That’s not my idea of a happy ending, but it’s where I’ll stop.
In the event you have nothing better to do right now…
One time I bribed a Daly tour guide with fifty dollars, and went upstairs to find the walls swathed in sheets of clear plastic to control water damage. Sandwiched between the century-old floral wallpaper and the plastic were hundreds of bats. They’d been trapped there and died, and their furry corpses added a bitter smell to the mildew.
That got my blood up. As if it’s that easy: You just sit and write a book and sell it, one-two-three easy peasy. In hindsight I should’ve told him a million dollar figure and then gloated as he set off to discover how difficult it can be to write and sell a book.
The first time I met Gerry in person he’d come west for a writers’ conference. For a fee, people would be allowed seven minutes to pitch their unpublished book to him. If he liked the idea he might offer to read their manuscript. I wasn’t there, not officially. A banking conference was sharing the same convention facility, and when the loan officers went to lunch I stole one of their badges off a table. This got me inside the door, and I loitered. The badge was a huge rosette of ruffled silk ribbon, like the blue ribbon you’d pin on a prize steer at a county fair. Too late I noticed the name. “Hi!” it read, “I’m Kathleen in Investment Banking!” I saw Gerry headed for a break. He was easy to pick out because he was trailed by a mob of writers clutching their manuscripts. The mob followed him into the bar and sat in a cluster to watch him eat his lunch. There seemed no way to meet him. But writing is nothing if not problem solving. I asked the bartender for twenty dollars in quarters. Juke boxes were still a thing, and I plugged in all eighty quarters and punched a button. David Bowie began to sing Young American. No one noticed. Gerry ate. The song ended and began again. The same song. By the third go-round everyone grumbled at me. It was clear Young American was going to play endlessly. By the fifth or sixth repeat the bar was empty except for Gerry and I. That’s how I first met my editor in the flesh.
With whom I briefly shared the same literary agent.
According to my writer friend.
Actually, this fellow writer referred to the $6000 advance as “fuck you” money. I’d soft-pedaled that original term.
Booksellers have endless anecdotes about irate far-right and far-left customers who hide, mutilate and often stuff the store’s toilets with the books they deem unfit. For years Salman Rushdie’s The Satanic Verses was a perennial toilet clogger.
The rule “A signed book is a sold book” seems to have originated with Jacqueline Suzanne, who tore across the United States in a Cadillac convertible autographing every copy of The Valley of the Dolls she could get her mitts on. At the time a signed book was considered damaged. As such the store could not return it to the publisher as unsold inventory. No, the store had to sell all autographed copies at full price.
For a less spiritual explanation, consider the psychological term “cognitive pruning.” If a person is deeply immersed in a task or passion the person’s greater awareness dwindles. Picture the absent-minded academic who’s working to solve a huge equation but puts his pants on backward. It’s possible that when a creative person is neck-deep in painting or composing or writing, this cognitive pruning deadens them to the slings and arrows of everyday life. Thus, that sense of peace and protection might not be angels at all.