Some times I’m slow to recognize an insult when I hear one. Not so long ago I was shopping for holiday gifts and the woman in front of me at the register, whom I know casually, asked me if I make much money from my writing. I grinned and answered her. I answered her! Robotic courtesy. Well, damn, would you ask anyone else whom you know casually what they earn at whatever they do? Do you question the clerk at the register or the server in the diner, the barista? How about the FedEx or UPS driver? Of course not, it’s no one’s business what they make. It did not occur to me at the time to be offended, but I should have been. My income is no one’s business but mine, my banks, and my creditors.
This time of the year I get cranky about money because of the constant pressure to buy things, the sale junk that clogs my email, Face Book, Twitter, mailbox. No, I don’t resent giving gifts to people I love, taking the time to discover what will please them, anticipating their joy with just the right present. But I’m so numbed by the endless ads for things I don’t want to buy that I didn’t even feel that rude question when it came at me like an arrow right in the wallet.
Writing is my work; I expect to be honored as an honest worker, but I don’t expect people to pry and judge my worth by the numbers. Some of the best writers we have ever known earned little, some nothing; some of the worst have made millions. The gauge of good writing in not monetary; it’s the freshness and precision of language and imagery, the surprise in the story or the depth of the poem; it’s the humor or the passion or the grief. An insight. It’s the making something new out of our tiny alphabet, our only raw material. It’s a gift beyond price and money is not the reason for the season. Nor is it the reason I write.
Yesterday on my way home from dinner with friends in W. Kennebunk, I was awed by a double rainbow, one of which was the biggest, brightest I’ve ever seen. So entranced by keeping it in sight, I made my way to Rte 95, also known as the Maine Turnpike, paid my dollar and realized that, horrors, I had gone through the south-bound toll booth, when I needed to drive north. By the time I reached the next exit where I could turn around, the rainbows were gone and I had to take a stretch of Route One in order to get back on the north-bound highway.
Why am I telling you this? Because chasing rainbows is a bit like chasing my imagination. I had a draft for today’s blog, but I worried that its truth would sting people I love. Writers are truth tellers, right? Rock hard truth tellers. But what if the truth is like throwing rocks at people who don’t deserve such an attack? So I have let that true essay fade. I got back on the right road and it feels so much better than trying to wow the world with clever words.
One of my early readers, a fine writer and teacher named Merrell Knighten, had no problem challenging me about my writing: “It’s clever but is it good?” Good means taking full responsibility for the aftermath of publishing something as ephemeral as a blog. Be careful where you travel, you will want to go home again and not find the door locked.
To become a writer is again to pick up the pen, open the laptop, open the mind. That’s the difference between writing and propaganda. Daily choices are the molecules of a calling, a career, a self.
I’ve been on a mini sabbatical, letting the ms in progress marinate in its own juices. Tomorrow I’ll do a blitz read through to mark the places that need attention. I think there’s plenty of work left to do. Then I’ll put the book into readable form and start looking for beta readers. If you’re not familiar with that term, it just refers to the folks who agree to read a nearly finished ms and respond in some detail as to what they think of the book.
As with so many things in life, the 80/20 rule seems to apply here. With the previous novel, only a small percentage of those readers who agreed to help actually did so. But feedback is important before the work goes public, so I’m compiling my list of potential betas. (No, not the Siamese fighting fish, humans who read novels.) I have many friends who write and I will certainly welcome their opinions, but I also want those of readers, the people who settle in with a book in hopes of enlightenment, entertainment, distraction–whatever makes them turn the pages. If folks reading this post are interested, please look up to the menu bar here on the blog and let me know via the “Get My News” link. In the space with your name add the word beta. Sometime next month I will distribute the ms electronically and hope to have the feedback not later than mid-March.
This week I sat in a local diner with other writers who impressed me by their willingness to approach tough stuff. One had the courage to describe his mother in more or less balanced terms without the sentimentality or vitriol that inherently sneaks into this mother of all topics. Another wrote about her insecurity and hesitancy to publish what she believes is the real value of her independently owned business, and a third dared to say that she’s out to change the world. Then there was the story of a childhood hurt that reduced the writer to tears. Such courage!
Truth abounding. And Truth is not beauty, no matter what Keats claimed. It’s temperamental and often ugly. It was ugly in Paris last week. It will be so again and again. But the writers I know and admire, either through their published work or their work in progress, wrestle with this harridan and sometimes they pin her to the mat. They force her to hold still long enough for us to see her complexity. This struggle is not, unfortunately, a given in the world of books. Many authors write to publish and ignore the struggle. They rely on formulas that fatten their wallets but do not nourish us or help heal our wounds.
So here I was this morning, in my green pajamas, noodling in my journal, remembering a time when even with personal writing I drew an innocuous picture of who I was, imagining a ghostly reader who would otherwise point out my flaws and ridicule my aspirations if I wrote the truth, even in my journal. No more of that. Truth is no easy ally, not willing to bend or change her stance to suit my tender ego. But, Truth, you are my best teacher. I’m glad we’ve finally met. I’ll try to be faithful.