It’s hard not to be overwhelmed by bad news these days. Financial problems, health care ‘debate’ incivility, bombings in subway stations, natural disasters…. it’s grim, and seemingly ubiquitous. Writers and booksellers are no stranger to dire predictions and this week two articles were brought to my attention. One was a blog post from New York Times bestsellers list author, Lynn Viehl, talking about the financial reality of that accomplishment. By which I mean even with that notable “success” she made very little money. When you take into account what agents take, and taxes, and so forth, if she were dependent solely on her income from this book she would qualify, she says in a follow-up blog, for food stamps. And she’s on the New York Times bestseller list, people.
In another article, this one from the Telegraph, called Apoco-lit now the author talks of the dwindling advances received by writers.
“An advance of £20,000 is now considered generous, though that is not enough for authors whose work may take years. Writers are now paying for the excesses of the past.”
Well, that might sound like a decent wad of cash, yes? Roughly $30,000. But I ask you to consider how many hours it takes to write a book. Let’s say it takes, on average, four years to see a book from conception to arriving in the bookstores. And believe me, I’m being optimistic here. But let’s say. Okay, a $30,000 advance is, let’s see… $7,500 a year. Don’t quit your day job. I know an author who has recently published a very successful first novel. She worked on it for eleven years. She received a $20,000 advance. You figure it out. I can’t. It makes my eyes bleed.
I was asked recently to answer some questions for a website called “SheWrites”a terrific social networking site for women writers. One of the questions they asked me was about writer’s block, and led to a discussion of the fear of being silenced by “the business.” I talked about how, a few years ago, when a manuscript was rejected by publishers, I fell into a horrible loss-of-faith-and-meaning depression. As a writer, if I couldn’t publish again, what would I do? Who was I, in fact? I had invested so much in the idea of myself as a Real Writer, by which I meant a successfully published one. Up until that moment I thought I had surrendered to The Writer’s Life, but I hadn’t. Not to all of it. Oh, I’d surrendered to the sorrow of never quite writing the book you imagine, and to difficulties with agents and publishers, to envy over other writers getting bigger advances and better reviews, etc.; to the stresses of book tours, and bad sales, and the general disappointment that floods in when the publishing experience isn’t what we think it will be; BUT I hadn’t surrendered to the possibility (inevitability) that once having been invited to the party, I might (will) be uninvited.
I thought, I can’t do this anymore. I quit. And so I stopped writing, blocked by the business end of this life. Or, I tried to stop. What I discovered after several AWFUL months was that, publish or not publish, as crazy as the business makes me, I’m actually less crazy when I’m writing than when I’m not writing. And so, I learned to surrender to a deeper level. To write again regardless of the publishing outcome.
So the question one must ask oneself then is why are you doing this? Or, if you’re a theater type: What’s my motivation? And this question applies not only to writers wondering why they keep writing in the face of such glum news, but for anyone faced with opposition and few prospects for material/cultural ‘success’ in their chosen field.
Trevor Cole, who is a mighty fine writer, responds this way:
“…our job is not to fret about the markets for our work but simply to create the work to the best of our ability. The more I read the paper or the internet about the success or failure of other writers or the future of books in general, the less happy I am, because it’s nothing I can control. It just creates anxiety. The more I focus on the act of creation, which I can control, the happier I am.”
Trevor’s right. In my case, I might replace the word ‘happier’ with ‘saner’ or ‘more useful’ but the idea is the same. So, I thought about that and followed my feet over to a noon meeting for folks who, like myself, try to get through the day without drinking and/or drugs. The person leading this meeting wanted to talk about “The Serenity Prayer,” the one adapted from a prayer by Reinhold Niebuhr, which goes, “God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, the courage to change the things I can, and the wisdom to know the difference.” We often add, “Thy will, Lord, not mine, be done.” I think we add that because it’s often quite difficult to differentiate between what we can change, what we can’t, and what we shouldn’t change even if we can.
In our age of instant information and endless outlets for bad ‘news’ it’s easy to fall into cynicism and despair, but as Trevor said, that only takes our focus away from our lives, from our creativity, from the wonder of where we are right now, right this very second.
I’m so glad he reminded me of that. I’ll get some writing done this afternoon.
As a footnote, I suspect Garrison Keillor, in this lovely little essay, agrees…