Science Book Meme
Rites of Citizenship



"There is only one success - to be able to spend your life in your own way."
~Christopher Morley

I ran across this great quotation today in one of the writer's newsletters I subscribe to. It's appeared at time when I've been thinking a lot about what success is in relation to my own ambitions. I don't know whether I"m getting old and tired, or if I'm just in a low spot right now because of health problems, but I seem to have lost a lot of my ambition to be Someone. My friend MG has too (we're both old coots, and she's even older than I am, by a couple of years). I have to confess that when she told me about year ago that she was more focused right now on having fun than doing art, it scared me. When that happens, I've learned to step back and take a look at what I'm really afraid of, but I haven't really been able to put a name to it until now:

Being ordinary.

A long time ago, I apparently told one of my other friends that there was nothing wrong in being ordinary, that not everybody could be unique and brilliant and talented and famous. Then I promptly forgot I said it, until she reminded me years later. It's a good lesson to remember in a culture that makes fame the ultimate prize, but it's also a hard one.

None of us like to think of ourselves as ordinary or average and in some ways, none of us are. There's something in each of us that makes us all unique, all different from one another at the same time that we share hundreds of common characteristics. That's the mystery of being human: we're all the same and all different. And many of us spend our lives trying desperately to set ourselves apart from the herd so we can feel better about ourselves. This seems to be an especially American affliction, with our national myth that we are all equally capable of being what we want to be.

I'm slowly coming to the conclusion that while the potential is there, in the end, there is some vital spark of something missing in most of us, me included. And maybe that's not such a bad thing.

I thought for many years that I was desperate to be a published writer, a novelist. I've written a couple of books and hundreds of thousands of words in short stories and poems, some of them good enough to be published. I like seeing my name in print, and getting a check for it now and then is nice too. But I've started to wonder if I really care that much about being an author, or if the writing itself has become its own reward. Writing professionally is a business, and it's hard work. You spend half your time attending to non-writing things like jiggering manuscripts for submission, sending your work out and keeping track of it, schmoozing with other writers and publishing professionals, combing journals for possible markets, researching agents, writing reviews, essays, columns and blurbs for other people, and drumming up work. I hate that part. It's soul-sucking in the same way a bad job is, because it's not really what you want to be doing.

And because you're trying to sell a part of yourself. Because writing (or art of any kind) is so personal, you develop a thick skin about your work, and separate it from your personal ego. Believe me, that's easier said than done. Like acting, writing is a business of constant rejection which often has nothing to do with how skilled or talented you are. It's wearing after a while, and if it happens enough, you start to wonder if you really do suck. It's not the most pleasant thing to do day after day. It takes a lot of ego, sometimes an amount that makes one not a very nice person. It takes, in fact, a certain amount of arrogance.

The part I love is sitting down at the keyboard or with a notebook and a pen, and spinning something up out of my head onto the blankness of paper or electron-laced screen, filling it with words that can take me or a reader somewhere else. I love learning a new form, whether it's haiku or the personal essay. I love words. I love digging into a character and finding out what makes them tick. I love beautiful writing and good stories, both reading them and telling them. But, the publishing business being what it is, I don't think I have anything in me, except perhaps my poetry, that the general public would be interested in. In short, nothing I could sell, certainly nothing I could make a living at.

Does this mean I don't believe in my own work? No. I know I'm a talented writer. I've had enough people tell me so, and enough publications to know it. I think what it means (and I say this tentatively because I haven't quite figured it out yet) is that I don't believe publishing is the only way to be a writer. It's the only way to be an author, but not the only way to be a writer.

In one light, this sounds a lot like fear of success, or fear of failure. There's an element of that, I'll admit. I like the limelight enough to be afraid of what I might become with just enough fame to make me an asshole; I've seen it happen to plenty of poets who come down with Big Fish in a Small Pond Syndrome. But I've also seen how getting on that publishign treadmill can ruin your writing. Because publishing is about the bottom line now, best-selling authors often wind up writing the same book over and over, or working with the same characters forever, or juggling two separate series at the same time, until writing becomes a job, a grind. And mid-list authors scramble for work writing columns and reviews and swinging from one teaching job to another through the academic forest. That part terrifies me.

This isn't all that dissimilar to the attitude my mom had about her china painting. I've said before that her work is some of th emost beautiful I've seen, in or out of museums, but she hated doing commission work. People offered to sell her work if she'd produce so much of it and she often turned them down. The one time she didn't, she never saw a dime of profit from it and hated the work. I think MG had a similar experience with jewelry making and craft fairs. And Mel, who should by all rights have had a brilliant concert-pianist career turned it down to play for herself, her church, the school choirs, in our hometown.

And, of course, there's Emily Dickinson.

Years ago, when I was just discovering how much I loved to write, I was told I couldn't call myself a real writer until I'd sold something. I was only a kid then, and I wish I'd had either the knowledge or the presence of mind of to snap back with "Oh yeah? That means Emily Dickinson wasn't a real writer?" The great bulk of Dickinson's remarkable poetry never saw the light of day in her lifetime. Dickinson, much like Mel, was a homebody, and something of a mystic. Her poetry was as much a part of her spirituality as it was her sense of herself as an artist, if she even had that sense. So was she a successful writer? I suppose that depends on your definition of success.

She left a huge body of work behind, 597 poems in all, only a fraction of which were published during her life. She had a little acclaim and many famous friends when she was alive, but spent much of her time alone, writing, pottering, keeping house, taking care of her loved ones. She lived her life on her own terms, did as she wanted, and wrote . . . and wrote . . . and wrote.

Now, Emily Dickinson I ain't. No delusions about that. But I think there's a point where every writer asks themselves what the point is. Is it the writing, or is it seeing your name in print? Which is more important? Your name on the best seller list or a good life? This is not to say that those two things are incompatible, but there is a certain amount of sacrifice to be made in reaching the best seller list, especially if one fails to do so very early in life. Is that sacrifice worth the final goal?

Maybe. Maybe not.

At this point in my life, I'm beginning to think not. I left grad school and ultimately a job to have more time for writing. As a result, I've had a fairly unconventional life without the common earmarks of success: house, husband, kids, 401(k), stock portfolio, gas guzzler in the drive, steady employment. What I have instead is a roof over my head, work I like that isn't generally burdensome, functional if not necessarily stylish clothing, good food, time and a bit of money to travel, great friends—outstanding friends—and about 250 poems, and probably close to a million or so words of fiction and non-fiction. Maybe the world will never see most of it. Maybe they will only see it posthumously, aside from my blog ramblings and the occasional poem and story. Maybe I'll get lucky and land a real contract for my novel.

But it doesn't matter as much as it used to. Different things matter now: the books I'm learning to make. The students I've started to teach again. New forms of art I'm learning. And most of all, finding out who I am now that I'm no longer in my parents' shadow. I'm learning how to give more, to be kinder, to be more open to possibilities. So who knows what will happen? But ultimately, who cares? I'm having a fine life without seeing my name on the New York Times Bestseller List.


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Jennifer Ouellette

OKay, at least some of this is motivated by your being kinda down at the moment, I think. :) I support the notion that writers are people who write, regardless of how much they publish, or how successful they are (or aren't) according to the narrow metric of the publishing industry/world at large.

I just think you're painting the role of "author" with an overly broad brush. I say this as a minor mid-lister, who writes books (and blogs) for the joy of it, and who will probably never make the NY Times bestseller list. Nonetheless, I'm very fulfilled. Yes, a bit of stressful scrounging and discouraging rejection comes with the territory, particularly when one is just starting out. But it pays off in the long run if you just keep plodding away.

And while I'm technically answerable to editors for everything except my personal blog, and they don't always agree with my choices (and vice versa), on the whole, having that input has made me a much better writer in the end, by forcing me to discipline my style a little, and coming up with a creative approach in some cases that both an editor and I can live with -- perhaps something that might not have occurred to me if said editor hadn't pushed me out of my comfort zone a little.

Art for art's sake is a fine and worthy ideal, but most of us write for the love of writing, whether we fall into your "writer" or "author categories. It's the love of the craft, of losing oneself in words, that drives all of us -- and makes it worth putting up with the occasional crap/ The fact that we get paid for some of our work, and not other work, doesn't automatically compromise the integrity of the former, nor does NOT getting paid for written work mean that work has no value.

Lee Kottner

Thanks for the support, Jen. Oddly, I had you in mind when I wrote this, as the model of a successful author/writer. But there's a fair amount of difference between fiction and non-fiction markets and career trajectories. You were already placed in the industry, writing and publishing non-fiction pieces you were proud of when you got your book deal and, and you had great connections too, which makes a huge difference. In fiction or poetry, without an MFA or prior connections through grad school it's an uphill battle. I have a drawer full of rejection slips, like most fiction writers. At some point, I think most of us collect enough to paper our bathrooms. I've got one solid short-story publication behind me and a runner-up award for it, but it'll take a lot more than that to get me a book contract. I don't know if I have the gumption for it.

It's not the integrity of my work I'm worried about. I've had some great editors too, who've refined my pieces and made them better. But the way novels and non-fic are sold to publishing houses is different too. Non-fiction, as you know, gets sold on the basis of a proposal. Novelists have to have a whole manuscript in hand, finished and polished, years of work, to even get in the door. No advance until your second book, if you're lucky. And then if your nonfiction book is wildly successful, nobody asks you to write about the exact same subject again, with a different spin. If a novel takes off, the publishers want something similar all over again. Plus the fact that all of it's spun out of nothing, nary a fact in sight.

But I think the important difference is that as a non-fiction writer, when your books are done, you go back to writing articles on cool science topics for Discover and New Scientist, stuff that feeds you ideas for your next books. As a fiction writer, I'd be lucky to get roped into reviews or essays, and they're not necessarily what I want to do. Let's not even talk about the pay differential for science writers who cover physics and dime-a-dozen fiction writers. That story I sold? 5,859 words for just over $200. I've never been paid for a poem. I'd be lucky to get $1,000 for a poetry collection, and it would cost me $20 to enter the contest where that might happen. If published, it might have a print run of 2,000, tops. This is why fiction and poetry writers teach and write reviews and essays and columns. If I were going to be strong-armed into writing something I didn't want to write, I'd go back to marketing. It pays better.

I'm not saying it's not hard to do what you do. I know how hard you've worked to get where you are. But fiction is a whole different animal. I'm finding that I'm very fulfilled with the writing I do now too, even if it isn't published. I'm just more ambivalent about the necessity of me publishing a book now.

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