Once I’d made my mind up to it, becoming a writer was fairly simple. I committed myself to it. I studied it. I read a lot of books. I attended a lot of readings. I attended as many workshops as I could, allowing myself to be guided, but not derailed by any of the comments. And I wrote.
The result was my first novel, Life Without Water. I had good luck with that novel. I worked with a great editor with whom I had rapport, as well as a wonderful publicist. I was supported by the house that published me, and I was fortunate. The novel was reviewed by the New York Times and chosen by the Times as an editor’s choice. Bantam purchased the paperback rights and brought it out with a new cover. I was very, very lucky to have had this as my first publishing experience.
My second book was purchased by the same house that had first published my first. I expected to be treated well. I wasn’t. Things had changed. The house was being sold, and the company that owned it had found a buyer, but before the deal was closed the company began nickle and diming, following through only to the point of publication (not actually keeping a book in stock to booksellers) the contracts with authors that they still held. Enter one of the most bitter eras of my writing career. My second novel came out around Christmas. It too was reviewed by the New York Times, as well as Southern Living. I started getting calls from friends telling me they could not find copies of my book. There had been a small print run, just enough to fulfill the contractual agreement of publishing it, and then no more. I have no idea in terms of numbers or money or sales or future contracts how badly this hurt me, but I do know how badly it hurt me in terms of trust and wanting to write again. I’d been betrayed. There is no other way to put it.
I’ve since written four more books, published one, and am now under contract for another. This is not because I have any great faith in my own ability. Nor is it because I have any great faith in the publishing industry. The truth is I find the struggle of being a writer far greater than the effort it took to become one.
When I was in the act of becoming, it was all about writing and pushing myself beyond my own inertia. I had no shame around it. Oddly enough, after publication, and particularly after the experience with my next book, I began to feel shame. I began to feel that I’d entered into a world I could not negotiate. With the publication of my second novel it became very clear to me that support could be jerked away at any minute. Success seemed random, playing a slot machine, and me with a cup full of dwindling quarters. I wondered if I wanted to continue. I wondered if I had what it took to have a public life. I wondered what I would be giving up and what I would be gaining. To tell you the truth, I still don’t know the answers to these questions. All I know is that I have both quit and not quit. I have both produced and not produced. I have written books I am proud of and books I am grateful never made it to the public eye.
“Why do you write?” is a common interview question, or one sometimes slung from the audience, particularly for a panel of writers. I listen as my colleagues answer – usually with something poetic, something profound, something funny. They seem like prophets to me, worthy of the mantle of writer. When it’s my turn to answer, I am like a deer caught in the headlights. Why do I do this?
It helps to remember why I wanted to become a writer in the first place. The answer may surprise you. I buckled down and became a writer because I had something to prove. Yes, it’s also because I was a reader. Yes, it’s also because I love stories. Yes, it’s because I admired writers. But there is the fact that I was motivated by having something to prove.
I grew up believing I was stupid. I did poorly in school. I barely graduated high school. I did not attend college because I hated school, and assumed I’d do poorly there too. It was a time in my life that I did not need any more proof of my inabilities. I needed proof that I was okay, and I entered the working world and found it. It turned out I was quite good at work. I could remember things that made sense to remember, like that the Bandaids were on aisle four of the drug store I worked in, or later on, when I worked as carpenter how to put the saw blade on so that the teeth bite into the wood, and that to put it on backwards is very dangerous. When I started tending bar it was easy to remember the recipes for the drinks I mixed, and when I started cleaning houses, I remembered how to change the vacuum cleaner bags on six different models. I felt smarter in the working world than I ever did in school, but as every working class person comes to realize, knowing how to do your job does not prove you’re smart to the world at large. More importantly than the world at large was me. I still didn’t feel smart, so I set out to prove it and I set out to prove it via the only desk job I ever thought I might want – that of writer.
Being a writer does buy you a certain amount of clout. People respect writers. They look up to them. They think they’re smart. And that is sort of the problem, because every time you finish a work you have to dumb down again for the next one. You have to clean out everything you learned from writing the last book. Forget about it. It doesn’t apply here. You have to be stupid again and start over, which is harder to do now that everyone is looking at you as though you are smart.
Perhaps this is why I think fondly of the days when I was becoming a writer rather than being a writer. No one really thought of me as having anything special back then. I cleaned houses for a living. Being a member of the working class gives you a sort of invisibility cloak. People don’t want to talk to you. They don’t want your opinion. And best of all, they have conversations in front of you as though you are a tree. I see now that moving through the world without anyone expecting, or even hoping, for anything great from me was a great gift as I was in the act of becoming a writer.
Bob Dylan is an artist I greatly admire. His music, yes. His lyrics, absolutely. But also his fierce independence. I love to watch old clips, the way he handles the press, the fact that he never gets swept away into any sort of illusion. Dylan always defined himself, and never let anyone else define him. And he’s wise. One of my favorite Dylan quotes is this: “An artist must be careful to never think he has arrived somewhere, he must always be in a constant state of becoming.”
Why do I write? It can no longer be to prove I am smart. Or if I have proven it, I must prove it again. I must, once again, become a writer, and I think Dylan has explained to me why I am so much more comfortable in the state of becoming rather than being.