When you disclose to a stranger that you’re a writer, the first question you will be asked is, “Are you published?” It feels good to say yes, to have a small list you can name off as validation of your claim to be a member of that rarefied club. Before I became a published writer, I longed for this moment. I believed it would prevent people from seeing me as a fraud. I believed it would prevent me from seeing myself as a fraud.
But it didn’t.
It’s true that the little clump of people at the cocktail party might be less inclined to drift away from me, but I found out that the interrogation had only just begun.
“I haven’t heard of that book.”
“Well, you have now.”
“What genre is it?”
“Literary fiction.” I hate this question. Literary fiction sounds so lame in the face of this moment. So hoyty-toyty. So, “I don’t know how to define what I do, therefore I don’t know what I’m doing.” (The last is true. But writing is about muddling forward, and how can that be explained to anyone who doesn’t write? At a cocktail party, no less?)
“How many copies did it sell?”
“I don’t know.”
“You don’t know?” Asked incredulously. “Surely you know your own book sales.”
At the risk of sounding rude and ungrateful for being a published writer, I don’t answer at all. My books sales have never supported me. I’ve always had a day job. I’ve made peace with that, again and again and again. I wonder if I were a surgeon, would I be asked how many people died on my table. This question feels like that. “You may be a writer, but…”
The next comment: “You should write an Oprah book.”
I don’t say that I already did, but Oprah failed to notice.
“You know – insert name of celebrity – wrote a book.”
“Yes, I know.”
“It did really well.”
“Yes, I know.”
“Months on the bestseller list.”
Silence from me.
“I’ve got three weeks off next summer and I’m thinking of writing a novel. I think I can get it done in that time. How long did it take you?”
“Two years! Really? Why did it take so long?”
“Excuse me, I have to go pee.” I don’t even care that I said the word pee at a social gathering. I’m just thinking about the comfort of the bathroom stall, and the closed door, and wondering if I can take as long to pee as I took to write my last book.
The point is that the opportunities to prove you’re a “real writer” never end. It seems that someone (usually a total stranger) is always ready to challenge your claim, or to make you feel smaller for it. If you’re not published, you should be published. If you’re not a best selling author, you should be a best selling author. If your book isn’t genre fiction, you should try genre fiction. If Oprah hasn’t noticed your book, you should write an Oprah book. You should have a youtube channel, a Twitter account, followers, a hoard of people who know who you are, and so on. Listening to someone tell you they’re going to write a novel during their three-week vacation, rubs salt in the open wounds of being one the millions of midlist writers out there. Most of us, in fact, are midlist. Perhaps we take too long to write. Here is a person who can do what it took me two years to do, in a whole lot less time, while eating ice cream and skiing.
What I want to say to writers, all writers, is that it’s a deep journey. You have to measure yourself by a yardstick that doesn’t exist in the commercial world. You can write a deep book, and it can be a best seller. You can also write a deep book and no one will notice. Take heart. Find a gauge of success that is your own. Most of us wanted to write long before we did write. Writing itself, bringing a work to completion is huge success. It’s a huge success that will mostly go unnoticed unless you happen to hit the jackpot with a best seller, and that too is a long arduous road. So always (ALWAYS) love yourself. And admire that you are writing. And as much as possible, divorce yourself from the world of capitalism, which cares not for art unless it sells. Most of your writing, arty life will be spent in capitalism’s shadows, and in order to be strong throughout the journey, you must respect who you are and what you’re doing. You must respect the risk.
For now there will be celebrity authors whose books will be read while ours are not, simply because this is the culture we live in. Total strangers will throw this in your face because total strangers have no idea what sort of gestalt work goes into the creation of a story, and because the work of writing is not respected in this culture. Only the work of publishing matters, and if there is publishing, there must be book sales, and if there are too few book sales, there must be a marketing plan, and if there is no marketing plan, then you, the author have failed.
But you have not failed. I have not failed.
I think the next time someone asks me if I am published, I am going to answer no. It’s an honest answer. I am unpublished. Most of my work is unpublished. Most of it will remain unpublished. We’re all unpublished together. That’s the club. Respect the real club, not the imagined one.