Tuesday, February 12, 2013

You Had Me at Hello

Sharon Wildwind

According to the New Yorker, Pulitzer-winning author Philip Roth and newly-published writer Julian Tepper had a small lifestyle opinion difference in a New York deli.

Tepper presented Roth with a copy of Teppler’s first novel. Roth supposedly advised him to give up writing because being a writer was a soul-killing way to spend one’s life. The Paris Review Daily published an essay Teppler wrote about the encounter.

Enter into the fray Elizabeth Gilbert (Eat, Pray, Love; Committed; The Signature of All Things). She defended writing and writers.

Enter Avi Steinberg. who wrote the New Yorker article referred to above. This is not a he said, he said, she said, he said blog. There are links. Anyone can read what was reported for herself. What stopped me in my tracks was when Steinberg ended his piece ended with this quote

“That’s the kind of a person it takes to be a writer: someone who’s zealous and ready to argue, someone who has Philip Roth tell him, “It’s torture, don’t do it,” and replies, “You had me at ‘torture.’”

That’s a play on Dorothy Boyd’s line from the movie Jerry Maguire. “You had me at hello.” With the implication being that writers are innately love with torture and would love a profession in which they experienced it.

I laughed. I pumped air and said, “Go, Avi.” I copied the quote and put it in my inspiration folder. In short, I had a hugely politically-incorrect moment. Once in a while it’s relief to have someone tell it like it is, and at the same time, an embarrassment that I would make a joke out of torture. In some countries, being a writer leads to torture. The real kind. The nasty kind, and yet writers endure.

For many of us torture isn’t what other people do to us, it’s what we do to ourselves. It’s doubt, self-recriminations, feelings I should have done this and that different. Put more effort into writing. Promoted the book harder. Stood up to that editor. Caught that stupid mistake in the proofs. Demanded a retraction on that horrible review.

I’ve never heard a writer, no matter how well established, say, “After a while all doubts go away. I get up every morning knowing that I’m a sane, competent writer, who is solidly on the career track I laid out for myself.” But I’ve heard a lot of writers say, “I’m not sure I can pull off this new book, these new characters, this different kind of marketing plan. I’m having a hard time right now with the beginning, the middle, or the end.” None of us are sure, but a lot of us are working very hard to cope, even to thrive.

Coping, day in and day out, gets horribly tiring. In general, our society isn’t set up to lay laurels upon our creative brow. We survive on grants and grants get cut. We have the good fortune to bond with a wonderful agent or editor. They move or leave the business or get sick or even die and we have to start over. The publishing rules change and the book we wrote under the old rules is now unsalable. The question I get most often from people I see occasionally is, “Are you still writing?”

It’s not the question, it’s the tone in the question, with the hidden meaning being, “Surely by now you’ve come to your senses and moved on to something more productive?”

Yep, still writing. Still here. Still coping. Still living the writer’s life, and darn glad of it.
Quote for the week

May all beings be safe and protected.
May all beings be peaceful and happy.
May all beings be healthy and strong.
May all beings have ease of well being.
~ Mantra for Metta meditation


Elizabeth Zelvin said...

Sharon, Laura Lippman agrees with you. In a talk at MWA NY a couple of years ago, she said, "We're supposed to get in there and mud-wrestle." This puts aside all the nonsense about today's publishing and speaks to how hard it is to make a story work all the way through. I don't share your opinion about what the "incorrect" position is, though. In the writing community, it's almost impossible to come out and say, "It's become so difficult that I may not write another novel." I believe a writer has the right to make that decision at any time.

Harvee@BookDilettante said...

Good for you! Keep it up!

Steven M. Moore said...

Inspirational, Sharon...I'm sure many of us identify.
I learned not to take things personally in my previous career as a scientist. I suppose it all depends on whether something becomes less fun and more of a chore.
Elizabeth's last sentence is a propos though. I'm reminded of the mathematician Hardy who believed there were two classes of people, one containing those who are really great at doing something, and the other all the rest. A bit cynical? Maybe not completely.
Too many say, "Hey, I can write a novel too!" They release something and never write again, because they can't recognize they really don't know how to write. I sometimes have doubts about my own skills, but I plow on. I still think even my first novel has a damn scary plot, but I've become a better writer over time. We all do. Maybe not great in Hardy's sense, but we're entertaining readers, including ourselves--it's doubtful Hardy ever entertained anyone.
All the best,

Sandra Parshall said...

Anne Tyler once told the story of encountering a neighborhood woman in the supermarket. The woman asked if Tyler was doing anything interesting -- "or are you still just writing?" Tyler showed far more restraint that I would have when she smiled and answered, "Still just writing."

It *is* hard, at least when you're trying to do more than write surface-level garbage. And I can tell you there's hardly a single day in my life when I don't wonder whether it's time to quit and do something I would enjoy more.

Anonymous said...

The one I really hate is, "You're self-published, of course." Not that I have a thing against self-publishing. What bothers me is the accompanying tone, which clearly says that I no self-respecting publisher would touch what I write.