What It Means to Be a Writer

Scrolling through my Twitter feed when I found a link to this piece.

I walk by accident into one of London’s über-bookstores to be taken over by a very familiar type of sadness—as a child I used to feel this way when thinking about the cosmos and my own insignificant place in it. This is London’s biggest bookshop: 6.5 km of shelves, the website proudly tells us, as if this particular length and not another were a reason to rejoice. Book after book after book thrown into this worded jungle—a hoard that could be a waking counterpart to a Borgesian wet dream. Fiction books and books on writing fiction. Photography and art books and books on photography and art. And so on: most forms of expression and myriad words of meta-dialogue, some of them even justified or at least nicely edited and with colourful covers. Nothing escapes this total library: no corner of the universe or the mind is left unaccounted for. It is a hideous totality for it is an ordered totality, filtered through the minds of who knows how many marketing specialists; it is effective as a selling platform but it is a desert of anonymity for the diminished names on the shelves. Were I ever to be asked for a writing tip, something born out of this experience would be my choice: walk into any gigantic bookshop and think whether you can face being one more name lost in this desert of words. If that ideal situation proves too much to bear do something else with your time (it is of course highly likely that if you go around asking for writing tips you will never make it on print).

Okay, first of all, that parenthetical comment at the end gets you a punch in your snooty little snoot with a fist labeled Fuck You. I presume you mean that true poetry, great writing, emerges from the soul as a fait accompli, like Athena cracking her way out of Zeus’s head fully-grown; if a would-be writer is too naive to recognize this immortal truth, and to think that one could simply ASK for a way to be a better writer, then that person is doomed to less than mediocrity. Or else it is the bourgeois feeling of the “writing tips,” the oversimplified, sanitized, pre-packaged saccharine packets that show up in ten-item numbered lists on the various clickbait websites advertised on Facebook. I am more understanding of contempt for those, as I am contemptuous of people who make a living on the internet by telling people how to make a living on the internet – by running a website telling people how to make a living on the internet, which is done (Spoiler alert!) by getting people who want to make a living on the internet to buy your secret to making a living on the internet; and the people who do this always seem to call themselves “writers.” But my contempt is for the people at the top of the pyramid: not for the people down on the ground, choking on dust and sand, dreaming of a way to climb. Those people who want writing tips because they want to be better writers deserve respect for their courage in trying to find a way to get what they want; and their desire to improve, whether or not they know a good path to improvement, is admirable and not at all an indication of their potential as writers. Fuck you in the snoot, sir.

Now let’s talk about the central issue here. You’ve got two problems with this bookstore and the despair it engenders in you. One is that your words will never be truly unique, because somebody out there will say pretty much the same thing you say – or in Borges’s universe that you reference later, with his infinite Library of Babel that holds all combinations of letters and thus every possible book, one of the other volumes on the shelves will say exactly what you say. And maybe Borges was right and it does repeat in a chaotic pattern for eternity, if such a thing can be said to exist. Right? All the kilometers of fiction books, the books about art and photography and writing; all been done before, nothing is new, nothing is original. Somebody get me a cigarette and a bottle of cheap red wine, and build a Parisian basement cafe around me for a tomb.

The second problem is that you will never be the one person whose words everyone reads, everyone knows, everyone talks about; because there will always be so many others putting words on the page, that it is impossible that your words would be the ones that capture every reader at once. Particularly not if you want to capture every non-reader as well. This problem seems to be the larger one, as you speak more of being lost in the noise than you do about repeating what has already been said.

The futility of writing is something I face up to every time I set pen on paper or hand to keyboard. Why am I doing this? My compulsion to write does not occlude the uselessness of filling pages with words. I know that what I do is pointless, one more message in a bottle in a moment when everyone else around me is also casting messages adrift.

This is a poor proof. Your message in a bottle being surrounded by other messages in a bottle does not make your message pointless. Not even in the metaphor: so long as one person finds your message and reads it, and – I suppose – comes to rescue you from your desert island of despair (Perhaps your bottle message is something entirely different, something like “If you let your eyes go unfocused, a Moen kitchen faucet starts to look like a snobbish sheep with a very long snout. But it’s hard to recapture the magic once your eyes go back to normal and the sheep turns back into a faucet, so don’t waste it.” In that case, you won’t be rescued, but somebody may spend a lot of time squinting at their kitchen sink because of you, which is pretty funny, really. I’d call that success.), then your bottle was a success. You won. You did what you set out to do. You made your point. Wherefore, then, does it become pointless? Is the idea that the thousand bottles around your bottle make it less likely that your bottle will be read? This is not true for the same reason your enormous bookstore should not lead to despair. Ready for the reason? Here it is.

There is more than one person reading. (Shocking, I know. Hold onto your snoot, Buttercup.)

Let’s start with the metaphor. There are a thousand bottles with messages in them, bobbing in the water by the seashore. If there was only one person walking by, and for some reason that person had sworn a sacred vow to read only one bottled message, then your chances of being read are a thousand to one. Agreed, and that would suck. But in the – ahem – “real world” of this fantasy, that one guy wouldn’t stop at one bottle: he’d keep opening bottles. Because if he was doing it out of curiosity, out of a need to see what was written on those messages; or if he was looking for the perfect message, the one that would speak directly to his soul, then reading one message would never be enough. He’d read another, and another, and another. He’d probably try to read them all. I would. Wouldn’t you? If you saw a thousand bottles bobbing in the water with message inside them?

And if it was more than one guy on the shoreline? If it was actually a crowded beach, with tourists, and beachcombers, and dogwalkers, and a tai chi group, and a bunch of hungover teenagers wrapped in sandy blankets and the stench of wet cigarette butts? The bottles would catch all of their interests. They would all want to open their own bottle, be the first to read a message. Then they would share the messages they found with each other. They’d be diving into the water, throwing bottles back onto the shore, shouting and laughing and waving their messages over their heads. The more bottles there were in the water, the bigger the spectacle would be, and the more those people would be drawn to where the bottles were. They might even come back the next day to look for more bottles.

Are you following me, sir? Those bookstores with the kilometers of shelves? They are not only filled with books, they are filled with people. People who read books. And those people never stop at just one book. I know: I used to frequent a very similar establishment, Powell’s City of Books in Portland, Oregon. Five floors of twelve-foot-high bookshelves, covering an entire city block. I never expect to see so many books on display in a single place in my life again. I could spend the rest of my life reading (Ah, bliss!) and not finish a single floor’s worth of books. I went there every month for the ten years I lived in Oregon, to buy books, and you know what? That place was always packed with people. With readers. Never mind the kilometers worth of shelves: how many kilometers of people do you think go through those stores on any given day? 3,000 people, on the average. [source] Average front-to-back measurement of a person is approximately ten inches; I’m an American and we’re thicc, so let’s bump that up to a round foot. (Screw the metric system, though I’ll convert for your convenience, sir.) 3,000 feet of human every day, which is very nearly one kilometer of human flesh – around 915 meters, to be precise. And that’s not even lying down head-to-foot. That means that in a week, if the London store has a similar number of visitors, the people looking at those books outdistance the books they are looking at. And I can tell you that the turnover rate for the people looking is far higher than the turnover for the books on the shelves.

There are an enormous number of books in the world, and it grows every day. It is impossible for one person to read them all, and realistically impossible that one of them will be read by all people.

But that doesn’t mean that my book won’t be read. It doesn’t mean that your words will never be seen.

I think about selling my books, which I have not yet succeeded in doing. But let’s imagine that I do so: imagine if my sales, by every measure of the publishing industry, are absymal. Let’s pretend that I only sell one thousand copies of my novel about a time-traveling Irish pirate. So lame, right? I am – what was your phrase? – “lost in this desert of words.”

A thousand people bought my book. Presumably that means a thousand people read it. (Some surely would cast it aside in disgust or disappointment, sure, but I think some of them would like it enough to share with someone else, or else resell it. Let’s just imagine that one sale equals one reading.) Think about that. I have never been in a room with a thousand people who all know me: not in the way that a reader knows at least an aspect of a writer. I have spoken to thousands of people in my life, but I doubt that a full one thousand of them cared about what I had to say: cared enough to sit down, in a quiet room, and spend hours just listening to my words, thinking about my thoughts. Hearing me. If I could sell just one thousand copies of my book, then I could achieve that. So what if at that same time a million people were listening to Stephen King, and ten million were listening to Kim Kardashian? So what if the world is larger than I can speak to at once? So what if all I can have is one small corner –with one thousand people listening to me?

Isn’t that enough?

Think about it in terms of time. I don’t know how many hours it takes me to write a book, but the pirate book was finished in about a year, so let’s use that. It’s a pretty fast read, I think; someone could finish it in maybe ten hours of reading at a leisurely pace, maybe even less. If a thousand people spend ten hours reading my book, then the year of my life spent writing it (And of course the vast majority of that year was spent sleeping, working, eating, singing in the shower, watching TV, playing The Sims, et cetera) has turned into ten thousand hours of other people’s lives spent – on me. There are 8,760 hours in a year (And 525,600 minutes), so even if I had spent every single one of them working on my book, that time spent is balanced by time spent reading my book if only a thousand people were to read it. More than balanced.

So the question is, what more could you possibly want?

If the only thing that would make writing worthwhile, that would give this endeavor a point, is if every single person on Earth read your work, and only your work, then I agree that writing would be pointless. But I can’t fathom a writer, a real writer, being that childish, that selfish, to think that the world must revolve around your work and your work alone. I mean, the only cultural phenomenon with that impact is Wyld Stallyns. Granted, you’re not them, and neither am I. And that stings a bit, I’ll bet. Yeah, it does me too.

I’ll comfort myself just thinking about how easy it would be to get a thousand people in the world to read a decent book. Shit, if all I want is readers, I could offer it for free and get that many readers without even trying. You wrote this obnoxious angsty piece of snobbery, and I read it, and then spent – mmm – more than an hour responding to it. See? The time you spent on this crud then earned for you this time spent out of my life. Time I could have been reading, ya selfish bastard.

And honestly, I think this is enough time spent on you. I am sorry that your life is so empty and meaningless, and sorry that I threw a couple of hours of my life into your black hole of an ego. Do us both a favor: gain some perspective, will you? Thanks.

(I have to say: the rest of the piece has some valid points about marketing on social media, and about the democratization and banalisation [His word] of writing that has occurred through the internet. There is some good thought here. If there hadn’t been, I wouldn’t have read all the way to the end, and then taken the time to write a response. I don’t disagree with everything he says. Just the central premise. I dream of having a thousand readers, and I am absolutely sure that, even in a world inundated with voluminous writers of every imaginable quality and a limited number of readers with a limited number of books they will read, still: I will hit that mark. And it will be worth it.

(Thank you for inspiring me to write this, sir. Now pull up your fucking pants.)

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