Just a couple of writers on a road trip through life. Hop in, hold on, and don’t forget your rain boots.

Monday, January 14, 2013

The Starving Artist Paradox

How I feel when I write....

Writers like to say stuff like, “I write because I have to, for the sake of writing and because it is my art form. I am not interested in monetary approval.” Which is partly true and partly crap. Yeah, I’m gonna write forever, even if a million people go on my blog and on Facebook and tell me I suck and I should quit and take up knitting and underwater basket weaving and forget about being a writer. Even if they lock me away and take away my writing implements, I will do like Geoffrey Rush playing the Marquis de Sade in the movie Quills, and write with whatever I can. If you get that reference, you are saying to yourself ew, gross, please don’t write in your own doodies. That is crossing a line. Maybe so, but I won’t stop writing. Ever. No can do. I tried other stuff a lot, and let me tell you—there is nothing worse than having a job you hate and saying to yourself nope, not worth it, hate this crap job, never wanted to be a (fill in the blank), don’t know why I’m here, because it’s the middle of the night and the middle of my 12 hour shift and instead of napping like a sane adult, I’m in the break room writing fiction on the back of old call sheets that happened to be handy. 

Yes, I must needs write, but also if one writes a book on one’s computer and nobody reads it, does it make a sound? Probably not, but then unless it is a children’s book that makes noise, like the potty time book we have for the little one that makes a flush sound every time you turn the page, books don’t make a lot of noise. So that old riddle or Confucius-y thing doesn’t really apply, but you get what I mean. I’m a writer, and I’m not going to pretend like I don’t want to be published. And I’m a researcher—I love the internets and their vast sources of information. I’m stellar at self-diagnosis that goes all the way to Harvard School of Medicine and the Mayo Clinic. None of that Web-MD stuff for me. I’ve successfully (mis)diagnosed more than a few crazy illnesses. But after my bout with monkey pox I researched enough on publishing to realize that writers need readers these days even before becoming a published author, which means an author platform, which means a successful blog. The theory is that publishers look at your blog numbers and go holy cow, people already hang on this chick’s every brilliant word for free. Let’s make ‘em pay for it. And it would be awesome if I were the kind of very pure un-materialistic person who didn’t care about having a successful writing career, but I’m not. I’m not actually super concerned about the amount of money I make—I don’t really want to be crazy rich, because chances are I’d end up getting one of those big houses like in the movie Scream, and those are just beacons for serial killers to come hide in closets and stab me in the neck with an ice pick. And I’ve survived way too long to go out that way. I really want to get something published someday. I think I’m a good writer. Not Shakespeare or anything, but I can put some words in a sentence and I think people get the idea. 

  I’m really just trying to get someone with a big snooty nose in the air and a monocle to read my story and be like hey, I want to print that out and sew the pages together and take a super cool picture of something esoteric for the front of it, and give it to people in exchange for money. Blogging and Facebook aren’t my career, but writing is. And I am getting nowhere. Wait, scratch that. I am getting somewhere—I am getting a big pile of no thank you letters. And those are so not as fun as thank you letters. It’s crazy because even though my online persona or whatever—the stuff I share online and my blog—is about me, the stories I write are fiction. I’m not a memoirist—Augusten Burroughs can have it. I’m James Frey when it comes to writing about my own stuff if it’s meant to be published—the truth just isn’t that fascinating, so I would just end up embellishing, making it more interesting, and if you call that a memoir it’s actually a big old fat lie in the literary world. I want real live publishers to take me seriously. The “blog to book” concept works, I’ve done the research. But still, it’s awkward to self-promote.

 I’ve read a lot of books by writers about writing and publishing. There are the legendary stories of rejection, from Sylvia Plath to Ernest HemingwayStephen King was writing for a long time before he published anything, and it was way before the internets. "Getting published" for writers is akin to winning the lottery or being drafted into the NBA, neither of which I’m delusional enough to think would happen to me. I mean, I have insane amounts of ninja basketball skills, but I’m only five eight on a good day. If I wear my kicky boots I can be almost six feet tall. Which is awesome good fun because I feel like a giant and I do my queen wave, looking down on all the tiny people from the great heights of my giant-ness, but they wouldn't work for playing basketball.

Terra Nova-- in case you wondered, this show was awesome
The dilemma I'm having right now is a crisis of faith in the blog-to-book idea and also the idea of getting a publisher interested in my fiction writing based on this blog. I want people to publish my manuscript and make it a book, but my manuscript has nothing to do with Writer Freaks. So every now and then I wonder if I'm doing the right thing.  I want to be an author. Authors write stories and get paid for them and they are unapologetic about it. Stephen King isn’t sitting around going man, it sucks that people read and enjoy my stories, and make them into movies so all the crazy stuff that I dreamed up is right there on a giant screen to scare the ever living pee out of people. He’s not like wow, wish I’d kept that stuff to myself and just continued working night shifts at a laundry factory (he used to work at a place where they did mass amounts of laundry for like hotels and hospitals and stuff, and he lived in a trailer). (Side note: I have a teeny crush on Stephen King. In case you didn't notice.) So if he’s not ashamed of being successful and published, why should I feel bad because I want the same thing? And yeah, it may make me a jack wagon to say this, but I want to get paid for it. Not for Facebook or for the blog, but for my fiction stories. I actually work really hard coming up with stories and characters and plot lines and stuff. It is a lot of work. I think that’s why I hate reality television with such a vengeance. Because it’s just people acting like their real jack wagon selves and getting paid for it, while other people actually write and act and build sets and point cameras and stuff, and put a lot of work and effort and special effects into making a creative, interesting show, and people are still glued to The Apprentice like hypnotized orangutans. I mean they cancel great shows like Terra Nova and Stargate Universe and freaking Firefly (I'm still pretty super bitter about these) in favor of these stupid reality shows. Grrr.  

Way better than this show...
 Maybe the way I’m describing writing as a career sounds like a vain and empty pursuit, because my end goal does involve money. It's the Starving Artist Paradox. I'm not looking to get paid become famous for some blog I write. The avenues to reaching that big cherry end goal of publication these days involve a lot of self-promotion.  I read this one blog that I really like, Insane in the Mom Brain, and the woman who writes it seems brilliant and funny and a total gem of a human being. She just wrote a blog about how she doesn’t want to be popular or promote herself or get money for her blog. I admire her. I agree with her about not wanting to be fake internet famous. But when she writes a book, I’m sure people will be knocking down her door to publish it  and give her bunches of money, which she will probably give away because she is one of those pure people that good things just seem to happen to. She talks a lot about how everyone is all up in her grill to find out how her blog got so damn popular. It seems like she got popular with zero effort, and the rest of us poor slobs are just wandering around in cyber space like blind hippopotamuses, occasionally stepping on someone else and crushing them and then saying oopsie, my bad. I think we all wish it were that easy, and that's why people are constantly bugging her about the secret of her success-- to avoid the hippo tromping the rest of us are doing in an effort to build an “author platform” which does indeed require that nauseating self promotion.

I hate to measure success. Actually I hate measuring stuff, because math was invented by some sadistic torture dude to make me crazy. But my dilemma is this: I write because I love to write, I'm passionate about it, and because I can't NOT write. I like to think I'm pursuing a higher form of writing-- the kind that isn't about publication or monetary gain. The Starving Artist Paradox. We're not supposed to want to get paid. But really, no one reads books and says, "Good book, but I wish this person had never published it. I feel sickened at the idea that this author had to promote themselves and submit their manuscript and jump through all kinds of hoops so their book could be available to the public." 

 It bugs me because when I write something that I love, that I think is good, that I'm interested in, I want other people to read it. But then if I'm being honest, I also want to be able to earn some money from people reading it, too. Back to Stephen King, who once he got an offer of publication on a story, didn't say, "No, I just wrote that for the people. I want no sullied rewards. I am a pure artist who needs nothing; no food, no shelter, no grand things like clothes and health insurance. I scoff at your offers of cash for my stories. I will not be tarnished by monetary gain."

Do I write for money? No. I do not write blogs with key words in mind, or so that they'll go viral, or so a million people will read them and I'll be internet famous or something. I don't write fiction stories with the thought that I have to make them "marketable". I'm writing a story that I love, that's interesting and unique and makes people think. Telling the story is the goal—telling a story in a way that affects people, and makes them think, and dream, and stays in their head for weeks after. I want to create characters that people are interested in, that they want to read more about. I want them to be sad when they’ve finished the book because they are sorry it’s over and because they want more. I want them to relate and feel better because they’re not alone in the world—someone else, even a pretend someone else, has felt the exact same way.  Maybe I do want to help people a little—to be entertained, to feel a part of something bigger, to realize that the world isn’t such a lonely place. I want to connect with the readers. I want them to have a sense of who the characters are, as if they are real people that the reader feels like he knows and understands. I want every word to be the perfect word.  That’s why I want to be published.  And I feel okay getting paid for it, because writers need to live too. And pretending that we don’t need money, that this whole pursuit of art and writing is just for our own benefit—that’s not the whole truth. The Starving Artist Paradox sums it all up-- we none of us really wants to starve, after all. That's why it's a paradox, right?

Julie Simmons-Wixom isn't currently starving, but she is looking for publishers. Anyone? Anyone? Contact her here if you want more information. But for the rest of you Starving Artist types, leave a comment below if you have anything to say on the Paradox or if you just want to voice your very strong opinion that they never should have cancelled Firefly.

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