I am sitting in my wife’s H3 in the parking lot of my kid’s dance studio. As my nine year old daughter practices tap, I suggest to my mother that I sell the restaurant. Her response is typical, the same it has been for the past twenty years,
“What are you going to do when you sell it? How are you going to pay your bills? You’ll starve.”
She knows I hate the restaurant business, hate it with every fiber of my being, and yeah, I know that’s a cliche but nothing is more apt for how I feel. “I’ll have a million dollars, Mom. The restaurant is worth that, at least.” I have no idea if this is true, but I say it anyway.
“You can’t live your whole life on a million dollars.”
“It’s more than most people make in a lifetime. It’s fifty-thousand dollars for twenty years.”
“So what are you going to do your whole life? Nothing?”
This is what infuriates me. She knows that from the time I was six years old, I have only wanted to do one thing. I am embarrassed to have to say it, but do so anyway. “Well, you know, I am going to write.”
“Nobody makes money writing,” she says, even though she has never researched the subject, nor does she know a thing about the publishing industry. I have to pull out my iPhone to show her the numbers.
EL James – $95m Random House; erotic romance
James Patterson – $91m Little, Brown & Co.; crime thrillers
Suzanne Collins – $55m Scholastic Press; YA fiction (sci-fi)
Bill O’Reilly – $28m various publishers; various genre
Danielle Steel – $26m Random House; romance
Jeff Kinney – $24m HarperCollins; children’s
Janet Evanovich – $24m St. Martin’s Press; romance, thriller
Nora Roberts – $23m Penguin Group; romance
Dan Brown – $22m Simon & Schuster; thriller, adventure, mystery, conspiracy
Stephen King – $20m Simon & Schuster; horror
Dean Koontz – $20m HarperCollins; sci-fi, but crossing genres
John Grisham – $18m Knopf Doubleday; legal thriller
David Baldacci – $15m Grand Central; thriller
Rick Riordan – $14 million Disney-Hyperion; fantasy, and detective/mystery
J.K. Rowling – $13 million Bloomsbury; fantasy
George R.R. Martin – $12 million Simon & Schuster; fantasy, horror, and sci-fi
These are the top earners for the year 2013. I give this data to my mother to make a point, but in truth, I could not care less about making it rich and never will. However, I need to make a living, otherwise, I’ll be stuck asking people what they want on their pizza till the day I die.
The problem with my job isn’t how bad it is, even though I half-jokingly posted, Why My Job is the Worst in the World, the reality is that I am a fish out of water, am suffocating. I was meant for other things. Yet here I am, approaching my 40th year, my life’s final chapters. If I cannot make something happen soon, there will be a nihilistic ending to my story; I’ll be an old man bereft of dreams and purpose, forced into an unbearable existence that never suited me. Whatever the agents and publishers may think of me or my queries, I know one thing with certainty, I was meant to write, goddamnit. People not meant to write do not wake up looking for their smart phones to keep sentences from becoming fleeting memories. People not meant to write do not become physically ill (I am not kidding) due to lack of writing. Stories collect in my brain like tumors that I can only expunge via word processor.
I am like Frodo Baggins at the foot of Mount Doom, except that this mountain is called Apathy. Mount Apathy is full of naysayers and disbelievers, like my parents, and people who say things like, “Well, you have to get lucky to succeed in that,” or “You have to know the right people.” Like the orcs and goblins of Middle Earth, there are caverns of those who simply do not care to even acknowledge me. My best friends never bring it up, nor does anyone in my family. Nobody believes that greatness can come from someone they know. The Tolkiens and Rowlings of the world live far away, in distant lands—they cannot be born in the same neighborhood you grew up in. My fifteen year old nephew, excited by the Desolation of Smaug, told me this Christmas, “Isn’t it amazing how one guy came up with all that?” to which I had to reply, “What the fuck do you think I do?” When people grow up to realize that they are not special, even though they were taught by their parents and teachers that they were and could become anything they wanted (the Disney motto: Dreams Come True!), when people give up dreaming for more “realistic” ambitions, they secretly detest those who persevere, who keep climbing despite life’s many many many disappointments. Like the corrupted elves, they become dark opposites of the things they once held dear.
Last week I was inspired by The Silmarillion, not by the story itself, which is a great pseudo-mythology on par with any real world mythology, but by the fact that Tolkien worked on it until his death at age 81. That’s what I hope to be doing in the year 2056, sitting at my laptop or virtual reality dictating computer, working on Aenya. The best part is, Tolkien never lived to see The Silmarillion in print, and yet he believed enough to dedicate his life to it.
This sets me apart, I think, because I do not wish to become the next pulp novelist, a Stephen King or Danielle Steele. I have heard of people who do not even write books, only query letters. Once an agent takes an interest in an idea, they spend the next few months shelling out a book to match it. Other people watch the publishing market like literary stock brokers for what’s trending. If vampire romance is all the rage, they’ll be churning out vampire romances; being a novelist simply becomes a matter of supply meeting demand. While that would make my job infinitely less laborious, it has nothing to do with why I want/need to write.
Looking at my bookshelf, I see The Lord of the Rings, Harry Potter, Hunger Games, Dune and The Golden Compass, to name a few. What do these have in common? Nothing. As much as agents want to reduce my art to a set of guidelines, the true greats of literature, the outliers, defy convention. I will go so far as to argue that guidelines create inferior fiction specifically because, by taking the roots of the word “guide” and “line”, it narrows what a writer can do and what a story can be. This is why so many modern books look and feel the same, because they are all born of the same mold. No agent in his right mind would have ever approved of The Silmarillion had it not been written by Tolkien, which is why it’s a masterpiece and a joy, a thing to inspire, just as the even less conventional H.P. Lovecraft continues to inflame the imagination of writer-hopefuls decades after his death. I have little interest in entertainment for the sake of entertaining, in distracting people from their everyday lives. Rather, I want what all great art does and all great artists do. I want to change people.
Look at any blog and you will almost universally find the same trend: a slow decline in the number of posts written. More often than not, the blogger starts off strong, with fifty to a hundred posts their first year, and it might go up the second, but by the third year reality sets in. Nobody cares! Nobody is reading this! The comments section is empty! Sadly, blogs don’t last beyond four to five years. They fizzle; they fade; you may see one post from 2010 and nothing after. The blogs that continue strong into their 5th years and beyond are those of successful people: authors with book deals, working agents, etc. When I consider the faith with which successful people pursue their dreams, I am inspired, and realize that if Dostoyevsky or Herman Melville (two authors who no doubt suffered from the writer’s disease) were living in this day and age, their blogs would not fade out like so many others do.
To overcome Mount Apathy, you must have faith. This is where the atheists have it wrong, because sometimes, to achieve something remarkable, you need to believe in your own vision when no one else does, to believe what no one else can see or hear. Currently, I am working on, what I feel to be, my most important work, The Princess of Aenya, an adventure story with action, drama, a princess, a unicorn, and many crazy imaginative things and places; but beyond that, I explore themes of moral ambiguity, redemption, spirituality and religion, and the conflict between a cynical outlook on life and a more idealistic one. I am excited by the results and am already planning new artwork. On top of that, I have started to collaborate with lyrical poets from deviantArt in an attempt to capture an old world tone. If you would like to participate in this project, you can sign up to become a Beta Reader.
Unless I die prematurely, or Google discontinues Blogger, The Writer’s Disease is here to stay, up until 2056, when, as Tolkien with The Silmarillion, I’ll be hard at work, perhaps, on some obscure Aenya reference book. If my blog has a theme, it must be this: There are no paths to greatness, no set formula, no guidelines, there is only the indomitable spirit of writers cursed with the need to write.