Sometimes I wonder. I wonder a lot. “Why?” is almost always a futile question, with one answer contradicting another, if any knowable possibilities exist. And in this case, I’m not sure they do exist. I used to wonder about the “Why?” of my own failed ambition. Then I realized where publication had gone and how it could only descend into an even worse abyss. “I was addicted to cocaine” must be the first line of a thousand memoirs.
Why anyone cares is another “Why?” full of irresolvable contradictions. Are memoir readers so devoid of their own experiences that they become voyeurs? Are they, like Jimmy Stewart in Rear Window, trapped in wheelchairs and essentially staring into apartments, looking for action? Are they searching for alternate personalities? I’d rather not know.
And when it comes to “literary” novels, what do we have? One look at the bio photos will tell you all you need to know. In one such photograph, the author with an English Ph.D. (of course) is apparently eating his glasses. And don’t forget your sympathetic characters, even though I find the typical protagonist a bore whose life I can see all about me in those flailing for some kind of identity and the requisite affair. All of this takes place in a doll’s house hidden from any outside reality, unless university life reflects outside reality (it doesn’t).
Why, then, do I continue to write? It has nothing to do with money or fame. It has to do with I have to do it. Sure, I wish for success. I’m not one of those writers who doesn’t care whether a manuscript rests corpse-like in a drawer. I am also not interested in being anything like Bukowski; it sounds romantic, but try waking up shaking in some hellhole. I no longer try to emulate alcoholic, drug-addicted writers, most of whom kill themselves.
The misery of writing stems from ambition. Ambition kills, a bottomless pit within the brain that can never be filled to the brim of satisfaction. I quote from Deng Ming-Dao’s Everyday Tao (which I highly recommend): “The thoughts of others are traps. Those who follow Tao do not let themselves be defined, bothered, or admired by others.”
Those words remind me of my favorite rejection letter, in which the editor compared my work to John Kennedy Toole’s A Confederacy of Dunces. As most know, Toole committed suicide after numerous rejections. I am uncertain whether the editor was suggesting I commit suicide. I suggest he does.
Other than this kind/unkind rejection, I’ve been rather fortunate. My rejections are often flattering before the arrival of the “no” ending the missive. These letters are like would-be lovers who finally admit, “I don’t love you; I just want to be friends.” The same letters arrive from literary agents, whose jobs apparently have one prerequisite: geek glasses.
Again, writing for me no longer has anything to do with ambition. I suggest doing the same. Some time ago, I gave up ambition for Lent. Later, I gave up Lent for Lent. I don’t have a prayer.
Instead, writing serves as a tonic, minus gin but with the same impact, until the next morning, when I don’t have a hangover and need a gin and tonic; I only need write again. If I don’t write, my arteries clog from not getting enough exercise in my chair. My agoraphobia suffers, and I begin to think there’s somewhere worth going along the endless strip of strip malls. Writing is my succor. It’s my methadone kitty. I need visit no clinic, only my imagination. And without imagination, I would commit bestial criminal acts. I would rather describe them. Writing is an exorcism without the Catholic trimmings. The mind is full of demons. Help me somebody! Better do it myself. I fear men with briefcases.
Every completed novel comes with a lottery ticket’s chance of “winning.” Even upon “winning,” the book had better sell well or you’re finished. Careers are no longer built but destroyed to make room for new careers. Keep those memoirs coming, but do your youthful suffering first. If publishing were the music industry, there would be no future Rolling Stones, and Led Zeppelin’s career would have ended with Stairway to Heaven.
Don’t write what you know because we probably already know it. Don’t write for yourself because you’re unlikely to be very interesting, unless you’re busy compiling experiences for memoirs, far better witnessed than read. Write for some unknown reader, one with curiosity and a desire to learn new ways of seeing the world.