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ASK THE EDITOR Real Writer Vs Pretender

By Susan Malone

April 2001

We've talked before about how the perception in this country that anyone can write a book.  Part of which is of course true–anyone can now, for a nominal fee, see their collection of words published in bound book form.  Whether the result is actually a book is infinitely debatable (only in the most rare of cases have I considered any of these offerings to be viable books).  Most are journals, or skeletal ideas, around which someone slaps a cover and pretends, for a bit, that he or she is an actual writer.   But such is the state of "publishing" in 2001.  That everyone loses in this scenario–writers, readers, editors, publishers, etc.–is now being substantiated every day.  What is every bit as distressing is that this has fostered wildly unrealistic ideas about what becoming a writer means, and what happens when one is finally and truly published.   I receive an enormous amount of mail from folks telling me that they want to write in order to quit their day jobs. I.e., to in this way become wealthy and no longer have to work for a living and get to abandon the rat race. I receive tons of mail from people telling me they're taking up writing as a means of alleviating stress. That the "real" world is so difficult that they want to change their lives and live in this fantasyland of words and creative types, with none of the mundane mud and blood of daily life, and in so doing leave behind the stresses of whatever the heck their jobs entail.

I read these and put my head in my hands. From where did any of these ideas come?  

You know, a huge movement in this country is growing around weaving the spiritual into one's daily life, and that includes honoring and practicing one's creativity.  That is a very helpful thing, for that purpose.  We're all creative beings, our artistry manifesting in various ways.  But, somehow we got the idea that this meant your journal is publishable as a book for others to read.  Thank God for Oprah Winfrey and what she has done for real books in this business.  But dang it all if her focus on folks' writing and journaling hasn't led to a surge of manuscripts filling up the market, manuscripts which again, really aren't books at all.  It reminds me of a Fran Lebowitz quote: "Trust me–your life story would not make a good book."  And even if it would, the process of turning that story into a real book is long, arduous, and about as simple as becoming an astronaut.  

Of course, Oprah hasn't been alone in this focus.  A plethora of writers have books out expounding upon the virtues of writing down one's deepest thoughts and feelings.   Now, I'm not saying this mindset doesn't have a place–again, we're all creative beings, and writing as therapy works wonders in the humanpsyche.  Where we've gotten off track is with the notion that because you had a rotten childhood and journaled it, you're a professional writer.  It'd be like taking a painting class and then approaching a gallery to hang your elementary efforts next to a Matisse.  

So what does separate the real writers from the wannabe's?  In a word, LOTS.

First off, real writers aren't looking to become rich and famous (though that would always be nice).  Nor, to alleviate stress.  The money in this business is slow in coming, and professional writers KEEP their day jobs, LONG after they're selling books.  And I'm having a difficult time even addressing the stress part with a straight face.  My God.  As is true for many authors, I've held a variety of gainful-employment positions: business executive, owner/manager of a 1000-seater nightclub, a newspaper reporter, editor, and columnist.  And nothing remotely prepared me for the stress of this industry.  

It will humble you to your knees.  If you're muttering about your boss having torn up your latest idea, wait until the rejections from agents and editors arrive. Once the book is published, wait until some reviewer trashes said book the Sunday before a week-long promotional stint, in the same city.  If you're concerned about paying your VISA bill, wait until your royalty check hits, and it won't even pay for your gas to the book store.  If you think you're locked-in under a corporate glass ceiling, wait until your book earns-out, selling all of its initial press run, but the publisher decides that it's not certain enough about selling another run and lets the book die with an audience at hand, sealing your fate for the next book as well due to low sale's numbers on the first.

And these are just minor points, and those predicated on the idea of actually getting published in the first place.  Self-publishing, again all the craze, brings with it more and worse problems.  But again, vanity presses don't foster real authors.  

The crux of the matter being, of course, do NOT enter into this business thinking it's going to make your life better.  Or, that you'll be some Hemingway-esq figure, writing in the mornings and piloting your yacht all afternoon, gin and tonic happily in hand.  Unless of course, you come from wealth to begin with.  Then you can pretend anything you want.  But for god's sakes don't think you're gonna make that wealth off of writing. Yes, some folks do.  And you know about them precisely because of the rarity of that–they're literally one in a million.

Real writers write for one reason: they have something to say.  So, they spend years and years perfecting their crafts, learning, working, writing.   Digging in.  Swallowing rejection and humiliation.  Committing to something that truly IS no more than a dream.  In the process, all of the pretenses fall away.  And, so do ninety-nine percent of wannabe writers.  This business isn't for sissies.  

Only you can address the crux of the matter.  As the Czech poet Rilke wrote, "This most of all: ask yourself in the most silent hour of your night: MUST I write?"  If the answer is yes, then forget all of the trappings of fortune and fame and stress relief, and take up your pen and walk.  


Susan M. Malone is a Contributing Editor to Authorlink.com, a multi-published author, and owner of a successful editorial service. Ten books she’s edited have been published or sold within the last three years. Check out her listing under Editorial Services, and email her at aaasuz@aol.com