A monthly column of wit, insight, irreverance and inspiration by a published author and veteran of the publishing trenches.

The Ink-Stained Wretch

Don Whittington

August 1, 1998

So it has come to this. I have to write a monthly column about the writing life. This is the ultimate deal with the devil, the final insult. Alas and woe is me.

Some writers have actually managed to overcome this kind of setback. Lawrence Block, for one. There may be others. There may not. All I know is, it is my turn.

Doris, the brains behind Authorlink, says she wants me to write encouraging pieces, uplifting things that will send all you loyal readers back into the world fired up with literary desire. She wants me to inspire you, fill you with hope, give you the tools to see your dreams take shape and come alive.

And she wants me to do that every month, preferably by the fifteenth.


First, let me tell you that you are mad. Stark raving mad. Certifiable. Crazy as a plaid skunk. Bonkers. Why? Because you want to write for a living. No sane person makes that choice.

Imagine Earl, a middle-aged fellow, Director of MIS for a company in the midwest. He has health insurance, money in the bank, an IRA, a college fund, credit, a mortgage, and (that most mysterious of wonders to writers) cash flow. Earl's dog sees the vet when it is sick. His children go to college. His wife has her hair done from time to time. He has it all.

But what Earl really wants to do is write a western. If someone would just publish Earl's western he would happily chuck it all to write about cattle drives and crooked sheriffs for the rest of his life. If Earl indulges his dream, all those sure things above go away. All of them. His likely advance for that first western will be two thousand dollars or less. It will take two years for the first book to come out. In the meantime, if he is lucky, he will sell another two westerns and be busy writing them. Because he writes westerns he is published in paperback. Because he is in paperback he gets no—or too few—reviews. But if he works really, really hard by his seventh or eight book he will have built enough of a following that he begins to see royalties equal to what he spent for lunch back when he was a corporate wheel. Earl thinks this is just fine. Hell, he thinks he's lucky.

But suppose Earl's interview for his first job had shared parallels with the writer's life.

Earl:  I'd really like the job.

Boss:  Well, we have another seven hundred applicants this week, but it's looking good. I'll get back to you in six months to two years. In the meantime, could you work on spec?

Earl:  Boy, could I?

(Nine months pass)

Boss:  Okay, we're going to take a chance on you. First, here's two grand to tide you over.

Earl:  Cool.

Boss:  Come in every day for the next two years. By then, we might have you in our payroll system. By two years and six months you should see some salary. Of course, we can't be sure your work might not turn out bad, so we're going to hold on to eighty percent of your salary for, oh I don't know, another three years just in case. But every six months thereafter (or in some cases, yearly) we'll give you twenty percent of your salary for sure within ninety days or so of payday. And, of course, Rudy, the guy that told you about the job? He'll get fifteen percent of that. Unless you work overtime, in which case he gets twenty percent.

Earl:  I've never been happier.

Tell me Earl isn't nuts.

So why do it? Why go to all that trouble? Why risk the rejection and heartbreak and poverty?

Well, not to put too fine a point on it, because being a published writer is the bee's knees. I know it, you know it, and your little brown dog knows it. Why else would agents and editors be so quick to tell you about books they themselves wrote and published. The meta-message is supposed to be that they were writers who wised up and got real jobs. But the real message is that they are anxious to be accepted in our club, the writing club.

Because writers are cool. And agents and editors are not. They are maybe, the bee's toes, or the bee's nuts, but they are not the bee's knees like we are.

But wait, you say. I like that bit about being cool and the bee's knees and all, but I'm not crazy. I'm just earnestly trying to do something positive, to leave something behind, to do something good.

Bull. You're loco. Do you think some lady is secretly practicing surgeries in the study after the family goes to sleep because she always thought that, you know, she'd have made a good surgeon? Yet people write books in secret all the time.

Now face it. If you were really doing that, secretly performing appendectomies in the back yard, wouldn't you expect them to come lock you up?

No, we aren't like other people. Not only do many of us write books in secret, often we make light of our own efforts. We preempt scoffers by reassuring everyone around us that we have no special dreams, no secret wish to be published, famous, immortal.

But we do have special dreams, and that is exactly what we want. Why the hell not?

It's a shitty life in a lot of ways, this writing biz. But I'll tell you what. You go for it, and here's what you can count on. You're never going to have to sit on the porch one day and wonder why you never took the risk, why you never went for that dream. Because by God you did it. And no one can ever take it away. There you sit in the Library of Congress alongside Faulkner and Hemingway and Twain. Not bad for a lunatic.

You are the bee's knees, my friend. Remember that. If you ever get to feeling like you aren't, you come back here. This column won't tell you where to put your commas or how to write a query letter. But it will try to find a way to remind you from time to time why you wanted to do this in the first place. In the meantime, be cool.

Because you are.