Tuesday, April 19, 2011
"What do you like most about being an author?" she asked. The question startled me because I'm relatively new to the idea of being an "author." I've long considered myself to be a writer--a sort author-in-training, but the idea of "authorness" or "authority" regarding anything hadn't really occurred to me...which became quite apparent in my response.
With a slight grin, I answered: "The interviews."
There was a brief pause and so I continued to explain that it was the opportunity to talk about writing with people who seemed interested to know about the process and about the book itself; the book merely gives me something concrete to talk to people about. I've been teaching university English for thirteen years, been a grad student for many years, an undergrad for five or six years before that (depending on where you count from) and, along the way, a high school English teacher and substitute teacher. I've never grown tired of talking about other people's writing. Literature is an enormous part of my life. I hesitate to say "Literature is my life" because, quite frankly, I tell my students every year, "This isn't life. It's about life." It's a sliver-thin line between the two, but the distinction, to me, is clear. It's the difference between reading "Young Goodman Brown" and actually going for a walk in the woods. But I digress. Fact is, I will never grow tired of discussing the uplifting prose of James Joyce, the sublime darkness of Flannery O'Connor or the gut-slicing poetry of a Cormac McCarthy novel.
I was also in the media for a while. As a nineteen-year-old, I was a fresh-scrubbed, awkward reporter for The Daily News, which specialized in stories about the end of the world and folks who kept pet roosters in the middle of downtown, keeping the neighbours awake. I also got to interview people like Ben Wicks and John Crosbie, politicians of all stripes and the occasional minor celebrity who found himself on the downside of a popularity that never quite materialized. Usually, the editor of the paper interviewed the more important, be-happenin' people. Years later, I found myself scraping a meager living by writing arts and entertainment pieces for a slick, ambitious magazine called Beam. I interviewed local music industry types and enjoyed what I did tremendously. Not a single arsehole among them, really, despite what one might surmise.
So now I'm the one being asked the questions. It seems, suddenly, it's not enough just to write. One also has to promote. Worse yet, one is expected to self-promote.
Okay, so there are worse things one can do to earn one's daily bread. But I have to promise myself that I will never knowingly cross that certain line, the one that separates the artist from the con artist.
Fact is, I love talking to people. So when I told that interviewer I liked the interviews, that's exactly what I meant. At the launch party for Moonlight Sketches last week, I talked to nearly every single person in that room, and it took some doing. But it never, for a single moment, felt like work and it certainly never felt disingenuous. I had a sincere connection with each and every one of them, and I recognized that they had used up some of their extremely precious time to come and help me celebrate something that was very important to me. How could I possibly just shake each hand and say, "Thanks for coming--next!" I couldn't do it. I wanted--even needed--to make sure that each one of them knew how much I appreciated them being there. I'm not supposed to say this, I'm sure, but I wasn't even concerned with whether someone bought a book or not. I mean, sure, buy a book--commerce makes the world go around. But I won't get rich from this book. Not financially, at least. But I meant it when I said I felt like the "richest man in town"--because there's a kind of prosperity that doesn't come from money. It comes from how many lives you've touched and, perhaps more important, how many of those lives you've allowed to touch yours.
My stock in trade has always been that I care about people. I couldn't be a writer otherwise. I recall a professor of mine from years ago told me he couldn't be a writer because, in order to compose believable dialogue, you had to be able to listen to people. And, really, as a listener, he was no Father Mulcahy. But he was right.
A writer has to be able to not just "watch" people; he has to be able to see them, understand them, empathize with them, relate to them on some level. It's not enough to study people--not for my purposes anyway. For me, being a writer comes directly from the need to connect and communicate. I've always maintained that making a new friend was like falling in love, at least in a certain emotionally complex way. It's always been that way for me. I want to stay up all night and talk with the world. I want to bring them home and give them milk and cookies. Talk about our favourite movies, our biggest disappointments, our darkest secrets (which I never actually tell anyone, not outright)--but really, I just want to know yours. I don't want to tell you mine. I mean, on some level, I really do want exactly that. But I'm more of a listener, you see.
Which brings me back to self-promotion. I don't have it in me. Honest. When I tell people something on Facebook or in my blog, or on the phone with my mother (though she usually has to wring it out of me), or in the corridor with a friend at work, it's because I think they might like to know, not because I expect something from them. I have always been the kind of person to keep accomplishments and failures alike very close to my chest for fear that someone will think--in that famous Newfoundland vernacular--that I'm attempting to "make a show" of myself. God forbid. We are all a "show" in our own way. It's just that we don't think of ourselves that way, and nor should we.
How many times have I seen my talented father refuse to sing at a party because he was shy? Which might well be another word for "embarassed" or "ashamed" of what one has to offer. How many students have I seen who know all the answers, including deeply profound insight on classic literature, and not offer to share their thoguhts because they couldn't work up the nerve to speak in a roomful of people? How many people have I seen who possess the talent to fulfill their dreams if only they weren't afraid of what someone else might think if they danced a certain, provocative, or just plain skilled, way or sang in that voice that was bigger than everyone else's or wrote only in a journal because they were afraid of offending friends, family and neighbours with their truth? Countless. An embarassment of riches, I have known.
Well, that still doesn't change my modus operandi. I will do book signings in the hope of meeting people who simply gather in the name of literature, friendship, or genuine curiosity. And I will attend book festivals and readings because they're fun--fun because I love words, especially when coming from the minds and mouths of those who are skilled with them and have something to say--not about the proper use of the comma or the supposed invention of a new narrative form--but about the human condition. Because that's what it is--a condition--and there's no cure for it except the obvious one of somehow becoming less human, of disengaging from the human race, of becoming an alien observer to one's own species, trading in one's keen insights for a royalty dollar and a date with the fame monster.
What do I like about being an author? It's actually the writing part. That feeling of sitting the butt down in a chair somewhere, pen in hand or fingers tapping the keyboard, and bringing the stuff in my head towards the light. Of course, then there's the part about having written something. That's not bad either, as Dorothy Parker obviously knew when she said it.
By any measure, Moonlight Sketches--and all of my writing--is an earnest attempt to make sense of the world for myself. And if you buy it, that's what you'll see in it. If you don't buy it, I'm sure we can still be friends.
Because, despite what the marketing geniuses, politicians, and corporate giants of the world want you to believe, that's why we're all here: not to sell each other stuff, but to understand something about who we are, to ourselves and to each other.
Or maybe I'm wrong, and perhaps we don't actually have any purpose.
But, somehow, I just don't buy that.