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Sunday Sermon to Self

May 17, 2009

So the plan to have a chapter done by today didn’t work out.  Not much excuse, really, since I’m working 20 hour weeks, other than that I’m using up my morning writing hours doing research/reviews, and when I get off work around noon I’m tired of looking at a computer screen and want to go, do something.  Hike or run errands or go to the gym or something other than moving from one computer screen to the other, especially with perfect (highs in the 70s) springtime weather.  Tomorrow the plan is to get some work done on chapter four in the afternoon if not the morning – it’s going to be in the mid 90s here in Reno tomorrow, so it’s a good day to fire up the AC and stay in. 

I learned today that there are more than seven million WordPress blogs (that’s one for every 857 people in the world), so even a market share of 20 hits a day (what I’m trying to keep stickywise from my Slate exposure, which gave me 200 hits a day for a couple days) has got to put me into a respectable percentile.  What I think I’m learning from the numbers is that people come for the fiction, but aren’t staying for the nonfiction.  I don’t intend to drop my research writings, because 1) the book is no good without the research, 2) most days the left brain fires up fast with only a strong cup of coffee to start it up, whereas the right brain has all these goddamn “issues” it keeps bothering me with, 3) the critical thinking skills I’m sharpening are necessary to all forms of writing, fiction and non, and 4) when the book is done, the blog is a public record of the process, and while nobody is digging into the old posts now, as I originally stated my hope is that the Project serves as a useful guide to other writers in diagramming the whole process of writing a novel.

I learned something funny the other day.  A former New Yorker contract writer named Dan Baum was fired a couple of years ago, and has recently unleashed an Internet shitstorm by writing about the whole experience – well, “tweeting” it, haikus of disgruntlement one after the other (link is to the consolidated PDF for those challenged by reading bottom to top)  I waited until each day’s posts were complete before I read them as a single serial installment, and was startled to read the following (edited into a single para; odd Caps are the result of “disentweetment”):

It took me seventeen years to break into the New Yorker.  I’d been a freelance journalist that long, and had sent in Proposals from time to time.  I never even got rejections.  The New Yorker doesn’t send them. If they don’t want the Story, they simply don’t respond, so filing to the New Yorker is like filing to the dump. You send in a proposal, and If you’re smart, you forget all about it.

Ten years ago, I’d actually sent them a proposal, about something that had happened to me during my bankruptcy – not long after filing, I received a full-shotguns phone call from some major asshole lawyer demanding to know who I thought I was, filing bankruptcy when I owned a house somewhere in Rancho San California, and did I really think I could screw over the company he represented.  Naturally I panicked, having no idea what was going on, and only learned during my bankruptcy hearing that, along with a couple other people in the room, I’d been the victim of a scam – people who were about to have their houses foreclosed on were going to the bankruptcy court offices, drawing names at random from the list of recent filers, and transferring the title to people like me, since that would prevent the mortgage holder from seizing the property until after the bankruptcy judgment was settled.  After all was said and done, for some reason (delusions of grandeur, in retrospect) I wrote a one-page proposal letter to the New Yorker, the first sentence of which was, “A house fell on my head.” 

This was a rare occurrence for me, since the bruising cruelty of the freelancing process had left me with the opinion that it was better to give up than to deal with editors who would rip up your piece, demand rewrite, and then, when I finally gave in after weeks of anxious silence and called to see what was happening, would get a snarling “Oh, that.  That piece didn’t work; I killed it.”  All the same, I thought I had a good story, and was willing to do more research to see how the scam came about, how many others were suffering from it, and what if anything the law was doing about it.

I received a note back from the New Yorker, which said, in New Yorkerese, we deign to notice your idea but of course would need to see the full story before considering it.  Well! I thought.  The Nerve!  I’m to do all that work, maybe for nothing?  Hah!

Only now, ten years later, from the horse’s mouth so to speak, do I learn how close I came to a success in the world’s hardest market. 

It’s fashionable to denounce Snark these days, but if there is one great positive change to be laid at its feet, it’s that every edifice is exposed, laid bare to the eyes of all who would see.  When I was growing up, maturing as a young writer, there was Spy magazine, thank FSM, and Tom Wolfe, and a handful of other sources for information on how things really worked.  Literature had been presented to me by an idealistic high school teacher as a great ladder, to be climbed, to borrow from Garrison Keillor, by Doing Good Work – only years later was I to learn that Keeping In Touch was as if not more important than the work itself, the furious networking and self-aggrandizement and partygoing and scenemaking that was the most effective way to push your snout into the trough of Good Things.  Being socially retarded didn’t help; it wasn’t as if I could have been good at that had I known from the outset that it was necessary – but still, to have known might have helped.  With Snark as their ombudsman, cultural institutions (by which I don’t mean a single publication, but an edifice, such as Literature or Art) can no longer present a public face (high- and fair-minded, Latin epigrams and Greek ideals) while the private face (school ties, nepotism, a weakness for pretty faces or sycophancy) goes unseen and undocumented. 

I grew bitter in my years in the wilderness, discovering the hard way how a single jealous enemy could destroy a journalism career (a story for another day) regardless of your talent, how just living in the wrong place made you unsuited in the eyes of editors to tackle certain ideas, how a writer had to eat a certain level of financial legerdemain performed by those “on your side.” It was a mug’s game, I decided, and retreated to my cave.

And yet:  The one time I tried to crack the world’s hardest market, I got further than most writers ever dreamed, just on the strength of my ideas.  And yet again: without Snark, in the form of the Gawker post that tipped me to Baum’s narrative, I never would have known how well I’d actually done – definitely cause for an irony alert.

So, persistence is the order of the day.  It’s really not my best feature; I’m used to banging comic novels out in six months, giving them half-assed endings because I’d run out of manic gas to keep them going and hadn’t ever stopped to think about how to tie things up in an orderly, never mind elegant, fashion.  Like many dilettantes and enthusiasts, the shock of the new is enough to keep me going on a project for about six months, after which the shiniest objects have been seen and touched and enjoyed, and the dull grind of taking them apart and reassembling them again and again begins.  This month marks six months since my impending gall bladder removal prompted me to start the Project, and thank FSM for the Slate posting, just in time to give me a boost over that Great “Meh” that comes along right about this point in the timeline.

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