By Robin Black
It’s almost New Year’s resolution time. I have a few this year. All the usual ones about less food, more exercise, of course; a new one about buying only cruelty-free meat and poultry; and I am resolving this year to try to keep at the forefront of my consciousness the reasons I started writing in the first place. Which oddly enough didn’t have to do with selling books. Didn’t even have to do with getting an agent. Or having twitter followers. Or much of anything beyond an urgent desire to convey to some imagined, listening world, what I had observed in the preceding four decades about human interactions, human nature and how it is that we all manage to go on from day to day.
But it isn’t so easy. Not at any stage in a writing career. At a recent conference, I was disheartened to realize that for every question a participant asked me about writing, I received at least a dozen more about writing careers. How to get an agent. How to get a book published. How to build a following before writing a book.
And then, last week, in case I imagined I had transcended such concerns, Amazon made it possible for authors to check their sales figures weekly. The graphics are weirdly compelling. You can play with them in all kinds of clever ways. Mesmerizing. Emotionally gripping. I feel as though I have become both video game and video game addict all at once.
For anyone, it is distressingly easy to slip from being a career writer to being a career careerist. For me, those compulsions to strategize and monitor have absolutely nothing to do with why I initially began to write – except that they share with that impulse a kind of desperation, a sense that there is a way in which this thing over which I am obsessing may make me happy if only. . .if only. . .if only. . . But there is an illusion at work, of course. An illusion when it comes to sales figures making one happy; and an illusion when it comes to writing doing so, either.
Writers are by nature insatiable. Insatiable and dissatisfied. It is in large part what keeps many of us going, an oddly precious, motivating discomfort. A day of writing may bring a feeling of content; but reading the results the following morning is likely to shatter that. And so we write again. The work is never perfect, in part because language, which gives so many gifts, also presents us with the dubious advantage of infinite possibility. And in part because the urgency that drives so many of us to write, that sense that there is something (something!) that must be conveyed, cannot be extinguished. Not even through the act of conveying.
But I am beginning to suspect it can be transferred, that because we are always prone to feeling that we having failed, we writers are exceptionally vulnerable to the danger of obsessing over empirical measures of success. If the act of writing can’t guarantee satisfaction, maybe the right number of twitter followers can. Or the prestigious agent. Or the book contract. Or the Amazon ranking . . . And, of course, the nature of the internet is that there is now no limit to how much time we can devote to this quest.
I don’t want to seem rude or ungrateful for the honor of being consulted, but I sometimes want to suggest to the people who ask me for career advice that instead of inquiring about querying an agent, they should instead ask what I’ve been reading lately, so I can ask them the same. There is so much excellent, practical advice online about query letters and such. It’s much harder to come by conversation with a colleague who has genuine interest in your work. Not interest in publishing it. Not interest in whether one day it will make you famous. Not even interest really in whether it’s good – whatever that means. But interest in what you are writing and why you are writing and how you find time to write and well, you.
It only gets harder as you go on. That’s what I have learned this past year, since publishing a book. Harder and harder to focus on the work, to remember that this should always remain more art than marketing task. Those early worries one has about getting an agent, getting published, they don’t disappear without a trace when those things come about. They morph and multiply in shocking ways.
Which is why we need to find as many sacred spaces for ourselves as we possibly can. Spaces in which we discuss narrative strategies twelve times more than career strategies and in which we feel awe at the power of prose rather than that of social networking. We need to conspire against the forces that conspire against our identities as artists, turning us into crafters of pitches and builders of platforms and wooers of followers.
Or anyway, I need that. Because if truth be told, for every thought I have about writing these days, I probably have a dozen more about my writing career. But I am resolved to reverse that over the coming months, to get my insecurities back into the work – where they can do me some good.
And as solitary a task as writing is, I would love to have some company.
Robin Black’s collection If I loved you, I would tell you this (Random House, 2010) was a finalist in the Frank O’Connor International Short Story Prize and an O. Magazine Summer Reading pick.