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A writing career becomes harder to scale

ESSAY

Authors used to expect to struggle as they gained experience. But now it is sell -- or else.

February 07, 2010|By Dani Shapiro
(Emiliano Ponzi / For The…)

In the late 1980s, when I was a graduate student working on short stories and flirting with the idea of a novel, I came across an essay that was being passed around my circle of friends. It was titled "Writing in the Cold: The First Ten Years," and the author was the legendary editor and founder of New American Review, Ted Solotaroff.

Ten years! In the cold! Solotaroff wondered where all the talented young writers he had known or published when he was first editing New American Review had gone. Only a few had flourished. Some, he speculated, had ended up teaching, publishing occasionally in small journals. But most had just . . . given up. "It doesn't appear to be a matter of talent itself," he wrote. "Some of the most natural writers, the ones who seemed to shake their prose or poetry out of their sleeves, are among the disappeared. As far as I can tell, the decisive factor is what I call endurability: that is, the ability to deal effectively with uncertainty, rejection, and disappointment, from within as well as from without."

The writer's apprenticeship -- or perhaps, the writer's lot -- is this miserable trifecta: uncertainty, rejection, disappointment. In the 20 years that I've been publishing books, I have fared better than most. I sold my first novel while still in graduate school and published six more books, pretty much one every three years, like clockwork. I have made my living as a writer, living off my advances while supplementing my income by teaching and writing for newspapers and magazines.

As smooth as this trajectory might seem, however, my internal life as a writer has been a constant battle with the small, whispering voice (well, sometimes it shouts) that tells me I can't do it. This time, the voice taunts me, you will fall flat on your face. Every single piece of writing I have ever completed -- whether a novel, a memoir, an essay, short story or review -- has begun as a wrestling match between hopelessness and something else, some other quality that all writers, if they are to keep going, must possess.

Call it stubbornness, stamina, a take-no-prisoners determination, but a writer at work reminds me of nothing so much as a terrier with a bone: gnawing, biting, chewing, until finally there is nothing left to do but fall away.

I have taught in MFA programs for many years now, and I begin my first class of each semester by looking around the workshop table at my students' eager faces and then telling them they are pursuing a degree that will entitle them to nothing. I don't do this to be sadistic or because I want to be an unpopular professor; I tell them this because it's the truth. They are embarking on a life in which apprenticeship doesn't mean a cushy summer internship in an air-conditioned office but rather a solitary, poverty-inducing, soul-scorching voyage whose destination is unknown and unknowable.

If they were enrolled in medical school, in all likelihood they would wind up doctors. If in law school, better than even odds, they'd become lawyers. But writing school guarantees them little other than debt.

The instant score

Rereading Solotaroff's essay, as I did recently, I found that he was writing of a time that now seems quaint, almost innocent. By the 1980s, he bemoaned, the expectations young writers had of their future lives had "been formed by the mass marketing and subsidization of culture and by the creative writing industry. Their career models are not, say, Henry Miller or William Faulkner, but John Irving or Ann Beattie."

With the exception of Irving, most of the writers referenced by Solotaroff (Beattie, Bobbie Ann Mason, Joan Chase, Douglas Unger, Lynne Sharon Schwartz, Alan Hewat) would draw blank looks from my students, and the creative writing industry of the mid-1980s now seems like a few mom-and-pop shops scattered on a highway lined with strip malls and mega-stores. Today's young writers don't peruse the dusty shelves of previous generations. Instead, they are besotted with the latest success stories: The 18-year-old who receives a million dollars for his first novel; the blogger who stumbles into a book deal; the graduate student who sets out to write a bestselling thriller -- and did.

The 5,000 students graduating each year from creative writing programs (not to mention the thousands more who attend literary festivals and conferences) do not include insecurity, rejection and disappointment in their plans. I see it in their faces: the almost evangelical belief in the possibility of the instant score. And why not? They are, after all, the product of a moment that doesn't reward persistence, that doesn't see the value in delaying recognition, that doesn't trust in the process but only the outcome. As an acquaintance recently said to me: "So many crappy novels get published. Why not mine?"

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