Mark Terry

Friday, September 07, 2007

Writing Fiction and Selling Shoes

September 7, 2007

The topic of this blog has been very much on my mind lately. Perhaps even more so today because it is my father's birthday. If he were still alive, I believe he would be 81. When he died, the family had no end of hassles involving taking care of my mother who has Alzheimer's, and the last five years might have been very different. Very, very different.

Anyway, I was thinking about this so much that I dug up an old column by Lawrence Block from an old Writer's Digest called "Why Fiction?"

"In an early cartoon of Jules Feiffer's, a man explains that from early childhood on he always knew he was destined to be a shoe salesman, that he felt this powerful longing to be a shoe salesman, but that he'd felt he had no choice but to bow to the wishes of his parents and the realities of the job market and make a living as an abstract expressionist painter. He hated it, it ate away at his soul, but he had a family to support so that was what he did. 'The world,' he says in the last frame, 'should make a place for shoe salesmen.'"
Larry talks a great deal in this piece about a friend of his who wanted to be a novelist and wrote manuscript after manuscript of unpublished novels. Finally, somewhere in his 50s, his friend was so desparate he just wanted to see something in print with his name on it and get paid for it. So he started writing travel pieces.
"He found a magazine that would take brief travel articles from him, and he began writing regularly for it. He got very little money for his work, fifteen or twenty dollars for each brief article, but it was money he'd earned at his typewriter and he got a kick out of it. Furthermore, he was amassing credits as a travel writer..."
And pretty soon he was making a lot of money and he was being sent on trips for free. He was, by the standards of most writers, pretty damned successful. Larry says:
"I'll tell you, I envied him. I travel all the time, but I generally wind up staying at some equivalent of the Bates Motel and damn well pay for it myself, too....
"Last time I ran into Jack, I asked him where he was going next. He told me about a trip he had lined up for the following month, an excursion to South America that sounded sensational. 'But I'm cutting way back on travel,' he said. 'I've been turning down press trips left and right. They're fun, but, well, I never set out with the goal of making my mark as a travel writer. This was a means to an end. I wanted to get published so that I could validate myself as a published writer. Because what I really want to do, what I've always wanted to do, is write fiction. And the damn press trips are taking so much time I can't get a novel written.'"
Well, I'm pretty sure any aspiring writers and maybe even published-but-not-satisfactorily- published readers of this blog don't need me to hammer the moral of this story home.
And not to get too heavy about things, I was thinking today as I was listening to NPR and they were talking about Pakistan and Darfur, that in my circle of friends and acquaintances, there are a hell of a lot of people with nice homes, multiple cars, TVs, vacation homes, RVs, etc., who are unhappy because they're not getting their novels published or they're not making enough money writing their novels. And I had that very strong ironic, chastising voice in my head that said, "Gee, I wonder what people in Darfur bitch about?"
Anyway, Larry finishes with:
"Why do so many of us want so desperately to write fiction? I don't know, and it may not be important to know. If it's important to you, God bless you, and go for it....
"But if it's not important to you, if you think it's important only because it ought to be important, if you're locked into an ill-formed decision you made back in the 11th grade, you might want to take a moment to rethink things. Perhaps the world ought to make a place for shoe salesmen. Perhaps you owe it to yourself to find out what you really and truly want to do."
Mark Terry

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Blogger PJ Parrish said...

Good post. And hits home for me because this past month I had talks with two writer friends at vastly different points in their careers but both at the same crossroad you describe.

1. Writer one. Long and successful career, well published, made the NYT list, huge money on last contract. But numbers are falling, got cut by publisher and now with new one. But he is singing "is that all there is?" And he's thinking of bagging it because the thrill is gone and he thinks he's staying in the game only because it is expected of him.

2. Writer two. Isn't published yet and is trying so hard to get there. Going to conferences, rewriting his manuscript over and over. Getting rejected but still trying. He said to me finally, "I'm beginning to think my wanting it isn't enough. I might have to face facts that I don't have enough talent."

Some days, selling shoes makes a lot more sense.

10:47 AM  
Blogger Mark Terry said...

In the grand scheme of things...

(and for everybody else, PJ Parrish's latest novel is A THOUSAND BONES and it's on my shelf. I'll do a piece on the blog when I get to it).

11:06 AM  
Anonymous Eric Mayer said...

I found myself speculating on this on my own blog:

5:52 PM  
Blogger spyscribbler said...

I flipped out about that for a couple weeks, LOL. My ego-driven obsession to see my real name on a novel got out of hand. I'm pretty sure it started when I joined RWA. I'm writing. When I sit down at Borders, do I care? No. And the exhilarating moment I saw my real name on something? Maybe three hours of thrills. And then I'm back at Borders, same old, same old. So geeze, I need to get over myself and be happy I'm writing, LOL.

Next time, I'll just go to Cedar Point. :-)

8:38 AM  

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