I’ve been astounded by how many people have read my “How To Make a Living Writing,” and “How To Make a Living Writing, Part Two.” The tone and tenor of the comments left on those posts is truly gratifying. (I wish I had more time to respond to them, but lately I’ve been eyeball deep in a 60,000 book that’s due in about a week [!] and has been devouring my time like the Cookie Monster on a mallomar.)
You know what’s weird? I’m in the book business, right? So my life, and the lives of everyone around me, are about book ideas. The Holy Grail of publishers, agents, and authors is The Great Book Idea. It’s all any of us want. It’s what we live on and for. The better the idea for a book, the better that book’s chances for becoming a bestseller. (Failing that, what you want if you’re a publisher is a huge name on the front of your book. But that’s a whole other … trip.)
This is how valuable book ideas are: I’ve had two of them flat-out, no question, bold/bald-faced stolen from me. One was stolen by an agent (who gave my idea and the manuscript in which I’d developed it to one of his better known clients), and the other stolen from a major publisher (who never returned or responded to my inquiries about the 25,000-word proposal I’d sent them, and then, the following season, came out , under the name of a Famous Comedian, my exact book: same title, subtitle, back jacket copy, introduction, chapter headings, chapter content … all of it, just as I’d written it).
In the book business (as in all writing, as in life, come to think of it) ideas are the currency. It took me forever to realize that. I always thought ideas were just … nothing, basically. Insubstantial potentialities. Fleeting inspirations. Fun ways to combine opposing or complementary realities. Acknowledgments of obvious (or, in a pinch, teased out) possibilities. Latencies simply spoken into form. I always figured ideas were utterly … free for the picking, basically.
Man. Wrong. Turns out they’re everything.
Anyway, it’s obvious enough from the extremo response I’ve gotten from my last couple of blogs that I’ve stumbled onto a bonafide Book Idea. How that can be is a complete mystery: If there’s anything in this world I figure there’s enough of, it’s flippin’ books on how to be a flippin’ writer. I hate books on how to be a writer. I just can’t read them. I find them like chewing a huge wad of flavorless gum: bothersome, no nutrition, threatens to choke you to death, can’t swallow it. The whole industry that makes money off of people’s desire to be famous writers drives me crazy. I hate it. It’s so … smarmy and exploitative.
Not all of it, of course. I’m sure a lot of it is sincere and wonderful. I love what I’ve read of Stephen King’s book on writing.
All that said, I have long intended to myself write a book on writing. Like the gay-bashing pastor who secretly dreams of calling 1-800-MAN HANDS, I’ve always wanted to go there. There’s so much I’d really like to say about the whole “I want to be a writer” dynamic. But I always thought I’d write that book at the end of my career, when anyone would have any reason whatsoever to really care what I think about writing.And yet, here I am. Just on the strength of how many people read my last two blogs, I could now sell a book on writing. “The Last Writing Book You’ll Need,” might be a title. “Get Right With Writing.” “Righting Your Writing.” “Righteous Writing.” (I’m now trained to think first about a book’s title, since a book’s title is about everything to a publisher. Serious business. I’ve had publishers tell me that if a book of mine they’d previously turned down had come to them bearing the same title under which it was ultimately published, they’d have published it themselves. You can sell a book with just a title. Watch: someone will come out with a book called “Righteous Writing.”)
Anyway, just now I’m not going to write a book on writing. You know why? You know why I was always going to write that book at the end of my career? Because the reason people sell books about writing is because such books are grounded in the idea that the people buying and reading them really can become successful writers. (And just what “successful writer” actually means is of course all over the board.) Such books feed on that aspiration. But the terrible, undeniable truth is that almost no one is really good at writing.
Our culture has such a weird relationship with writers. On the one hand we revere our best writers: people get breathless just saying the name “Shakespeare” or “Hemingway.” (I personally get breathless saying “Twain” or “Fitzgerald.”) And yet at the same time, everyone thinks they’re a writer. Our best writers spend their lives as absolute, abject slaves to the genuine art of writing — yet every scarf-wearing, cappuccino-sipping doink you see writing in a journal at a coffee shop thinks the only thing standing between them and writing fame is luck.
Yikes. I see I’m bordering on the Crazed Harangue. Sorry.
And actually, of course, my heart is with the journaling doink. That j.d. is My Kind! I’m with anyone who ever attempts to put clear, compelling thought into words. I’ve spent my entire life learning how to do exactly nothing but that. It’s so stupid. I’m 49, and the only thing I know how to do is construct a decent sentence. Should come in real handy next major earthquake, or whatever.
Anyway, this is what I’m saying: I know that if I really told that person journaling in the coffee shop what they were really going to have to do with their mind, life, heart, and soul in order to become a real writer, they’d slam their journal shut faster than they could say, “Yo, man, you’re hurting my arm. ”