Wednesday, April 28, 2010

Rachel: Reasons I write.

I’ve heard other writers say that when they get a rejection letter, they post it on the wall of their office. A well-known poet I know says his walls are just plastered in them. I have never understood this; it’s one of those things that fly over my head and I’m too ashamed to admit I don’t get it. My own office has hand-painted cards from people I love, art books and poetry books open and propped up. Do the rejection-plasterers find punishment inspiring? Maybe it proves to them that they exist, that at least they’re trying, seeing their name written over and over in print like that, on letterhead from coveted presses and magazines. I assume, maybe incorrectly, that writers who plaster their walls in rejections actually do so because they are in the what-doesn’t-kill-you-makes-you-stronger camp. It makes you stronger like a callus makes your hands stronger when you’ve worked with them awhile. But a callus of the soul or heart isn’t supposed to be a good thing.
When I receive a bunch of rejections (an inevitability as a writer) I am always left facing the reasons I’m writing in the first place, so I can know why to keep going. And I’m faced over and over again with the somewhat uncomfortable fact that one of the reasons I write is to get approval. But the reasons I write change, depending on which one I need. I’ve written them out below, and I’d love to know if anyone has anything to add to this list, especially those writers on who are further along in their careers, and know the feeling of holding their own book in their hands. Anyhow, here’s the list:
1. I write because I like the way it feels. I mean this literally, physically. I came across an old notebook of mine from the time I was around 5. I didn’t know to write in cursive yet, but there are pages and pages of completely unintelligible swirls and dots and lines that I remember intending to be script. I had attached a meaning to it somehow, but it wasn’t English. I had done it for the pure pleasure of putting pen to paper. I do that now, write aimlessly in the morning, simply because the way a certain felt-tip pen feels against a certain texture of paper gives me no end of pleasure. Not just that, I love the way the letters look after I write them. Typing is the same. I love the report of a typewriter keys, the way it is a letterpress in miniature. I love the speed and ease of a computer keyboard. Sometimes when I am composing on a computer I feel I’m a concert pianist, and this obsolete clunky laptop is my finest instrument. Hell, it’s easier than drawing.
2. I write because the books and stories I most want to read sometimes don’t exist yet. When I was around ten I wrote a book that consisted entirely of extending that part of the Babysitters’ Club books that I loved the most and wished would go on for 90 more pages: the detailed descriptions of each character’s outfit. At the time it is most what I wanted to read. As I’ve gotten older I’ve realized the value in literature that reflects the things I observe in the world, rather than just lets me escape, and the stories I try to tell now are stories I don’t see anyone else telling, the books I would most like to read. In some ways, this is my most inspiring reason to write because then I can treat it like improvisational reading, my own compulsion unfolding before my eyes. I think this is what people mean when they say they are “in the zone.”
3. I write because it’s the only thing I’m really good at, and the only thing that I have gotten consistent love and approval for my whole life. Or, maybe, admiration that has been an adequate substitute for love. Teachers, parents, relatives, friends, classmates, lovers, all. It’s been hard to separate where the love for the writing ends and the love for me begins. You might call this reason “vanity”. It is the reason most easily eschewed, especially when faced with rejection. It’s a fair-weather friend, a reason I would rather not admit to myself. But it’s one to watch out for. I have continually gotten swept up in the syrupy good feeling of having someone admire me for the emotional havoc I could wreak on them with words. This admiration is fickle. That’s why the other reasons are so important to remember, and to use as a firm foundation. Vanity is the empty calorie of artistic inspiration.
4. Another good, yet somewhat elusive reason that I write, is that it makes life meaningful. When I write stories I make patterns, little crescendos in the joyous, boring senselessness of life. I want to quote Toni Morrison here, although there are two reasons that is embarrassing: One, to compare my creative process to hers is nothing less than ridiculous; and two, I first read this in O Magazine at the doctor’s office. But it stuck with me. Here it is:
After I finished The Bluest Eye, which took me five years to write, I went into a long period of...not deep depression but a kind of melancholy. Then I had another idea for a book, Sula…and the whole world came alive again. Everything I saw or did was potentially data, a word or a sound or something for the book, and then I really realized that for me writing meant having something coherent in the world. And that feels like...not exactly what I was born for, it's more the thing that holds me in the world in healthy relationship, with language, with people, bits of everything filter down, and I can stay here. Everything I see or do, the weather and the water, buildings...everything actual is an advantage when I am writing. It is like a menu, or a giant tool box, and I can pick and choose what I want. When I am not writing, or more important, when I have nothing on my mind for a book, then I see chaos, confusion, disorder.

Has anyone else felt this way? Do other writers have more reasons to write? Do your reasons change once you have an audience of readers that you’ve never met? I’d be interested to know.

Thursday, April 22, 2010

Dan: Nothing Beats a Bookseller

I just got back from almost a full month of touring, in Germany, England, and the US, and overall it was a big success. Sometimes I had huge groups at my signings, and sometimes I had no one at all, but even the bad events were good, in a way, because they allowed me to meet the booksellers and shake their hands and talk about my book, and no offense to the readers out there but a single bookseller on my team is usually more valuable, long term, than a whole group of you. Why are booksellers so important? I will illustrate.

I visited a Borders in San Diego (in Mission Valley—say hi to Christina and RJ while you’re there), on an unscheduled stop on my way to another signing, and as soon as I walked in and introduced myself the clerk said “Oh good! We’ve been expecting you!” This was news to me, since I hadn’t even been expecting myself until 30 seconds earlier when I’d found the place by accident. The clerk introduced me to the manager, RJ, who introduced me to one of the booksellers on staff, Christina, who literally clapped her hands when she saw me. “I saw your book a few weeks ago when I was stocking the shelves,” she said, “and I thought it looked interesting. I read it and I LOVED IT! I knew you were on tour in the area, so I told everyone to watch for you in case you stopped by.”

I nodded and smiled happily, thanking her, and RJ handed me a big stack of books. “She hand-sold our first batch in the next few days. This is our second shipment, and she’s already sold a bunch of these, two.”

I looked at the stack of books. “How many are there?”

“Only seventeen left. She’s been selling them quite a bit.”

I literally whistled, right there, which I didn’t think people actually did. Every Borders I’d visited on my tour had had five copies, or maybe four if they’d gotten lucky and managed to sell one. This store, and this bookseller, had already sold at least twice that. Christina and RJ both wanted personalized copies, so there was two more sales, and then I signed the other fifteen copies, and on the way out I saw Christina already pitching the book to another customer.

I don’t say this to brag—it was far more common for me to show up at a store, introduce myself, and get completely disinterested shrugs from the manager. Especially at the B&N in Burbank; that manager could not possibly have cared less that I even existed. No, what I’m trying to point out is that having a couple of really good booksellers on your side is just about the best possible thing that can happen to an author. That Borders in Mission Valley will sell a zillion copies of my book (relatively speaking), not because they’re getting special treatment, or because the people in the area read more thrillers or buy more books in general, but because Christina and RJ have read my book, and liked it, and now they suggest it to everyone who comes in. In most stores the customers are on their own—they’ll only buy my book if they happen to walk past the right section, go down the right aisle, look at the right shelf, see the right cover, and become intrigued. Even then, there’s no guarantee that “intrigued” will translate into “purchased.” Having a bookseller like your book will increase its visibility by a hundred-fold, and give you an on-site advocate ready to hand-sell your book to everyone who walks in.