The Jet Set Life of a Real Writer

February 5, 2018 § 16 Comments

That Pulitzer’s not going to win itself

Oh the glamorous literary life—last week Dubai, yesterday New York, today Shreveport! I’m writing this in the back of a Lyft on the way to the airport, after a week of parties and book-signings, retweeting Shonda Rhimes’ compliments and brainstorming article ideas for major national publications, la la la.

Except it’s not for me. Sure, I live in Dubai (husband already worked there when I met him), but the last five days in New York have been focused on a client. A lovely author whose book comes out this week and who yes, was listed in Shondaland. I’m the writing coach. My work is literary-adjacent: support my client at a bookstore event, spelling names correctly on post-its for the signing table. Introduce her at the release party. Talk through ideas for articles. Work next to her at the kitchen table, updating my website while she answers questions for a blog about writers and their dogs.

There’s a persistent myth that “real writers” just write. Over at Lithub, Rosalie Knecht tells us how that got started:

It’s easy to forget that Hemingway and the rest went to Paris because it was cheaper than staying at home, and that it was cheaper because a catastrophic war had just laid waste to the continent. These writers produced so much material about each other, in fiction and in letters, that they accidentally crystallized a specific time and place in the American imagination as the essence of what a creative life looks like. This was not only a setting: it was a particular economy. Not only was rent cheap, but print was still the king of mass media. It was possible, for a brief moment in time, to make a living selling pieces to magazines. As a result, the image of the writing life created in this period includes no non-writing day jobs whatsoever.

When people ask me what I do, I say “I’m a writer. And I edit other people’s work.” Yes, I get paid to write, already a huge step, but I wrote a lot for free before I started getting paid, and I still write for free for venues I’m invested in as a literary citizen (hello, Brevity readers!). Even my client with the brand-new book is still writing for free—those blog interviews don’t write themselves, and even authors whose publishers pay for the book tour must write for publicity. Signing books is not “writing” time. Midlist authors—that group a publisher needs for bread and butter, but who don’t get press releases sent to Shondaland—mostly have day jobs, or spouses with day jobs. Small-press authors are often teaching full-time.

Most of my “writing” days look like this:

  • 6AM-7AM: Squint at Twitter in bed
  • 7AM-9AM: Morning routine, commute
  • 9AM-10:30AM: Coffee, breakfast, social media, that thing where I cross a bunch of easy stuff off my list instead of tackling the most important thing first
  • 10:30AM-12PM: Write novel (OK, sometimes it’s only an hour)
  • 12PM-4PM: Editing other people’s work, website updates, planning the India retreat for writers mid-book, the Brevity blog and podcast, punctuated by email and social media
  • 4PM-6:30PM: Commute, cook dinner
  • 6:30PM-10PM: Spend time with husband, email, social media, editing

Notice there’s 90 minutes of actual, writing-the-project-I-love time. Max. On a good day. And on a good day, that’s plenty. I’m writing hard, emotionally involving stuff right now, and there’s only so much time I can spend crying and snotting.

What works for me, what feels “real,” is making it to the chair five days out of seven. Writing on a me-project most of those days. That may not be what works for you—maybe you get 10 minutes a day, or chunks of weekend, or early mornings, or three days a month, or summer vacation. Your schedule reflects your life in an economy where rent is a much larger percentage of income than it was in 1948, and where most health insurance is tied to working full time. Many of us have kids, spouses, even friends we like to spend time with. On the up side, we’re much less likely to drink or cough ourselves to death, or be brutally satirized by Truman Capote.

When I taught theatre, I told a lot of worried parents, “Everyone thinks ‘Hollywood star!’ is every actor’s goal. But most actors I know make a living in regional theatre and summer Shakespeare festivals, teaching, recording audio books and guesting on Law&Order. Fame does not equal success. Success does not equal fame. Your kid can be happy and make a living doing something they love and are good at.”

Famous writers are doing more than writing what they love. Successful writers may never be household names. Art is not somehow purer if we do nothing else. Do what you love and are good at. Do it often enough to get better. Do it when and where you can. That’s real. That’s enough.

 

Rosalie Knecht’s article at Lithub is well worth a full read.

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Allison K Williams is Brevity‘s Social Media Editor. This summer, she’s leading Rebirth Your Book in Kerala, India.

The Last Word (We Hope)

March 23, 2012 § 2 Comments

Tired of Daisey and D’Agata? So are we. With any luck, this will be our last post on the fact-shifting argument for a good long while. We promise, at least to try. In any case, the folks at Slate have made the parameters crystal clear with this handy chart:

To make life easier for would-be liars everywhere, we have attempted to answer that question with a handy visual guide. Some of our conclusions are obvious: If you’re a journalist, making stuff up is not a good career move. If you’re a fantasy writer, on the other hand, you’d better make stuff up by the chapter-load, or you’ll be out of a gig. But what if you fall somewhere in the middle?

Well, if you want to make stuff up, it helps to be funny. While David Sedaris’s books are classified as nonfiction, for example, no one seems to mind that they’re not all true. Likewise, stand-up comedians can tell you about the hilarious thing that happened to them last week, and no one will check to see if that hilarious thing really happened last week. Even if you’re writing a reported piece for a fact-checked magazine like Harper’s orRolling Stone, you might be able to throw in a few whoppers if you’re as funny as David Foster Wallace. (Try to write prose as memorable as his, too—that seems to have helped Truman Capote.)

You may also want to consider putting your story on film. While biographers get a hard time for documentable inaccuracies, biopics don’t get the same degree of scrutiny. If you write a true story, it should probably be true; if you make a movie “based on a true story,” people will assume you made a bunch of stuff up.


In Cold Truth

March 22, 2012 § 4 Comments

This whole fact-shifting argument we’ve been having of late is nothing new.  Consider of course,  Truman Capote’s 1966 “nonfiction novel”  In Cold Blood.

Capote always insisted In Cold Blood was “immaculately factual,” but his critics disagreed.

Ralph L. Voss’s new book, Truman Capote and the Legacy of In Cold Blood, discusses where Capote stretched and enhanced.  Here is Reuters book writer Jack Shafer discussing the new look at Capote’s truthiness:

Over the years, the accusations have continued from many corners, including friendly ones. In his sympathetic 1988 book, Capote: A Biography, Gerald Clarke acknowledges that the final scene in the book, which takes place at a graveyard, is fiction. That scene, which is filled with dialogue, has the investigator in the murder case meeting with a friend of one of the slain girls in the cemetery where the murdered Clutter family is buried. Clarke writes that Capote constructed it: “Since events had not provided him with a happy scene, he was forced to make one up.”

A new book by Ralph L. Voss, Truman Capote and the Legacy of In Cold Blood, draws on previous literary forensics and his own scholarship to demonstrate Capote’s shocking faithlessness to the truth. Capote disputed his critics’ claims that he had dropped fiction into his non-fiction, telling one interviewer in 1972 that Esquire was wrong, reiterating: “What I wrote in the book was true.” Even though Voss spends only a couple of chapters debunking In Cold Blood (most of it is a celebration of the book and its influence), he makes it impossible for readers to deny that Capote cut corners, sweetened his material, wrote passages that argue with the facts in his notes and invented scenes.

READ the full Reuters article here.

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