Tuesday, December 2, 2008

Fame or Fortune?

Work, creativity, figuring out what it is that I'm really trying to say and accomplish are all issues that I and most of you struggle to balance with real life. Therese Fowler has a post up that she wrote in response to a Nathan Bransford post that asked which you'd prefer as a writer, money or acclaim. The answers at both sites are fascinating and of course, made me ponder my own.

I've never had dreams about fame or fortune related to writing. It seems odd to pretty much everyone I tell, but it's true. I have never felt that sense of urgency to get my work out and published either. If there is a vanity I will confess to, it's that I hope to one day write something worthy (and I use the term loosely) of some critic's acclaim.

My career explains, I think, why I'm indifferent to the idea of fame and money when it comes to writing. I'm neither rich nor famous, but I have experienced a bizarre Cinderella story in my professional life. You could say that after years of toiling in obscurity in the suffocating world of government contracting and government service, a fairy godfather saw some potential in me and the next thing I knew, I was working for a start-up company, had a fancy job title, quadrupled my income, stock options, an unlimited expense account and was jetting all over the place, pretending to be a business person.

I say pretending because I have always felt like I'm playing a role when I'm working, and I am. I'm a sales representative. My wise Uncle Denis asked me a long time ago, how I'd answer a client's question, "what time is it?" Naturally, I shrugged and said I'd tell him the correct time. Uncle Denis shook his head. "You ask him what time he wants it to be." That's sales.

For the first couple of months, I felt like a fraud. All of these other sales guys and business men (they are almost all men) were confident, cocky even and they knew what they were doing. Sometimes I'd listen to what they said and I'd think that it didn't make sense to me, but I must just be stupid. I must not get it. And then it hit me like a Wylie Coyote anvil dropped on my head. Holy shit. They don't know anything more than I do. They just act like they do.

That revelation freed me of my lifelong anxiety about whether or not I was good enough, smart enough or gosh darn it, whether people liked me or not. For more than eight years I've been the top sales rep in my company (and the only woman). Now and then I get a little maudlin and I think maybe I'm wasting my time, maybe I should be out doing something more meaningful and trying to save the world, but then I remember all the things this job has allowed me to do and I'm grateful. The executives listen to what I say and ask what I think, I get to work from home and set my own schedule and for the most part, I do what I want to do. The income has given me the freedom to travel when I want to and to save for the future so that I may one day retire. And when I really think hard about it, the interaction with so many people from such different walks of life, different jobs, different countries and different values and opinions provides a wealth of material for creating stories and fiction.

Several days ago, I read this post about writers and work at The Quarterly Conversation and I found that it comforted me.

“There are four ways to survive as a writer in the US in 2006: the university; journalism; odd jobs; and independent wealth.” (Keith Gessen, n + 1) 1

We disagree.

Some writers manage to live off their art. Some inhabit a grey area in which they earn a livable wage off non-creative writing. And some writers work 40 hours a week elsewhere. Wallace Stevens retired as the vice president of an insurance company, notably turning down a professorship from Yale to stick with his office. William Carlos Williams decided in high school that he would become both a writer and a doctor—which he did. That’s one kind of writer. Among their present-day successors is Edward P. Jones, who worked as a business writer for almost 19 years after earning his MFA. During this time, his coworkers might have been surprised to know that his first story collection was nominated for a National Book Award. Robert Olen Butler published his first four books while working as editor for an energy industry trade magazine. Continue Reading.

Yes, there are real authors out there (authors we've actually heard of) who have jobs and careers apart from writing. I've spent far too long mooning over the academics and the MFAs who have followed a path so much different from mine when I should have been appreciating the path I'm on. It's my comfort zone and it feels right. My confession is that I do have an ego and I have to admit that it's nice to do something that I'm rewarded and praised for. It provides more than enough of a balance for the insecurity and obscurity that define the writer in me. I'm not sure I could handle the self-doubt and the absence of approbation if I didn't have some aspect of my life that provided that.

One day, I'll have a slim novel finished and polished up and I'll look for an agent and hopefully, I'll find one who is passionate about what I've done. Maybe luck will shine down on me and my book will be published by a big New York house and it will become a big success. Maybe I'll end up published by a small press and if I'm lucky, a few people will say something nice about what I've done. Maybe I'll write more books and eventually, I'll retire and be able to write all the time. I don't know.

Check out Therese's post and share your thoughts here. Money or acclaim? Work and writing? How do you support yourself and how is it working for you?

* * *

Saturday night the doorbell rang and the FedEx man dropped off a box full of all kinds of delightful surprises. Some months back I entered the Spring 2008 flash fiction contest at Women on Writing and was delighted to win an honorable mention. After thanking the academy, I went on with life and sort of forgot about the whole thing, including the goodie bag that was part of the mention. Check this out:

Lots of "Best of" and "The Year in Books" lists are coming out. Vote on best book covers at The Book Design Review. The New York Times has their 100 Notable Books of the Year available for your review. The Millions has a great series of posts on A Year in Reading 2008.

Author of Orange Mint and Honey and Pajama Gardener, Carleen Brice has been stirring up all kinds of buzz with her new blog, White Readers Meet Black Authors and with
National Buy a Book by a Black Author and Give it to Someone Not Black Month. I've got a post coming on this project and Carleen has been getting some high level attention for this fun project.

Having trouble coming up with the name of a black author besides Toni Morrison, Alice Walker or Maya Angelou?

Check out some of the great posts and comments and be officially welcomed to the African American section of your local bookstore.

And don't forget to keep checking in at the Cups of Kindness website. Art pieces will be available for online sale next week and they make great Christmas presents and these art pieces will help feed the hungry. Or, to make a direct donation to the Akron-Canton Regional Food Bank, click here.


Anonymous said...

Holy cats, Lisa. This one's easy: I want to become fantastically rich with my writing.

pattinase (abbott) said...

Congrats on your prizes!
If I were given a choice, I would choose neither fortune or fame but instead the feeling that I had accomplished something with my life. That I had set myself a task and done it well. Maybe that's my age talking but the other two seem too far-fetched for any serious consideration.

Moanerplicity said...

If someone does something strictly for the financial gain, they are either in dire straits, or else a whore of some kind.

Writing, creating, bringing beauty into the world is a gift and an honor to the soul. It shouldn't be done for massive fame or mad profitable gain. Those who enter into it for those reasons are usually soon disappointed.

I've always chosen to be one of those who live to write, not write to live. This alone feeds my spirit.

Snatch JOY (& more books)!


Charles Gramlich said...

That's cool about the gift pack. Excellent. That makes you feel pretty good, I bet. As for my wants from writing, I basically want readers. I want to hear from people that I've touched them in some way. Of course I'd like to have money from it, but that's mainly so I'd have more time to do it. As for fame, I absolutely do not want fame. Never. I like being unnnoticed and unbothered.

Yogamum said...

Nice shwag!!!

I'm with you, a little acclaim would be nice.

Larramie said...

You're very good with people, Lisa, and THAT makes a difference in the world.

As for Carleen's new project, today I ordered more of OM&H to give away! :)

Lisa said...

Rob, I will give you high marks on consistency with that answer :)

Patti, Actually, that's a good one. Age does factor into what's important and what might not have been enough when I was 25 is more than enough now.

Moanerplicity, Welcome! I checked out your site and it's just great. There seem to be a lot of different motivations for writing, but I tend to feel the way you do.

I don't think our culture values artists the way they once did. When painters and poets had patrons, people were freer to really focus on creating. Now books aren't really art, they're a commodity and entertainment, so there are an awful lot of people focused on tapping into making the money. I don't really get it, but I see it all around me.

Charles, It was a really cool surprise to get all that stuff and it definitely put a little spring in my step. I don't know if you can read the shirt, but it says "Careful, you may end up in my novel". Ha. "I basically want readers". Actually, that's really what it all comes down to, isn't it?

Yogamum, I know! It was so cool, all wrapped up in hot pink tissue paper too. As for the acclaim -- seriously? If I wrote a book and it got a decent review in the Denver Post, I'd be ecstatic. Or if some litblogger reviewed it online and liked it, that would pretty much do it for me.

Larramie, Well thank you. I need to do follow your lead and pick up some OM&H's for Christmas gifts too. Right now I'm reading "The Fall of Rome", by Martha Southgate and so far, it's excellent.

Oh, and I don't remember who my second grade teacher was, but my third grade teacher was Mrs. Murphy and she had blue hair and she taught at the Randall G. Morris School in West Roxbury, MA.

steve on the slow train said...

"Having trouble coming up with the name of a black author besides Toni Morrison, Alice Walker or Maya Angelou?"

One name you might consider is Shirley Gordon Jackson, sister of Charles Gordone, the first African American to win the Pulitzer Prize for drama. Her memoir is "A Place to be Someone: Growing Up with Charles Gordone." I'll have a couple of posts on it soon, as she put my name in the acknowledgements.

steve on the slow train said...

And congratulations on the honorable mention. "The Frailty of Memory" is a wonderful title.
Also, your story about your co-workers and their knowledge reminds me of the story about Socrates and the Delphic Oracle, which had proclaimed him the wisest man in Athens. "But why?" thought Socrates. "I don't know anything." But then he realized the the meaning of the oracle's words: He knew he didn't know anything.

Elizabeth said...

Great work, Lisa! And I, too, love the title "The Frailty of Memory." Any chance you can post it somewhere so that we can read it. Your post is so "chock-full" of information -- I look forward to really going through it and all the leads. And I'm totally with you as far as "the working writer." I'm partial to those who don't romanticize and believe that they're doing work when they write. And I don't mean groaning about how difficult and lonely it is, etc. etc. I just admire those who take writing seriously enough to call it their work. Whether it's part time/full time or a minute's time. I'd love a bigger audience but not so much for the money -- it would mean that I shared a common sensibility with other humans. It would emphasize our deep connections, etc. I think that art is like that: self-expression shared.

Lisa said...

Steve, You should definitely stop at Carleen's new site and add Shirley Gordon Jackson to the recommendations in the comments. There are some great books listed there. I will be interested in hearing the story about your name in the acknowledgments. That's quite an honor. Thanks for the congrats.

The night it hit me that the only difference between me and the business types that I thought knew something I didn't really stands out in my mind. It was quite a revelation to realize that so many people were really just faking it!

Elizabeth, Thank you. Maybe I'll put the story up. It's only 500 words, so it would probably be a nice break from my usual rambles :) And I love the idea that art is self-expression shared. Yes, that's exactly it. Thank you.

Anonymous said...

Charles encapsulated the sentiment nicely: readers.
I would definitely like to have enough money whether from writing or my day work to choose if i want to retire or not.
But writing as a route to money: that's a non-winner to start with. IMO it'll never pay off, it's too hard and unpredictable.
If I can make a difference by my writing, whether by providing escapism or soul stirring ideas...that is a choice too.

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Literary Quote

It is worth mentioning, for future reference, that the creative power which bubbles so pleasantly in beginning a new book quiets down after a time, and one goes on more steadily. Doubts creep in. Then one becomes resigned. Determination not to give in, and the sense of an impending shape keep one at it more than anything.

Virginia Woolf