by a Not Entirely Anonymous Author
I spent an hour of my weekend at a cemetery on a sunny, windswept hilltop with a beautiful 360 egree view of Pennsylvania's rolling hills of farm and forest as my extended family interred the ashes of my mother's sister who passed away last winter. The impromptu service was lovely and charmingly hilarious--her husband wrote limericks to her for every birthday--and sad because her daughter read aloud an angry diatribe she'd written to her mother. (It was the first time I'd ever heard a eulogy include the word, "bitch.")
That evening, twelve of us walked into a local restaurant, and a whole table of people leaped up to give me hugs. My family thought they were fans who had recognized me, The Famous Author. They were impressed by what they perceived as an encounter between a celebrity author and eager readers.
(Why they would assume nobody would know me in the town where I grew up--I dunno. And in fact, my "fans" were actually a group of writer friends who serendipitously happened to be in the same town--where there's really only one restaurant where you don't receive your food through a window from a gum-cracking teenager. You Know Who You Are, and I am among your fans, too. It was my great pleasure to see you.)
You guessed it. My moment of family fame was soon balanced by its opposite--the yin to its yang, the lightning bolt of reality, the blast that sent me, the human cannonball, into the bog of ridiculousness. Within minutes of being seated with my family, a mentally challenged cousin announced she was writing a book.
And in the very same sentence, she asked me to help get her an agent. Like a crowd watching a tennis match, the entire clan turned their heads and looked at me expectantly. It should be easy, right? For me, the lucky one, to help my relative get published?
I gave the standard, one-minute talk on How to Get an Agent. (Write the book first.) Instead of the hour talk on the same subject. (Write the book, then get a ruthless critique partner . . . ) Or the two-hour version. (Nevermind. You know it, because if you're reading this blog you've probably given this speech yourself.)
Her next lob: "I have 90 pages. How do I know when the story's over?"
Well, I have learned not to make a snide remark in response to this question. Or laugh. But instead of talking to her about Aristotle's three-part plot or the intersection of climax and the arc of a character as well as the link between theme and setting, I took a deep breath and said, "You'll need 300 pages."
From across the long table, she gave me a brisk, can-do nod. "I can do that." And the whole table relaxed.
This, of course, is the public perception of what a writer does. Writing a book isn't much different from writing a postcard home from Niagara Falls, just longer. For the benefit of our dinnertime audience, I have her the cheerful, supportive pep talk. "Enjoy your story! Write every day! And read, read, read!" (Which might work in the long run--if only she actually read books. But no, she only wants to write one.)
This interlude is part of any author's job. Smiling when people say, "I'd write a book if only I had the time." Or looking politely interested when someone says, "Oh, I have a story for you! I'll share the profits if you'll just type it up." As if time, the ability to hunt-and-peck, and trolling for ideas among cocktail party guests were all that's standing between anyone and the NYTimes list. (It happened to me again on Friday night when I attended a museum lecture. At the reception afterwards, an out-of-town curator actually said the words to me.)
The almost universal misconception of what writers do doesn't make me angry. Or even exasperated anymore. In fact, I've started to enjoy it in a perverse kind of way. Did you see the ad in the Sunday NYTBR this weekend by the self-pubbed, Xlibris mystery author? Two mis-spelled words in the ad! How deliciously delightful!
But it's also humbling. The public perception is that we have no particular skills, no education, no constant quest for self-improvement. No determination to ignore the relentless negativity that--by necessity--pervades the industry. No talent for assessing an ever-changing marketplace to find a niche. We make no heart-breaking decisions to toss ideas we've struggled with for years because their time has passed. We simply have more time--and luck--on our hands than the average bear.
What should we do about it, my fellow writers? Nothing but smile. Smile and nod. Agree with everyone, because otherwise you will look like . . . a bitch. And somebody will say so at your graveside.
The upside is that it will jazz up your funeral. And funerals can be dreadfully dull sometimes, right? Attended any good ones lately?