“Writing,” as a friend of mine wrote recently,1 “is a beggarly business.”
The impression of most people among the unthinking public is that many writers can support themselves with their writing and often do so very handsomely. This may be true of some nonfiction writers who have acquired expertise in an area of general public interest (e.g., political affairs, diet and weight loss, home improvement, business success), are skilled at marketing, and supplement their book and article sales with speaking engagements, videos and podcasts, T-shirts and ball caps, and other collateral. But for the fiction writer, regardless of genre, the reality is less rosy. Except for a handful who are exceptionally talented and exceptionally lucky, are still good at marketing, and write novels that happen to tease the zeitgeist, most writers see only modest sales and never quit their day jobs.
So why do we do it? If it’s not the money, is it for recognition? But, in this business, there’s not much fame where there is no hope of fortune. Then what drives us to devote our free time, which most normal people spend with family, friends, and hobbies, to sitting hunched over a keyboard, reeling out lines of prose, agonizing over it, polishing it, and walking the gauntlet of rejection to see it published?
For some of us, it’s just an itch. Our brains—my brain, at least—are structured so that we live through tinkering with language. We have a thought and immediately put it into a formula of words, then pause, repeat it to ourselves, change a word here and there for better fit, repeat the whole thing again, fix another phrase … continuing until it works with neat economy and subtle elegance. We walk through life hammering out epigrams, soliloquies, and declamations.2 We visit a new city or historic site and immediately think how to encapsulate and phrase it as background for a scene. We read an unusual name and savor it for a new character. And this is just when we have no book in hand.
When we do have a book on the front burner, it nags us like a spoiled child. The story wants to get out. The characters live as shadows to our everyday thoughts. Bits of action, bits of dialogue float up at the most inopportune times and demand to be written down. And after a day’s writing task, words come back to haunt us: the awkward word in a passage that needs to be fixed, the appropriate word that springs up to fix it. Writing a novel is like living a second, fantasy life in parallel with the mundane lives that everyone else leads. The itch.
But aside from this mental condition, which borders on a form of obsessive-compulsive disorder, why do we do it? We could tell ourselves that the book isn’t going to be marketable, that there’s no future in the effort it will require, and that with sufficient self-control we can go out and have a life. We can put soothing lotion on the itch instead of scratching it. … So why don’t we?
Because, deep down, each one of us wants to be immortal. Even if the novel we’re working on isn’t likely to be marketable in this economy at this time, we have faith in its power to someday find readers. Deep down, we believe we’re really pretty good at this writing thing. It’s not exactly vanity, not the “me, me, see me” that may afflict a popular singer or leading actor. It’s not our persons who will be celebrated long after we’re dead and buried, but the story that we’ve loved, worked to shape as something separate from us, breathed life into, and brought to the world.3
When the world that faces you every day seems cold and indifferent, when the rejection letters pile up, when friends and family start shaking their heads, we retreat into another fantasy: that we are a Cervantes or Shakespeare in hiding. Posterity will seek us out and celebrate us. Okay, it’s a dream. But it has a kernel of truth.
What, in this world, really lasts? A month after we’re dead, our medals and trophies may end up on EBay. A bronze plaque in our honor will be stolen for scrap value. Our names cut an inch deep on a granite slab will weather away in a few hundred years. Even the Pyramids are crumbling grain by grain.
Good works seldom outlast the memory of friends. Children grow up, go their own ways, and stop telling stories about mothers and fathers, let alone their grandparents. Memories of great-grandparents disappear entirely.
Even works of art eventually disappear. Statues are defaced and buried. Paint fades while canvas rots. Book paper disintegrates with time or burns at the whim of politics and religion.
Stories abide and live on—not in the printer’s impression or the pen strokes, but in the essence, the tale, the character in action, the fascination we all have with people who live only in our imaginations. The stories told by Homer, Sophocles, Virgil, Chaucer, Cervantes, Shakespeare—we remember them even though the original manuscripts have long since turned to dust. And now there is hope that digital bits, simply because they are so portable and copyable, will kick around on hard drives and bubble memories and storage systems yet undreamed for at least as long and perhaps longer.
The work of philosophers goes in and out of fashion, becoming a subject for academics to study more than for the average reader to enjoy. Who really expects to read Aristotle to understand natural history or Plato to understand ethics? We read them as background, as part of our cultural history. We read them to understand the evolution of our society. We read them because to be ignorant of them would be shameful. But we don’t—or most of us don’t—read them with the excitement of discovery, with delight at the intellectual secrets they reveal.
The work of earlier historians and scientists is not read as revelation so much as source material. Their observations and conclusions become picked over, compared, annotated, and adjusted by later scholars. History is a moving target, and every age creates its own image of the past according to the dictates of culture. Again, the average person might read Suetonius or Gibbon, Galileo or Pepys because they had first-hand knowledge and because to be ignorant of them would be shameful. But we moderns always check their reporting against other, perhaps conflicting, perhaps better situated sources.
Stories simply live on, and a young person can pick up and read Homer’s tales with as much enthusiasm as any reader of the last 2,700 years. The text may go through multiple translations, but unlike the surgical work of historical scholars, the work of translators is an act of love, trying to give the story new life in a faithful rendition in a new language. Think of Robert Fagles’s excellent translations of The Iliad and The Odyssey: Fagles stands back, and Homer speaks clearly in the best modern English.
Stories are the only things that last. And that’s why we writers spend so much time on them. Not because of the money, but because of the magic. The story may sit on a bookshelf in the living room unread for twenty, thirty, perhaps a hundred years. Then, one day, a child will wander in and pull the book down, open it, and fall in love. The story will be just as alive and vital as the day it was written.4
This ability to speak across time, to become a real time traveler, is part of the fascination. We know that our own books may be languishing as paperbacks slowly turning brown on the bottom shelf at the used bookstore, or dawdling along as the 2,304,558th most popular seller on Amazon.com. But they’re not dead yet. The magic might still happen.
That thought is probably silly. It’s probably just a sad fantasy. But it’s a stronger grasp on immortality than most people will get.
1. Kate Campbell, who blogs at Kate Campbell’s Word Garden, in an email during our editing of her debut novel Adrift in the Sound. Our email collection will soon be published as a Kindle Single titled “Between the Sheets: An Intimate Exchange About Writing, Editing, and Publishing.”
2. Yes, you’re reading one right now.
3. And really, it’s the same for the best of the singers and actors. They want to fade into the background and let the song or the performance stand as a piece of art. But it’s easier for them to be dazzled by the bright lights.
4. That’s how I discovered much of the fiction of the 1930s and ’40s, by trying the books in my father’s den—almost always without first asking for a recommendation.