Tuesday, September 15, 2009

Schwab's syndrome

A few months ago I was out with old friends and we exchanged notes on our careers. I was just then between day jobs and busy claiming titles and writing articles for Demand Studios to make a little extra money. I've stopped doing that since I now, thankfully, have a new day job, and thanks to its paycheck can now write what I want to write rather than, for example, writing on the titles Demand has to offer. Like the history of Biwa pearls (not that that wasn't interesting).

My friends said "why don't I write a book." Instead of all sorts of little articles here and there, and blogging, you know.

Well, yes. Why don't I. (I did write a novel which earned me over forty rejections before I decided simply to post it here. Then there is what seems a basement full of boxes of unfinished and painful crud.) It seems to me that there are only a few paths to that nirvana, a career of book-writing, and people who are not writers understandably have no clue what these paths look like and what it takes to traverse them. You've got to parcel out your time so, and of course your first handicap is that you are unknown. It's the known people who get to live the nirvana of writing what they like with the guarantee that it will come out, in thick respectable book form, and see daylight in stores. They aren't struggling with the whole time-wasting, opportunity cost thing. They aren't asking, research first? Queries first? Marketing first? Write to a passion -- I've seen books published just on certain kinds of apples from certain states -- and then hunt for a publisher, while your topic perhaps goes years out of date, or perhaps never could have interested anybody but you? Catch hold of something newsworthy, trendy, and face stiff competition while working on something personally unfulfilling? Build up unrelated, workaday credentials first, so as to be able to sell yourself?

Or wait to be discovered? That, I think, is the prime path most successful writers follow. The secondary path is that followed by academics, who finish their degrees, and labor to get published because the wolf is at the door until they do. They can't earn teaching tenure without a Ph.D. and a book. And incidentally, the universities where they teach as adjuncts do nothing to help them birth a book into the world. I was amazed and disheartened when I learned this. Professor Saint, who wrote her dissertation at Yale and then gets a job at the University of Illinois, must spend her summer driving all over the midwest doing original research for the book she hopes might come out from Princeton University Press in three years. And is she really all that interested in how the Choctaw chronicled their wars with pictographs on deer hides, or would she rather be writing bodice ripper romances (or reading them), or staying at home looking after her new baby? The limitations of time are so ... absolute. If you are remotely an artist, you want to choose to do what you must do. And what books live in people's memories, in the libraries of a civilization? Sometimes it's just one, written by someone who had only a quill and parchment, and died at fifty-three. Frankenstein.

But this academic path, I was saying, is the secondary one to publication. The main path is the path of suddenly getting yourself discovered. "I think we've all got Schwab's syndrome," I said to my friends those months ago. They blinked at me and I had to hurry to try and refresh their memories. Schwab's was the drugstore in Los Angeles where, legend has it, the beautiful young Lana Turner was spotted by a Hollywood agent who instantly plucked her from soda-counter obscurity to send her on her way to a career, fame, and riches. It's amazing how often that tale repeats itself in our culture. Pick a writer: Lauren Hillenbrand wrote an article for American Heritage on the racehorse Seabiscuit, which someone discovered. Book and movie deal followed. And all the while she had Chronic Fatigue Syndrome! Pick anybody: every issue of People magazine alone seems to have some rags to riches story of the ordinary person who started out in a basement, a garage, with nothing more than a hobby, an idea, a sewing machine, a charitable cause -- and rose to success, artistic or business fulfillment, and a new life just slopping over with philanthropy and leisure time as well. But they've got to get discovered. Someone else has to choose to make that phone call, write that email, approach the leggy blond at the soda counter.

I just love how the discovered ones are astonished and humbled by it. They never have any explanation of how did you do this. Julie Powell of Julie and Julia fame is one. I love the scene in the movie (no really) when she comes home from her day job and her husband tells her she has over sixty messages on her phone answering machine. She listens, dewy eyed with delight. "This is Mr. Editor from Random House, this is so and so from Super Agency, do you have representation?" Another is Molly of Orangette. She now has a FAQ page to her delicious website. To the question how did you get a book deal, a column in Bon Appetit, and a literary agent, she answers:

"The short answer is this: I got a book deal and magazine work because of my blog. My agent and my editors, at Simon & Schuster and at Bon Appétit and elsewhere, found me more or less directly through Orangette. I have been incredibly lucky. Crazy-lucky. I break a sweat just thinking about it.

"My best advice is just to write. Start a blog, keep a journal - whatever works for you. Just keep writing, and have fun with it. Read up on book proposals and literary agencies, research other books and writers in your field, work hard, and stick your neck out. Definitely stick your neck out. And keep your fingers crossed."

That's it. Okay, Molly. Stick your neck out? How so? I once submitted a manuscript to Princeton University Press. I forget what it was about. I was young. And I only just learned that you could submit your own blog to Blogger's "Blogs of Note" feature -- which is where I first found Orangette -- the day after Blogger closed self-nomination to that feature! Did she stick her neck out and nominate herself? Or was she discovered, properly?

No matter. On her FAQ page she is writing in the voice of someone who has already had Schwab's syndrome, and been cured of it by seeing it work in her life. I am close to fifteen years her senior, I can proudly remember receiving my first rejection slip from a major publisher when I was about twelve, and I'm thinking: you know what? There may come a time when you need to accept that you're not going to be discovered. Not in time to make any real money, not in time to help you sort out how you should best spend your writing day, your research day, your marketing day, your query day. It may be time to get up from the soda counter, walk out Schwab's doors, and say: I need a paycheck. I was here ten years ago -- I was here twenty years ago -- and I have no intention of being here next year, or ten years from now. It may be time to acknowledge, although it is a bit scary, that if a writer has any talent, what he chooses to write will in itself be valuable because it's his. Frankenstein, books on Choctaw pictographs, recipes, another mom blog. "Do what works for you and have fun with it." You may have to acknowledge, I know what I'm worth and it's more than a stool at the soda fountain.

All this matters at the moment because I've got a part-time day job which might, might, turn full time in a few months. In the past, full time work outside the home has not been congenial to me. (Both were office jobs, to be sure, and strangely, I detest office jobs. Who knew retail is preferable?) I like this one. But I also liked the pattern of life all summer, when I wrote and researched all day, albeit on Biwa pearls and pewter making, -- when I had a taste of the life that the Discovered Ones get to indulge in. She now writes full time. Well, isn't that nice. The writer who worries about parcelling out the opportunity costs of a writing day is bound to worry about the entire days and weeks lost to full time employment. Gad. Employment as a problem, and in this economy! Needless to say, I've long been accustomed to my husband's support.

What's funny is that just when possible full time work in the wine industry, which is what I wanted to return to if anything, looms before me, I've also had a brief refresher course in just what a black hole success in publishing can be. In the course of one recent month, I submitted to two properly printed publications, legitimate magazines, and received a yes from both of them. A yes -- and then nothing. I had forgotten how long and slowly and silently the time passes after the thrill of acceptance from a busy editor. And you need money during all that time, too. And busy editor doesn't necessarily have any clout, doesn't necessarily know anyone who might want to discover you. When I first began blogging someone told me how to use traffic feed engines to find out where my blog visitors were coming from. I had hits from New York City, from publishing houses I think, and my heart leaped up. Editors, trawling for content, for discoveries! It's all right, nothing happened.

The black hole magazines that said yes are called Relish and Pith. If you see my recipes on African desserts in one, or my review of Mark Twain's novel on Joan of Arc in the other, why -- you know more than I do. Maybe you should write that book. That is, if I haven't, in a way, beaten you to it.

  • If you liked this: Paper writing, random thoughts -- and note here how wrong I was, in February 2009, about my fellow citizens' reacting to political events.

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