“When one is trying to do something beyond his known powers, its useless to seek the approval of friends. Friends are at their best in moments of defeat.”
Together like garden snakes,they contorted, moaned, gasped, clenched and throbbed and eternity was theirs. Ernie had found what Cervantes and Milton had only sought. He waited only for the fillings in his teeth to melt."
"Naked Came The Stranger" Penelope Ashe
I am writing the first draft of this in my back yard on a picnic table. I am writing this on an IBM 560e Thinkpad notebook built sometime around the end of the Clinton administration. I intercepted it on its way to the Salvation Army when a co-worker waved it at me and asked if I wanted it. It was built before the invention of USB ports, thumb drives, CD burners or wireless. The floppy drive is busted. The memory is dicky, so sometimes it’ll give a little hiccup that sends your latest masterpiece into the twilight zone and it cannot be recovered by any technical trickery. When that happens, you start from the bottom. Considering "Moby Dick" was handwritten on paper with a dip pen, I can't complain much.
The old 560e is my axe. It’s the kind of axe that fills an apprentice writer with dreams of glory. I go to Best Buy, I go to Walmart. I look at the shiny machines, and look at the cheapest one, about $500 and say “That one. When I get the dough for that short story the Mammoth anthology bought, and I get my first royalty check for my “Mortal Engines” book, that’s the one I’ll get. A couple of more books out there and I’ll get something really sharp and my day will come." So.
I wrote the publisher of my brave little book. Its been a year. Royalty check? Any news? Well, kid. We sent out the royalty checks already. If you didn’t get any news it’s because there isn’t any.
My ego translates this as:
Nobody bought your shitty book.
Nobody even wants to buy your shitty book.
Nobody will ever buy your shitty book.
Now, I like this editor. This is a kind person who took a chance on me, has always encouraged me and gave me my first big break. It’s a dirty job sometimes to give the news to the hopeful, to be the doctor in the doorway with the x-ray in his hand. “I think we should talk in my office, please. Close the door.”
Sitting in the backyard, wondering if the June bugs will devour the little peach tree again this year. The screen is jumping threateningly on my elderly IBM 560e. Type faster, boyo.
Back on the Internet, trying to get a clue. I check the latest book of the best selling writer my publisher has in the stable; no names. I read some stuff from her book. I read stuff from my book. I look at her book. I look again at my book. I look at her book. I like my book better. Of course everybody thinks their kid is the smartest kid, and her stuff is fine, nothing wrong with it. Better than fine, hell, she's got real royalties coming in from people who really like her stuff. Probably has a hell of a laptop too. Yeah, but. . . but. . .
It doesn’t knock me on my ass, like Bukowski or Angela Carter or even my own stuff sometimes on a lucky day. It's Spice Girls. It’s not Jimi Hendrix, setting fire to a screaming Fender Stratocaster, while people run down the aisles bleeding from the ears.
See - I want to be that guy.
There is a devil who lives on my shoulder. There was an angel once too, I think. He got tired. I look at the story I’m working on now, and just when it gets to that part that really tears me up –
“Nobody likes that shitty book you wrote.” He says.
“It's okay.” I say “This one’s better.”
“Naw.” He says. “It sucks too.”
In his autobiographical craft book “On Writing” Stephen King recalls his early days and advises the apprentice writer not to think too much about being published in the beginning, because that can get discouraging. Your goal in the beginning, says the best selling popular fiction writer of all time, is to get better rejection slips. At first (this was before email) you get xeroxed chips of paper with some sort of prosaic BDSM boiler plate message like: “Thank you for your submission. We’re sorry it does not meet our present needs.” When you get better, the xerox chips have hand written notes scribbled in the margins “Too wordy!” or “Predictable ending.” But hey – handwritten. That’s genuine attention. The guy read it thoughtfully enough to know why it sucks. Tomorrow the world.
“Yes, but –“ says the devil on my shoulder “Nobody wants your shitty book.”
We all know Vincent Van Gogh. Vincent sold one painting in his lifetime, and that was to his brother for forty bucks, probably because Theo felt sorry for him. His stuff was just too weird to hang in somebody’s dining room. If there is such a thing as reincarnation, Van Gogh was reincarnated as a twentieth century American science fiction writer, one who at least shared his karma. Phillip K Dick was a tenacious hack who cranked out 121 short stories and thirty six novels. He slogged out his life in obscurity, dire poverty and occasional mental breakdowns for the sci fi and horror pulps, waiting for his big break that never came. In 1963 the Scott Meredith Literary Agency gave him the kiss-off, dumped all of his unsold stories back on him, and cleaned him off their client list. Don’t let the door hit your ass on the way out, buddy.
“Nobody bought his shitty books either.” I say to the devil on my shoulder.
He moved on to that big typewriter in the sky in 1982. After his death, “Blade Runner”, Total Recall”, “Paycheck”, “Scanners”, “The Matrix Trilogy” and “Minority Report” were all made from his short stories. Not even his novels – his short stories! Stories he wrote when he and his wife Jan were reduced to eating dog food.
Now on the other end of the rainbow, the end where bluebirds sing down there in the Valley of The Jolly Green, we have Penelope Ashe.
In 1968 "demure Long Island housewife" Penelope Ashe wrote a book called “Naked Came The Stranger”. It was a "Big Money" blockbuster and rode the New York Times bestseller list for weeks churning out fantastic loads of money. Hollywood beat down her door and in 1975 the movie by Radley Metzer came out in spite of a small problem.
The small problem came out at the height of the book’s popularity, around the time Phillip Dick was still exploring the possibilities of Gaines Burgers. David Frost (“Frost/Nixon”, that David Frost) scored an interview with the fiesty Penelope Ashe who had been doing the rounds of interview shows, mostly on the radio. On the David Frost show, while the orchestra played “A Pretty Girl is Like a Melody” nine guys in suits came out one at a time.
In fact this was only a piece of the real Penelope Ashe. The entire Penelope Ashe was more like five women, and nineteen men, 24 writers in all, coordinated by Mike McGrady, an editor at “Newsday”. McGrady and his bunch were convinced that if you loaded a book with enough graphic sex, regardless of anything else, and promoted it like crazy, it would be a "Big Money" best seller, along the lines of Harold Robbins and Jacqueline Susann. They each wrote portions of a loosely conceived plot, independently of each other, resulting in a kind of goofy hash but with plenty of sex. The hardest part for McGrady was that some of the chapters were too good and had to be dumbed down to Big Money quality he was trying to imitate. Explaining the hoax in the book "Stranger Than Naked" McGrady said he laid down the rules to his staff "There will be an unremitting emphasis on sex. Also true excellence in writing will be quickly blue pencilled into oblivion."
“You're being an asshole about this, kid.” Says the devil on my shoulder. “Some folks got it. Some folks don't.”
“Whoa, whoa, whoa.” I say. “Back up a second. It doesn’t work that way.”
Failure does not equal defeat. Rejection does not equal failure or mediocrity. The problem you have with figuring out if you’re no good or just unappreciated is that creativity comes from the same murky swamp that spirituality does. Both defy measurement. Both are approaches towards that kind of truth which is often indistinguishable from insanity. The search for that slippery truth, whether by art or religion is a choice between tried and true formulas and improvisation. The formulas will take you so far and no farther. To get past where the road turns dark takes genuine faith, guts and honest friends. To have faith, you have to be willing to pay the price. The price is this: you have to build an ark.
You build your ark knowing the voice in your head might either be God or just a shortage of lithium and when that last animal gets loaded in, all you can do is wait and see if it rains. You have to understand one thing - the rain is not your problem or even your business. Your job is to build the ark. Specifically, your job is to be crazy enough to build an ark. To build an ark, you have to have the special madness of a person who can conceive an ark and see it through to the end, and that means you have to be willing to fail. Rejection is part of the deal you’ve signed on for. If you're going to risk it all, its better to go down swinging for the fences.
"So what are you doing now?" says the devil who lives on my shoulder.
"Just stuff." I say.
"What stuff?" he says.
"I'm building an ark." I say.
"No, you're not. You’re writing another shitty story." he says.
"So, some arks are made out of words." I say.
"No one will read it." he says.
"I suppose." I say.
"So whattaya?" he says.