“Why and How to be a Writer” by Therese Fowler
Location: a writing conference, where I am inside the conference hotel’s Grand Ballroom, a long, wide, high-ceilinged room so spacious that the Hindenburg might fit comfortably alongside a commercial airliner. Countless rows of metal chairs with upholstered seats face a small stage at one end of the room.
There are some 8,000 writers and writing professionals in attendance—aspiring writers, published authors, editors and publishers of lit journals and small presses, writing program administrators and teachers. Judging by the chairs, all 8,000 are anticipated for the reading that’s about to take place. The five authors who will read have all won or been finalists for a major writing award. Their names are near-legendary in certain circles, but I confess I have read only one of the books by only one of the authors, who I suddenly notice are right now seated four rows in front of me.
Though I am a former writing teacher with an MFA, a well-published author whose books are sold around the world, an author with another book about to be released and one more under contract—in short, a working professional writer—it’s hard not to feel lesser to these five authors in every way. They are winners of major awards (NBCC, Pulitzer, MacArthur). They are celebrated and revered. They have a Hindenburg-sized ballroom reserved for their reading, whereas the biggest venues I’ve appeared in to date could seat perhaps one hundred. If they are “writers,” what, then, am I? “Award-winning” is not part of my bio, unless you include finalist and runner-up, and even then we are not talking tall cotton. Still, my novels are finding readers, and I’m making a living from my work; if I am feeling lesser, how must the still-unpublished writers feel?
These five authors’ books have been labeled as important, relevant, exemplary, even transcendent. As each takes the podium in turn and reads his or her work, I am impressed. Surprisingly, though, I’m not any more impressed than I have been by many other authors whose books go unrecognized. Why, and how, did these works rise to the top of the heap?
When the fifth author has finished, the audience is told that books will be sold and autographed at the other end of the ballroom. Please, we are asked, allow the authors a couple of minutes to make their way to the signing table. Unsaid is this: they are sure to be hampered by eager throngs who want to greet, to thank, to congratulate, to share for a moment the rarified air and light and energy that surrounds such authors.
I’ve met many authors. Some came to visit the MFA program where I was a student. Some were on book tour. Some were participants at literary festivals. Writers go to see other writers because we seek inspiration. We seek affirmation. We seek validation, and we want to learn. We go because we love the author or the book, because we love writing, because we love stories and words. Here in the ballroom, as I get in line to buy the latest book by, for me, the most impressive of the five I’ve just seen and heard, I’m thinking about what I might say when I have the book signed. Will I self-identify as an author? I did on meeting Joyce Carol Oates, and she wrote down my name and my book’s title and promised to look for it. I did once with Alice Walker; she took my hands and wished me blessings.
I buy the book, then turn and move towards the signing table—and stop short when I see that four of the five authors, including the one whose book I am holding, have gone. Perhaps there’s a good reason for this apparent bad form. I give the benefit of the doubt, and later, when I see the author whose book I bought now sitting at the bar, I decide to stop. I say, Great job, and I say, I bought your book, and I say, I was really disappointed that you left so quickly afterward that I didn’t get it signed. The author says, Oh, sorry, in a tone that doesn’t convince, and then, a clear afterthought, Thanks for buying the book. I nod, but say, Un-cool. Just so you know.
Un-cool because, in this author’s shoes, I’d now invite the reader to get the book, and I’d sign it, and then I’d buy a round of drinks for everyone in the bar just because.
With this thought I’m reminded that I’m not lesser at all.
The writing life is difficult, the publishing world vast and fickle, the literary community hard to comprehend, let alone penetrate. It’s difficult—oh, my, is it ever—to hold on to those things that compel you to put down in words the stories in your head. Will they be undervalued, dismissed? Will you be? What if you are? Is it your problem, or theirs? How do you grow a skin thick enough to withstand a bad review? A skin thick enough to allow you to say to a supposed superstar, Un-cool?
You perfect your craft, then tell your stories the best way you can. You take the good with the bad. You tell yourself, opinions are not facts. You refuse to compete. You value yourself. You say, I am a writer.