Tuesday, January 16, 2007

Leaving the Dream

Most of us have heard the Beatles single Paperback Writer, even if only as a Muzak cover while shopping for chinos in Target. The lyrics to this song are, in my opinion, the quintessential depiction of the myth of the paperback writer.

Paper back writer (paperback writer)
Dear Sir or Madam, will you read my book?
It took me years to write, will you take a look?
It's based on a novel by a man named Lear
And I need a job, so I want to be a paperback writer,
Paperback writer.

It's the dirty story of a dirty man
And his clinging wife doesn't understand.
His son is working for the Daily Mail,
It's a steady job but he wants to be a paperback writer,
Paperback writer.

Paperback writer (paperback writer)

It's a thousand pages, give or take a few,
I'll be writing more in a week or two.
I can make it longer if you like the style,
I can change it round but I want to be a paperback writer,
Paperback writer.

If you really like it you can have the rights,
It could make a million for you overnight.
If you must return it, you can send it here
But I need a break and I want to be a paperback writer,
Paperback writer.

Paperback writer (paperback writer)

Paperback writer - paperback writer
Paperback writer - paperback writer

Sounds like every query letter parody you’ve ever read, doesn’t it? It has all the elements: give me a break, I worked really hard on this, I can change it if you like, it could make you a million, let me please quit my job.

What I love about this is that it shows how widespread the myth of the paperback writer really is. It is so pervasive that a songwriter was able to write a pop song about the process that rose to number one and that was forty years ago. People still identify with it today. They can relate to this kind of dream.

And no wonder. If you think about it, this is a universal concept. At some point, everyone looks towards the horizon and thinks “just you wait.” We all want to believe that we have some secret (or not so secret) thing that makes us better than the people around us. We are all the secret god-kings of our own private universes and if you think I’m just talking about writers, then you have no idea how close to the surface absolute desperation lurks in the average man on the street.

But we are writers. We’ve read about quiet desperation and we know that we have the means to overcome it, not just in ourselves, but in those around us. That’s what the best kinds of art accomplish, after all – it transforms the mundane and mediocre and make them magically other. All we need is that chance, that opportunity, that lucky break.

You see how easy it is to buy into the myth? A couple of pretty sentences, the orchestra swells and suddenly you are the authorial equivalent of Luke Skywalker watching the twin suns of Tatooine set while life goes on somewhere else – someplace that you are not. It’s enough to make you sigh and want to move to Cozumel.

The truth is, however, that writing is just like every other job. If you are exceedingly lucky, you can find yourself in a decent situation that you (sort of) like, but doesn’t pay the rent. Or you can find yourself in a shitty situation that still doesn’t really pay the rent. Or you could find yourself in a position that doesn’t pay for much of anything at all.

Because you have chosen to follow the dream of the paperback writer, though, chances are that you will find yourself wrapped up in a newer, more adult, more neurotic version of the “get me out of here, I’m dying” dream that you had when you were in high school. The difference is that there is no graduation date built into life. You pretty much have to take things into your own hands and learn to stop complaining because you haven’t done anything but nobody has bothered to recognize your genius yet.

The important part about the myth of the paperback writer is recognizing it before it sets in. You are a writer. That means that you are expected to be self-conscious about your surroundings. You are practically instructed to be observant and to pay attention. And if you do not have the presence of mind to comprehend your situation as you lapse into an unintentionally ironic version of the mythic journey, there’s not a lot of hope for you.

But eventually, you will realize that following the myth of the paperback writer is the authorial equivalent of bukkake, with you as the victim. And you really have to ask: Why would you put yourself in that position?

So what is the alternative? The alternative is to work hard at your writing and get good. Don’t worry about the validation of the professionals. Put your work in the hands of the only people that matter – the readers. If you cannot do that directly, figure out a way to do that. Be creative and, if you cannot be sufficiently creative, then take the hint and pack it in.

If you cannot be part of the solution, then you are worse than just another part of the problem - you are a stereotype. And nobody wants to be a stereotype. More importantly, nobody wants to buy a book from someone who is indistinguishable from a poorly drawn version of a stereotype.