Tuesday, December 28, 2004

Writing On Writing

A lot of people ask me when my novel will be published. Well, first I have to finish writing it. Second, I have serious doubts that it ever will be published.

Many years ago I made an attempt to sell a collection of short stories. It was rejected in so many ways that I was impressed at the sheer number of ways that publishers and agents could come up with for saying No. A few years later I tried again, this time with a novel based on the story in my first play. No Again, and this time I couldn’t even get an agent interested in it. So I went back to writing plays and had the next two staged with success. Okay, I thought, it’s not my writing; it’s the market and I didn’t really understand how it worked. So I read all those books on How To Get Your Novel Published… and realized that if I wanted to make a living as a writer, I should be writing books on How To Get Published. But then, I’d have to get published in order to write that kind of stuff and… well, you get the idea. So I just continued to write when I could, held down a good job, and dreamed one day of writing the Great American Novel and retiring to a nice house in the tropics where I could write whatever I wanted. (That also became the basis of the story line in Can’t Live Without You, but that’s another story.)

As a matter of fact, I have had a book published. In 1991, three years after finishing my doctorate, one of my professors suggested I submit my thesis for publication since the subjects I’d written about had achieved a modicum of fame not only in the theatre but in the “real world.” He gave me a list of three publishers – none of them Big Names – and told me to send them copies of my abstract. I did, and within a week one of the publishers – a small company not based in New York – wrote back and said they were very interested to the point that they were offering me a contract based on the dissertation being published with a few revisions. The changes were made and the book was published in 1993. It sold fairly well, attracting the attention of some theatre scholars and one rather well-known actor/producer who ran a regional theatre company, and got some nice reviews. But it was a niche publication, and it never went beyond that first printing. The amount of the royalties that I received over the lifespan of the publication was enough to equal a month’s rent on the house I was living in at the time the book was published. It did establish me as a “published author and theatre scholar,” and I have since been asked to write articles for other publications based on my research. But it’s not a living.

I never expected it to be. I may have dreams, but I also know that even in the tumultuous world of publishing, I will never make the best-seller list. That’s not a disappointment to me. Why? Because I love writing, and I love doing it more than the business of trying to get someone else to read what I write. I have a dear friend who has written a long and carefully-crafted novel that is rich in historical fact, deep in character, and rich in well-crafted storytelling. He slaved over this labor of love for years and has since spent more time trying to get publishers and agents to read the story. He has sweated over letters of inquiry, abstracts, and excerpts to the point of exhaustion. But in all that time he has not found anyone who will even read more than just the first chapter. I know he accepts this as part of the challenge of writing, but I know the frustration of someone who has something to share and can’t get anyone to notice.

That bleak outlook for any writer has to be discouraging unless you remember the reason most writers write. It’s not for the money or the fame. I don’t know any good writer who says – or believes – that they do it because they think it’s a way to make a living. As my friend Robert Anderson, the author of such plays as Tea and Sympathy and I Never Sang for My Father, noted, “you can make a killing in writing, but you can’t make a living.” We do it because we love the process of exploration, of learning about the characters and the surprises they hold in store for us as we get to know them and through them discover ourselves. Bobby Cramer appeared to me one night on the island of Montserrat in 1994, and the more I’ve written about him, as seen through his eyes and those of Richard Barlow, his friend and narrator, the more I’ve learned about myself. In some ways he is my alter ego, and in some ways he is clearly not. And from the outset I never said to myself that the story would ever be a best-seller. I don’t care. The joy is in the writing, and the riches I have gained in learning about the complexities of love, growing up, and facing the realities of life have been their own reward.

Excuse me…I have to get back to work on the novel. I’m on page 764.