©2017, George J. Irwin. All rights reserved.
Not long ago, I tripped over an online listing for an event featuring new and established writers, each of whom would have an opportunity to share something that they had begun as part of a workshop. I didn't have plans for that night so I wandered over to listen to what turned out to be a wide spectrum of perspectives and styles. Every writer had something interesting to convey. All of the pieces were touching in their own way. I was really glad that I attended.
As a fellow writer, I wanted to at least say hello to each of the participants, which was really easy because I genuinely liked every single thing that was read. I also wanted to meet the hosts, who were excited to bring this first iteration of this process to life. I had expected that nearly the entire audience would be people that the writers knew, plus a few who had wandered into the venue not knowing that there would be a "salon" going on. Oh, and me. I was close to spot on about that.
What I wasn't close to spot on about were the questions I was asked by nearly everyone that I spoke to:
"Are you published? Are you looking to be published?"
These queries made sense. Had I thought a little more clearly about this, I would have remembered that publication is the typical goal of writing, be it poetry, prose or play. I also would have recalled that I am a published author in the traditional sense, given my submissions to a specialty magazine within the hobby of model railroading, plus two one-pagers in a larger magazine in the same hobby... which actually were paid pieces. And had that occurred, I wouldn't have gotten myself into an uncomfortable position.
But no, I was thinking of my non-model railroading work; the essays, short fiction, travelogues, and the "mood pieces" that populate my online writing presence. When taken collectively, the writers who appeared at this salon covered much of the same territory, each with their own "idiosyncratic detail" as author William Least Heat Moon put it to his Master Class so many years ago now. So it's not surprising that I would be thinking about those pieces that I have crafted over the years.
And, to me, anyway, my answer made perfect sense.
"No, I've not had my work published, except on my own website, and publication isn't really my goal."
I guess I should not have been surprised by the reaction I received when I said this. I was looked at as if I had three heads.
"Well, why wouldn't you want to be published?"
Because, well, I didn't think that I wanted to be.
It occurred to me later that I had probably offended some if not all of the people who asked the question, "Are you published?" Writers generally do want to be published, and for me to say no and that I was not worried about this was almost a direct challenge to their ambition—if not a complete invalidation of it. Ouch, George, that really stung. I don't think you're going to be asked to their next event.
Yet, it is how I felt at the time.
That doesn't mean that I wouldn't like to be published. And I was born at the right time to do it.
Just a few decades ago, if you couldn't get a publisher interested in your manuscript, pretty much the only choice you had was called a "vanity press." I still remember hearing radio commercials for what was perhaps the largest of these firms, Vantage Press. The business model was simple: you needed to pay the vanity press to publish your book, and you were responsible for selling it. And good luck with that. You needed a lot of money and a material amount of space: if I remember correctly, the minimum press run was five hundred copies. That's a lot to store in a garage, which is usually where the print run went, from which it would never emerge. Book stores wouldn't stock vanity press books, reviewers wouldn't review them and the rest of the industry wouldn't pay any attention. And thus the name "vanity press," considered to be powered by vanity, not talent.
Starting in the late 1990s, the vanity press model was irreparably broken by what became known as "print on demand." Coupled with the efficiencies of the Internet, it became possible to publish far fewer copies than a traditional printing-press-based business required to make its (rather healthy) profits. The risk was still entirely with the author, but it was on the order of a few hundred dollars instead of numbers with commas in them. Yet as little as one copy of a book could be published, and with digital storage, it would never go "out of print."
That idea fascinated me, and I started to daydream about it.
My daydreaming came to an abrupt and violent halt when a furious argument ensued about how naïve I was about this whole concept. I was told in no uncertain terms that sure, I could author a book and have it published by one of these companies, but that was just the beginning. I would still have to lay it out, I would still have to market it, I would still have to do the publicity, and how did I really expect to be able to sell even one copy of a book of my own writing when I had a day job and a family? Did I have any concept at all of how unrealistic and stupid this idea was?
I was angry, but mostly I was crushed. So much so that I stopped writing entirely for a while, except for my model railroading material, which never was part of that daydream.
What was the worst thing about that argument, though, is that it didn't have to happen.
I wasn't looking for a best-seller and a book tour and movie rights.
I only wanted to leave a legacy.
I wanted my children, and their children, to have something from me that they could physically hold. I wanted my friends to have something to remember me by. I thought that at most I might be able to cross-sell a few copies to the people who read my model railroading material. All in all, I would probably need less than fifty total copies of a book.
And the window was open for that to happen.
Within a couple of years of that argument, that window closed, for good. When first introduced, Internet-based self-publishing was impossibly inexpensive—impossible for the companies involved to make any kind of profit, that is. Those few firms that survived now also charge prices with commas in them and market any number of additional services. A non-trivial percentage of the remaining players are owned by traditional publishing houses. It's an effective technique to generate revenue from authors that they have no intention of ever publishing themselves; and if by some miracle something in that risk-free (for them) distribution chain becomes a relative best-seller, they can flip it to one of their own imprints. That happens very, very infrequently.
It took me longer than I care to admit to get over being crushed by this assault on my aspiration, and the fact that my own self-doubt kept me from acting on it anyway when the opportunity was available. I believed at the time that the intention was not to hurt me but that's not how it felt.
Eventually I realized that perhaps the daydream wasn't the point.
The writing was.
The having written was.
My all-time favorite author, Jean Shepherd, said it best, and with unmistakable directness: "Can you imagine 4,000 years passing, and you're not even a memory? Think about it, friends. It's not just a possibility. It is a certainty."
I've now learned first hand that legacies, however well intended, are subject to the recipient's understanding and acceptance. My mother found photos in the garage after my father passed away, and not knowing who anyone in the images was, simply and unceremoniously threw them out. The same could easily happen to my printed books.
Which brings me back to having written.
As long as we have walked this earth, there has been among us a desire to tell stories. We presume that it existed before we knew how to write them down. It is a part of who we are.
For some of us, that desire is stronger than we can imagine.
Years ago, no, decades ago, I heard a one-liner from the stand-up comedian and author Louie Anderson which I've never forgotten. "Excuse me for sweating," he said, "but if I don't, I'll explode."
That's how I feel about writing. If I don't, I'll explode.
It kind of goes like this...
You're hurting, George. Let it out. Don't be afraid to write what you feel. It doesn't have to hurt anyone else. You don't have to show anyone if you don't want to. Maybe it'll come out as something worth sharing, but if it doesn't, that's alright. Just write.
That was a great bit of dialogue there that you just overheard, wasn't it. There is just the place for it in a story that you've been thinking of. Maybe that's just the catalyst you need to get started. Yes, it's been years since you've had the idea and it's not really time-sensitive. If you can't get to it all right now, that's alright. But don't lose the idea. Just write.
Wow, this is really beautiful. It's hard to believe that there is something like this for all of us. But not all of us will see it. Share it through writing. Give a word picture of what you're seeing and feeling about it. If no one reads it, that's alright. Someone might. Just write.
If I do just write, and finish what I call an "installment," there is a certain feeling that comes from deep inside, that, although I am a writer, I find difficult to describe. It is part satisfaction, part joy, part accomplishment, and a non-trivial amount of relief. I often find it hard to sleep if it's late at night and I have finished a piece. I can't help but rejoice in its completion, even if it's one of my darker writings.
I don't think this reaction is simply an ego trip, though certainly I require enough self-confidence to write anything at all and enough intestinal fortitude to be willing to share what I've produced.
Even so, there is the rare occasion when I feel that I had very little to do with the finished product which winds up in front of me. The words just flow, at almost a faster pace than I can keep up. I think that I'm just channeling on behalf of Some Greater Power, although I'll never really know this. I know or know of others who have felt this way. Then, I am grateful that I've been selected to bring a message to the world, or more likely, to just one person who needed it.
While I do own what I have written, though, I do not own the meaning that is drawn from it by the reader. In 2004, the singer/ songwriter Anna Nalick recorded "Breathe (2AM)" in which she describes what it's like to write a song (something I wish I could do well). Her verse is the closest I've ever seen anywhere to how I feel about having written and shared something...
2 AM and I'm still awake, writing a song
I know I've done this with what other people have written. Besides the obligatory analysis of famous authors' work, a task I absolutely abhorred (having to do Heart of Darkness six different times in my academic career didn't help this), there is my more mundane ability to completely misinterpret the composer's intended meaning of a popular song. I know that I'll use the lyrics however I want to, and so it is with how anyone else reads what I write—that's only fair.
And I might leave a legacy after all. There are archives of web pages, automatically harvested periodically. If I can somehow incent these sites to find and store all of the installments I have compiled, then there will be at least the opportunity for someone in my family, blood relatives and otherwise, to seek out and read my words.
There is a more elegant way to put this: it's on a T-shirt that was made available by, of all things, a produce-on-demand internet site, to which I was directed by a friend who knows about and has read some of my work going all the way back to high school.
I write because there is a voice within me that will not be still.
*Lyrics from "Breathe (2AM)," written by Anna Nalick, published by Universal Music Publishing Group, from her album Wreck of the Day.