by Suzanne Strempek Shea
Today is the day to play jokes. To set someone up only to announce, at the last crucial moment, “April Fool’s!” To assure that whatever line of malarkey we just stated is totally untrue.
Many writers and various other creative types do a version of this, no matter the date on the calendar, delivering all kinds of silly statements. The difference: We often say these things not only to others but to ourselves, and we’re not joking. Whether bestselling accomplished or just-uncapping-the-pen novice, we often spout the same baloney about so much of the writerly, from personal incompetence to industry-wide conspiracy. On this day of foolishness, let’s look at a few of these tired tropes, and see right through them:
“I have no time to write.”
We have time to do anything we wish. It’s already all there, long been manufactured—there truly is no need to “make” it, and we couldn’t if we tried. We just need to figure out how to take advantage of the time we have.
I see the minutes and hours of a day as the little sliding tiles on those puzzles kids played with on long car trips before portable technology. If you moved the tiles around correctly, you created a picture. We all have the same number of tiles. How can we move them around to make the picture we want? If that’s an image of you holding your first or fourteenth book, you might slide aside 15 minutes of lunchtime to bang out a paragraph.
Anne Lamott says, give up the 10 o’clock news—it only serves to ruin the morning paper. There’s 30 minutes of writing right there. Don’t have time for a paragraph? How about, on the bus home or while waiting for the dog to return to the back door after a call a nature, writing even a couple of sentences? Enough of those and you’ll be on your way, and zooming right past would-be writers slouching against this excuse.
“I can’t find my muse.”
You know why? Because he/she/it doesn’t exist. The muse bus not stopping at your door on a particular day is just another excuse for not sitting down and writing. Sure, we all have days when the work just doesn’t flow. But buying into the idea that our power to create comes from somewhere outside ourselves, something that might be flying over Oklahoma while you’re over in Oman, is downright dangerous.
Writing can be hard, but it’s not as hard as what many of our forefathers and foremothers and foreuncles and aunts and such did for work on a given day, on a farm, in a cavern or factory. You want a muse? Let those people—anybody who truly toiled in any way to get you where you are—be it. If you did it yourself, be your own hero. And inspiration. Then move along.
“I’d have some luck if only I knew somebody in the business.”
Most of the published masses are not descended from Shakespeare. My father operated a forklift in a tire factory. My mother was a homemaker back when they still called the ladies who did that ladies. For a year she drove the town bookmobile when the woman who normally drove it was out sick.
But that did not make me a writer.
What made me a writer was writing. Sitting down and doing the work. Certainly, I did find an unexpected literary fairy godmother when I met novelist and essayist Elinor Lipman, but if I’d had no work to show her when she asked what I was writing, and if that work hadn’t been in the best shape it could have been at the time, she would have had zero interest in connecting me with anyone in the business.
Do the work, and if you do happen to end up knowing somebody in the business, you’ll have something to show them. And it just might all come together.
“My publisher isn’t doing a thing for me.”
Maybe not, compared to the days when book contracts included weeks of coast-to-coast touring complete with literary escorts in Town Cars zipping you from your five-star big-city hotel to media appointments dawn to dusk. And all that was great—is great if you’re in the category where it’s still a given. But remember that if your book is out there for you to complain about, that publisher already has done the most massive thing for you—they’ve published you and have distributed it.
The sad truth—the often unspoken truth—is that so much (sometimes all) the rest of it is up to the author. Whether published by one of the big six or by the imprint your brother-in-law created for you last night on the Dell downstairs, whether your book sinks or swims can depend on the life preservers you need to toss out on a regular and persistent basis. These can be in the forms of tweets, Facebook postings, old-fashioned postcards, Skypes with book clubs, readings at your local library.
Is J.K. Rowling heading out at noon today to read to her local Rotary Club? She doesn’t have to. But so many of the rest of us have to, and should. Enough of these efforts and, maybe, one day we won’t have to, either.
“The industry is dying.”
The stone tablet quarries have gone kaput. As have most of the job opportunities in the field of typesetting. Sure, hardcover books are becoming collector’s items. But stories will exist in some form always. Your place as a writer isn’t to bemoan the changes; your place is to find your place in the next wave of how readers will receive their news, stories and poems.
Unless your beat is The Daily Naysayer, leave the doomsday talk to the experts. Just keep on doing your part—sliding around the tiles to fit writing into each and every day, knowing that you already have all the inspiration and power you need to write that next piece, being aware that the only connection you need for the time being is your hand around the pen or your fingertips on the keyboard. When your essay or story or poem or book of any or all those comes out, you’ll do your utmost to make sure it all gets into the hands of readers, in whatever form publishing will have taken by then. Do your work and it all just might come together.
And that, on this day or any else, is no joke.
Strempek Shea is former newspaper reporter, an active freelancer, and the author of five novels and five books of nonfiction. She just finished what will be her sixth nonfiction book, This is Paradise, about the founding of a medical clinic in Malawi.