Thursday, January 20, 2011

What it all really means

From 1992-1994, between college and graduate school, I manned the city desk at a newspaper in upstate New York. I remember entering the local bookstore one day and being told by the owner that a “famous playwright” had moved nearby and now frequented the same store. When I asked whom, the owner said the writer had requested anonymity. I have grown to assume that playwright to be Romulus Linney, who died at age 80 this past week in Germantown, N.Y.

In Sunday’s New York Times, Linney was quoted as saying: “When this is all over, my writing will add up to the sum total of me. The choices I make with my writing have a lot to do with myself as an unfolding personality, so that in the end your writing is really your destiny. It’s a question of finding that central thing that’s yours to say and yours alone.”

I find the quote amazing and true and central. But the remark particularly struck me this week in light of a story a fellow writer told me over the phone Friday night. She said she knew an author whose agent listed twenty topics editors at large houses were looking for and to “choose one.”

Would the agent provide a paint-by-numbers set, too?

Later during the weekend, a colleague asked how my writing was going. I told him the writing process is always enjoyable. It’s everything that happens as soon as you finish the book that exhausts you, and it seems that next step is becoming more and more tiresome. Even on the best days, the publishing business is entirely subjective, but when editors are unwilling or frightened to take chances, authors are left reeling. I’ve been told several times in the past year that the major houses are seeking “something that can generate 20,000 hardcover sales.”

Hell, so am I, but I don’t write with that in mind. Linney’s quote is a truism for any writer. The choices we make on the page have much to do with “unfolding personalit[ies]” and (hopefully) little to do with potential sales figures. Don’t get me wrong. I want to sell books as badly as the next guy. But I don’t know of any writer who sits at his of her computer and thinks about sales figures. Writers attempt to tell a compelling story, explore an issue, and mostly intrigue and entertain themselves (and their imaginary ideal reader). Once you start looking for trends instead of stories, you’re dead. At the very least, you’re dishonest.

1 comment:

Hannah Dennison said...

I don't know about anyone else, but I have to write from my heart. Writing is hard enough as it is without having to write to order. Thanks for the Linney quote. It's next to my computer. It looks like I won't be giving up my day job anytime soon - but there are perks. Unlimited use of the photocopying machine ...