I’ve written elsewhere on this website about the personal rewards of the act of writing. Few things give me more pleasure than crafting a well-wrought metaphor or paragraph, brainstorming a delightfully appropriate plot development, watching as a character takes on a voice all his or her own and begins telling me where the book should head next, or coming to the end of a final chapter and knowing exactly what the final sentences of a book must be. I believe that if a researcher were to conduct a brain scan of me when I’m in the midst of such moments, the firing of my neurons and the hyperactivity of my serotonin would closely mimic well-documented brain activity during a “runner’s high” or following absorption of a powerful anti-depressant.
Apart from the rewards of writing, what about the rewards of publishing? I’ve also written in my blog that I believe “story” is a shared performance of at least two persons: the writer, and the reader, who must be seduced by the writer’s efforts into injecting his or her own memories, colorations, mental voices, and emotional responses into the act of story. Unless both actors, reader and writer, are giving their fullest energies to the shared performance of story, the gestalt does not achieve its full potential. Without publishing of some sort (which can be as basic as printing up extra copies for one’s workshop group to read), there are no readers, and the act of story remains incomplete. Yet publishing is often drudgery, involving tasks a writer either dislikes or feels far less competent at than the act of writing (such as marketing one’s work, either to agents or editors or directly to prospective readers; dealing with contractual or legal issues, and struggling through layers of bureaucracy to ensure one’s book doesn’t get “lost,” if working with a traditional publisher; learning the intricacies of document conversion to various e-formats and dealing with hired copy editors and cover designers, if self-publishing).
Those are the burdens of publishing. So what are the rewards of publishing? The obvious ones leap to mind. If one is fortunate enough to be chosen by an editor and publishing staff at a traditional publisher, one receives the ego boost of external validation. One may also experience the pleasures of spotting one’s books in a favorite local bookstore, or being approached at a convention by a reader asking to have his copy signed. Sometimes there are financial rewards to be had, although, in the overwhelming majority of cases, if one honestly adds up all the hours of labor spent writing, revising, and marketing one’s book, the pay received per hour comes to considerably less than the minimum wage.
However, there is another reward of publishing, a reward most often hidden from and unknown to the writer, a reward which, by its nature, is completely beyond prediction and cannot be consciously striven towards. It is a reward that may sometimes come from completing the circuit of “story,” that wondrous instance when three elements come into full confluence: the writer’s best efforts at storytelling, the reader’s best efforts at interpretation, and external circumstances which render the reader especially receptive to being drawn into a book’s enchantment.
Sometimes a book, as an act of communication, as an instance of human sharing, can provide a lifeline to someone who needs one.
When did I decide I wanted to be a writer? I began thinking about it when I discovered I could entertain my peers by writing an appealing story. But what solidified my desire was receiving the gift of a remote human touch when I truly needed such a touch, from writers such as Ray Bradbury, Robert Silverberg, and Anne McCaffrey. The clincher was reading Barry N. Malzberg’s The Engines of the Night, which told me about the real-life sadnesses and struggles and failures of the minor figures of the science fiction field, men and women (mostly men) who had dreamed big, achieved some measure of success, occasionally major success, and had then been forgotten. I was a teenager when I first read Barry’s book. The stories he shared with me humanized a whole class of people – writers – whom I’d previously assumed led charmed lives. Paradoxically, reading about the writers Barry referred to as the failures of science fiction only made me want to become a science fiction writer even more. Revealing their flaws and their disappointments made me more optimistic that I could, with enough practice and diligence, at least approach their level of work. Perhaps most wonderful of all was my sense that Barry was speaking directly to me, even though we had never met. That sense of connection made me feel much less alone, at a time in my life when I was very prone to feeling terribly alone.
I thought one of the best things I could possibly do as a writer would be to provide someone else, some stranger whom I might never meet, with the same sense of companionship and connection that Barry’s work had granted me. So at that point I knew I would work towards becoming a writer, even though I was fearfully uncertain then that I would have anything worthwhile or new to say.
Living one’s life and taking the gut punches that experience tends to dole out eventually provide a person with something to say; rarely new, but worth the telling (the best stories, after all, can be repeated again and again without losing any of their power). When I was thirty-two, I experienced a double blow that literally left me gasping on the ground. I broke my left ankle in two places during my first attempt at rollerblading, and my wife of four years announced she wanted a divorce. I’ll never forget the book I was reading at the time: Robert Silverberg’s novel, Hot Sky at Midnight. Not one of Silverberg’s classic works, but it was still Robert Silverberg – and I had read and loved enough of Robert Silverberg’s prose to cling to his familiar voice like I would the edge of a lifeboat. For several weeks after my wife’s announcement, I couldn’t fall asleep without talk radio turned on, without some voices (talking about the stock market or home repairs or whatever) to distract me from the voices in my own head. And I couldn’t remain sanely awake in the empty apartment, a cast on my leg, without having Robert Silverberg’s book open on my lap.
The third book I wrote, and the first I was able to get published, Fat White Vampire Blues, grew directly out of that experience. I took my feelings of abandonment, betrayal, yearning, and loss and my resentment at having to move to a new home, put them to words, and made them funny by voicing them through a 450 pound vampire. It was a form of self-therapy, probably one of the most positive things (apart from rehabbing my leg by swimming at the Loyola University gym) that I did for myself. As soon as I finished them, I mailed chapters to my best friend from high school, Maury, who had recently moved from New Orleans to Upstate New York. Maury was going through a rough emotional patch himself, and he told me that my bumbling, hard-luck vampire, Jules, had become a welcome companion, someone who regularly cheered him up, almost as good as having me in the apartment with him.
Recently, I attended CONtraflow in Gretna, Louisiana, the first fan-run science fiction convention to be held in the New Orleans area since just before Hurricane Katrina in 2005. In the hallway outside the dealers’ room, a trio of volunteers from Biloxi’s Coast Con manned a table to advertise their upcoming convention. I hadn’t met any of the three, but I’d attended many Coast Cons, and I stopped by the table to ask them to do a favor for me. A group of Gulf Coast fans, all connected with Coast Con, had tracked me and my family down while we’d been sheltering in Florida after Katrina and had mailed us several care packages. This had touched me very deeply, because I knew the people who had assembled the care packages had most likely been personally devastated by the storm (Katrina came ashore between Gulfport and Bay St. Louis, smashing and inundating most of the Mississippi coast prior to breaking the levees in New Orleans) – yet they had taken the time away from their own troubles to do this for my family and me. I had mentioned this in an Afterword to my most recently published novel, The Good Humor Man, or, Calorie 3501 , and I wanted as many Gulf Coast fans as possible to know how much I had appreciated and would always appreciate what they had done. Knowing I’d likely be unable to attend the next Coast Con in the spring, I asked the three fans at the table to help spread the word for me.
One of the three, a young woman, seemed very eager to talk. She told me she had read Fat White Vampire Blues. She said she had read it a few years ago during an extended hospital stay, when she had been seriously ill. Reading my book had helped her get through her physical and emotional ordeal. It had made her laugh. Reading it and laughing had given her something to look forward to each day she’d been in the hospital. She’d come to think of Jules the vampire as a buddy, someone she happily anticipated spending time with.
I thought back to what Maury had told me years ago, before the book had been published. Being able to provide a modicum of entertainment, diversion, and emotional relief for my best friend, welcome and wonderful as that was, was not too unexpected. But to be able to do the same for a complete stranger, a person I had never had any direct contact with… that was another thing entirely. That almost seemed like a form of magic. Or a blessing. I had sent my book out into the world, a message in a bottle, not knowing how the message would be received, nor who would receive it. And here I was, a thousand miles away from my home, talking with a stranger, only to learn that my effort at storytelling had achieved something well beyond my modest ambitions for it. It had helped shepherd a fellow human being through a harrowing ordeal.
In moments of frustration, disappointment, and self-pity, I sometimes think of myself as a “garbage can novelist,” a writer who had his shot at commercial success, came close but missed, and whose manuscripts now get endlessly circulated around the publishing world, generating rejection after rejection. But I’ll have a much harder time considering myself a failed writer now. My various agents have told me that comedy is a hard sell, risky in the marketplace, because humor is so subjective. I’m sure there’s a lot of truth to that. But now I know I made someone laugh when they really, really needed to laugh.
And how can anyone consider himself a failure when he has done for someone else what the heroes of his younger days did for him?