Earlier this week, I had the opportunity to interview an author named Garth Stein. We talked on the phone, it was a freelance story for my old newspaper, and I was once again grateful that my job provided me with this access.
Stein’s latest book, “A Sudden Light,” is a big deal. His previous effort, “The Art of Racing in the Rain” — narrated by a dog owned by a race driver (and for all you genreheads, where’s the genre there?) — was a New York Times best-seller.
He told me that people have named their dogs, and even their children, after Enzo, the dog in the book. And that he once encountered a young man who had tattooed one of the lines from “The Art of Racing in the Rain” all around his neck.
That was Stein’s third book. His first two went nowhere. Hardly anyone bought them, and nobody talked about them.
Years ago, I had the opportunity to sit in on a press conference with John Grisham. His first book, “A Time to Kill,” was placed with a small New York publisher and failed to clear the launching pad. Finally, frustrated by the publisher’s inept marketing, Grisham bought the last 500 copies and drove around Mississippi selling them out of the trunk of his car. After awhile, he simply started giving them away to anyone who wanted them.
Grisham’s next book was a hit, and so the new publisher re-released “A Time to Kill.” Only now, people thought, “Hey, this guy is famous, so his book must be good,” and that first book ended up eclipsing the followup. (Meanwhile, those first editions that Grisham gave away became valuable collector’s items).
One moral here, obviously, is “Don’t give up too soon.” But after talking to Stein, I started thinking of all the other successful writers I was fortunate enough to interview in 15 years of doing a newspaper book column. And I wondered: What was the common denominator?
I think I’ve come up with one. Through it all, most of these people never stopped thinking of themselves as writers. It was their identity. Not people who wanted to be writers — Writers, with a capital “W.”
Not that they didn’t get discouraged and frustrated at times. But having wrapped that identity around them, they couldn’t casually shed it.
Once you accept that identity, you cross a threshold. After that, whatever job you may be doing to earn a living has to become secondary. That doesn’t mean you don’t continue trying to do it well, but you must start thinking of it as just the means to an end. Writing.
Otherwise, writing for you is a hobby, and there’s nothing wrong with that. Some excellent books have been written by hobbyists, and it’s a great way to exercise your mind. But it’s not the same.
If you play golf on weekends, you can’t really call yourself a Golfer. If you enjoy getting up and belting out your best Sheryl Crow imitation at your local karaoke bar, that doesn’t make you a Singer. If you don’t think of yourself as a Writer, you’ll never be a Garth Stein or John Grisham. And if you don’t see yourself that way, no one else will take you seriously.
Why, then, are so many writers leery of thinking of themselves as Writers? Partly, I believe, because of that cruel myth that has torpedoed more careers than any harsh editor or unresponsive publisher. It goes something like this: Writing is a gift; you’re either born with it, or you’re not.
Hogwash. With any human endeavor, it is said, perhaps 10 percent of the population is naturally gifted at it. On the other end of the scale, 20 percent of us could never master that particular skill no matter how hard we tried. With the remaining 70 percent, however, it all depends on how much you want it and how hard you’re willing to work for it. As a longtime sportswriter, I saw dozens of cases of high-level athletes who had overcome some kind of limitation to get there.
But that writing myth is a straight path to anxiety. If our early efforts are not best-seller-worthy, we fret, then we must not have “the gift”, forgetting that not being a good writer is only a temporary, transitional condition.
Think about it. You may be drawn to playing professional golf, but you’re not going to break par the first time you walk out onto a course. You may envision yourself as a symphonic musician, but you’ll have to endure a lot of sour notes before you learn how to play an instrument at that level.
What happens with so many writers, though, is that they go into denial. Because they don’t want to admit to themselves that they haven’t been gifted, they forge ahead before they’re ready. It would be like the aforementioned golfer competing in the Masters with a 20 handicap. Their writing isn’t reader-ready, and the readers know it.
Yet I believe that when someone is strongly drawn to something, they have a future in it. I’ve often thought it would be cool to be an airline pilot or a rock musician or a dozen other things, but the urge was never fierce enough to forge a commitment.
I was extremely fortunate in that my newspaper job gave me validation as a writer. Early on, I wrote clumsily, but I had editors who helped, and I read other writers and tried to figure how they were doing what they did, and I learned. But I always considered myself a Writer, and probably a classic case — bad grades, no shiny social life, just an innate drive.
The good news is, there are myriad opportunities today to get better — hundreds of writer-friendly online sites and blogs, college and on-line courses, etc. Find yourself a mentor. Find yourself a good editor.
Most of all, never lose sight of the fact that we can always write better, clearer, with more originality. We’re always learning. That’s what Writers do.