Ted Thompson

littlebrown:

Ask a Debut Novelist - Question 5
In which thompsonted, author of The Land of Steady Habits, answers your questions about writing, publishing, and making good work. Have a question? Ask away.

Anonymous asked: More than a question of to MFA or not to MFA, did you ever consider pursuing more stable career interests (law, dentistry, consulting, whatever) to write on the side? If so, what made you decide against it?
Anonymous asked: When you were writing the book, how did you get enough money to eat, pay rent, etc.? Did you have jobs, or grants, and what did you have to do to get them?
I used to be really interested in the back flaps of books. For most of my twenties I was a serial wanderer of bookstores, and often I was more interested in the back flaps than I was in reading the books, glancing at the blurbs and flipping to look at the photo and mostly to see that one-paragraph bio. They fascinated me, and I collected the data they offered with a similar fastidiousness that, as a child, I’d seen among the kids who were collectors of baseball cards. I tended to remember most of the stats—who had gotten a Stegner and who came up through the Fine Arts Work Center, who’d been published by Open City and who’d miraculously broken the cryogenic seal of the New Yorker, who lived out in the crops of Indiana and who was already ensconced in New York or the Bay Area. I knew so much more about writers than I knew about their writing, and I had opinions, a little hierarchy in my mind of who had been anointed and why, all of it in the service of my own ambition, an attempt to map exactly how one day I wanted to do it.
I’m fairly certain these reconnaissance trips were my attempt to answer some version of both questions above, which is to say the question of money, specifically how you went about dedicating yourself to an endeavor that takes a tremendous commitment of time and in turn offers no guarantee of payment.
As far as I could tell there were two strains of bio that answered this question. The first was either a pedigreed list of academic institutions, colonies, conferences, and foundations, peppered with a handful of publications in established lit journals, or it was a list of certain magazines that had employed them (Harper’s, say, or really any publication with “New York” in its title). These bios functioned as a kind of checklist of smaller votes of confidence by the literary establishment. “I have been nurtured by institutions,” it seemed to say. “I have gotten here because all of these discerning people saw my potential and supported me.” Then there was the second kind of bio, which tended to be a long list of wildly varying (often entry-level) jobs—ice cream truck driver, jujitsu instructor, dog groomer, park ranger, kindergarten teacher, drywall mudder, freeway exit lane painter, on and on. The implication being that this was largely an individual effort, the sacrifice and dedication their own, this book an achievement in spite of the silent indifference of the rest of the world. “I’ve seen some things,” this bio seemed to say. “I’ve done stuff, and I know how to work, and most importantly I’ve believed in myself the entire time.”
Ultimately, the route I took, as I suspect is the case for most people, was some combination of the two. I worked jobs, some full time, and I still work part time as well as teach and consult and do some assistant work. And most significantly my wife has had a steady income through this, which includes our health insurance. That’s been enormous, the quiet month-to-month security that has made choosing a less stable path possible. But I also applied for stuff—MFA programs, fellowships, grants, colonies—some of which came through. Each of those tiny triumphs fueled my persistence and, perhaps just as significant as the funds and time they provided, also acted as the affirmation I needed to believe that I wasn’t wasting my time.
All of which is to say that while I used to have strong opinions about the “right” way to do this, I no longer do. I have seen just about as many paths as there are people, and of course everyone finds their own one. Work a demanding job, couch surf, stay at home with your kids, borrow money from your uncle or sister or spouse, be a doctor or a lawyer or a tow truck driver—hell, be all three. The only thing that matters is that you prioritize the writing in your life. It has to matter, the doing it. The greatest gift anyone ever gave me, when I was working full time and trying to write, was a coffee maker. The reason was that not only did it help me to get up, but for me it also ritualized the process—add the water, clean the filter, grind the beans—so that those very early mornings, when I could steal two hours before work, soon became the essential part of my day. Nobody could take them from me but myself. And that was hugely liberating, the fact that there was time, always, if I cared to take it. Working a job and writing a book did not have to be antithetical. There was space for both, if I took the writing as seriously as I took earning a paycheck.
I suppose the only concept that I bristle at, Anonymous, is the one of “writing on the side.” When it comes to writing, the difference between a hobbyist and a professional isn’t really money. Instead, I’ve found the difference is more internal than external, an issue of priority and persistence and self-seriousness, all of which I also understand are things that can be difficult to maintain when the demands of work and family and laundry (always laundry) are pressing on you, and especially when it feels like nobody else believes in you. It would be a little disingenuous of me to imply that every acceptance I have received hasn’t acted as a kind of lifeline, a reason to keep going, or that they still don’t. They do, of course they do. But I guess what I’m saying, mostly to myself, but also to you and to anyone else who might be struggling with this, is that you don’t need a book deal for your commitment to your writing to be valid, you do not need a grant or a residency or an MFA. All of those things are nice, and by all means you should go after them, but I guess what I’m saying is that you do not need permission. You give yourself permission, one day at a time, you find the hours and protect them, you treat them as important and they become important, you treat your work as valid and it becomes valid. The kind of resilience this requires is probably not natural, it certainly wasn’t to me. But I’ve found it can be learned, through repetition and routine, through the quiet power of habit and consistency. I still think the day I became a writer was not the day I sold my book, nor the day I was accepted to a la-di-da program. It was probably the first time I set an alarm and actually got out of bed, when I went to the kitchen and ground the beans and poured the water, and most importantly when I told myself to sit down and get to work because this mattered
*
Previously on Ask a Debut Novelist:
On Writing and Revision: “Throw away the scale. There is no scale, there is only your story.” 
On the Book Business: “Selling a book won’t change your life—except it kind of will.”
On Compliments: “And maybe every piece of writing is an act of trust.”
On Self-Publishing, or Not: “Yearning for acceptance is a kind of acknowledgment of the reader, a sign of respect for other people and maybe even humility before them.”
Have a question for Ted? Drop it in our Ask Box.

littlebrown:

Ask a Debut Novelist - Question 5

In which thompsonted, author of The Land of Steady Habits, answers your questions about writing, publishing, and making good work. Have a question? Ask away.

Anonymous asked: More than a question of to MFA or not to MFA, did you ever consider pursuing more stable career interests (law, dentistry, consulting, whatever) to write on the side? If so, what made you decide against it?

Anonymous asked: When you were writing the book, how did you get enough money to eat, pay rent, etc.? Did you have jobs, or grants, and what did you have to do to get them?

I used to be really interested in the back flaps of books. For most of my twenties I was a serial wanderer of bookstores, and often I was more interested in the back flaps than I was in reading the books, glancing at the blurbs and flipping to look at the photo and mostly to see that one-paragraph bio. They fascinated me, and I collected the data they offered with a similar fastidiousness that, as a child, I’d seen among the kids who were collectors of baseball cards. I tended to remember most of the stats—who had gotten a Stegner and who came up through the Fine Arts Work Center, who’d been published by Open City and who’d miraculously broken the cryogenic seal of the New Yorker, who lived out in the crops of Indiana and who was already ensconced in New York or the Bay Area. I knew so much more about writers than I knew about their writing, and I had opinions, a little hierarchy in my mind of who had been anointed and why, all of it in the service of my own ambition, an attempt to map exactly how one day I wanted to do it.

I’m fairly certain these reconnaissance trips were my attempt to answer some version of both questions above, which is to say the question of money, specifically how you went about dedicating yourself to an endeavor that takes a tremendous commitment of time and in turn offers no guarantee of payment.

As far as I could tell there were two strains of bio that answered this question. The first was either a pedigreed list of academic institutions, colonies, conferences, and foundations, peppered with a handful of publications in established lit journals, or it was a list of certain magazines that had employed them (Harper’s, say, or really any publication with “New York” in its title). These bios functioned as a kind of checklist of smaller votes of confidence by the literary establishment. “I have been nurtured by institutions,” it seemed to say. “I have gotten here because all of these discerning people saw my potential and supported me.” Then there was the second kind of bio, which tended to be a long list of wildly varying (often entry-level) jobs—ice cream truck driver, jujitsu instructor, dog groomer, park ranger, kindergarten teacher, drywall mudder, freeway exit lane painter, on and on. The implication being that this was largely an individual effort, the sacrifice and dedication their own, this book an achievement in spite of the silent indifference of the rest of the world. “I’ve seen some things,” this bio seemed to say. “I’ve done stuff, and I know how to work, and most importantly I’ve believed in myself the entire time.”

Ultimately, the route I took, as I suspect is the case for most people, was some combination of the two. I worked jobs, some full time, and I still work part time as well as teach and consult and do some assistant work. And most significantly my wife has had a steady income through this, which includes our health insurance. That’s been enormous, the quiet month-to-month security that has made choosing a less stable path possible. But I also applied for stuff—MFA programs, fellowships, grants, colonies—some of which came through. Each of those tiny triumphs fueled my persistence and, perhaps just as significant as the funds and time they provided, also acted as the affirmation I needed to believe that I wasn’t wasting my time.

All of which is to say that while I used to have strong opinions about the “right” way to do this, I no longer do. I have seen just about as many paths as there are people, and of course everyone finds their own one. Work a demanding job, couch surf, stay at home with your kids, borrow money from your uncle or sister or spouse, be a doctor or a lawyer or a tow truck driver—hell, be all three. The only thing that matters is that you prioritize the writing in your life. It has to matter, the doing it. The greatest gift anyone ever gave me, when I was working full time and trying to write, was a coffee maker. The reason was that not only did it help me to get up, but for me it also ritualized the process—add the water, clean the filter, grind the beans—so that those very early mornings, when I could steal two hours before work, soon became the essential part of my day. Nobody could take them from me but myself. And that was hugely liberating, the fact that there was time, always, if I cared to take it. Working a job and writing a book did not have to be antithetical. There was space for both, if I took the writing as seriously as I took earning a paycheck.

I suppose the only concept that I bristle at, Anonymous, is the one of “writing on the side.” When it comes to writing, the difference between a hobbyist and a professional isn’t really money. Instead, I’ve found the difference is more internal than external, an issue of priority and persistence and self-seriousness, all of which I also understand are things that can be difficult to maintain when the demands of work and family and laundry (always laundry) are pressing on you, and especially when it feels like nobody else believes in you. It would be a little disingenuous of me to imply that every acceptance I have received hasn’t acted as a kind of lifeline, a reason to keep going, or that they still don’t. They do, of course they do. But I guess what I’m saying, mostly to myself, but also to you and to anyone else who might be struggling with this, is that you don’t need a book deal for your commitment to your writing to be valid, you do not need a grant or a residency or an MFA. All of those things are nice, and by all means you should go after them, but I guess what I’m saying is that you do not need permission. You give yourself permission, one day at a time, you find the hours and protect them, you treat them as important and they become important, you treat your work as valid and it becomes valid. The kind of resilience this requires is probably not natural, it certainly wasn’t to me. But I’ve found it can be learned, through repetition and routine, through the quiet power of habit and consistency. I still think the day I became a writer was not the day I sold my book, nor the day I was accepted to a la-di-da program. It was probably the first time I set an alarm and actually got out of bed, when I went to the kitchen and ground the beans and poured the water, and most importantly when I told myself to sit down and get to work because this mattered

*

Previously on Ask a Debut Novelist:

  1. On Writing and Revision: “Throw away the scale. There is no scale, there is only your story.”
  2. On the Book Business: “Selling a book won’t change your life—except it kind of will.”
  3. On Compliments: “And maybe every piece of writing is an act of trust.”
  4. On Self-Publishing, or Not: “Yearning for acceptance is a kind of acknowledgment of the reader, a sign of respect for other people and maybe even humility before them.”

Have a question for Ted? Drop it in our Ask Box.

For some reason, we think that poetry is this thing you do on the side, once you get your math done or your science done. Same thing with writing or any of the things we call “the arts” – there’s this idea that they’re just an elective, they’re just decoration, and they have nothing to do with our survival … or why we can stand to be here.

That’s the reason I’ve made it to 53 – because of finding these things that poetry or painting or place contain. That’s the stuff of mental health, and we ignore it at our peril.

Lynda Barry, brilliant as ever, in an interview about poetry. Pair with other luminaries on how the humanities make us human and E.O. Wilson on why science and the arts need one another.

Perhaps Wordsworth was right when he wrote that “poetry is the breath and finer spirit of all knowledge.”

(via explore-blog)

(via riotgrrrlproblems)

Track:
We Are Alive

Artist:
Meklit

Album:
We Are Alive

literaryjukebox:

The ancients are right: the dear old human experience is a singular, difficult, shadowed, brilliant experience that does not resolve into being comfortable in the world. The valley of the shadow is part of that, and you are depriving yourself if you do not experience what humankind has experienced, including doubt and sorrow. We experience pain and difficulty as failure instead of saying, I will pass through this, everyone I have ever admired has passed through this, music has come out of it, literature has come out of it. We should think of our humanity as a privilege.

Marilynne Robinson in The Paris Review Interviews, IV

Song: “We Are Alive” by Meklit

littlebrown:

Ask a Debut Novelist - Question 4
In which thompsonted, author of The Land of Steady Habits, answers your questions about writing, publishing, and making good work. Have a question? Ask away.
Anonymous asked: Is there a good reason to seek to be published through Little, Brown and Company rather than self-publishing as an ebook?
This is a question I initially skipped because it seemed a little too practical, and I am by no means a publishing expert, or anything close to it. But then I found myself talking out my answer in the shower, and again at night before I drifted off to sleep, and I guess that’s an indication that there’s a lot more to this question than I initially thought.
So here are my initial, practical responses, the ones I would probably cite at a dinner party if we’d just met, Anonymous, and it seemed like maybe you were making chitchat since you’ve heard a lot about how digital technologies are disrupting traditional publishing and I maybe get the sense that the subtext of your question is that it’s a little old fashioned or backward-looking to be doing business with a company that still primarily traffics in paper and glue (a scenario that, for me these days, happens about every other month):
1. MoneyYes, there are best sellers that are self-published on Kindle, where the author ends up making enormous amounts of money on royalties because there are so few middle men involved, and every time I hear one of these stories I’m enamored with them, amazed, and filled with a kind of wild optimism about writers and readers and the narrowing gap between them, and the ability for words to find their proper homes in other people’s lives, despite things like the retail supply chain and its gatekeepers in tall glass buildings.
But just because there are lottery winners doesn’t mean playing lotto is my retirement plan. The fact is a traditional publisher will pay you an advance—they’ll put their money up as a gamble and a gesture of their belief in the book—but more importantly they’ll cover all the considerable expenses involved in getting the book to readers. As I’ve mentioned before I had no idea how much work it was to get a book into stores (both physical and digital). It takes an enormous amount of person-to-person communication for this to happen, which requires relationships and trust and a reputation for not leading people astray, and all sorts of other intangible things that take time to forge. Also: money. It is possible to do this on your own, through social media, or by building a community of readers with a series, but I wasn’t writing a series, and working on a single book sucked up pretty much all of my time. So given the option, I’d still rather spend the time I have writing another book and let a huge, experienced company take care of a lot of the rest.
2. Real, professional readersYou can hire a structural editor and a line editor and a copyeditor. (I happen to do all of those things freelance, and enjoy them immensely, and give those projects everything I have.) But it’s not the same as having other people with a vested stake in your book. In fact, it seems to me having someone else whose fate is also tied to it is the only way to be sure you’ll be called out and challenged on the things you need to be. Editors both purchase your book (thereby laying their own reputations on the line) and also work with you to make it better, which they have a huge personal interest in doing. “Make it better” in my experience comes down to running your manuscript through their own minutely calibrated bullshit detectors. This also applies to agents, who edit as well, often extensively, and if they’re good at what they do won’t let you send anything out that’s not ready, no matter how brilliant you might think it is. One thing I’ve come to realize is that the series of (sometimes endless) gates you have to pass through on the way to publication make your book better. Like so much better. And in that way it’s actually a lot more of a team sport than any tortured writer mythology might have us believe.
3. But, really, moneyThere’s just no replacement for not being broke. And an advance allows you, on a very practical level, a chance to get started on the next thing. It buys you time.
But say I got the sense, at this dinner party, somewhere around the main course, that you’d decided to self-publish a few books of your own, books you were proud of but felt were maybe underestimated by the traditional publishing establishment and particularly the authors it supports. And say I liked you, which I probably would since in my little fantasy here you’re taking such an interest in me and we’re really getting along and genuinely laughing at the other person’s jokes and like some of the same books—in that case I would probably add:
4. I’m not sure I have the gumption to be my own book’s salesman, publicist and marketerFrom my limited experience, publishing is about 10% making a book available and 90% talking about it. If it were just a matter of uploading a file onto Amazon and calling it a day, this would be different, but I know enough to know it’s a whole lot more than that, requiring time and skills, not least of which is a healthy dose of entrepreneurial salesmanship. If there’s anything in this world that seems to run counter to the persistent low hum of my natural self doubt, it would be having to also constantly pitch people, to convince strangers one at a time that they should spend their hard-earned money on my writing. Nothing makes me quite as uncomfortable as being pitched (“Excuse me sir, do you have three minutes for the environment?”), and the idea of doing that to other people about a book I wrote myself makes me want to just evaporate into a thin mist.
5. I am naturally suspicious of self-promoters and salesmenThis is especially true when it comes to creative people, and I know it’s probably not the best attribute in me, and that it comes from both a place of uptight protestant manners—I can hear in the back of my head the word “unclassy” come bubbling up with all its problematic implications—and also one of snobbishness. Salesmanship is somehow an indication of a lack of integrity, of crass motivations peeking through a curtain that, for a real artist, should remain firmly drawn. Of course we all engage in it (ahem), and even those who refuse are eventually creating a kind of persona (“reclusive” “camera shy” or if you’re really lucky “enigmatic”), but for me the separation between writer and seller is already nicely built into the traditional model of author and publisher, so I guess you could say it’s convenient. Having someone else vouch for me is probably more important to me than I’d always like to admit.
But, okay, say we were getting toward dessert, and had gone through all the red and the white and a half-bottle of rose someone found in the fridge, and we already had headaches brewing and knew tomorrow was a lost cause, and say our host broke out a dusty old bottle of port she’d been given by someone who knew about such things, a good one, though at this point neither of us would be able to tell the difference, and we were swirling that dense liquid in those little midget port glasses and realized we were the last two left at the party, that the candles had all burned down to goblins of wax and that the host was off in the kitchen scraping the plates that we really should have been scraping were we better guests—here are the things I would probably say then, in that setting, the things I would probably regret the following morning, when I woke up with that headache and wondered what the hell I had said after that second glass of port (and, you could argue, therefore the real reason):
6. If I’m totally honest, the one thing I write for is some sense of acceptanceI know how slippery that statement is, and how uncool, and that I may lose any shred of real artist cred I might have had, but if I strip away all of the  layers of motivation that get me up and to my desk every morning, what’s left is some version of this. I think it’s important to note the difference between changing my writing to try and please some imaginary club (a trap if there ever was one, and one I’ve also fallen into many times), and writing what is truest for me, what is often uncommunicated in the daily chatter of life and yet is felt so deeply—trying to put that into words—and wanting to feel a sense of acceptance coming back at me, a sense that the work of communicating that subterranean life is worthy, and therefore, by extension, that I am worthy too. The moments of feeling this, acceptance for not only talent or craft but the substance of my unspoken feelings—whatever they are, dreams and desires and fears—are the real payments I’ve always been chasing. Of course acceptance is probably an unhealthy drug to get hooked on, because the who of it will always continue to change, the clubs whose entry you’re yearning for will continue to get smaller and more exclusive, and there will never be a moment of arrival. (Having a book published by Little, Brown should be that moment, and several years ago to me it would’ve been, but now I see it as just the beginning, the summit of one peak that’s granted me entry into a park of towering others.) If there’s one thing I admire so much about those who choose to self publish it’s this, this sense of sovereignty from the approval of others, which of course can translate into a fierceness of expression, though often it seems that the measure of acceptance is just transferred to sales, to the terms of the free market, which can be a blunt tool for measuring anything. I can beat myself up about this motivation, choose to see it as an indication of weakness, of a warped or malnourished self-esteem, but I also know that the yearning for acceptance is a kind of acknowledgment of the reader, a sign of respect for other people and maybe even humility before them. I can’t imagine anyone writing anything in language they hope will communicate not wanting acceptance. In a way it’s a beautiful thing, the reason so many of us continue to take what’s internal and make it external, the reason to dig deep and share.
*
Previously on Ask a Debut Novelist:
On Writing and Revision: “Throw away the scale. There is no scale, there is only your story.” 
On the Book Business: “Selling a book won’t change your life—except it kind of will.”
On Compliments: “And maybe every piece of writing is an act of trust.”
Have a question for Ted? Drop it in our Ask Box.

littlebrown:

Ask a Debut Novelist - Question 4

In which thompsonted, author of The Land of Steady Habits, answers your questions about writing, publishing, and making good work. Have a question? Ask away.

Anonymous asked: Is there a good reason to seek to be published through Little, Brown and Company rather than self-publishing as an ebook?

This is a question I initially skipped because it seemed a little too practical, and I am by no means a publishing expert, or anything close to it. But then I found myself talking out my answer in the shower, and again at night before I drifted off to sleep, and I guess that’s an indication that there’s a lot more to this question than I initially thought.

So here are my initial, practical responses, the ones I would probably cite at a dinner party if we’d just met, Anonymous, and it seemed like maybe you were making chitchat since you’ve heard a lot about how digital technologies are disrupting traditional publishing and I maybe get the sense that the subtext of your question is that it’s a little old fashioned or backward-looking to be doing business with a company that still primarily traffics in paper and glue (a scenario that, for me these days, happens about every other month):

1. Money
Yes, there are best sellers that are self-published on Kindle, where the author ends up making enormous amounts of money on royalties because there are so few middle men involved, and every time I hear one of these stories I’m enamored with them, amazed, and filled with a kind of wild optimism about writers and readers and the narrowing gap between them, and the ability for words to find their proper homes in other people’s lives, despite things like the retail supply chain and its gatekeepers in tall glass buildings.

But just because there are lottery winners doesn’t mean playing lotto is my retirement plan. The fact is a traditional publisher will pay you an advance—they’ll put their money up as a gamble and a gesture of their belief in the book—but more importantly they’ll cover all the considerable expenses involved in getting the book to readers. As I’ve mentioned before I had no idea how much work it was to get a book into stores (both physical and digital). It takes an enormous amount of person-to-person communication for this to happen, which requires relationships and trust and a reputation for not leading people astray, and all sorts of other intangible things that take time to forge. Also: money. It is possible to do this on your own, through social media, or by building a community of readers with a series, but I wasn’t writing a series, and working on a single book sucked up pretty much all of my time. So given the option, I’d still rather spend the time I have writing another book and let a huge, experienced company take care of a lot of the rest.

2. Real, professional readers
You can hire a structural editor and a line editor and a copyeditor. (I happen to do all of those things freelance, and enjoy them immensely, and give those projects everything I have.) But it’s not the same as having other people with a vested stake in your book. In fact, it seems to me having someone else whose fate is also tied to it is the only way to be sure you’ll be called out and challenged on the things you need to be. Editors both purchase your book (thereby laying their own reputations on the line) and also work with you to make it better, which they have a huge personal interest in doing. “Make it better” in my experience comes down to running your manuscript through their own minutely calibrated bullshit detectors. This also applies to agents, who edit as well, often extensively, and if they’re good at what they do won’t let you send anything out that’s not ready, no matter how brilliant you might think it is. One thing I’ve come to realize is that the series of (sometimes endless) gates you have to pass through on the way to publication make your book better. Like so much better. And in that way it’s actually a lot more of a team sport than any tortured writer mythology might have us believe.

3. But, really, money
There’s just no replacement for not being broke. And an advance allows you, on a very practical level, a chance to get started on the next thing. It buys you time.

But say I got the sense, at this dinner party, somewhere around the main course, that you’d decided to self-publish a few books of your own, books you were proud of but felt were maybe underestimated by the traditional publishing establishment and particularly the authors it supports. And say I liked you, which I probably would since in my little fantasy here you’re taking such an interest in me and we’re really getting along and genuinely laughing at the other person’s jokes and like some of the same books—in that case I would probably add:

4. I’m not sure I have the gumption to be my own book’s salesman, publicist and marketer
From my limited experience, publishing is about 10% making a book available and 90% talking about it. If it were just a matter of uploading a file onto Amazon and calling it a day, this would be different, but I know enough to know it’s a whole lot more than that, requiring time and skills, not least of which is a healthy dose of entrepreneurial salesmanship. If there’s anything in this world that seems to run counter to the persistent low hum of my natural self doubt, it would be having to also constantly pitch people, to convince strangers one at a time that they should spend their hard-earned money on my writing. Nothing makes me quite as uncomfortable as being pitched (“Excuse me sir, do you have three minutes for the environment?”), and the idea of doing that to other people about a book I wrote myself makes me want to just evaporate into a thin mist.

5. I am naturally suspicious of self-promoters and salesmen
This is especially true when it comes to creative people, and I know it’s probably not the best attribute in me, and that it comes from both a place of uptight protestant manners—I can hear in the back of my head the word “unclassy” come bubbling up with all its problematic implications—and also one of snobbishness. Salesmanship is somehow an indication of a lack of integrity, of crass motivations peeking through a curtain that, for a real artist, should remain firmly drawn. Of course we all engage in it (ahem), and even those who refuse are eventually creating a kind of persona (“reclusive” “camera shy” or if you’re really lucky “enigmatic”), but for me the separation between writer and seller is already nicely built into the traditional model of author and publisher, so I guess you could say it’s convenient. Having someone else vouch for me is probably more important to me than I’d always like to admit.

But, okay, say we were getting toward dessert, and had gone through all the red and the white and a half-bottle of rose someone found in the fridge, and we already had headaches brewing and knew tomorrow was a lost cause, and say our host broke out a dusty old bottle of port she’d been given by someone who knew about such things, a good one, though at this point neither of us would be able to tell the difference, and we were swirling that dense liquid in those little midget port glasses and realized we were the last two left at the party, that the candles had all burned down to goblins of wax and that the host was off in the kitchen scraping the plates that we really should have been scraping were we better guests—here are the things I would probably say then, in that setting, the things I would probably regret the following morning, when I woke up with that headache and wondered what the hell I had said after that second glass of port (and, you could argue, therefore the real reason):

6. If I’m totally honest, the one thing I write for is some sense of acceptance
I know how slippery that statement is, and how uncool, and that I may lose any shred of real artist cred I might have had, but if I strip away all of the  layers of motivation that get me up and to my desk every morning, what’s left is some version of this. I think it’s important to note the difference between changing my writing to try and please some imaginary club (a trap if there ever was one, and one I’ve also fallen into many times), and writing what is truest for me, what is often uncommunicated in the daily chatter of life and yet is felt so deeply—trying to put that into words—and wanting to feel a sense of acceptance coming back at me, a sense that the work of communicating that subterranean life is worthy, and therefore, by extension, that I am worthy too. The moments of feeling this, acceptance for not only talent or craft but the substance of my unspoken feelings—whatever they are, dreams and desires and fears—are the real payments I’ve always been chasing. Of course acceptance is probably an unhealthy drug to get hooked on, because the who of it will always continue to change, the clubs whose entry you’re yearning for will continue to get smaller and more exclusive, and there will never be a moment of arrival. (Having a book published by Little, Brown should be that moment, and several years ago to me it would’ve been, but now I see it as just the beginning, the summit of one peak that’s granted me entry into a park of towering others.) If there’s one thing I admire so much about those who choose to self publish it’s this, this sense of sovereignty from the approval of others, which of course can translate into a fierceness of expression, though often it seems that the measure of acceptance is just transferred to sales, to the terms of the free market, which can be a blunt tool for measuring anything. I can beat myself up about this motivation, choose to see it as an indication of weakness, of a warped or malnourished self-esteem, but I also know that the yearning for acceptance is a kind of acknowledgment of the reader, a sign of respect for other people and maybe even humility before them. I can’t imagine anyone writing anything in language they hope will communicate not wanting acceptance. In a way it’s a beautiful thing, the reason so many of us continue to take what’s internal and make it external, the reason to dig deep and share.

*

Previously on Ask a Debut Novelist:

  1. On Writing and Revision: “Throw away the scale. There is no scale, there is only your story.”
  2. On the Book Business: “Selling a book won’t change your life—except it kind of will.”
  3. On Compliments: “And maybe every piece of writing is an act of trust.”

Have a question for Ted? Drop it in our Ask Box.