“I want you all to STAND UP! Greet the person next to you and say, “HELLO, MY NAME IS BLANK, AND I AM A WRITER!”
This was years ago, at a literary convention. I was five months into an excruciating pregnancy, my brain swamped in chemicals that caused it to hear hungry tiger roars and maniacal chainsaw laughter the entire time it was awake. Or at least for my body to be constantly readying it’s natural defenses against such sounds. But I’d pre paid $500 for this overnight adventure and I couldn’t back out.
It was the morning of the second day, and I was getting more sour by the second. It had taken every ounce of fortitude to even attend this conference, so terrified I was of a change in routine. I was gagging daggers physically, but now, I was starting to think some terribly inhospitable, mean thoughts toward the other attendees of this convention.
Before I’d come I had seen a documentary about LARPing. Live Action Role Playing. A Dungeons and Dragons type phenomenon, right before the slightly more respectable cos-play fad took over. People dress in as much anachronistic costume as possible, (lots of capes…I think as a species we really miss capes) and hurl flour bombs at each other while invoking spells, taking -2 hit points from the Elf Paladin in with the rapier from BUDK stuck in his belt.
The documentary didn’t try to make them look silly. They just, silently showed grown and mostly grown people pretending to inhabit a reality that was a heck of a lot better than their real one. And looking so, so bitch-slappy silly while doing it.
So while everyone else in this class followed the teacher’s request, making the word “writer writer writer” hit the walls of the hotel’s conference room over and over, I curled my lip and didn’t move. I was too cool for school, obviously. But it was more than that.
We’re LARPing, I realized. We’re not real writers.
We’re dressed like real writers, with turquoise jewelry and crinkle skirts, or, for the younger set, ironic cats eye glasses and orange corduroys. We’ve already constructed the kind of writer we are in our heads…quiet and withdrawn, known only to locals of our small New England hamlets…or popular public speakers, or gonzo journalists taking really great cocaine; but always someone much more interesting than our selves.
Someone not overweight. Someone not invisible or dull. Someone who never has to be alone on a Saturday night if they don’t want to. Someone desirable and powerful.
Do I generalize? Do I project my own issues? Damn straight I do. There are exceptions, I know. I’ve just never met one at a place like that.
Oh we write, sure. Hundreds, thousands of pages, easily. But they aren’t anything anyone else wants to READ. That’s really important! If you “write for yourself” that’s wonderful, it really is. But that’s called “keeping a journal.” You’re not here because you want to keep a better journal. You’re here to learn how to make other people want to buy your stuff! It seems like a lot of writers can’t reconcile the two.
I’d heard the elevator pitches and first paragraphs of 50 different novels since I’d been at the conference. A remarkable lot of them about the author’s own struggle to reconcile adoption/abortion/abuse/divorce/cancer. Men’s pitches tended to be about older, hard-boiled, burnt out but don’t-fuck-with me cops/detectives/retired SEALS solving crimes. And the fantasy…oh lord the dragons and fairies. Thank you sooooo much Lord of the Rings Trilogy movies.
I realized, we’ve all paid $500 to…who again? to feel writerly for a day. To inhabit a space where only a thin film separated us from our imagined destinies. Our make-believe dream. Oh, some were there in complete earnestness to sell their books, and maybe some did. But…not most of us.
I never went back to another convention. I didn’t want to be like them.
Or rather…I didn’t want to be reminded that I was them.
But now it is now. What has changed?
This is a picture of my book on the “New Release” tables at the two largest Barnes&Nobles in Manhattan, graciously snapped by my native editor and agent.
My book came out on October 25th. I briefly, only briefly thank God, overtook Anne Frank’s diary in “Women’s History” on Amazon which I felt very, very bad about. I’m being widely reviewed because I have three, THREE, publicists working to make sure the whole damn world KNOWS about my pink butt-bar book.
And they know. Elle, Good housekeeping, Glamour, Paris Review, The Guardian, Washington Post, New York Post, The Daily Mail (UK version! WOOOO!), NPR and it’s nationwide affiliates, and we will still wait patiently on the confirmed reviews from Bust (the best woman’s magazine since Sassy, no joke) and the great grandaddy, The New York Times Book Review. I’m forgetting a half dozen.
Hustler wanted to interview me. HUSTLER. I respectfully declined, citing that our readership had little overlap. That the vaginas in MY book were unwashed and deranged. I described myself as, “a complete boner-killer.”
My publicists asked me to stop writing personal letters back to interview requesters. I think they suspect I have the ability to go too far off-script and end up being quoted on how no one ever pays attention to the fact Hitler was an animal lover and vegetarian, and really, Jews probably DO run Hollywood but so what? Good for them!
And they are right to fear such a thing. People would not take that as I intended it.
Last week I went to read at one of our state’s largest public libraries. They set out fifty chairs in a conference room. The attendance exceeded…to 150, at which point they put me in the auditorium. I loved it very much. I made them laugh for an hour straight. That “chubby youngest child hungry for approval” was full as a tick off the blood of those people’s happiness.
So now. I can say, I am a writer. I got proof now. And it wouldn’t be like shouting with deep conviction, “I AM AN ELF KING!” But it turns out (and I shoulda seen this coming but…why are dreams coming true always such a damn Monkey’s Paw situation?) it was way funner back when it was in my head.
As I said, I stopped LARPing. But not from choice. Sure I left the conference, but I still pretended. I still walked in the dark plugged into my earphones, giving imaginary witty interviews to late night hosts. I still imagined word getting round to anyone who ever under-estimated me “Oh she’s a big deal now, didn’t you here? Makes me wish I would have let her sit with me in seventh grade.”
I don’t know tho. It’s hard to explain. The book is succeeding. But...I’m the same. Which my friends, is the biggest pisser in the world. A crushing disappointment. I think I wanted the fantasy more than the book.
Therese with the Successful Book was…inexplicably taller. Healthier and looked cuter in clothes. She wore white eyelet dresses and they didn’t have curry and ketchup stains. Her voice was less croaky, and her resting face was graceful…it didn’t still look like the face of women eternally sentenced to smell dog farts. She wasn’t perpetually exhausted. She sparkled.
She never happened. Just me, shuffling into a local television studio holding my friend’s copy of my book cuz I forgot to bring one, hacking phlegm in the bathroom off the teeny greenroom, refusing to open my mind to how exciting it is to go on TV/live podcast/interviewed for big publication, cuz if I do it will paralyze me. So I sit with legs apart, head lolling, heaving myself up and grunting, “yeah yeah…lets do this fucker..” when my turn to sit across from the scary and efficient host, pinned in by three cameras, comes up. (“Oh! Hey! No you can’t move the table! The table stays!” -but I was just scooting it closer…- “THE TABLE STAYS.” -yes’m.)
Gratitude? I’m pinned to the floor with it. This is a literal one in 10 million shot and I’d be a fool to sneer at such good fortune. I know I’m lucky and have no right to moan. I am proud to be a real writer. I just can’t believe how better a one I was when I was only pretending to be.