It’s October. It feels like time to go back to school in Germany. Every now and then, when the weather starts to turn, a part of me that remembers that sense from almost 30 years ago, when the shortening days and chill in the air meant that classes would be starting again in Tuebingen, and it was time for me to get everything in order, so I could start the school year right.
That feeling is back again. It comes and goes, but this year it’s especially strong. Of course, it’s moot — I have a job and a house and a much-loved life here in the U.S., and I’m long past the point of heading back to school as a part of an annual routine. I have deadlines to meet, a mortgage to pay, a life to lead, right here where I am.
And yet, there’s something in me that’s intensely hungry for the kind of experience I had when I was going to university in Germany from 1985-87. It was a much simpler time, Cold War angst notwithstanding. The Berlin Wall was still up. There was still a clear East and West in Europe. There was still a definite line between The Evil Empire over there, and the God-given rights of Americans to live as we pleased over here. The September 11 attacks had not happened. You could buy a one-way plane ticket from Philadelphia to Zurich for $500. And very few everyday people in continental Europe spoke fluent English.
A different time, for sure.
I’ve been thinking a lot about one aspect of cultural life there, in particular — the distinction between creators and the people who made a study of what they created.
I was meeting up with a study group in a university hall, and I was scanning a collection of flyers posted on the walls around me. There were notices of upcoming lectures about writers and literature, and it occurred to me that none of the people presenting were actual authors, themselves. They studied and taught about the authors, but they weren’t the writers, per se.
I was surprised and remarked (probably a bit dismissively) to my German peers that it seemed odd that there were no actual writers giving presentations on writing. My German counterparts seemed puzzled that I would expect to be any other way.
“Lectures are given by professors who study the topics,” they said. “Writers should write. Teachers should teach.”
At the time, it seemed odd. And I wondered if it were even possible for a professor to adequately explain the meaning and intent of a work of literature — especially when the author was still alive. But over the years, watching the increasing commercialization of arts and literature, and the encroaching commoditization of artists’ and writers’ private lives (you have to have a following to get noticed, after all, and people tend to follow people they feel they know personally), it’s occurred to me that there’s something to the idea that:
Writers should write. Teachers should teach.
I might add “Marketers should market.” But that’s another rant for another time.
In the world we presently inhabit, where people become famous, simply because they are well, famous… and where the line between public and private is so blurred, so voyeuristic, and so opportunistically invasive, the spoils tend to go to the people with the biggest personalities, who have the most followers on Facebook and Twitter, who produce one video after another talking about (or doing)… whatever. The more intimate and revealing, the better. And in the publishing world, where the obligation to accrue followers falls to the writer, the author, the creator of objects of commercial desire, the pressure to peel yourself open like a can of sardines is no small thing.
It just seems so strange to me, that writers — who so often take to the printed word, precisely because they’re not all that keen on interacting with everyone directly — are expected to do all the heavy lifting for marketing and outreach and promotion. What’s even stranger, is that publishers — who don’t actually own the printing presses anymore, so WTF dude, what is it that you bring to the publishing equation, nowadays? — think they can reasonably expect writers to do all that promotion work, and do it well… while continuing to write.
This puzzlement is such a common complaint/conundrum, it seems cliche, and I suppose it is. We can bitch and complain about it to our hearts’ content, but that isn’t going to change the situation.
That’s just how it is.
And it’s not how I want to write or publish or frankly make my living. I want to write, yes absolutely. I want to publish, to be sure. And I want to do both with my only allegiance and obligation being to my craft, the language, and the meanings we derive from the whole of a fully lived life.
Once upon a time, I had not one book contract, but two, and both fell through for business reasons. It was a heady, awful time, and it really threw me for a loop. But the thing that did the biggest number on me and my Work was not losing the contracts and being relegated to the commercial scrap pile. Rather, it was the focus I put on my work being commercially viable, “delivering value,” and actually altering much of my original vision(s) to meet the expressed and rapidly changing wishes of my publishers.
That shift in priorities — away from the language, the meaning, the exploration, and towards the economic viability — was killer. And it occurs to me now that — after sitting relatively fallow, publishing-wise, for over five years — I can probably go back to doing what I wanted to do before, without angst, fear, and agitation. I’ve had the whole book deal experience — not once, but twice. And it almost ruined everything for me, my writing, and my vision as an author. I lost my focus, I lost my primary intention, and I wandered way off track.
For what? Nothing, ultimately.
So, this is probably the start of something new. I’ve actually been writing a lot, over the past year or so, with tens, even hundreds of pages ending up on my laptop. Some of it may turn out to be interesting to some folks. And I suspect precious little of it is going to be of any use to the established order of things. I haven’t got the pedigree, I haven’t got the CV, I haven’t got the degrees and certifications to actually qualify as a “real writer” in today’s marketplace. No writing workshops under my belt, no creative writing degree, no recent appearances in nationally recognized presses, either large or small. In the world of literature, I’m nobody. Less than nobody, actually. And if I stopped writing tomorrow, who the hell would notice or care? Maybe a handful of people, tops.
And that’s fine with me. I’m writing anyway, and I’m publishing as well. Bigger things await.
More to come. As I see fit.