Hi. I’m Jack and I’m a recovering author. I suppose that I have the same problem as most of you: one boring day at a time. I go eight hours without writing, take a deep breath and decide: okay, that’s past--I’m not sweating too badly—I can go another eight. When that’s past, it’s time for bed,and I check another day off the calendar.
I know that some of you are snickering inside. You’re social authors; you can stop whenever you want. I felt that way once. I would stop writing for weeks at a time, even castigate myself for procrastination, for not finishing whatever novel I was writing. Procrastination was my friend! If I had listened to its friendly call, I would still be talking about writing a novel someday; I would be a hobby author. Instead, I listened to the siren call of my obsession. Now I’ve written three novel manuscripts and self-published the last. Years have been sacrificed to this obsession; I have hit bottom twice.
How did it begin? It’s not something I inherited; I didn’t run with a bad crowd when I was young; I can’t blame anyone but myself. It began with a letter. I was then a moderately successful general contractor, not too far from retirement, with the usual problems of that occupation. I would set a schedule for a project and then cajole, coerce, or confuse my sub-contractors, who all had other generals to please, into compliance with my schedule, the others be damned. At this time, I was vexed with a sub-contractor who had made an art form out of breaking promises then pleading ignorance and a meager education as his excuse. Yes, he knew that he had promised two months ago to meet his starting date—it was up there on his calendar—but so were a lot of other dates, all reflecting promises to other generals, and he had been unable to solve or even understand the puzzle they posed.
I knew that the usual methods would not work with him. If I called him stupid, he would only agree. If I insulted him or used profanity, he would hang up and tell me later that he had prayed for my salvation. I decided to write him a letter. I further decided to use long words, complex phrases, and subtle concepts, all designed to test the shorthand version of English known to him and commonly used in our industry. Most of our words have only four letters, sometimes going to seven when a four-letter verb’s participle is used as an adjective. I suppose it all started in Anglo-Saxon times with words like arch, door, curb, and some no longer used in polite conversation. I substituted prevaricator for liar, accused him of iniquity, subornation, and turpitude; noted the moral and character deficiencies that had brought greater malefactors than him to their extirpation. If the letter did not send him to his attorney, it would surely send him to the dictionary.
He called the next day and told me that he was pulling two men from every job he had and would have a full crew on my job the next day. He asked only one thing; I must never write him such a letter again. Power surged through me as I hung up the phone. It was true: the pen was mightier than the sword. More accurately, the typewriter was mightier than a two-by-four.
Hubris led me down a garden path from this letter. I was soon engaged in a busy correspondence, correcting editors, denouncing city officials, and advising the President on a variety of subjects. I retired from business in a flood tide of writing. Without a business to manage, I had time on my hands and that meant more time for writing. I went from letters to articles, from articles to stories, and plunged into a novel with no apprehension of my approaching obsession.
My wife warned me that I was spending more time writing than I had spent on my business. I told her that I could stop whenever I wanted. To test my thesis, she hid my pencil and notebook then suggested we drive to the beach. This succeeded that one time only. When we returned home, plots and characters ran crazily through my fevered brain. My obsession was now too strong to oppose. Soon, I had pencils and pads of paper in hiding places, known only to me, scattered about the house. When she saw that she could not stop me, my wife became my enabler. Noting the quantities of paper and pencils I was consuming, she added these commodities to her weekly shopping list, collecting coupons and ferreting out sale prices as conscientiously as if she were buying groceries.
One fateful Sunday, after I had written a veritable fury during the preceding week, she informed me that she had forgotten to buy my supplies. She might just as well have said my fix. I exhausted my remaining paper in an hour, writing on both sides, then grabbed her bowling-score sheets and wrote on the back sides. When my last pencil disappeared into the pencil sharpener, never to emerge whole, I grabbed a ballpoint pen and began writing between the bowling scores. She complained that she could no longer make out the scores.
“Who cares about your lousy scores?” I roared. “I can’t make out my story!”
I rushed out of the house determined to end this madness. Our local stationery store was closed. The drug store had sold out completely in an all-out, back-to-school sale the preceding day. Outside, an elderly lady of fragile, almost vulnerable, appearance manned a voters’ registration table.
“Would you like to register?” She had a smile that pleaded for my approval.
“Is that a pencil you’re holding?”
“Why, yes. Yes it is.”
“Give it to me.”
Wanting to please, she half held it to me while protesting, “But I need - -“
I whipped it from between her fingers as if it were the brass ring extended for a hotshot rider on a merry-go-round. I ran for my car, her muted cry of alarm dim in my ears as my feverish thoughts turned to paper. I must have paper!
I relate all this from no sense of rationalization, certainly from nothing resembling pride. I relate it as catharsis.
Before I reached my car, I saw a boy sitting on a bus-stop bench with a notebook at his side. I ran over and offered him a dollar for it.
“I got my homework in it.”
I gave him five dollars and grabbed it.
“I’ll get it photocopied. I have to have it.”
I looked for a place to sit. The bench was now full. I sat on the curb, but my knees were humped too high for me to write comfortably. He watched in childlike wonder as I sprawled into the gutter, face down, propped on one elbow, and began to write. The scene spilled out of me; my heroine denounced my villain; my hero made his death-defying move, and chaotic violence followed. When my villain had died, choking on his own blood and my protagonists were safely embraced, I looked up from my labor, my passion spent.
The bus had stopped in the driving lane and traffic was backing up. People were staring at me from inside, and a neighbor, getting off, spoke to me.
“Jack! What are you doing in the gutter?”
Other passengers, now boarding, gave me a wide detour. I saw the fragile, old lady off to the side, talking to a police officer. He walked her over.
“Is that the man?”
“Yes.” She spoke softly and fear showed in her eyes.
That was my first bottom. I felt like I was in a nightmare from which I should awaken. I was no longer a retired businessman, respected in his community. I was a writing bum who had to steal pencils from the helpless and paper from the innocent to support my habit. I had become a creature of the gutter.
The court appearance a week later was an anti-climax. The judge showed his frustration after I told my story.
“You’re obviously addicted.”
“If you were a drunk driver I could take your license.”
“An author doesn’t need a license.”
“I know that. I could also let him off if he attended AA meetings.”
“I don’t have that problem. What I need is an Author’s Anonymous group.”
“You sure do.”
I paid a fine for disturbing the peace and went home to face the concern showing in my wife’s face.
“Don’t worry. I won’t write again.”
“Are you sure? Maybe the judge was right; you could start such a group.”
“No. All the authors I know are in denial. I’m the only one who has hit bottom.”
* * *
I quit cold turkey. For a year I kept busy with backed-up maintenance projects on the house, and I rebuilt a boat. Then, my son showed me his computer and all its marvels. I immediately bought one, telling my wife that I could use the spread-sheet program to track my stocks. I could enter formulas in cells, get ratios, row and column totals automatically. I could be my own stock analyst. Six months later, I was deep into my second novel and fully obsessed again. I would show my wife the weekly stock report and, when she had left the room, dive into my word-processing program. I was no longer dependent on pencils and paper. I could print out as desired, but composition needed only the keyboard and me. I could insert or delete words, phrases, even complete passages, and the surrounding text would ebb or flow, as if by magic, to accommodate my story.
I experienced the intoxication of creation and the hangover of multiple rejections not once but twice again. I filled a file cabinet with manuscripts, revisions, critiques, and rejection letters from three novels. The last was actually a novella, and I discovered that it could be published at a cost affordable to me. My nephew worked in graphics and designed a knockout book cover. I engaged another firm to do text graphics and found a book printer. Within a few months of my initial decision, I picked up 15 cartons of books from the printer.
I was deeper into my obsession than I had ever been. On my headlong drive to self-publication, I had treated warnings, written and verbal, as if they were siren calls from. Bali Hai. My special island’s song drowned out all discouraging thoughts, all twinges of doubt. Yes, there were 12,000 bookstores, but I didn’t have to visit every one. Yes, I knew Oprah’s importance and would certainly write her. No. I couldn’t send advance copies to all the newspaper and magazine review sections. I was already published; I’d send them each a book. I had plenty and could always print more. Two million active book titles was only a number. It probably included telephone books.
I selected a near-by store from one of the two biggest bookstore chains for my first call. The manager told me that she was delighted to meet me but was suffering a recognition block. What other books had I written? I told her that this was my first to be published, and I had picked her store to display it, to host my first book signing.
“You’re a celebrity? Sports, film, TV, Mafia?”
“I was in World War II.”
“That’s not yet a rare status.”
That stopped me. Was she asking me to come back in 10 or 20 years? I might be rare by then, but I could also be dead.
“Why should we?”
I could see that she had a quick mind and was using it to confuse me.
“See me when I become rare?”
“No.” She looked impatient. “Why should we feature you?”
I was back on firm ground.
“It’s a great book. I brought a copy for you to read.”
“I haven’t time for that.”
“It’s a fast read and it’s a novella.”
She shook her head and fired a barrage of questions, answering each as she posed it.
“Do you know how many titles we stock? Sixty thousand. How much could I have read of all that? Publisher reps are in here constantly, pulling old titles and stocking new. Am I supposed to read what they add too? How old do you think I am?”
I tried to estimate how old she’d be if she had read ten thousand books and gave it up as a bad job. I ignored her last question and tried a new approach.
“Somebody decides what goes on the shelves and what gets pulled.”
“It’s done by computer.”
“You have a computer that reads books?”
“No.” Her look of irritation was more pronounced. “We have a computer that keeps track of what sells and what doesn’t. I’m beginning to twitch.”
I have never been insensitive to signals from the opposite sex. At this point, if it took personal magnetism to get her support, I was prepared to use it. My gaze traveled down her figure; she was young for me but certainly attractive enough. She interrupted my train of thought.
“I twitch when I’m not selling something. Have you tried our coffee shop yet?”
Sensing that the interview was over, I went to her coffee shop and ordered a latte, partly to consider the points she had raised and partly to give her a monetary return for the time she had spent with me. Sixty thousand titles. At six to the foot, it would take two miles of shelving to display them. I looked about me. It was a super-store and it probably had that many. With all their pulling-out and stocking-in, they probably handled 200,000 titles a year. Yet, there were two million book titles active across the nation. A sense of the dispersed nature of this business swept over me. Aside from supplementary items, a bookstore sells nothing but books, yet no customer buys more than one of each title, making each title a separate product. This one store would offer 200,000 different products in one year; it had ten times that number in catalogs!
It was only a short step in logic to decide that conventional methods would not sell many copies of my book. During the following months, I tried independent bookstore contacts, trade fairs, and various promotions. I established a web site and an on-line sales capability. Why did I need bookstores? I would sell direct.
I considered travelers and took to prowling airline-terminal waiting rooms. I found that air travelers do not like to be intercepted on their way to planes; their minds are on other things. When they are settled in a waiting room, they have spare time but this time, as several pointed out to me, is ample for them to visit the gift shop and browse for a book or magazine. They also noted that, since I offered only one title, I was not giving them much to browse.
Deciding that air travelers were a sophisticated elite, I switched my attention to bus terminals. Since I conceived this market to be heavy in blue-collar workers, students, and hikers, I dressed down to them. I generally cruised in wearing work clothes and scuffed shoes, with a 2-day beard. Unfortunately, I often encountered retirees much like myself who saw me as a homeless person trying to pick up a few bucks selling a book. Some asked with a sneer if I was willing to work for food. Others offered my purchase price but said they really didn’t want the book, suggesting instead that I apply the money to getting myself into a better shape. Since I conceived this to mean charity, I refused their offers although, technically, they could have been considered as sales.
In spite of all this diversity of marketing programs, I was not making many sales. Depression was a constant visitor, and I felt the approach of another bottom. However, I have never been a quitter, and I decided that my sales concepts had not been sufficiently original. Books and magazines are readily available at air and bus terminals. Why not go where they were not available but just as needed?
Proceeding on this premise, I appeared at our most prestigious mortuary, an institution where one would not be confused with the homeless, dressed befitting my middle-class respectability and surveyed the slumber-room schedule. Locating one that seemed well-attended, I slipped in bearing several of my books. My books are paperback, and I can carry several in pockets I have had sewed into my coat lining. I approached a woman who was waiting in line to view an opened casket and asked if she would like a book to read while she was waiting.
“Is it free?”
“Practically. A lousy eight bucks.”
“Omigod! Can’t you see I’m grieving?”
So, if she was grieving, was she willing to stand there and read it if it was free? Shaking my head at the general perversity of women, I proceeded down the line, concentrating on the men. They seemed distracted and some muttered about propriety. I tried to make them feel easy, noting that death happened to us all and what was improper about reading until it was their time to view the departed?
I had not proceeded too far and had yet to make a sale when I was tapped on the shoulder. A voice whispered in my ear that I could find a better sales opportunity outside. A priest awaited me in the corridor and he motioned me to a small anteroom. There he informed me of the special hell that awaited the debaucher of a slumber room. I had not thought of it that way and still question that my purpose was as evil as he claimed. Besides, I had made no sales. However, I became despondent as he droned on.
None of my methods, conventional or unconventional, had amounted to much. Most of my books were still in unopened cartons, stacked in my basement. The slumber room plan had been a last, desperate ploy. I had not realized how much I had staked on it until now when there were no other ploys out there. Earlier, in the heady days following publication, I had thought of my wife and I taking a cruise, each night bringing out a carton of books and dispensing them to fellow-passengers, all infatuated with the idea of being on board with a live author. Now, I could only calculate how many I would likely have sold against the cost of the cruise.
There is a clarity that comes with a monumental hangover, the kind that all but kills you and makes you wish it had; with that same clarity, I knew that I had reached my second bottom. I interrupted the priest and apologized for any disruption I had caused. He expressed an interest in helping me with any spiritual problems that might be plaguing me, but I only wanted out of there. I knew that he listened to far greater problems in his parish every day than any I could bring forward.
I drove home knowing that it was cold turkey time again.
That meant no more writing for me
I am a recovering author.
So what is all this?