Rusty Old American Dream

Post Date: March 5th, 2010

I’m a tailfin road locomotive
from the days of cheap gasoline,
And I’m for sale by the side
of the road going nowhere,
A rusty old American dream.

David Wilcox, “Rusty Old American Dream”

Today’s Word Count, New Novel: 225 pages

The American writer’s dream: birth a bestseller. Be heard by everyone. Be sought after at signings by those who’ve stood in line for 24 hours (preferably preteens screaming your name at midnight costume parties). Be a household name.

To get published today, we are told daily a writer must think of little else. Writing must be a relentless, daily pursuit toward notoriety. One must sacrifice time with family and friends and never apologize for thinking about plot or platforms 24-7. No matter what the cost of the present, that dazzling future demands it, all in the name of success, which like Clorox, must turn things a blinding, pure white.

Do I ever stop to ask if the goal, uber-American as it is, might hide some dents and rust, or perhaps even suspicious tail lights and dangerous floor mats?

That particular American brand of vaulting ambition. Ask Macbeth: how’s that working out for ya? Ask the Big Three how the last few years went down.

If the core of the artist’s mission is Sell-sell-sell (and quality be damned) so we can Rule-rule-rule the world, the engine can’t run clean.

I’m not knocking money: it’s a powerful motivator to sit down to write and a very good reason; it just shouldn’t be the motivator.

So that I don’t sound too holier-than-thou purist, think of money-driven work this way: a mindless, bubblegum pop song (granted, infectious, trancelike, gets your foot tapping) that at the end, when the bubble bursts, leaves you with — what? Pink stuff stuck to your lips.

Or, like a badly-made vehicle: what happens when someone taps your bumper at a light, or when you tap the brake and the car rolls on?

Yes, I’m suggesting that bad art really does make the world worse. America has a lot to think about its obsession with fame and fortune, as does China. We’ve dirtied the world with too much rusty old Stuff.

Art made in order to make a million or a dollar is art without soul. If you see and speak only dollar signs, if you dash things off quick, and if you make something Everyman will want, you will perpetrate bubble gum and other sticky, childish things on this cluttered, hectic world. Like the slow food movement, let art be savory, digestible, and nutritious. Let it build bones and blood. Let it sustain us and keep us safe for the ride.

You have to sit down to a page that’s true. You have to rip out the heart of what you wrote if that heart is fickle and too worried about what others think. You have to start over as many times as it takes and write till you hate it, then write through that till you love it again.

You have to face your own ugly in order to get to that true. That’s hard to do when you’re thinking, How can I get rich quick? And those who are sitting to make only a buck aren’t telling a whole lot of truth about yourself or the world in their pages. Instead of calling out specific writers, I look instead to the grand-dame of the book club, and how Oprah gets America reading writers with truth and talent–Wally Lamb, Elizabeth Strout, Ann Patchett, Toni Morrison. Thank you, Oprah, for getting Everyman to think of something beyond celebrity magazines, paperback romances, and other brain candy we Americans consume like so much high fructose corn syrup. Look at her March recommendations.

So what’s today’s tune-up? I have to write the next pages of the novel with honesty. Be true to the characters. Be true to the theme. Let action unfold with integrity, coherence, and passion. Work until it’s good.

And only occasionally indulge that fantasy of crowds awaiting the first hard-cover copy and your signature, or, better and greener yet, the first downloads of your ethereal, not-so-Stuff-like e-book.


Look for my next post where I’ll explore the flip side of this subject: why it’s crucial that we Pay the Writer and not work for free.


  1. First off, love David Wilcox and that song.

    Second, I am continually amazed by your excellent writing, woman. Excellent, I tell you. You’re good. Keep going. Loved, loved, loved this post.

  2. Thank you, Beverly! Isn’t David Wilcox quite the poet? Love his extended metaphors on that particular album.

    Your gleaming chariot may have been the inspiration for such a post. I do believe I not only question the abstract American dream but the rusty, dusty old one I’m driving. 🙂

  3. bobmust says:

    Wow, Lyn that’s about as articulate a statement as I’ve seen about both what it’s like to be an artist in the contemporary world and the corrosive effect of money, fame, and artistic expectations within today’s society.
    One of my literary heroes is Ron Hansen, who began writing literary westerns, then wrote about a nun in a French convent, followed by a book about Hitler’s niece, then a comedy, and finally a book about Gerard Manley Hopkins. He’s such a good writer, with such insight into the human condition, but his talent is so often overlooked because no one can pigeonhole him – he writes what he feels, not what the market demands.

  4. Thank you, Bob. “Corrosive” is a good word for what happens to the writing process and the writer’s soul.

    I had an interesting discussion the other day with someone about my YA novel and how if that has a successful debut, I shouldn’t count on my other novel (literary fiction) getting easy passage into publishing. Sarah Dessen, wildly successful YA author, was used as an example of someone whose literary fiction doesn’t interest publishers because she’s been pigeonholed.

    Good for Hansen. Write quality works on what you love, and leave a great legacy. That’s what matters.

  5. Amen, sister. I find that people often come into my workshops expecting to write a best-selling memoir, like, today. Rush rush rush. Get it done. Get it sold. Get famous. Once they relax a bit into the process of writing and all the truth and depth revealed to them through the journey on the page, the goals shift away from that break-neck-paced American dream and more into discovering truth and writing in a true voice.. Of course sharing our work with the largest audience possible means a lot but that blind longing for fame and money can impede the creative process.

  6. Anonymous says:


    I enjoyed your latest post and it made me think of all the celebrity authors (you know the ones who can see Russia from their rear view mirrors) who focus on the buck not the work.(This assumes they actually wrote it in the first place.)

    Life ain’t fair is it?


  7. Carol, it must be powerful to see that kind of transformation in your workshops. So much more is gained in reflection and small community, in the moment, than in all the most dazzling dreams of fame (which are often dreamed alone). Those dreams are never enough sustenance, even if they propel a person to write every day. Loved ones, friends, colleagues, and writing partners are a key audience, and for many of our works, may be our only audience. They listen carefully to our truths but tell us when we’re dodging it. And when critique is done well, it’s really fun to make your writing better. These moments are all we have and shouldn’t be overshadowed by being only the prelude to the publishing or prelude to the fame.

    Archie: I fear that “The Emperor’s New Clothes” will be played out in every field, stage, and profession, whether writing or music or the making of widgets. There will always be slackers who make their millions off someone else’s sweat…and those who think the writing of the slackers is, well, actually, writing.

  8. Teresa says:

    Can’t wait to read your follow up post on why the artist must not work for free!