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.