You have no items in your cart. Want to get some nice things?Go shopping
I’d been reading more than writing, waiting for a lull. Hiding on long walks beneath high rises, clouds in dying fields. I’d been running in circles, burning calories up steep hills. Forgetting the essay due, of my design, on Kerouac and spontaneous prose. Questioning each word, their truth and cause, I was not prepared for her problems of writers at work.
I was reading when she sat in the chair opposite. Planning a silent retreat. I said,
How did it go?
Apparently my piece is unique. No one’s doing what I’m doing.
She put her feet up on the table. Patches of pale flesh were visible from ripped jeans I had never seen her out of. She loosened her long hair, caught in the collar of the denim jacket she wore too well. She said,
You know this is all I have to write.
I’m sure that’s not true.
I’ll rephrase it for you. This is all I want to write.
So if it’s unique, if no one’s doing what I’m doing, it will be much harder to sell it.
Is this one of those ‘it’s all the same’ kind of things?
She waved at someone behind me. Picked up her bag. Took out her purse. She asked me if I wanted a drink. I said no thanks. She asked me if I wanted to join the others in the corner, swapping stories, points of view. I raised the book, heavy in hand.
James Salter. All That Is.
I watched her walk to the counter. So she had something unique, but so many writers were beaten before they started. Beaten by the first sign of rejection, by the cynicism, the ideas of what others thought they should be. I looked back down at my book. Turned to the front page.
Enthralling. Vividly imagined and beautifully written.
Salter gives us joy, eroticism, disgust, beauty, nostalgia, outrage…
Pages of quoted praise before the story starts. This is a problem for me. Senseless seduction. Her fragility was a problem for me, it illuminated my own. Fading from the present, our thoughts of forced emulation, I found myself caught on something said a week before, when stood feeling cheated, coerced, in front of white walls overbearing. He’d been talking new love, or lack of, by a large fist drawn in sepia tones, above the Hammer and Sickle, the red of the USSR.
You know all it’s branding.
You mean propaganda.
No. Branding. You, me, we’re brands of writers now, and if not, you should be.
A group looking for meaning passed us by, their leader, in uniform, quietly shared stories of works with histories of tortured souls. From the window I could see the London skyline wrapped in reds, oranges, fading shades of blue. By the river, drenched in gold, a figure stood, in a way unexplained, levitating it seemed, while waiting for change. He continued,
Think about how to build an audience. Be doing all that shit you don’t want to do.
Perhaps he had a point; perhaps I was missing something great writers understood. Henry Miller proofread, translated, and wrote erotica to order. Balzac cut his teeth on hack works under pseudonyms. It seemed there were things that you just had to do. Still I resisted. I played the fool.
Have you heard the new Thom Yorke album? Some of it’s really beautiful.
You would say that. You adore the brand.
We moved on. Stuffed birds, impaled to walls ink stained. Construction site beams, rusted, hung high. I wondered how many previously rejected novels were published once the author had established a ‘brand’? I’d lost count of the times I’d seen that an author’s book, long forgotten, disowned, was being repackaged and sold.
You’ve got be to original, but familiar. Know your genre, your market place.
And all writers are thinking this?
The ones who’ll make it are.
Slowly we drifted outside. The sun setting over literary puzzles on a sad post-modern day. Had this all been for me? This pep talk gift-wrapped for the soul. I doubted it, but that didn’t matter, each writer’s path was different, mine would not be his.
Are you going to this?
She sat back down and moved a flyer, black with gold lettering, across the table. Writers with books to sell were giving readings. Some names were bigger, bolder, than others. I shrugged my shoulders. She said,
I wonder who the big names are?
The big names are just names sold better than the little ones.
She leaned back into her chair and began to play with the curl often residing at the dead ends of her long hair.
Would you sell my name?
That depends on how willing you were to sell mine.
She picked up her drink, went to take a sip, but returned it to the table untouched. She reached for the flyer once again and proceeded to run her index finger over names bigger than ours.
What if you did sell? Do you worry where they might place your work?
What do you mean?
I mean genre. I mean fiction or non-fiction. Other readers also bought.
I wish I had that to worry about.
She stared at the flyer, her hot drink going cold. She said,
I think of my book on Waterstones shelves, by the McCullers. Do you do that?
Who do you rest beside?
I wonder though, if we’d read them differently without their names.
You might have something there.
Something unique I guess.
I smiled. I thought about the great novels that would be forgotten. Alphabetically ordered on bookshelves, with pages upon pages of pre-story praise. I thought about those names lost in the ordained shadows of the cannon. The faces that did not fit, with their themes unfashionable, their politics obscure. I thought about Jack Kerouac, the failed mystic stuck on the road, lost as a voice for the ‘beats’. His name became a byword, the embodiment of cool, for the hipsters, the bohemians, the mad ones and the freaks. In the end he drank himself to death, washed up, burnt out, ruined by fame.
I think I’ll go. I want to know who the big names are.
As new writers, as old writers, we might not be the big names, but despite how it seems, there’s a freedom in that. Nothing is expected of us. No restless audience awaits more of our brand. We have time. We have space. We are free to grow into the writers we want to be. Free to experiment, to explore. Free to find out what works for us. Yes, some names are bigger than others, and always will be, but that doesn’t help when you sit down to write.