Friday, January 22, 2016

What Kind of Writer Would Write a Story Like That?

The topic of discussion this morning settled down after about fifteen minutes to the either/or of single-focus attention or multitasking.  This is the approximate format of most Friday morning coffee klatches, not visibly changed by the change in the demographic of who is present on any given Friday morning.


Someone asked you how you approach chores, causing you to wonder if that were the politeness of asking the oldest person present first for his or her take on the subject at hand or if perhaps your answer was already assumed and in consequence already a subject of mirth.  You've known most of the Friday regulars at least ten years, in one or two cases, even longer.  The chances of you having seen at least half of those present at lease once during the previous week is high.

Even as you answered, confessing to a spectrum of work habits bordering on attention deficit disorder, you understood that everyone else was a one-job-until-it's-done person, your emerging laughter growing in recognition of the awareness of being other, watching friendly and random groups for clues related to how others go about the warp and weft of life.  You've long since given up the sense of trying to assimilate because, having tried to do so at various stages, you were unsuccessful.

Nor are you different with the agenda of maintaining distance or originality.  You've tried that as well; it did not work.  You come by your difference naturally, neither alarmed when you find yourself joining in on some communal habit, nor even shifting slightly from the norm in support of your difference.  The repeated argument you give yourself relates to your fondness for fiction, the generality of its creation, and the specificity of ways in which you create it and the kinds of fiction you ultimately produce.

Back in the days when you were being represented by two high-powered literary agents who saw your future in the lucrative slick magazine market, so named because the magazines were printed on paper with a slick finish, you were more or less trying to assimilate because the slick style did not come to you as the kind of reflex you've long since associated with being "in" your own voice, whatever your voice said right off.  

Several hundred thousand words land untold crumpled sheets of manuscript paper later, you understood a basic truth about Marxist theory:  You were a consumer.  You consumed Eaton's Corrasible bond paper.  Twenty-pound basis weight.  You consumed typewriter ribbons.  You consumed carbon paper, then liquid paper.  You consumed lighter fluid to clean the keys of your various typewriters.  You consumed on a 2X basis postage stamps, 1X to send and the second X for the return trip, should the material be rejected.

You consumed the conventional wisdom that the slicks were the publications to be writing for, not making the connection that those two literary agents, whose advertisements were always bragging about their most recent sales to the slicks had brought in thousands.  After you were a few hundred thousand words into that conventional wisdom, you began to accept the muscle memory of appreciating the slick magazine fiction but not being of it.

At one point in your career, you found yourself describing, then ultimately publishing book projects from a writer who not only wrote for the slicks, he edited one of the bigger, better ones.  "How come you never tried to write for us?" he asked you one day.  On the same day, you told him that you had tried to for some time before you realized you were not of that group.  He mentioned a number of writers who were, many of whom you knew, and at least three you'd on occasion had had too much to drink with.

You found yourself this morning expressing admiration for those who could pursue a single project all the way to the end, even the willingness at this stage of your life to accept that as a working model.  With the willingness comes the awareness that you do not work for any sense of efficiency.  

Sure; you enjoy finishing a project, then becoming caught up in a new one.  Sure, you like the moments of waiting to see if your agent or editor have discovered anything you might have missed.  You absolutely like the challenge that can come when, as a teacher, you put forth some vision or theory, and one or more students are on it, filling the air with the contentious voices of otherness.

Some years ago, when you first came to Santa Barbara to work for yet another publisher, your job had to do with the editing, scheduling, design, and overall production of books.  You were introduced for the first time to the weekly production schedule and to being asked to answer in a tangible unit of measurement how long you would need to edit a particularly boring book.  Rather than engage in a subjective dialogue, you picked a number of hours that seemed about right to you, added ten percent, then said with some authority, "Ninety-six hours."

You could not have wanted a better immediate response.  The fact that you'd chosen hours rather than the days or weeks of your predecessor added to the desired response and your authority in its specificity.  "Very well then, ninety-six hours it shall be."

But as so many things go under such circumstances, you heard a fuse being lit.  It was a long fuse, but you came away understanding that five years hence, you'd be looking for another job.

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