My wife needed a new book to read, which is a frequent occurrence, given the towers of tomes on her bedside table, so I recommended one that had just come out to good reviews, written by a great guy I used to work with on a magazine staff. I didn’t read it myself because I have always made it a point to steer as far as possible from good books written by people I know if I know they’re going to better than any of mine could ever be. Sue me, I’m juvenile; I write. I do not think that these are mutually exclusive concepts.
The subject matter of my friend’s book, I thought, was right down my wife’s alley: It was a wine book, and she’s run a boutique wine store for seven years. So she downloaded the first chapter, read it and then said, from the next room, “Hey, your friend is a very good writer. Very clear style. Good reporting.”
“You gonna buy it?” I answered. A lot of me — okay, admittedly not enough of me — wanted her to to say “Definitely.” The demonic side, the ever-envious-ego, was, of course, hoping for a reply in the negative.
Several seconds passed. Then she said, “No…no, I don’t think so.” And at that point, I had a true epiphany: So _that’s_ how it happens. _That’s_ how the Fates of publishing operate: in a universe ruled by randomness, wherein someone like my wife downloads the beginning of a pretty good book, then turns to his or her inner literary governor, gets an immediate nod or shake of the head head in return, and that’s it: transaction either green-lighted or cancelled.
My wife had found the next book to buy after ten more minutes of surfing. And my friend had lost a buyer based on as near a whim as you can get.
Remember in Jurassic Park when Jeff Goldblum tries to explain Chaos Theory to Laura Dern by dripping water on his knuckle and theorizing that it could have run down his hand in either direction, but just happened to go in one? That’s how, with my wife’s instant gut decision, it was revealed all too clearly: that capricious micro-moment happens with thousands of potential readers with the publication of every new book.
At first, I was bummed. But I quickly found a silver lining: My Book-Buying Chaos Theory explained why so few people bought my last biography! Clearly, thousands of people had gotten recommendations from friends who knew they liked sports, and many had read the first chapter for free, and then said to themselves, “He sure can write. He’s done the reporting. Man, this is probably really, really good. But…do I really want to read a book about Phil Jackson that isn’t written by Phil Jackson? And didn’t someone tell me Shaq’s book was really good? Let’s go for Shaq.”
Anyway, that’s my story, and I’m sticking to it. I didn’t feel compelled to dwell on the real story (wherein…um…perhaps I didn’t write a very good book). What I did feel compelled to examine, after Â my wife certified what I’d known all along — that writing is the most illogical profession anyone could ever enter — is why I have, once again, given myself over to the Fates.
My first Young Adult (YA? At your age? Whaddaya, _no-brains?_ ) novel is coming out in the first week of September, and if and when no one notices, despite the logic of my newly found Book-Buying Chaos Theory, I can already see the scenario: I’ll wallow in self-damnation for a few weeks, and then go through a withdrawal period which will include a handful of head-in-hands-three-a.m. soliloquies, “Why in hell do I keep doing this?”
Then, the next day, in sunlight, I’ll answer myself Â the same way I’ve answered myself seven books and hundreds or thousands of pieces of journalism later, not to mention the unread blogposts whose content has the half-life of a mayfly: That I do it to stay aliveÂ I mean, writing must be sustaining me somehow, right? I do it every day, whether I have to or not. I just do. I can’t not.
So why is it my oxygen? Why do I need to turn thoughts that into letters and words and sentences to get through each day? Because, I think, we are social animals, and we live to reach out to other people with other ideas. In other word, to _act_. If we don’t act, we’re passive, and at the very least, metaphorically we shrivel and die. Now: if by nature you’re not very good socially (or at least you’re not nearly as good ay it as you think you are), then how best to connect with everyone else: those you know, those you know of, those you wish you could meet, those of whom you will never know?
By throwing out words and ideas. Whether anyone hears them or not, you’ve done the best you can, which is never a bad thing — until no one reads them, which is a bad thing…
…until you then get over your had self, turn the laptop on, take a deep breath and start all over again, suddenly feeling a lot better, because you’re re-entering remarkable world that allows you, a scribe, to be a member of the club.
As, of course, I already have. The first chapter needs work, though. Lots.