Tuesday, February 21, 2006

The Accidental Writer

(NOTE: The following is a memoir and as such is told using lies, misinformation, faulty geography, and plain BS. Dialog has been invented for greater dramatic purposes. The moral compass is pointed south where the food is better. Has Oprah called yet?)

Being a book midwife means never getting your name on the front cover of a book. There might be a mention in the acknowledgements but the outside belongs to the writer who had the original idea. If a midwife could invent his or her own stories, they would write instead of helping other people write.

In August 2005, Cypress House publisher Cynthia Frank and I sat at Pane e Vino in San Francisco waiting for our entrees. We had been presenters at the Mendocino Coast Writers Conference earlier in the month and the conversation drifted to the problems of first-time writers.

“There’s enough books on the subject,” she said.

"Except for John Gardner and few others, they’re written by writers who can't write. I read the damn things hoping to find advice I can pass on to clients and the books go into the recycling bin.”

“I like the chapbook you made for the conference. Nice bit of postmodern promotion. Ever thought of turning THE DOG WALKED into a book?”

“So far I’ve been asked to critique three different manuscripts for free, like I don’t do this for a living. A book means more requests for freebies.”

“Weenie.”

A man may call another man a weenie without repercussion. When a woman tries the same, male pride bleats and bleeds. Roast duck and ravioli stuffed with butternut squash arrived at the table while we talked about how to expand the current DOG WALKED. Cynthia tucked into the ravioli and made agreeable sounds. The meal ended with a contract and my promise to send in the finished manuscript by November 15 for release in spring of 2006.

We met at the Mendocino Book Arts Festival in 1987, where I was printing broadsides from lead type on a nineteenth century Albion handpress. The late Eighties were the last of the fun years in book publishing, when companies paid attention to editorial standards and independent bookstores held a major share of the market. Cynthia and I kept a watch on each other’s relative sanity as the industry changed through the Nineties, and Cypress House grew under her ownership. She helped me find my first clients when I went freelance. I owed her.

Through September and October I ignored regular hours and weekends to edit three novels and a lone nonfiction work on bird watching. The checks from clients mollified the landlord so I could give DOG WALKED the proper attention in November. How hard could it be to crank out one hundred pages about writing? I had labored in trade publishing for seventeen years, and written a fat novel (SMALL LIVES: A NOVEL IN THREE NOTEBOOKS AND FOUR DECADES) currently with an agent in search of a publisher. Writing a book was easy, especially when I had most of the research material on my bookshelves and in journals.

A new calendar page turned after Halloween. November 1, 2, 3, and 4 slinked by with emergencies and last minute fussing on different projects. DOG WALKED bulked up to twenty pages with the addition of title page, copyright page, and order information. Work avoidance took the place of writing. I dusted and swept, scrubbed the bathroom floor, darned the worn heel of a favorite pair of socks, cooked a giant pot of ratatouille, washed the windows, and trimmed pesky nose hairs. The closest I came to the manuscript was dotting the apartment with Post-It notes: “Bombazine belongs with Dickens, not us contemporaries.” “What about cross-collateralization?” “Describe, describe, describe.” “Coffee important, cigarettes too.” I was doomed.

NEXT: How Writing is Written

3 Comments:

Blogger GIRL'S GONE CHILD said...

“So far I’ve been asked to critique three different manuscripts for free, like I don’t do this for a living. A book means more requests for freebies."

(Gulp. Double gulp.)

12:43 AM  
Blogger Sal Glynn said...

A copyeditor hacked at these two sentences "for clarity." The original text reads: "So far I've been asked to critique three different manuscripts without the promise of sexual favors. A book means more requests for freebies with not even a back rub in return."

8:09 AM  
Blogger Sal Glynn said...

A copyeditor hacked at these two sentences "for clarity." The original text reads: "So far I've been asked to critique three different manuscripts without the promise of sexual favors. A book means more requests for freebies with not even a back rub in return."

8:10 AM  

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