The other day I had a couple of guys install a patio door for me. I watched as they worked on a gorgeous spring day, pounding nails, humming along to the radio, talking boisterously among themselves. They were working hard but they were clearly enjoying themselves, also. But not once in the course of that day was I gripped by an overwhelming urge to become a carpenter.
Ditto when I meet a surgeon, electrician, or engineer. No desire to learn their trade. No illusions that I can do it.
So why oh why does every person that I meet confess to me their secret desire to become a writer? It's getting to be downright ridiculous. At this rate, Americans will write more books in any given year than read them. A friend was recently telling me the lament of her friend who owns a bookstore. The store owner gets at least one or two walk-ins a week who want her to carry a book that they have self-published. That request doesn't bother the bookseller at all. What bothers her is the fact that those same people never ever stop to browse in her store, much less buy a book.
Every time a person sidles up to me and confesses this secret desire to write to me, I feel like saying, Listen, I don???t want you as a competitor. I want you as a customer.
Okay. Thanks for letting me vent. The fact is, I understand that this urge to tell stories is universal. It is a primal, ancient urge, going back thousands of years. Long before there were electricians or plumbers there were storytellers. The human brain is hardwired for narratives, for making stories out of everyday life.
But many people make the mistake of equating an interesting story with literature. The truth is, art is more than life. Art is life plus magic.
One strange and scary thing has happened to me since my last book, The Space Between Us, has been published. I constantly get approached by strangers asking for help in finding an agent or publisher. But when I tell them how to go about doing it ? get a copy of Writer???s Digest, find the agents who are interested in your kind of book, send out query letters ? their eyes glaze over. Recently I was doing a radio show and the first caller identified himself as a dyslexic with ADHD who has just come across a manuscript written by his father in the 1950s. The story was about UFOs and the caller wanted to know how to go about getting it published. I gave him the usual spiel about Writer???s Digest. I don't know if his eyes glazed over or not, seeing how he was just phoning his question in. But I suspect they did.
Because what people really want is for me to say I'll refer them to all the New York agents and publishers I know. And I'm sure they never believe me when I say I hardly know anybody. I mean, here I am sitting in Cleveland, Ohio. What do I know about the New York literary scene? Not a whole lot more than I did when my first book came out five years ago. The only people I know are ? well, the people I know. And there's not enough of them to read the manuscripts of all the people who ask for help.
The most awkward recent conversation involved an elderly man who approached me after a book reading. His wife, who had died a few years ago, had left behind a manuscript. The husband, clearly an educated man, had found the manuscript after her death and wanted to get it published as a final tribute. I'll never forget the look in his eyes when I lamely told him about how he needed to go about finding an agent. He was too gracious to say it out loud, but his look said: How many years do you think I have left myself, to send out all those query letters?
I talked to the man for about half hour. There were other people in line waiting to talk, all of them clearly impatient. Still, walking away from that man was the hardest thing I did that day.