The Mutable Measure of Writing Success

One half of a lifetime ago, I walked into a Los Angeles bookstore. My goal, to read something substantial, was a bit foggy given that “substantial” remained undefined. I don’t remember being an insubstantial reader at that age. My diet consisted mostly of Vonnegut, Fante, Bukowski, and Brautigan, all of which seemed fairly meaty next to my girlfriend’s Anne Rice and Stephen King. I read her paperback copy of King’s Thinner one afternoon while I washed my laundry.  The exercise didn’t change my opinion.

I may have hated Thinner but I liked the girl, and on that afternoon one half of a lifetime ago both she and her dog-eared best sellers were long gone and I was alone, depressed, and ready to reinvent myself as A Reader Of Substantial Books, whatever that meant. In retrospect, there’s something almost sweet about that moment, the combination of ignorance and aspiration mixed with the hope that among those colorful, lettered spines awaited a new James: one who wasn’t broken hearted and lonely; one who wasn’t an art school dropout drifting aimlessly through a cruel city miles from home.  Somewhere among those neatly organized volumes a rope was coiled. Whether it led me out of this maze or lynched me didn’t matter. I just didn’t want to feel so goddamned alone anymore.

Tropic of Cancer caught my eye. The novel’s author, Henry Miller, died when I was a kid, which was only 13 years prior to that moment. I read his obituary in The Spartanburg Herald-Journal, an odd reading choice for an eighth grader but it was either that or pay attention during class. For whatever reason, a discarded newspaper lay on the floor near my desk, and the life of a controversial writer held more appeal than another droning lecture on the Louisiana Purchase.

I don’t remember the contents of that obituary now, nor did I probably remember them on that afternoon in a Los Angeles bookstore. I’m sure that when I saw Tropic of Cancer on the shelf I recognized its author’s name, and I likely remembered that during his most productive years he enjoyed more infamy than fame. After all, even 13 years after his death, Miller’s reputation as an obscene but literary author was fairly common knowledge, even among dullards like me whose cultural frames of reference mostly revolved around television.

I saw the book, remembered the obituary, and that was that. I left with Tropic of Cancer tucked under my arm: a book that was not authored by Vonnegut, Fante, Bukowski, or Brautigan; a substantial book, whatever that meant. Alone in my shitty little Hollywood apartment, a space one acquaintance described as “a Velvet Underground junkie pad,” Tropic of Cancer eviscerated me. I’d never felt that connected to a piece of writing. Miller somehow reached across the decades and spoke directly to me–a lonely, lost, confused young man whose only motivation for purchasing Tropic was recognizing the author’s name from an obit read years earlier.

Perhaps even more than the story the book contained, what fascinated me was that magic trick. How could a book that had nothing to do with me have everything to do with me? How could an author working three decades before I was even born reach inside of me like that? My first reading of Tropic was not entertaining, nor was it intellectual. That first time through was purely visceral, and I wanted that feeling again. More importantly, I wanted to work that magic myself. No book or person has ever provided me more motivation to write than Tropic of Cancer.

I knew that I wasn’t a writer. I knew I possessed neither the training nor the talent to pull off the magic trick like Miller did. Thirteen years after I was in the grave, no lost young man would stumble across one of my books and feel less alone. Regardless, I felt confident that I could accomplish something. If I practiced stringing words together, eventually I might publish my own chapbook and leave copies in bookstores and coffee houses. From there I could work my way up to what Bukowski called “the littles,” those small distribution literary magazines that were more labors of love than commercial enterprises, collated and hand stapled in Velvet Underground junkie pads just like mine.

Success as a writer boiled down to whether something I wrote resonated with one person. It didn’t matter whom, nor did it matter where. The odds of success stood at six billion to one in my favor. Somewhere on the planet, a reader waited to be delighted by my magic trick. If just one person connected with something I wrote, then I could call myself a writer.

I left L.A. and enrolled in the English program of a state university whose professors disparaged not just Miller but every author that I admired. “I don’t understand you undergraduates. Why do you waste your time with pulp fiction? There are too many books in the canon to waste time reading nonsense.” He spit the words “undergraduate” and “pulp fiction” as if they were spoiled tuna. In college I finally learned what “substantial” meant: Donne, Shakespeare, Spenser, Burns, Yeats, Tennyson. Tropic of Cancer may as well have been Thinner on this side of the Rubicon.

Some time during my senior year, a professor asked me to join him on a walk. “You write well,” he said. “What are your plans after graduation?”

“I want to write,” I said.

“Oh, God, don’t do that. The odds are against you.” He spoke as a professional who just the month prior brought us a copy of an in-flight magazine in which his work appeared. My definition of success was naive and unrealistic, my understanding of the odds I faced completely backward. Sure, there were six billion potential readers roaming the planet, but they did not want to see my magic trick. Even college professors topped out at 2,000 words in Hemispheres.

I tried anyway. Every week I sent manila envelopes to the littles in exchange for boilerplate rejection letters. The exercise grew disheartening. My definition of success mutated: If I could just place a story in a literary magazine, then I could call myself a writer. The mailbox didn’t care. It just kept spitting rejection slips at me. I gave up, and when I did a little magazine appeared in my box. I didn’t remember ordering a copy, but it looked interesting enough. I flipped through its pages, and there I found my first published story. I was a writer.

That feeling wore off quickly, replaced by rationales. This literary magazine didn’t really count. Who were they, anyway? Mine was probably the last story that they received prior to deadline, a gap filler necessary to flesh out the page count. And it’s not like I got paid. That’s the real measure of writing success: payment. Anybody can give it away.

Eventually I leaped that hurdle, too. I wrote for hire, and I still wasn’t happy. Anybody can write this dreck for money. It isn’t real writing. The measure of success became an addict’s high, a goal that always remained just out of reach, and if by some miracle I grabbed it then it morphed into something new: number of readers, number of hits, quality of publication, amount of payment, and out there on the far horizon the big, unobtainable goal–a novel published by one of the big houses.

For the last two years I’ve barely tread water, chipping at my writing habit because that’s what a junkie does even when he’s long lost sight of why he does it, and then last week I stumbled upon the following passage in Wallace Stegner’s On Teaching and Writing Fiction:

Your kind of writer has never spoken to a large audience except over a large stretch of time, and I would not advise you to pin too much hope even on posterity. Your touch is the uncommon touch; you will speak only to the thoughtful reader. And more times than once you will ask yourself whether such readers really exist at all and why you should go on projecting your words into silence like an old crazy actor playing the part of himself to an empty theater.

I am not that kind of writer. Stegner was speaking to one of the many substantial writers he mentored during his lengthy career, not a hack like me. Regardless, the passage resonated with me. Often I wonder whether readers exist at all, and for two years now I’ve questioned whether to keep projecting my words into silence. But rather than feeling discouraged by Stegner’s words, I was reminded of finding Tropic of Cancer in that Los Angeles bookstore half a lifetime ago. More to the point: I remembered that first measure of success, long mutated into something ugly and self defeating.  If  just one thing I write connects with one reader–if I pull off the magic trick even once–then I will have succeeded.

Today my odds of finding that one reader stand at 7.5 billion to one in my favor thanks to humans’ fondness for making babies and never dying. It’s a new year, too, and coincidentally I just filled a notebook and started a new one. My head is clear: I don’t feel the distractions of false measures of success. For the first time in two years I don’t feel strung out on the writing habit.

Today is a good day to reread Tropic of Cancer, to revisit that magical spark I felt 25 years ago, but it’s an even better day to write.

Categories: Memoir, on writing

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