It’s that feeling you get when you open a new blank journal, the pages lay exposed, and possibility radiates from it like body heat. Potential. There’s no end to what can be achieved and it all starts with putting pen to paper.
It’s that feeling you get when you look at your life, unformed, in front of you. A sense of what could be achieved, if you just put pen to paper. You know you’ve got something inside you, something that needs to be written down, shared. Yet somehow that empty page is daunting, as if those first scribbles are what publishers, editors, readers will judge you on. You’ll go down in history (or not, as is more likely) as the person who couldn’t form coherent sentences, and there will be pointing and laughing through the ages.
Hyperbole, perhaps. But the fears of inadequacy of an unpublished writer can be more real to them than the effort that they have already put in, and are willing to continue to put in. Particularly when the reality of publishing is an ongoing, colourful pantomime right in front of them, every day of their lives.
I work as a sales and marketing representative for a publisher. I have daily contact with bookstores, as well as the publishing house I work for. I see books come and go. I hear the way booksellers talk about individual books, the place they hold in their bookstore. I’ve seen brilliant works of writing returned because no one particularly liked the cover, or the author was unknown and didn’t catch the eye of browsers. It’s not all bad news, of course. I’ve seen unlikely gems find their niche. I’ve seen great reads sell thousands. But it is through this telescopic lens of choosy publishers, choosier booksellers and choosiest consumers that I try to position my own work and see through the years to where it finds its own place.
In my job, I am constantly selling other people’s books. I am trying to find the best way to capture the bookseller’s interest and show them all the ways there is a market for each book; give them enough information and inspiration to find that market within their own clientele. Sometimes, I have to achieve this in a single sentence. This requires me to read much of what I am selling. Of course, just as no-one would have the time to read everything that came through a bookshop, there’s little enough time to even read all that my own company publishes (let alone keep abreast of industry trends; not to mention the occasional book of my own choosing).
Reading something that fills me with awe can be equal parts inspiring and intimidating. It makes me want to be a better writer. Yet to see someone’s book (the culmination of years of hard, dedicated work) reduced to a sentence or two can be demoralising. The time restraints of a bookseller does not mix well with the sheer number of books being published each month. When I imagine my own work being boiled down to a few buzz words in the off chance it gets stocked, the reality of the publishing industry is brought home. Heavily.
Between my appointments with bookstores, the paperwork and emails required to support them, reading the books themselves, and let’s not forget the driving time (which can average 2-3 hours a day), it’s easy to see how my work bleeds into overtime. It’s too easy to do just one more email, or put together just one more list requested by a bookseller.
But, who am I to complain? My job provides me with opportunities not afforded to everyone in this industry. I get to meet many, varied people from all levels of the literary world. Not just booksellers but authors, publishers and publicists, librarians and literature enthusiasts. Readers, all. I get to attend talks and launches, hear people speak about their own writing. I find out about events all over Melbourne that might go unnoticed by others. I occasionally have the opportunity for more personal conversation with authors who require a chauffeur (working for their publisher has it perks). I’ve been inspired countless times by these encounters and conversations. More often than not, the gist of their advice to ‘aspiring’ authors is to write, write a lot, don’t stop writing.
So, I write. I scribble in my notebooks when I find time between the selling and the reading and the paperwork. I ‘note-to-self’ on my phone while driving. I type and edit, read and edit, wondering which of my ideas to get down next. I plan and plot, working out how to make things happen in the worlds I build in my mind. I fill my weekends with more screen-time, more words (this time of my own design). I work at whatever is emerging in the exposed white page before me.
I’ve learned that it might be best to keep the details of what I’m working on to myself. Too often I’ve been so excited about an idea that I am working on, that I describe it to someone who asks about my writing. That person then has an image of me diligently working, and will ask every other time I see them, “How’s your writing going?” to which there is only one honest answer: slowly.
But it’s not just the speed at which I can or can’t produce finished pieces of work. The very idea has its expectations. This sense that “that book sounded interesting, I can’t wait to read it” or “when will I be able to sell your book, Michael?”, ignoring that even if it was a finished text, the road to publication is not so straight forward. So when I hit a creative standstill and I put something aside to work on another and then someone asks about it, I feel inadequate and found out. Like I’ve been exposed as pretending to be an author, to try and stay relevant in an industry of authors and their works. Being unpublished in the world of publishing can leave you with a sense of nothing to hold in front of your privates. I now have one short story published, but that is only the beginning.
When does someone cross that line from author to Author, writer to Writer? Does it all boil down to publication? Or is that just a fruitful bonus that may or may not accompany the hard work that has its own personal, creative rewards even if it doesn’t involve the public domain? I’d like to think that’s the case. That I am a Writer, because I write. I just need to do it enough, and show the best parts of myself in the right ways to lead to a meaningful relationship with ‘publishing’. But in the meantime, I can continue to find self-fulfilment in my own creative work, and carry on writing without needing to question my calling. And who knows, I might just complete a few things.