Friday, January 22, 2010

My Life As a Writer

I learned early on that I was good with words. I began writing a novel about pirates at eight, but never finished because my dad was so proud and excited that he whisked the manuscript off and induced some poor secretary at his place of employment to type it up even though it ended literally in midsentence. By 14, I was winning the creative writing award at my junior high school two years running, and then getting to sit up on stage with the big shots at graduation because I’d composed the most heart-tugging speech. My high school English teachers oohed and aahed.

In the lonely summer before my final year of college, I composed a diatribe against The Doors just for something to do, and quickly found myself writing regularly first for the student newspaper’s arts section, and then the Los Angeles Times, and then Rolling Stone. The Monday after the Friday of my graduation (which I skipped so I could interview my idol, Pete Townshend), I began a well-paying job writing advertising and other copy at a big record company, an opportunity I failed to appreciate because of the Groucho Marx Effect — how good could any job for which I’d be hired be?

I felt the beneficiary of a case of mistaken identity; couldn’t people see that I wasn’t very good at all? Wasn’t it obvious, insofar as my reviews were concerned, that my playing this scathingly dismissive character in print was meant to conceal either that I had no idea what I was talking about, or actually didn’t care one way or the other?

I guessed not, because for around four years there, magazine editors kept inviting me to write for their magazines, and record companies kept offering me big bags of gold to write advertisements, and book editors in faraway New York were only too delighted to agree to read the unspeakably awful first novel of which I managed to grind out three sample chapters.

As I started to get better, the world became less and less interested; I’d been praised (and paid!) far out of proportion to my abilities at 23; couldn’t I, at 35, at least get a job? After years of declining income and then poverty, I took the first non-writing jobs (typing, and then word processing) of my adulthood, and boy, did I feel humiliated.

In my 30s, I wrote a great many screenplays I thought very much better than most of those being produced. None was even optioned, and most of the time I didn’t even have an agent. I finally got a literary agent, and she got me deals to write books about The Kinks and David Geffen, but it was my fiction I cared most about, and nobody wanted it. By the early 90s, I’d pretty much abandoned for good the idea of writing for a living, and turned instead to digital design — which wasn’t exactly a hardship, as I adored it, and in fact still adore it, and consider myself better at it than at writing.

I finally managed to get my fiction between hard covers while living in the UK, but had to come in through the back door. Dominatrix: The Making of Mistress Chloe, which I ghostwrote for a big reputable mainstream UK publisher in 2002, was a novel masquerading as a memoir, but no one was supposed to know.


While working on another novel, about a body-dysmorphic guy who imagines himself into a state of painful alienation (write about what you know!) I was invited to do a biography of Kate Bush. My editor acknowledged that Bush was unlikely to cooperate, and agreed to let me add obsession with her to my fictive protagonist’s list of problems, slipping in biographical information as and when I could. Waiting for Kate Bush wound up around 20 percent biography and 80 percent fiction. A couple of people wrote very nice things about it, and it was translated into German. Kate Bush’s fans loathed it, as I pointed out that, while she’s been brilliant, she’s been unlistenably self-indulgent and silly just as often.

The editor nonetheless assigned me another book, about The Pixies, whose manager said the group would cooperate. This was splendid news, as I hadn’t much cared for what little I’d heard of them over the years, and relished the idea of writing a straightforward reportorial biography rich in fascinating detail, free of my own opinions. The manager lied, though, and the book wound up half biography/critical (very critical; the more carefully, I listened, the more I loathed The Pixies) overview, and half a series of short stories about how her love for the group affects a particular young woman over the course of 20 years’ fandom. Pixies fans wanted to disembowel me, and then feed my entrails to rabid dogs, and then to boil the dogs alive, and then to defecate in the water, and then to drown me in it, assuming I'd survived the disembowling.

I’ve since written a couple of complete novels, about a third (enough for prospective patrons to make a judgment about) of half a dozen others, about a third of two memoirs, and a screenplay. I had an adoring young woman agent in the UK who didn’t sell anything for me, and then defected to the other side, becoming an editor. I briefly had another literary agent, an ebullient Manhattan-based Aussie who predicted big things and didn’t deliver even little ones.

Trying to get another has been like removing impacted molars — of someone who refuses to open his mouth. I'll send out around 120 query letters, and in response receive maybe 20 form rejections and half a dozen invitations to send sample chapters and a synopsis. Of that half dozen, three will never be heard from again, and as we speak, the only writing I’m able to do for actual pay is for a Website devoted to triathletes (write about what you know!), and that only because the editor’s a pal. A graph with my success on one axis and the quality of my work on the other would look like a big X.

I just knew it. I should have been a rock star.

[Exciting news: On, where you can hear my new album Sorry We're Open, I am now ranked 80,573rd; next stop: stardom! Facebookers: Read more little essays and subscribe here.

1 comment:

  1. Let's ignore that final assessment. You're a writer - perhaps, even a wonderful writer - no matter what person or group you're annoying with your opinions! Digital designer, musician, and actor, too - I don't doubt, but the Wordsmith rules.

    You were lucky, Johnny-Boy, to have a father who expressed pride and excitement in your pirates' essay. Granted, you continued writing and winning awards in your teen years despite the trauma of having your manuscript snatched away from your 8-year old hands. You had the innate smarts to go with your talent and hone your skills, which is akin to the experience of planing wood with the grain and not against it.

    (I can remember no such moment in my childhood when an adult (parent or otherwise) grew excited with my accomplishments. Had they recognized that I spent lots of time and money in the local stationery store, scored a perfect 4 out of 4 on the creative writing PSAT, and repeatedly wrote the best-in-class papers in college - I might not have spent my life planing against the grain. Trying to prove something that wasn't worth proving. But, that's another story.)

    Back to my main point, would the Frank Lloyd Wright we revere have evolved without his mother who believed he was the most creative child in the whole wide world? Could he have bounced back from various marriages and fatherhood, the absense of business, arson and murder to create the most iconic images of the 20th century - Falling Water and the Guggenheim without the confidence in his talent instilled by his mother? I don't think so. He didn't give up, and he lived long enough to generate some of his best work between the ages of 60 and 90.

    So, I'm thinking your father was right. You're a writer. Despite the lousy agents, market forces, rejection letters, and the X graph, you're a writer whose best work may be ahead of him.