Brushing with Fame When You Don’t Know You’re Doing It

I’ll be the first to admit, I don’t know what a lot of writers look like.  Unlike movie and television stars, whose photos are ubiquitous, writers—even most superstar writers—don’t get their photos splashed everywhere.  I don’t watch TV, so while writers might be doing the book tours, and showing up at morning chat shows, I’ll never see them there.

Authors I would recognize if I saw them walking in the streets:  Stephen King, John Grisham, Roxane Gay, Joyce Carol Oates.  (And Emily Dickinson and Walt Whitman and Audre Lorde—but of course, they’re long dead.  And if they were walking in the streets, that would be terrifying and highly inappropriate for a corpse.)

Forget poets, I have no idea what they look like.  We live in obscurity.  The only poets whose faces I’d recognize are the poets I know personally—not an insignificant number, but not a huge one either—or the poets I follow on Twitter, though their images are about the size of a finger nail.

My point being, sometimes you bump into a famous author—whose name or work you know, but you don’t know the person, so you’re caught a little flat-footed until you see his or her name badge.  This very sitch happened at AWP this year in Washington D.C.

Working the Atlanta Review table on Friday morning (Feb. 9th), I perfected my carney act, trying to entice passers-by to get interested in the journal and maybe buy a subscription, when a handsome older man in a dapper hat, too polite to pass on by after I flagged him down, stopped.

“Do you know about Atlanta Review?” I asked in my dreadfully cheerful, most hopeful voice.

“Yes, I do,” he said.

“Are you a poet?  Have you sent us some submissions?”

“Well, I have a list of 100 journals that I’m currently going down the line and sending work to.  Atlanta Review is somewhere in the middle, a great journal.  But I’m mainly a fiction writer.” (Dramatic pause.)  “I’ve written…oh, maybe 50 books.”

And that’s when I notice his name badge, peeking out from his scarf—Walter Mosely.

Oh, geez, do I feel stupid.  Of course he’s written 50 books, he’s Walter Fucking Mosely, famous for his Easy Rawlins detective novels, like Devil in a Blue Dress, which came out in 1990.


via John Winokur on Twitter @AdviceToWriters

We chitchat a little longer, and then he promises that he’ll send some work our way soon, and wanders away from the table.

I’m standing there, bemused, thinking, If I had just seen his name badge, I could have been a lot more effusive in my interaction with him.  I could have sounded like a fan.  (Not to hustle him into buying a subscription, but because writers like to be appreciated for their work.) But he was absolutely charming, and didn’t seem to hold it against me that I didn’t recognize his face.  (Thank goodness.)

Of course, this is all by way of saying, we should know what authors look like—they should be in our collective consciousness, like movie actors—writers are just as important and affect people in personal, sometimes lifelong, ways.  And it’s just too bad that on some arbitrary scale of cultural significance, writers, and especially poets, fall somewhere near the bottom.

I think they should make posters of famous authors, and there should be issues of the equivalent of Tiger Beat for poets.  Wouldn’t that be cool?  If suddenly we had magazines full of poet pinups?  (I think that would be fun.)  Or if there were trading cards with bubble gum which you could collect?  Or glossy, autographed headshots?

On a last note, I realize I do live under a rock, so perhaps others are more aware of what their literary heroes and heroines look like than I am.  But I wish that as a group, we were a little better at publicity.  That fame game is hard.  (I wish I was a little better at it myself.)

For a Writer Friend Who Isn’t Writing (This Is Still About Me Though, Let’s Be Clear)

A lot of my thinking has to do about why I write, and this blog looks at my writing process and elaborates on that thinking (as my five faithful readers are well aware). Everyone knows that writers write. And everyone also knows that sometimes writers don’t write—because they’re bored or they’re tired or they’ve just reached some kind of impasse.

I was going through a lot of crap in my office, preparing for the AC guys to come in and work on my AC unit (by the way, they still haven’t come, and my office is a disaster, though that’s beside the point), and in the process I was throwing out a lot of paper and other useless bits of detritus from my years teaching, and I came across a freewrite I scrawled on July 16, 2008. The topic was “Why Do I Write” and this is what I said:

I write sometimes it seems not because I love it like I used to, when writing was about loving words and not about worrying about a CV. I haven’t written like this [in other words, a freewrite—I was taking a continuing ed class at Emory on memoir writing] in a long time—I buy writing books but lack the discipline to doing it on my own. Actually, I lack the discipline in so many ways—

I was thinking earlier today that I should work on those poems for June and July [this was during the period our writing group, the DYPS, was working on the poems that would eventually become On Occasion: Four Poets, One Year]—it seems more fun to write when I have my friends to write for. But Karen and Bob are out of town, and again, their being gone is like a license for me not to write. And I need to write—after all, I want to be famous some day—that’s a really terrible reason, I know [well, come on, it’s a freewrite after all—you can say anything you want in a freewrite, even something ridiculous like that]—but I want to have something to pass on, something that matters. I probably will never have children, so my legacy needs to be another kind of creation. That’s why I write. Or, that’s why I want to write.

(Blah blah.  Oh, JC from 2008, you are so tedious.  But, on the other hand, if you need a reason to write, and the hope for fame is it, well, keep on hoping, and keep on writing.  Whatever works, right?)

The fact is, I do write. Well, now I do.  Maybe not with the frequency I should, but I’m at an ok point with my writing and my diligence and my publishing. What got me thinking about not writing was a recent email I got from my Brilliant Fiction Writer Friend™, the one who gave such amazing and useful advice on the two pieces of prose I brought him. I asked him whether he was still writing stories frequently, and he replied that since he defended his dissertation, he hadn’t written anything, that he was burnt out. (I can totally understand this—he also has a very time-consuming, draining job helping students work on their writing and communication.  When you’re giving so much of your energy to helping others write, well, maybe you don’t have a lot left for yourself…which is why I feel greedy and guilty and burdensome and needy asking his advice…but whatever, that’s my pathology.) What he said resonates in a big way with me:

I’ve tried a couple of times in the past three years, but I forced it and nothing came of it. I’m waiting for inspiration to strike.

Damn that inspiration—it’s so flighty and capricious. Of course we want to write something that is meaningful, “something that matters,” as I said in 2008—and inspiration does give us that energy and excitement that we need, especially when we’re in a writing rut.  After all, if we’re not writing something that matters, what’s the point? We’re just making the written equivalent of noise. (Wouldn’t it be great to feel inspired all the time? If I could figure out how to do that, I’d bottle inspiration and make my fortune.  Ah, pipe dreams.)

I can’t make BFWF™ want to write, but I wish he would, because he’s wonderful and I know that his stories (even if they’re hiding in his subconscious right now) will be wonderful too, once he digs them out.

At the same time, as writers know, if you don’t feel it, you don’t feel it, and forcing yourself to write when you don’t feel like it is pretty much a one-way ticket to hell because you’re a) setting yourself up for failure, and b) tossing yourself deeper into the “I hate to write” abyss, which makes you less inclined to pick up a pen (or keyboard) later on, and c) basically pissing yourself (and probably anyone around you) off.

I know this from personal experience. When you’re at a dry spell in your writing life—if you’re a writer—it’s probably because lots of other things in your life are in a dry spell too. In those “I hate writing” times of my life—when the writing ennui is really incapacitating and insurmountable—it’s generally because my life is out-of-whack. (Everyday life and living can be such a bitch sometimes.)

I’m a weird point. In some ways, I have a completely out-of-whack life right now—I’m feeling extremely morose and demoralized about a number of things (I won’t bore you with details) but I guess I feel like I can retreat into my writing—and if I’m not writing, well, at least I’m sending things out so they’re being seen in the world.

Anyway, I’m glad and grateful that I’m not not writing—sometimes, writing is the only thing in my life that makes sense. I hope that continues to be the case. And I hope inspiration strikes soon for BFWF™, I really do.  The world needs his words.