What Did You Do Before You Were Famous…?

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Vancouver Central Library (photo by Nina Munteanu)

So, you’re a famous author now…

You’ve published several books and they sold more than a dozen copies each. In fact, a few have been translated and are in second printings. You’ve received some recognition and awards and a bazillion nominations. You’ve landed some speaking engagements with writing and reader groups and a movie producer is soliciting a treatment from you. You have a following…Fans who “stalk” you at the writer conventions you participate in. Fans who want to co-write the sequel to your current bestseller with you, because they understand your universe—and your characters—so well. You discover that some fans have gone ahead and written fan-fic about your main character and universe on the Internet—a sign of adoration. Really.

But you weren’t always famous…

Neither was John Steinbeck, Ursula Le Guin, J.D. Salinger, Harper Lee or J.K. Rowling…

When did the transition occur for them? It’s not that easy to peg and it isn’t that obvious. This is partly because, it depends on each writer’s own criteria for success and fame. Particularly given that many writers aren’t, in fact, seeking fame, per se.

However, what every career writer wants, which often comes alongside fame is this: autonomy and the ability to write for a living without having to sneak it in at midnight after you’re finished your “real” job.

No one is “born” a writer; most of us start out doing something else to make a living. In the meantime, we work hard on what we love and what feeds our souls and our passion for storytelling. We assiduously write on stolen time and submit queries and letters. We do research and marketing. We write drafts, do revisions, attend classes and read books. All hoping to eventually write full time.

Let’s look at the humble roots of some famed writers and what key moment signified their move into the light of career novelist:

JK RowlingJ.K. Rowling was an unemployed single mother on public assistance when she wrote the first book. The book was rejected by over a dozen publishers before a small British publisher, Bloomsbury, said yes.

JohnSteinbeckJohn Steinbeck worked through many odd jobs before earning enough to work as a full time writer. His day jobs included: apprentice painter, fruit picker, estate caretaker and Madison Square Garden construction worker. He also ran a fish hatchery in Lake Tahoe and did guided tours there.

MargaretAtwoodMargaret Atwood worked in a coffee shop. She says her first job experience was NOT ideal: She had to deal with a difficult cash register, a rude ex-boyfriend who would come by just to stare at her and barely tip, and fellow employees who were definitely not friendship material.

WilliamFaulknerBefore his writing career blossomed, William Faulkner worked for the postal service, as postmaster at the University of Mississippi. In his resignation note, he summarized the struggle of art and commerce faced by most authors: “As long as I live under the capitalist system I expect to have my life influenced by the demands of moneyed people. But I will be damned if I propose to be at the beck and call of every itinerant scoundrel who has two cents to invest in a postage stamp. This, sir, is my resignation.”

JD SallingerIn a 1953 interview, J.D. Salinger shared that he had served as entertainment director on the HMS Kungsholm, a Swedish luxury liner. He drew on the experience for his short story “Teddy”, which takes place on a liner.

Ursula_Le_GuinUrsula Le Guin struggled initially to be published in the mainstream fiction world, but her first three novels, Rocannon’s World, Planet of Exile and City of Illusions, put her on the sci-fi map.

JamesJoyceAn accomplished tenor, James Joyce made money singing for his supper before his work was published.

HarperLeeHarper Lee worked as a reservation clerk for Eastern Air Lines for several years, writing stories in her spare time. A windfall came when a friend offered her a Chirsmas gift of one year’s wages and one year off to write whatever she pleased; she wrote the first draft of “To Kill a Mockingbird”.

stephen kingStephen King was a janitor for a high school as he struggled to get his fiction published. His time wheeling the cart through the halls inspired him to write the opening girl’s locker room scene in “Carrie”, his breakout novel.

KurtVonnegutKurt Vonnegut managed Americas first Saab dealership in Cape Cod during the late 1950s, a job he joked about in a 2004 essay, “I now believe my failure as a dealer … explains what would otherwise remain a deep mystery: why the Swedes have never given me a Nobel prize for literature.”

Virginia_WoolfWhen Virginia Woolf’s brilliant novels failed to find a publisher, she and her husband Leonard bought a printing press and set up their own publishing compay Hogarth Press in their living room. They published Woolf’s masterful novels, such as Orlando and To The Lighthouse, as well as T.S. Eliot’s The Waste Land, among other classics of the era.

TS EliotT.S. Eliot worked as a clerk for Lloyds Bank of London. During that time, he composed “The Waste Land”.

Franz KafkaFranz Kafka served as the Chief Legal Secretary of the Workmen’s Accident Insurance Institute. Obviously.

Douglas Adams was a bodyguard. Even published authors often have to work other jobs to make ends meet, Douglas Adamsand The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy author Douglas Adams was no exception: At one point, he served as a bodyguard for a wealthy Arabian family while he wrote for radio shows and Monty Python. Good writers are good multitaskers!

James_michenerJames A. Michener was a teacher before writing only at age 40. He Michener is notable more for his output than his age. The Tales of the South Pacific author (whose Pulitzer Prize-winning book would later be adapted into a Broadway musical) wrote a staggering 40 books after the age of 40—nearly a George_Orwellbook a year—after spending much of his life as a teacher.

Before he wrote 1984, George Orwell served as an officer of the Indian Imperial Police in Burma, where he was known for his “sense of utter fairness.”

 

 

nina-2014-BWNina Munteanu is an ecologist, limnologist and internationally published author of award-nominated speculative novels, short stories and non-fiction. She is co-editor of Europa SF and currently teaches writing courses at George Brown College and the University of Toronto. Visit www.ninamunteanu.ca for the latest on her books.

 

How Writers See Themselves…And How Others See Them…

Let the world burn through you. Throw the prism light, white hot, on paper
—Ray Bradbury

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Birch trees (photo by Merridy Cox)

How many of you have, once you’ve told someone that you are a writer, received the blithe response, “Oh, yes, I’ll be a writer too someday. I’ll write that great Canadian bestseller—once I have time…” Implying that writing was a hobby and that time—not talent or discipline or vision or artistic spirit—was the only required ingredient.

When I was five years old I already knew that I wanted to be a writer. My sister and I didn’t just play dolls; we created worlds and spun epic tales of great scope, with a diverse cast of characters that spanned the far reaches of the universe. Stories of thrilling adventure, crazy irony, great intrigue and mystery. Stories of betrayal, love, loss, redemption and victory. I knew in my heart that I was always a writer—even when I wasn’t (writing, that is). As a child I knew that writing was in my soul and that I would write for the rest of my life. Still…it took me a while to admit it to the world. It took me longer still to publish. Make no mistake: writing and publishing is hard work. But NOT a chore, which I think many who don’t write fail to make a distinction, including my ex-husband.

Films often portray the writer as self-loathing and self-destructive, moody, unstable, and narcissistic. Think of the following films and how they portray the writer: Sunset Boulevard. The Shining. Misery. Sliding Doors. Secret Window. Sideways. My Brilliant Career. Stranger than Fiction. The Royal Tenenbaums. As Good As It Gets. Adaptation. Deconstructing Harry. Wonder Boys. Midnight in Paris. Barton Fink. Limitless. Ruby Sparks. The Words.

“Deplorable actions are almost expected from fictional writers in films,” says a recent Huffington Post article. “Novelists and poets are consistently portrayed as snobby, outlandish, mawkish, or untrustworthy. They lie, cry, brag and steal their way to fame.”

Joe Muscolino of Word & Film shares that:

“It’s become a visual cliché: The writer slouched in his chair, conflicted, chain-smoking, achingly alone, and oblivious to anything outside his cave of thoughts. He’s desperately waiting for that one savior of a sentence to rescue him from the shackles of banality. Opposite him sits a blank page. Watching him. Haunting him. It’s ideally nestled in a typewriter, despite the nearby objects suggesting that it’s most definitely the twenty-first century. The clock ticks. Nothing… Obviously, if you scratch the surface of any stereotype you’ll find a more nuanced layer of reality. Writers can just as easily be shining examples of happiness and sobriety. But nuanced realities don’t sound as fun as drug-addled depressives, and they don’t make for good stories.”

That’s the stereotype. What about the reality? For that I, of course, must take you to fiction (faint knowing smile):

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Walking the trail beside Credit River, ON (photo by Nina Munteanu)

In Dorothy L. Sayers’ 1939 mystery novel The Nine Tailors, the iconic dilettante and gentleman detective Lord Peter Wimsey has a most interesting exchange about writers and our perception of them with the young Miss Hilary Thorpe—herself an aspiring writer. It’s worth recounting here as it reflects one author’s thoughts, even if through a fictional character. In the scene, following her father’s death, Miss Thorpe shares how the act of “wondering” helps her through her grief:

“…it really makes things easier to do a little wondering, I mean, if you’re once interested in a thing it makes it seem leas real. That’s not the right word, though.”

“Less personal?”

‘Yes, that’s what I mean. You begin to imagine how it all happened, and gradually it gets to feel more like something you’ve made up.”

“Hmm!” said Wimsey. “If that’s the way your mind works, you’ll be a writer one day.”

“Do you think so? How funny! That’s what I want to be. But why?”

“Because you have creative imagination, which works outwards, till finally you will be able to stand outside your own experience and see it as something you have made, existing independently or yourself. You’re lucky.”

“Do you really think so?” Hilary looked excited.

“Yes—but your luck will come more at the end of life than at the beginning, because the other sort of people start by thinking you dreamy and romantic, and then they’ll be surprised to discover that you are really hard and heartless. They’ll be quite wrong both times—but they won’t ever know it, and you won’t know it at first, and it’ll worry you.”

“But that’s just what the girls say at school. How did you know?…Though they’re all idiots—mostly, that is.”

“Most people are,” said Wimsey, gravely, ‘but it isn’t kind to tell them so. I expect you do tell them so. Have a heart; they can’t help it…”

Thank you, Lord Peter. While we’re at it, another of Sayer’s fictional characters, Mr Edward Thorpe, shares that, “authorship is a good stick, but a bad crutch.”

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Pat and Joan, writers writing (photo by Nina Munteanu)

So, what is it to be a writer? Are we all in the end a bit crazy like the stereotype suggests? All I know is that I if I didn’t write, my soul would suffer. Isaac Asimov said, “I write for the same reason as I breathe—because if I didn’t, I would die.”

I write to live and live to write. I’ve known this all my life, from the tales I shared with my sister at age 7 to the novels I currently write and will continue to until I journey beyond the physical. There is, quite simply, nothing that matches the experience of capturing the beating heart of a story, resonating with its core emotional song, and embracing the thrill of sharing it with the world. Just as director Christopher Nolan said of musical genius Hans Zimmer, I embrace “the thrill and mess of reality’s disregard for abstract intentions—the making of the thing is the thing itself.”

 

Writers on Writing…

“Who wants to become a writer? And why? Because it’s the answer to everything. … It’s the streaming reason for living. To note, to pin down, to build up, to create, to be astonished at nothing, to cherish the oddities, to let nothing go down the drain, to make something, to make a great flower out of life, even if it’s a cactus.”
—Enid Bagnold

“If you really want to hurt your parents, and you don’t have the nerve to be a homosexual, the least you can do is go into the arts. But do not use semicolons. They are transvestite hermaphrodites, standing for absolutely nothing. All they do is show you’ve been to college.” ― Kurk Vonnegut

“Writing is not necessarily something to be ashamed of, but do it in private and wash your hands afterwards.”
—Robert A. Heinlein

“…Writers are a savage breed, Mr. Strike. If you want life-long friendship and selfless camaraderie, join the army and learn to kill. If you want a lifetime of temporary alliances with peers who will glory in your every failure, write novels.” ― Robert Galbraith,The Silkworm

“Do not hoard what seems good for a later place in the book, or for another book; give it, give it all, give it now.”
—Annie Dillard

“Making people believe the unbelievable is no trick; it’s work. … Belief and reader absorption come in the details: An overturned tricycle in the gutter of an abandoned neighborhood can stand for everything.”
—Stephen King

“Writing a book is a horrible, exhausting struggle, like a long bout of some painful illness. One would never undertake such a thing if one were not driven on by some demon whom one can neither resist nor understand.”
—George Orwell

“If you can tell stories, create characters, devise incidents, and have sincerity and passion, it doesn’t matter a damn how you write.”—Somerset Maugham

“When I sit down to write a book, I do not say to myself, ‘I am going to produce a work of art.’ I write it because there is some lie that I want to expose, some fact to which I want to draw attention, and my initial concern is to get a hearing.”
—George Orwell

“To produce a mighty book, you must choose a mighty theme.”—Herman Melville

“It is perfectly okay to write garbage–as long as you edit brilliantly.”—C. J. Cherryh

“Every secret of a writer’s soul, every experience of his life, every quality of his mind, is written large in his works.”
—Virginia Woolf

“I went for years not finishing anything. Because, of course, when you finish something you can be judged.”—Erica Jong

“There’s no such thing as writer’s block. That was invented by people in California who couldn’t write.”—Terry Pratchett

“Everybody walks past a thousand story ideas every day. The good writers are the ones who see five or six of them. Most people don’t see any.”—Orson Scott Card

“A wounded deer leaps the highest.”—Emily Dickinson

“Writing is its own reward.”—Henry Miller

“Writing a novel is like driving a car at night. You can only see as far as your headlights, but you can make the whole trip that way.”—E. L. Doctorow

“Don’t try to figure out what other people want to hear from you; figure out what you have to say. It’s the one and only thing you have to offer.”—Barbara Kingsolver

“I write for the same reason as I breathe—because if I didn’t, I would die.”—Isaac Asimov

 

Nina Munteanu is an ecologist and internationally published author of award-nominated speculative novels, short stories and non-fiction. She is co-editor of Europa SF and currently teaches writing courses at George Brown College and the University of Toronto. Visit www.ninamunteanu.ca for the latest on her books.