The following originally appear in The Inner Swine, Volume 11, Issue 4.
until drops of blood form on your forehead
The Futility of Writing
PIGS, when I was but a wee little one in Jersey City, before the standing-on-a-corner-drinking-blackberry-brandy period, I wanted to be a brain surgeon. The reasons for this desire are now obscure; possibly it had something to do with The Six Million Dollar Man. Possibly it was simply an easy answer to the endless questioning by tiresome adults about my career plans—adults were always asking us kids what the fuck we wanted to be when we grew up, and Brain Surgeon was a good response as it got a lot of grins and impressed gestures from the questioner. I coasted along with the whole Brain Surgeon thing for a few years, probably giving my poor parents—who probably hoped I’d magically evolve into some sort of athletic prodigy and earn scholarships to pay for school—a lot of sleepless nights as they contemplated the roughly 55 years of medical school such a profession requires.
Of course, I didn’t really want to be a brain surgeon. The only ‘profession’ I’ve ever desired is Writer, and as every writer in the world knows, the ‘profession’ of Writer is similar to the ‘profession’ of Sorcerer: Very cool sounding but usually only existing in movies and fantasy stories. Because no one makes any money at writing, ever, so it isn’t really a profession. But when I was six I didn’t realize writing was something I might someday palm off as a profession while standing on line for my food stamps, so Brain Surgeon it was.
And then, some time around grade three, I began to slowly realize that in order to become a Brain Surgeon, I was going to have to master math. Shortly after that came the aforementioned standing-on-a-corner-drinking-blackberry-brandy period, and that was the last I thought about a career until I was twenty-two, waking from a lengthy alcoholic haze and realizing I needed a job, and right quick. And also too a change of clothes and a bath.
Somewhere in between, I sold my first novel, White Rabbit.
Never heard of it? Not surprised, because it never actually got published. Nor was I ever actually paid for it. I wrote it when I was sixteen, and, armed with the 1987 edition of The Writer’s Market I sent out a bunch of queries with a humorous cover letter that was promptly ignored by everyone in the industry—except a guy named William H. Wheeler who ran a tiny small publisher called Andromeda Press out in California. Despite the fact that five pages were missing from the manuscript I sent him—and not even five pages in a row, but five more or less random pages from throughout the book—he liked the book and offered to publish it. There was no advance, but it was a standard 15% royalty agreement. Looking back, I can’t believe he thought he’d sell any copies, but what really amazes me is that he wanted to spend his time and money working on the book at all, because it really wasn’t very good.
White Rabbit is a Science Fiction story about a Secret Agent in a futuristic galactic civilization who discovers a terrible secret about the government and goes rogue, appealing to the criminal elements he’d been working to imprison for help. He and his fellow agents are all specially trained in the art of disguise, taking it to such an extreme that even their faces and personalities can be altered by sheer will. There are alien invaders, a deadly plague, and magic.
Okay, I have some fondness for the book—it was a lot of fun to write and some of the ideas, in their core, aren’t bad ones. But the book itself is a lazy mess, meandering through a plot and not ending very satisfactorily, which William seemed to realize as he hand-edited the book, though his enthusiasm never flagged.
I was, of course, excited, and visions of being recognized as some sort of literary prodigy danced through my head. I made the rookie mistake of telling everyone I knew that I was being published, and carried my copy of the contract around with me like a totem. Two years later, after not hearing from Mr. Wheeler for a very long time, I got a sad letter in which he informed me that financial difficulties had killed Andromeda Press, that he would not be publishing my or anyone’s book, and that my half-edited manuscript was on its way back to me. It was a little humbling, of course, and I look back and I wonder that I ever imagined a Daryl K. Sweet cover with my name on it, but the important thing is that I learned nothing. Absolutely, positively nothing.
Writing is largely a futile enterprise. First of all, more often than not you fail in whatever artistic endeavor you are trying to achieve—and if you don’t think you fail more often than not, you’re either that .05% of writers who are actually geniuses, or you’re simply the other 98.5% who are delusional. The other 1% know they fail more often than not—history is full of writers who constantly deride their early work as utter shit and take every new edition of a successful work as an opportunity to rework it one more time. I don’t know a writer out there worth their salt that isn’t haunted by the dreck they’ve written, even if it sold, and sold well.
Second, even if your artistic aspirations are always achieved, your sales goal—unless it is, say, a dozen copies—almost certainly will not be achieved. Likely it will not even be approached. If you were lucky enough to receive an advance as part of your contract, you’ll likely be lucky to earn out the advance. That’s just the way it is: Most books lose money, or at least make very little.
Finally, even if you attain your artistic goals and sell scads of copies, chances are no one will appreciate what you’re trying to do. Your subtleties will get lost, your experiments derided, and it’ll probably be decades after your death before your work is properly appreciated—assuming times don’t shift far enough away from you to leave you a marginalized also-ran. Plenty of writers have been celebrated bestsellers in their day, forgotten nobodies today. For every Dickens or Faulkner there are a million George Barr McCutcheon’s, who had eight official bestselling books and who wrote Brewster’s Millions in 1902, which has been made into a movie seven fricking times, though I doubt anyone’s heard of him today beyond English majors and incredibly dedicated John Candy or Richard Pryor fans. Face it, no matter your goals or skills, writing is a game of frustration, in one sense or another.
Of course, I could be accused of bitterness towards that hideous bitch-goddess I crawl back to time and again. I mean, if the White Rabbit story isn’t enough to depress me, the way my actual first published novel, Lifers, disappeared from the face of the earth in record—if not totally unexpected—time could be. On the one hand, just getting it published for money puts me in the top 5% of all writers ever, most of whom scribble in the dark and never so much as submit, much less publish, grousing all the while about how hard it is and how unfair the system is. On the other hand, I didn’t sell many copies and now languish right back where I started: Largely unpublished, without groupies or complimentary drinks. I was promised complimentary drinks! I demand complimentary drinks! I’m not complaining, though. I realize I am fortunate, and I don’t complain about good fortune. But I have come to appreciate the futility of all publishing ambitions.
Still, one can always hope that after a lifetime of scratching and pawing and working like a dog, I’ll die with inkstained fingers and crumpled papers in my hands and fifty years later a small literary Cult of Jeff will form, college kids meeting in secret to drink bourbon and remove their trousers and read from The Inner Swine, and as soon as my heirs have passed on the Hollywood studios will swoop in and start cranking out films based on my posthumously published works, which will make billions. Assuming of course the world doesn’t quickly descend into an oil-crisis-cum-holy-war disaster and we’ll all be lucky to emerge on the other end of history still able to read and write, much less make terrible Hollywood movies based on mediocre novels.
Well, one can dream. If you’d like to start a chapter of The Inner Swine Secret Society and engage in official pantsless drunken TIS readings, contact me and I will send you the official TISIC Ceremonial Handbook for the protocol. It’s 344 pages long. You will be tested.