Is Life Random?

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For years now, when the first weekend in August rolls around, we make the 50 mile drive to Eureka Springs, Arkansas for a city wide yard sale. Never mind that’s it’s usually about a zillion degrees that weekend, or that in recent years there seem to be fewer and fewer sales, Eureka is a such a charming artistic town, we’re willing to melt into our shoes for a few hours while prowling through other people’s junk.

So my wife Ann, daughter Samantha and I happily drove around for hours in the heat in a car with no AC, and I ended up buying only one thing, a book by Donald Miller titled A Million Miles In A Thousand Years. I bought it at a yard sale at a place called the Village Writing School. I’m not sure why I bought it. Sometimes, you do things for reasons that aren’t clear. I’d never heard of the book or the author, even though he’s a NYT bestselling writer. Mostly I picked it out of the many books there because I had an intuitive moment, and intuitive moments don’t happen to me that often, so when one pops up, I try to be receptive.

No, intuition isn’t my thing. I leave that to women, mothers, psychics, mediums, and all those attuned to the cosmic message. Actually, intuition kind of goes against my core beliefs. I’ve always thought that life is random, that we’re like dust motes floating on the breeze.

Intuition is evidence that our existence isn’t random, that there is some kind of order in the universe, that things happen for a reason. Lots of people believe that’s the way it is but I’ve never been one of them.

Occasionally, though, something happens that is so serendipitous, that it makes me question the randomness of everything. And when that happens, it always catches me by surprise and gets my brain sparking.

So I took the book home and as often happens, I let it lay around for a while. I do that a lot and I’m not sure why. It’s not like books are like wine or cheese and will get better with age. Maybe it’s because I’m a picky reader, and I reject most of the books I start reading. And even though I’d had a small intuitive moment when I found the book, I really don’t have much faith in my intuitive ability. Intuition, or the lack of it, has often failed me. For example, when VCRs first came out, there were two formats, VHS and Beta. I, of course, bought a Betamax. I had a 50-50 chance of getting that one right and I blew it, despite pretty good odds of getting it right, even without any help from my atrophied intuition. Failures like that have made me skeptical that intuition works, at least for me.

Finally, though, I picked up the book and started reading it and it spoke to me directly in a way that made my mind race and even do a few cartwheels. Donald Miller is a fine writer, funny, insightful, touching, and thought provoking. But best of all, this was a book about how to be a good storyteller, and that’s been an almost obsessive drive for me nearly all my life.

I’m about halfway through the book now, and I’m reading it in sips, savoring the words, stretching it out as long as I can. The book has made me stop and think about some big things. Like what are the chances of finding something that opens some portals for you at a yard sale 50 miles from home, a random purchase based on a hunch that you had little faith in?

I know it doesn’t sound like much. I found a book that turns me on. Big deal. But new insights are a big deal.. As our opinions get hardened by time, finding something that challenges your ideas and gets you thinking is a kind of epiphany. Most people seek out information that supports what they already think, and no new ground is broken when you keep plowing the same old patch of dirt.

And I know it’s a small thing, but having this book fall into my hands seems like the exact opposite of a random event. It seems like it was meant to happen, like the book was lying there waiting for me to come find it, that it was custom written for me, that Donald Miller wrote the damn thing with me in mind. Of course, I know that’s not true but that’s how it feels, and that feeling doesn’t come along very often.

Maybe, just maybe, it all isn’t totally just hit or miss. I still think life is mostly random, that we’re just bouncing around like pinballs, lighting up lights and ringing bells without a clue how we did it. But it’s nice to know that occasionally, there’s magic mixed with the mayhem.

Crime doesn’t pay; Neither does writing

 

I’ve known a lot of writers over the years. Many dreamed of making big money from their writing. But of all the writers I’ve known, only one or two have made any significant amount of money.

But I know plenty of writers who have spent lots of money trying to reach the level where the payoff comes. I know writers now who spend thousands every year to sell hundreds of dollars in books. They spend big bucks on conferences, travel, writers’ swag (gifts you give away to induce readers to buy your books), book doctors, contest fees, reading fees, postage, and books and magazines to improve their writing.

There’s a whole industry out there devoted to separating hopeful writers from their money and ninety-nine percent plus of all those writers will never make any real money off their writing. That’s the harsh reality of the economics of the writing business.

Just like in most businesses, but especially in the arts, a few lucky souls at the top reap huge rewards while millions at the bottom get a pittance at best. J.K. Rowling is a billlionaire. All the writers I know are thousandaires, but those thousands came from something other than their writing.

If I sound bitter, it’s because the system sucks. It’s another instance of income inequality. Instead of taking all the money from book sales and divvying it up in some kind of equitable way, the distribution of the money is extremely skewed to reward a few lavishly and deny the rest of the writers. J.K. Rowling doesn’t need or deserve a billion dollars. She would be adequately compensated with a small fraction of that, and many excellent writers producing fine work deserve way more than they’re getting.

One editor told Emily Dickinson her work was not poetic.

One editor told Emily Dickinson her work was not poetic.

Yeah, I know life isn’t fair. Capitalism is flawed. All that crap. But it’s not easy to see people dream their life away, devote themselves to producing good art, and go almost totally without financial reward.

It gets worse. The two writers I know who have made some money from writing aren’t even very good writers. What they are is good promoters, smoozers, back slappers, snake oil salesmen. Their sales skills are a lot better than their writing ability. They crank out mediocre books, and then huckster the hell out of them. They don’t deserve to be the successes they are, but they still get lots of adoration from writers who dream of fortune from their work. Somehow, lots of aspiring writers are blind to the pedestrian quality because they are dazzled by the money these somewhat financially successful writers have made.

Herman Melville's Moby Dick was a publishing flop.

Herman Melville’s Moby Dick was a publishing flop.

Writers who dream the dream of big money would be well informed to consider some fine writers who made little or no money from their scribblings during their lifetimes. Herman Melville, Franz Kafka, Emily Dickinson, Edgar Allen Poe, H.P. Lovecraft and Henry David Thoreau may be writing icons today, but during their lifetimes they had limited success. Getting money from your art is a lot like chasing a rainbow. Van Gogh paintings go for hundreds of millions today, but during his life, he sold a total of two.

Here’s another harsh fact writers should know: The average ebook or on-demand book sells less than 200 copies in its lifetime. And for POD books the largest portion of those sales are to the writer of the book, who then takes it out to readings and conferences and tries to hawk it to the public. Lots of those books end up sitting in a box in some closet. That means that the average book produces, over many years, a few hundred dollars. The phrase “starving writer” would be an understatement if most writers had to live on the income from their writing. They wouldn’t be starving; they’d be dead from starvation. Maybe you’ve heard of places in the third world where people live on a dollar a day? Most writers don’t earn that much.

If money is your goal in life, buy a lottery ticket. Become a doctor, stock broker or a CPA. Rob a bank. Start a Ponzi scheme. But don’t expect big bucks from your writing.

Am I saying that writers should just give up and quit because the odds of  earning any real money are almost hopeless? Definitely not. Thankfully, there are other rewards that have nothing to do with money. Excuse me for a moment while I transition from cynic to hopeless Polyanna.

Recently a really fine local poet named Miller Williams left this world. Though he achieved about as much as a modern poet could– awards, publication, and the respect of other artists –I don’t think he was wealthy in terms of dollars. An excellent article on his life that was just published quoted him as saying that he would be fulfilled by the prospect that someone might read one of his poems a thousand years from now and be moved by it.

So maybe a better goal for a writer is a form of immortality. Most people are forgotten just decades after their death. But writers, along with other creative types, leave something behind that enriches humanity while memorializing the creator. That’s the kind of thing money can’t buy.

My First Year Of Blogging

Sometimes-burning-bridges-isnt-a-bad-thing

A year ago today, I wrote my first blog, even though I was sure it would be an exercise in futility. Because that’s what being a writer is largely about. I don’t mean to be negative, but a large part of being a writer is about rejection. So I was ready to have my blog spurned. I didn’t think anyone would read it. Based on decades of trying to push my writing on people with little success, it would be crazy to think this would be different. No, like nearly all of my writing, it would be ignored, unread, unwelcome, just more verbage tossed on the old word pile.

6256130025_79e67c2556_bBut that part didn’t bother me. I’ve been rejected by women, friends, employers, and credit cards, and my writing has been rejected by lots of magazines and publishers. I’ve been rejected so many times, I’ve accepted rejection.

I had a hard time coming up with a name for the blog. I tried a bunch and they were already taken. I ended up calling it bridgesareforburning, because I think I’ve burned quite a few bridges in my life, so many that I’m no longer allowed to play with matches. Actually, I took the name from a song, Walking Man, from one of my favorite songwriters, James Taylor.

I started the blog for three reasons. First, and foremost, an angel named Madison Woods invited me to join a group called Friday Fictioneers and you had to have a blog to participate. It was a group of writers from all over who write a weekly flash fiction story of 100 words based on a photo Madison posted on Wednesday. Then we read each other’s stories and offer comments. It sounded like fun and I decided to join in. I’m always trying to figure out a way to coerce anyone with brain activity into reading my drivel and the Friday Fictioneers sounded promising. It has proven to be as much fun as riding a roller coaster naked.

Secondly, I thought my blog could be a kind of journal, a place I could spew my endless opinions about everything. If nothing else, it would maybe relieve others of having to listen to me rant and rave about all the things that drive me crazy. I could blow off steam on the blog, relieve some pressure, get it out of my system.second-thought-burning-bridges-demotivational-posters-1346154076

Also, as a kind of journal, I thought it might turn me into some kind of Emily Dickinson. She never got any recognition in her lifetime, but now, she’s an icon. Sure, nobody was going to read my blog, but maybe someday, when archaeologists were trying to re-create the history of the twenty-first century, maybe they’d come across my blog, and I’d have recorded something there that was helpful in understanding this ridiculous time in which we live in world history. One thing about the internet is that anything you say has a kind of permanence. It never goes away. Or at least it hasn’t so far. It’s a kind of immortality, in a way.

So it came as a complete surprise when visitors started showing up at my blog and reading my writing. And these weren’t just Jehovah’s Witnesses and Mormons showing up at my door because they were obligated to try to save my soul. These were real readers whose only agenda was that they wanted to read what I wrote.

I’m not sure why this happened, but I think  it was because suddenly the middleman was removed. There was no editor, gatekeeper, publisher, or censor blocking people from my writing. I took my words directly to the people, and the people came.

6252782872_183e5a640e_bAbout half of my posts have been the weekly flash fiction, but the other half have been all over the map. I’ve written about books, movies, television, all kinds of things that bug me, personal experience, music, my roots, language, all things that are important to me. It’s been gratifying, engaging and uplifting all at the same time.

My only regret is that I didn’t start blogging sooner. This will be my 97th post, not bad for my first year. And as of this writing, I’ve had about 8,100 visitors to my blog. I know bloggers who have lots more, but I think this has been a good start. My visitors came from 81 different countries worldwide.

So I’m launching into my second year of blogging with great hope. I know I’ll never run out of stuff to complain about, or books, movies, TV and  music to analyze, or exhaust my feelings on the absurdity of the human situation.

For maybe the first time, I feel like a have a voice, and somebody is listening

Write On!

Chicken fried steak dinner

I read a lot of writing about writing. I don’t find it strange that writers are fascinated with writing, any more than that cowboys love horses. But I’ve never written much about writing. It seemed too much like using a camera to take a photo of a camera.

But I’m going to break my silence and say a few things about the divine art of the language dance.

I don’t remember the exact moment I knew I wanted to be a writer, but it was early, soon after I became a reader. I know I had the writer dream strong by the time I finished elementary school.

The writing fantasy is a fine piece of fiction. In it, you are an adored author with slobbering fans, rich of course, respected and living the life of the artist on some sun-splashed coast. You send in a manuscript every year or two and your readers consume your new book like a shark feeding frenzy.

But few writers actually live that dream life. The rest of us face disillusionment. After you have your manuscripts rejected about a zillion times, you began to scale back the dream. It erodes to something like this: Maybe I could at least make a living with writing, instead of working for the man all my life. That would be nice.

After that, it downshifts to something like, well, maybe I could supplement my income for now with my writing, work at a regular slave job until I get established and one of these days make enough to have a modest income.

Maybe you begin to get desperate, and you think, will I ever get any money out of writing? You begin to rationalize that other people have hobbies that they spend major money on, like say water skiing, while your hobby costs almost nothing. Maybe you even succumb to the vanity publishers and pay to have your work put in print.

Sliding down the slippery slope, you eventually accept that you probably won’t get any money out of writing. You give up and decide you’d settle if you could just get readers to read your stuff. You’re willing to give it away if people will just read it and say nice things about it. At this point you have become a writing slut.

I remember a moment of clarity, one of the few ones, when I was in college. I was a creative writing major. I had a wife and two babies. One day reality impinged and I thought, what am I going to do after I graduate? How will I support my family. In the end, I changed my major to journalism. When I graduated, I got a job writing for a newspaper. It didn’t pay much, but it paid something.

There’s something else that’s just crazed about the writing life compared to most forms of endeavor. Imagine you go to work at a factory. At the end of the month, you go to pick up your pay, but instead you’re handed a short form letter that reads something like this: We’ve carefully considered your work and we think it has merit. Unfortunately, the type of work you do is not the kind we’re looking for right now. But feel free to come back and work another month. We might change our mind.

There’s another scenario that’s maddening as a writer. Somehow, you beat the odds and get your work published. You almost break your arm patting yourself on the back. You’re not a loser like all those unpublished writers. You sit back and wait for the bucks and kudos to come rolling in. You think you’ve arrived, but you haven’t.

I had a friend who was in a band in college at Oklahoma State University. They left for California to try to hit it big. He worked at Arby’s while they were trying to get famous. Lo and behold, they gigged, built a following and signed a contract with a record company. Their album came out and promptly flopped. Most of them ended up back in Oklahoma playing for drunks on Saturday night.

That happens to writers often. Being published is no guarantee you’ll get an audience. If your book is published and almost nobody reads it, that’s more bitter than sweet. I can’t quote the stats, but most books sell less than 50 copies. It’s like being invited to a party, and then being ignored by everybody there. You don’t have to be thick-skinned and tough-minded to be a writer, but it helps.

So, given all the obstacles, you might start questioning. Is it really worth it? Which is a moot point. Most all the writers I know write because they don’t have a choice. They view writing the same way they do breathing. They’re either writing, or thinking about writing, all the time.

Sometimes, after monumental effort, it all works out. Remember the band whose album flopped and came back home with their tails between their legs? Well, one of them stayed in California and tried to make it as an actor. You may have heard of him. His name is Gary Busey. And two other members of the band kept on trucking for decades, and now they play for Leonard Cohen.

I’ve never made much money off writing, but I wouldn’t say I haven’t been richly rewarded. As far as I’m concerned, money in writing is like the sprig of parsley that comes on the plate with a big old chicken fried steak dinner. I might never eat the parsley, but that doesn’t keep me from stuffing myself with great satisfaction on the rest of it.