Gratitude is important to me. It’s hard to be bummed that the coffee shop doesn’t have coconut milk when I’m busy being grateful that running water has always been available to me. My mind works best when it’s focused on one thing; if it isn’t devils or demons or dragons or zombies or angels, I like it to be gratitude. There’s no way to mine all the ore out of that rich vein. It just goes deeper and deeper, and takes the meaning with it. One of the best examples of this is writing.
It’s an ancient art, you know. Of course you do; we’ve all seen pictures of clay tablets and brittle scrolls. I imagine dipping a feather in goo and smearing it on an irregularly textured surface, and I shudder. Thinking of chipping away stone to make words turns my stomach worse than writing about flesh-eating monsters. Can you imagine? I mean, who has the time to write a single novel that way, much less leave a legacy? And printing…please! Mass production used to be a bunch of scribes sitting around copying from the same scrolls or stone. What a monumental pain. It must have seemed like the dark ages of publishing…but that came much later, when there were masses to market to and authors to take advantage of.
There was no reason to write stories down back in the day. The only stories people made up back then are what we like to call ‘history’ now. You had to have a vested interest in making something up back then, so you killed your enemies and made up a story about it that made you look super cool and righteous. There were books that were considered sacred back then, but only certain people were allowed access to them. When it came time for them to share, they edited them down to nearly nothing and put it all in one book. It was the first book available for real distribution. It’s still a best-seller, and still the only book for some folks. For the rest of us…well, thank God for the Renaissance. It really helped folks understand the whole creativity thing, even if they weren’t bit by the bug themselves.
It was still pretty hard to get your book out there, even when art became popular/acceptable at last. The first printing presses were about as efficient as scribes, and made just as many mistakes. For a long time the storyteller was better off going town to town and finding campfires to sit at. Even when literacy became more commonplace, it was seldom thought of as entertainment. Books were for teaching and learning; they weren’t for fun. The public was only just learning to read. Even what was being written was popularized in plays back then; that was the closest old Will whatever-his-name-really-was had to mass market paperback. It worked well, for him and a few others.
But what about the introvert? What about the folks whose idea of a good time was not necessarily dressing up and going out? What about those who were naturally inclined to sit at home and read?
Well, they were odd ducks. The numbers on introverts have changed dramatically over the years. Back then, very few people were supposedly at peace with their own company, and sought it out. They even came up with names for these folks back then. They called them hermits and loners at best, and saw them as social subversives more often than not. It became more acceptable over time, to enjoy spending one’s time alone. Fringe dwelling has picked up in popularity, up from one in a thousand back then to one in eight or so today.
Ridiculous, isn’t it? Obviously more people had it in them; they just didn’t want folks walking by their quiet house whispering about the shut-in. So they faked it, pretending to be extroverts because it was expected. Now that there are so many of us, and a few brave introverts have pointed out that there’s actually great benefit to the inclination, a bunch of us have proudly hopped on the bandwagon.
People used to meet an author and wonder what could have possessed them to write a book. Now it’s not uncommon to meet someone who wants to write a book, or has written a book, or knows someone who has. We’re still weirdos, sure; but we’re the kind of weirdos folks can relate to. Some people admire authors, without even reading their book or books. It’s understandable, and how I feel about other art. I might not like a piece in particular, but I admire the effort required to create it.
Yesterday’s writer was not to be envied. From scribes to typewriters to word processors to the first clunky computers, a lot of time was lost that could have been spent on writing. How many awesome books had the author or editor pulling their hair out when they realized they had missed a word or paragraph in an early page, or that something needed to be inserted after all the formatting had been done? How many times did they throw up their hands and decide to leave it as is, rather than start over typing or setting from that page? We’ll never know how many classics would have been different if yesterday’s writers had had laptops, and we’ll never know how they might have changed.
We do know that these writers almost always got the scraps when it came to profits from sales. Big publishing companies set up a whole new series of road blocks for the creative spirit. They seemed to be designed on the same premise as public schools: let’s pump out factory workers who do what they’re told and do it when told to. Unfortunately, the effect was much the same in both instances: conformity was rewarded and creativity suppressed to such a degree that all the books and all the students were pretty much the same.
Some folks were super brilliant, and able to rise to the top. A few others made a decent living, but seldom the kind of money that their fans assumed they were making. They’d do the math: wow, a six dollar book that sold a million copies; that’s six million dollars! There’s more math to that equation, though; that six dollar book only netted the author about thirty to eighty cents per sale. (Remember the water cooler, and all those thirsty employees?) Then the guys in charge for real took their part, which is at least fifty percent if you make more than two hundred fifty thousand a year.
That six million dollars gets whittled down to a tidy low six-figure sum by the time the artist gets to spend it; it’s not bad, but it didn’t make the one person who deserves it a millionaire. That person has to repeat this process several times, and hit it big each time, just to make the kind of money that other professionals make. It only looked glamorous from the perspective of those who could keep it up, or who sold really crazy numbers.
In other words, yesterday’s writer had to be very committed. (Go ahead and read that any way you want.) Their rewards were distributed amongst a lot of hungry fish before the scraps finally drifted to the bottom where they waited. No matter how fast they did write, it would be eighteen to twenty-four months before any given book saw the light of day. If their publisher didn’t like any of their efforts, for any reason, it never saw print. The publishing companies positioned themselves as the gatekeepers to literacy, and decided what they wanted folks to read. Yesterday was a dark time for many writers, myself included. I am filled with gratitude each time I think back, to my past or to theirs, and remind myself how good this present really is.
We’ll talk about that more, next week.
Thanks for reading!