Substackers, You Are Amazing!
Here's a Writing Burrow bouquet and some actual stuff about writing for you...
A big thank you to all the Substackers who, by subscribing, managed to raise over 10Kfor www.pibo.ca in less than a week! That’s a lot of coffees for the mosquito-bitten, chigger-plagued bird banders of Pelee, who rise before dawn and brave the wild wet muddy woods to keep tabs on what’s going on with the airborne ones. PIBO thanks you, and I send you this meadow and garden bouquet from the actual Writing Burrow, where just now I spotted a Leopard Frog and a Shrew. Not big game, granted, but any forms of life are pleasing to Yours Truly. And now…
… for some stuff about Writing.
I was considerably amused by Stephan Marche’s short but pungent book, On Writing and Failure; Or, On the Peculiar Perseverance Required to Endure the Life of a Writer. It’s one in a series called Field Notes being done by www.biblioasis.com, the risk-taking indie publisher that functions out of Windsor, ON, Canada — right across the river from Detroit.
Windsor is the place where Al Capone and the boys used to meet with the Seagram’s folks during Prohibition to make the deals about the liquor they would then smuggle into the USA, by hook — a pulley rope across the bottom of the Detroit River — or by crook, lots of those. The crooks that lost in gang wars would be thrown into the river in an unliving condition and minus identification, and would go with the flow into Lake Erie, where the currents would wash them up on the western shore of… yes! Pelee Island, home of PIBO! (You thought this was a digression, didn’t you?) So numerous were these corpses that the Pelee residents had to build an ice house to put them in. The residents were annoyed, I’m told. “We don’t know these people! Why should we have to bury them?” The short answer was “stench,” which brooks no arguments; and so they took up shovels and fell to. They are a practical folk. (Keep your eye on "practical.” It will turn up again shortly.)
But back to Stephen Marche’s book. Do you not admire the cover? I do. It’s fairly true: the wastepaper basket part. In fact the whole book is fairly true, and contains a number of zingers. “Failure is the body of a writer’s life. Success is only ever an attire.” “If you want to write, or if you want to know what it’s like to write, you’re going to have to walk away from the paths of glory into the dark wilderness. Because that’s where it is.” Yes, except that the wilderness isn’t all dark. It has Leopard Frogs in it. And Shrews. And Dante. And Grey’s Elegy, in which the paths of glory lead but to the grave. The heads of writers are full of other writers. These woods are haunted.
I don’t recommend many books to (in Marche’s parlance) “kid writers.” Certainly Lewis Hyde’s The Gift, which differentiates the gift economy from the money economy, artistic gifts belonging to the former. Certainly Stephen King’s On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft, because it shoots from the hip and is also quite funny, in parts, and has maggots in it, an underrated life form. I now add On Writing and Failure, because it tells about the hard parts, and retails anecdotes about the awful lives of many writers. Some went to prison, some lived in fear, some got their balls cut off… Low expectations, say I! Why wouldn’t YOU be disappointed? Everyone else is. And, as Marche reiterates: No whining. You chose it. Nobody forced you to write. So suck it up. (Okay, easier said than done. Maybe just a little whining. In the mornings, before coffee.)
This book doesn’t have an index, so I couldn’t look up Moi in it, as one usually does. Thus I had to read the whole thing to discover my two guest appearances. The second is in a paragraph towards the end, about pieces of advice writers have offered to other writers. “Margaret Atwood’s is outright wacky but also the most practical ‘Before every one of your readings, have a Fisherman’s Friend.’” (There: practical.) But I ask you — is that wacky? My reasoning is this: you can’t control your luck, your talent, or what your body ultimately does to you. But you can control to some extent whether or not you lose your voice while doing a reading. I would add, Don’t wear a miniskirt onstage if you want people to actually listen to you. (Not useful to Marche or Dr. Johnson or Machiavelli or indeed most of the writers he cites, but times and wardrobes have changed, so it may perhaps be useful to you, Dear Reader.)
My first guest appearance is somewhat longer. Here it is.
"A friend of mine, a fellow novelist, ran into Margaret Atwood at a party once, and, as a way of introducing himself, mentioned an Op-Ed he’d written in the New York Times on the subject of Orhan Pamuk, a writer they both admired. Automatically, defensively, she snapped back, ‘I’ve written for the Times, too.’”
Oh dear! I asked a comix pal, “Do I snap defensively?” Unable to resist, he replied, “No.You snap offensively.” We then decided that my nom de plume should be Ms. Wacky Snappy, and ran over things that snap: turtles, fingers, locks, firecrackers, nerves. And older female writers, it seems. Male ones assert, claim, or say instead: “Look, I have a moustache.” But to proceed with Marche:
“My novelist friend ate out on this story because, to him and everyone we knew, she was Margaret Atwood and we were a bunch of chancers. Only after we aged, and accumulated a few accidental successes, did we understand that Atwood is a chancer. She’s a chancer even though she’s on a stamp. Everybody who writes is a chancer.”
This is entirely true. OF COURSE I’m a chancer! Writing is gambling. Publishing is gambling. Bookselling is also gambling. It’s not the aspirin biz. You don’t have a captive market. You roll the dice. According to Marche, you almost always lose.
Evidently the friend at the party was so riveted by the fact that my mouth opened and words came out that he didn’t listen to the rest of it. I only ever tell one story about me writing for the NY Times. It contains a phone booth, a couple of sacks of potatoes, and a spirited debate over a family-friendly, printable way of saying piss. And it’s… Behind the Paywall! Now that’s worth six bucks to help the chigger-covered bird banders of PIBO (www.pibo.ca), wouldn’t you say? So toss in, get Stephen Marche’s book (www.biblioasis.com) now that I’ve made fun of him — a chancer deserves a break — and read on…