by Sarah R. Shaber
For two winters in a row I’ve taught a week long workshop on mysteries and mystery-writing for NCCAT, the North Carolina Center for the Advancement of Teaching. NCCAT is a terrific organization that offers workshops for teachers designed to inspire their teaching while enjoying a break from their stressful jobs. We all have a great time—both years we’ve spent the week at a renovated Coast Guard House on Okracoke Island.
The seagull in the photo was my companion for the two hour ferry ride back to the mainland last January. It was as cold as the Outer Banks can be in winter and the wind blew in gusts that made even walking to the cabin difficult.
My seagull friend landed on his post just before the ferry left and perched there all the way from Ocracoke Island to Cedar Island. He leaned into the wind to keep from being blown off the ferry, teetered and tottered, occasionally lost his footing and regained it, all with his feathers fluttering in the wind and his little bird face turned away from the gusts. Dozens of other seagulls flew after us, screaming and diving, hoping for cast off potato chips, but this little guy stoically endured the entire boat ride on his perch. I’ve ridden the North Carolina coastal ferries many times and I’ve never seen anything like it.
Once our ferry started its docking process at the Cedar Island ferry station the seagull raised his wings, did a little dance, and took off. I was sad to see him go.
Back to the NCCAT retreat on Ocrakoke. I was the main presenter, a challenge considering the number of topics I needed to cover. I asked Brenda Witchger, a writer buddy of mine from Cary, to help me out with the writing segment. Brenda is an award-winning short story writer. She’s been a teacher herself and I learned much from her during the week. (That’s a euphemism for appropriating some of her teaching materials….)
Bren and I were answering some participant questions when a woman raised her hand and said “so are you guys millionaires, or what?” People ask this a lot, but it never fails to stun me into silence until I can collect myself.
Even very knowledgeable people seem to believe that if you’ve published a book, you’re rich, as though every one of the volumes stacked on the shelves of your local bookstore earns a million dollars for its author. If only! Another writer friend of mine, Margaret Maron, faced with this inquiry, tells audiences that a successful genre writer makes about as much as a teacher. Most midlist authors, even those who publish a book a year, make less. Many, after expenses like promotional travel and their agent’s commission, even find themselves in the red.
A young man at a school where I was speaking once asked me how much of the $23.95 price of my newest book did I get to keep. Oh, I said, maybe $2.00. He passed my book to another student with a look that indicated he’d be going into a different business
Novelist Lawrence Block, who’s written many books on writing, likes to tell anyone who is interested in becoming an author that they “should take two aspirins, lie down in a dark room, and hope the feeling goes away.” I second that emotion!
Writing isn’t like other jobs, where you put in your hours and then get paid for working those hours. If you make $10.00 an hour, then work twenty hours, you get $200 in your pay envelope, right? Not as a writer, I’m sorry to say, or in most of the creative professions. You can labor for months, even years, without any payday worth filing an income tax return.
So, why do we do it? Because we can’t help it. It’s a drive, like other creative pursuits, music, art, dance, theatre, whatever. It’s in our natures, buried deep somewhere in our hearts and brains. We’re compelled to string words into sentences, sentences into paragraphs, paragraphs into chapters, and chapters into books.
The problem is, there’s no guaranteed audience for an artistic product. So no guaranteed payday for us.
I am addicted to the process of writing. My current project is with my agent, and I feel like I’m in withdrawal. I thought I’d be thrilled with a few weeks away from a manuscript that took me two years to write, but I’m miserable. Writing is so stimulating for me that I suffer a huge letdown when I’m done with a book. Writing is the only occupation I’ve ever had that keeps me mentally and emotionally absorbed, when I’m not thinking about a single other thing than putting the right words on paper. I can’t give it up. I can’t! I need it! Even more than Bunny Tracks ice cream!
Then there’s the audience, my fans, a small but loyal bunch, who love my books. That’s a high, too, to know that a reader somewhere couldn’t put your work down until the wee hours of the morning.
The “problem” with writing is what stands between your art and its audience:s the publishing process, the contracts, the negotiations, the promotional plan or lack of same, all the endless business details that must be tended to before your book gets to your readers. Not to mention that your most recent work might show up on ebay or in a used bookstore even before publication, thanks to someone making a quick buck off a review copy. Then there’s Google and scanning and…let’s not go there. Too discouraging.
But then, after publication, comes the reward. The good reviews, maybe a book club edition, a reader at a signing or workshop telling you how much they enjoyed your book. Because the truth is it’s not quite enough to write a book, the reading of it by others is a part of the addiction.
I tell all the budding writers I know that persistence is what gets you through the business part of writing, that determination is as important a quality for a writer as creativity and imagination.
Which reminds me of my seagull friend, who managed the crossing from Ocracoke to Cedar Island by perching on a ferryboat rail and enduring wind and waves until he got where he was going.