Tuesday, December 26, 2017

The Learning Curve


The last few weeks have been interesting since I put the book out in early November. As I learned at that time, being your own copy editor isn't a good idea.  (I’ve revised the manuscript five times since publication, finding small grammatical glitches each time I re-read chapters. I probably still don’t have them all, but I took care of roughly two dozen.)  Everything involved with putting out your own book is rough work!

What have I learned?  Let me put it this way: I couldn’t possibly envision Hemingway, Steinbeck or Kerouac on Twitter or Facebook hyping themselves.  Well, I could imagine Hemingway on Twitter, but no one would grasp what he was doing.  In the modern world, you’re supposed to hype yourself, shamelessly, endlessly, chase after popularity, page views, re-tweets, “likes” in double- or triple-digit numbers, “friends” galore, touting these digital triumphs, building your online self-mythology, regardless of depth or sincerity, for the whole world to gaze upon in envy.

I can embrace that to a certain extent – anyone putting a book out must endorse his own cult of personality – but not to the level where I’m going to use social media to sell this book.  I’m convinced that unless you’re well-versed in a given social-media platform, already using it for personal reasons and comfortable with the time commitment and lack of privacy, it’s pretty much a waste of time hyping a creative endeavor you’ve undertaken, be it a book, album, paintings, etc.  People aren’t going to flock to your social-media site from the pure power of your creative work, or your personality.  Like anything else, social-media identities are carefully constructed and nurtured, over time, generally on the premise of feeling a sense of self-actualization.  Some people are great at that, and I surely don’t hold it against them.

People create works of art for the same reason.  I recognize social media as a separate structure from what I’ve done with the book, where I’ve put a lot more time, space, effort and consideration into creating something that will last, as opposed to the constantly-running meter of social media. I want this thing to stand, next week, next year, decades from now. Whether 50 people read it or 50,000.  Sure, putting it out there and selling it is a popularity contest of sorts.  But not why I wrote it.  I wrote it to define a time and place in my life that not many people have done, that part of Pennsylvania, rural America by extension, in the 1970s.  That’s not fully accurate.  I already had about 80% of the book written and simply recognized this.  So, I compiled those pieces, revised a few, ordered them chronologically, and added about six more pieces that added to the whole.

It helps to go back to the first post I wrote here back in 2006.  It surprises me now how much of that post rings true and applies to what I just did in terms of putting out a book.  It’s simply what I do.  Back then, my father’s death two years earlier had blown my mind to the extent that I felt no urge or need to write.  In my mind, I created a half-assed tribute to him in terms of seeing the world with his stark clarity, i.e., seeing right through any sort of creative ambitions.  I hadn’t made it big by then … be practical … why go on?

But I’m not my father.  As much as I’ve adopted from him over the years, especially in terms of temperament and personality, this urge to write is something that existed way outside his frame of reference, Mom’s, too.  I remember the one time I got under his skin as a writer, when a story I had published in the college newspaper, a satirical piece on how I was raised in the Coal Region, was picked up by a local paper, re-published verbatim with a sidebar editorial positing the piece as a non-satirical insult to where I was raised.  It was far from the truth, but the sort of thing a bad editor would exploit.  Dad fielded a few nasty phone calls from outraged friends who didn’t “get it” – which was fine by me, the whole point of satire is for a lot of people not to get it.

Not fine by Dad.  He was pissed at first.  I made it clear to him: I’m your son. These jackasses calling you on the phone, threatening me with physical violence, aren’t well-versed enough to know they’re being played by a small-town newspaper editor.  You don’t need to like what I wrote or even take my side.  But you either need to hang up on these jackasses or tell them to go fuck themselves, because no friend of yours would ever do something like that.  I could understand Dad being angry that idiots were calling the house and assuming he was somehow responsible for this, but if I had a son, and you physically threatened him in my presence?

He got it, fairly fast.  I made it clear to him it was irrelevant to me whether he got it or not: this was happening, and I wasn’t backing down.  He should have known from the way his mother raised him and he raised me: I was not going to be intimidated.  From that point forward, he had no grasp of what I was doing as a writer, which was fine, so long as he respected my choice.  I’ve learned, don’t expect family to treat you like a rock star, or something special.  They know me so much better than that!  It’s reassuring to have people see you for exactly who you are, good and bad.

When you leave the working class, which is exactly what I was doing by going to college and writing, you head into a world that makes very little sense outside that context.  I learned how to work in offices, get used to the corporate mindset and understand the value so many people place on money as a source of self-respect.  In terms of the “writing” world, I’ve only existed on the fringes of that, which suits me fine now.  Seemed like failure at some points, but if you’re reading me now, or have ever read my stuff, and I’ve communicated something worthwhile and memorable to you, there is no failure, whether money has been part of that exchange or not.

In Dad’s mind, anything that existed above and beyond the working class was nirvana, paved with gold, the promised land, where he thought he should have gone with his life, where he wanted his kids to go, as that way of life would be “better” by one very clear, quantifiable measure: more money.  Boy, he didn’t have a clue!  The white-collar ways of life I’ve encountered would have blown his mind in terms of pressure, arrogance and the bizarre lack of self-worth that I’ve seen drive so many “successful” people.  He was over-joyed that I was making good money in non-working class settings.  And in his practical mind, if writing pays you next to nothing or nothing, you shouldn’t bother with it.

That was my only real rebellion against him.  That incident I noted above was the only time it ever got discussed.  I understood he didn’t place much value in that aspiration of mine.  I wasn’t hurt at all.  I could see in his mind that whatever I did, preferably for more money than he made, in a place that wasn’t clanking machinery, grease and dirt, was fine by him.  Whether it was getting paid for writing or punching an office clock.  Mom?  I don’t think she ever got that part of me either, but god damn, just like the picture on the back of the book (if you buy it!), she was teaching me how to write when I barely knew how to walk.

That piece I wrote back in 2006 was before Facebook and Twitter were ways of life.  Facebook was around a year or two; Twitter was just getting started.  Smart phones didn’t exist; people were painstakingly clicking miniature QWERTY-style keyboards on Blackberries.  All social media did was underline the tenets I put forth in that piece.  Self-promotion may have been more the domain of artists trying to hype their work back then, but social media made it acceptable for everyone, an addiction for many.

I do want to hype and promote my writing. But not like that, not in ways I’m not comfortable with, that I’ve always found questionable, full of empty promises and false values.  Just by poking around the Amazon message boards for publishing, I’ve seen so many people desperate for that level of financial success and acceptance as writers.  I think that even if they’re lucky enough to find these things, they won’t be as fulfilling as the illusion.  When I read all these missives and hard-wrought wisdom (generally from people who have sold 2,000 books at $0.99 per book about dog grooming) aimed at “first-time authors” … I guess they mean people in their 20s who’ve never published anything?  Sure, this is my first book, but far from my first brush with publishing or minor fame, or thousands of pages into a life of writing that, in this case, culminated in a book.  I worked through that mindfuck by 2004 and walked away from any vestige of it for two years.

Some people are going to get what you do.  Some are going to hate what you do.  Most aren’t going to know or care, one way or the other.  The goal seems to be tapping into the “get what you do” group and exploiting it for all it’s worth, whether that means dozens of sales or hundreds of thousands.  I can see now, after jiggering ads on Amazon for enticing keywords to pull potential readers in, trying to reach as many as possible … even when you do reach them by the tens of thousands, 350 will click on the book to actually look at it, maybe read the first few chapters online … maybe 10 will go ahead and buy it. Thus, you keep re-thinking the next set of ads and throwing the net out again.

Social media would be much the same concept, save there’s usually a meter on the site to let everyone know how well or poorly you’re doing.  And that’s where me and social media part.  No one has to know that but me.  There’s something so abrasive and empty about social media in terms of quantifying every morsel of communication, every relationship, however deeply personal or completely meaningless, that passes through it, visible to everyone, so you can judge for yourself by their kangaroo court of internet popularity.  Tell it to Van Gogh or The Velvet Underground, who would have had about 26 followers a piece on Twitter during the course of their greatness!

Beyond that, I can see that the only reason to put out a book through a publishing company is to have their marketing department work for you, hopefully have you tapped into a good agent, both of whom can arrange promotional tie-ins, appearances, reviews in major media outlets, etc.  And that’s nothing to scoff at.  While these things won’t make or break a book, they could go a long way in terms of influencing thousands of potential readers.

But even then, I can see, that’s not it.  I’ve had friends put out books with publishers, major and minor.  Good books, too, well worth reading.  And even with all the marketing and promotional muscle behind them … no big commercial breakthrough happens.  Successful books, especially today, are like lightning in a bottle.  So many different forces need to converge at roughly the same time to push the visibility level so much higher than before, as there so much more out there now.  You can launch an all-out assault on social media, arrange appearances on talk shows and reviews in major worldwide newspapers, even with a great book … and if the stars don’t align, it won’t happen. The way I’ve done it, if my book under-performs, all I have is a bruised ego. You do the same with a publishing company, you get the heave-ho, generally after being made to feel like a failure by people whose livelihoods depend on selling as many books as possible.

Is that solace? Hardly.  But it helps that I’ve been around long enough to see these varying levels of success and failure occur, even see a few people I know break through and make some kind of living as writers, however tenuous and insecure that job position tends to be.  In the end, you just do what you can, what you were put here to do.  That’s where I began, and it will be where I end.

8 comments:

Andy S. said...

"There’s something so abrasive and empty about social media in terms of quantifying every morsel of communication, every relationship, however deeply personal or completely meaningless, that passes through it, visible to everyone, so you can judge for yourself by their kangaroo court of internet popularity."

Not to mention, how much of that quantification is manipulated and completely fake. Computer-generated clicks, professionally-generated user comments and the like.

I agree with everything you said about social media. There's something bizarre and a little sad about seeing family members at your own Christmas gathering with their noses buried in their phones while the holiday is elapsing right in front of them. I wish you the best of luck with the book, but I salute your refusal to sell your soul to Facebook and Twitter.

Deb said...

I hope you won't hate it, but FB is where I stumbled across your book. Tomorrow, when I'm sober enough to find the effing PP card, I'll plunk down my ill-gotten gains for a copy.

Your thoughts about how everything changes when a parent dies got my attention. I'm currently revising a novel that I started in '13 - the year I lost both my parents, my husband and my god damned cat. Life sucked me under and squirted out a writer. Anyway, mine is set in the mid-70s, NYC, and the burbs. I'm going to see if you remember as much or as well I have.

William S. Repsher said...

Thanks for the support. I surely don't mind people learning about the book on social media ... in fact, I hope that happens a lot more in the near future! But I would feel weird and ingenuous signing onto any form of it now for the sole purpose of hyping a book. Especially when I'm constantly harping on the theme of social media being mostly hype, in ways I'd suggest most people are no longer even aware of. It's not for me.

I thought I had a rough year in 2013 with a hernia and Mom passing on, but it sounds like you had me beat! Any time an immediate family member passes on, it's a paradigm shift in how you see the world. And not bad in that sense ... but it's a brutally hard lesson that just about everyone learns, sooner or later.

NYC at any point in the 70s has always been a fascinating topic for me. Let me know when you put this out for public consumption.

William S. Repsher said...

Er, um, "disingenuous."

Beatles Comment Guy said...

"In Dad’s mind, anything that existed above and beyond the working class was nirvana, paved with gold, the promised land, where he thought he should have gone with his life, where he wanted his kids to go, as that way of life would be “better” by one very clear, quantifiable measure: more money. "

I wonder if this is a generational thing between the WW II era guys and Baby Boomers. For me and my friends who went on to a non-working class life, there's constant disparagement from older family that non-physical labor isn't a "real" job and it's somehow a scam that anyone can earn a living thereby. With the decline in the PA economy, there's now a perverted pride in holding to that sort of negativity. My best friend's (baby boomer) father points out constantly that while he has relatively little to show for financially, it's not because of unwillingness to work "hard" jobs.

I'm not one to say that life is a wealth competition, but the sense I get from the Rust Belt now is one of bitterness that traditional working class sorts of jobs (increasingly rare) are the only ones that count.

William S. Repsher said...

Not really a generational thing. Dad came back from the armed forced in mid-50s, at which point he went straight to college on the G.I. bill, as his older brothers did before him, and I think all of them graduated. Dad didn't like college, gave it up after a year and meandered a bit before getting a job at the plastics factory that would guide him through his adult life.

I think he always felt guilty that he didn't go the distance, get a college degree, and the kind of work that entailed. Not too guilty: his father worked the coal mines, so he was no stranger to the way of life. But I'm certain he thought it was the duty of a parent to see his child go farther then he did in some sense, and in his mind, he hadn't done that.

The condition you describe, I was exposed to CONSTANTLY growing up in rural PA. Have been called "college boy" and "joe college" a few times, generally by people who made some radical errors in their adulthood. True, they had a point in terms of college-educated folks sometimes looking down on the working class, and sometimes the college folks were really not all that intelligent, lacking in street smarts, common sense and going through the motions in terms of higher education. But that sure as hell wasn't me, so I chafed at this sort of treatment. But realized ultimately the person was just exposing his insecurities to me ... which took me straight back to Dad and whatever he though his failings in life might have been. In other words, I let it slide, knowing where their derisiveness was coming from.

We shouldn't single out rural PA -- i think all of rural America is going through this. Then again, as Mom pointed out to me at the time, and I laughed at her because I thought she was being melodramatic, NAFTA essentially gutted the manufacturing base that rural America had powered for decades -- not immediately in the 90s when it was implemented, but slowly eroding over the course of decades. And this is the vibe that remains. I feel it in my bones, no matter if it troubles me or not. Trump's berserk victory was no accident - it was years in the making.

Beatles Comment Guy said...

I don't single out PA-it's still my real home. But a lot of people back there don't understand that even doing a professional or white collar job in a big city with your college degree, you might not be bringing home the same money grandad did at that mill or railroad decades ago, adjusted for cost of living increases, inflation, and all of that. When I lived in DC, after rent and groceries, I felt lucky if I had enough left for a 12 pack for the weekend. And this was the luxury lifestyle I "cheated myself" into via college and grad school! And sometimes, that's why I wonder if it's not about money (which these days, a degree won't guarantee, anyhow) but the idea you've pulled a fast one on the average Joe by earning your bread by means of something other than physical labor. I've never disparaged anyone's work ethic or denied that a lot of jobs are backbreaking. Take up your grievances re:standard of living with the rich dudes who own your company-not me, the guy whose discretionary income this month might mean one book, one album, and maybe enough to take a lady out to dinner That's all I'd ask of the folks back home.

But all through that time at university and work, I am/was surrounded by relatively affluent people whose background was cozier than anything I could imagined. (Mom and Dad paying for college? Italian vacation every Spring?!) I've almost felt as if you're only really at home if you moved out of a working class or poor upbringing when you're around people who've done the same.

Trump was no surprise to me, either. But aside from his general sleaziness and being an asshole (I hope we can agree on that much), there was no way he was going to bring back the old industrial jobs, even if wanted to. McCain, whom I didn't care for much either, was honest when he ran against Obama and said flat out that those jobs aren't coming back. That didn't help his chances, but Obama won-even with his "bitter clingers" remark. And it pains me to admit it, but he wasn't entirely off when he said it-and I'm no atheist, wealthy "liberal elitist" by any means. You would think hard-pressed working people in PA and elsewhere would get behind something like universal healthcare-like working people essentially everywhere else in the world. But no!

I sympathize with the economic struggles, but the older I get, it's harder to rationalize the opposition to government policies that would actually alleviate those problems, especially when they're based on the idea that you're only entitled to what you "earn"-you'd rather be broke and miserable, having "earned" that-than benefit wider society through taxes that wealthy people pay.

I'd love to write it off as a pure madness, but I know small mindedness come into play, too. The family down the road who's even worse off than you shouldn't get ahead via government programs because it's more fair to have earned being marginally better off than them than for the community at large to have it relatively well. Or somehow college educated people or minorities are gaming the system. I'm a loss to explain how people like getting a raw deal so long as it means that someone else is even more miserable.

None of that is meant to knock anyone in particular, but it's a source of endless frustration when you're from an area where those outlooks are the norm. It's not a healthy mentality to have, and the irony is that they still look up to that generation that experienced the Depression and WWII- they who saw a lot of suffering that left them open to ideas about how government could be on the side of wider society-instead of tax and spending cuts every time, all the time. At times, it's almost looking like we'll have to go backward before we go forward.

William S. Repsher said...

Well, I think we can thank the Baby Boom Generation for all this (and I'm on the very tail end of that). The rallying cry was down with materialism in the 60s, which everyone should have recognized as a ruse when the loudest voices were moderately wealthy kids at college expressing class hatred towards their parents. Lo and behold, they started whistling a different tune by the 80s, when rampant materialism, and these same people supporting it, became the norm. Rampant materialism that would have shamed their Depression era/WW II parents whose only goal after the war was to create financial stability for themselves after decades of uncertainty.

We have people now raised in the bosom of that rampant materialism, who can't even recognize it, who are perfectly comfortable with it, thus kids living in my neighborhood, paying $1,200 for a shoebox studio apartment, on a $40K annual salary, spending more than half their wages on rent, and being subsidized by their grumbling parents (who endorsed this upward spiral in the first place!).

I think we're all touched by that same working-class dissatisfaction and insecurity now. No one is safe. Most people are struggling financially. (I'll read the odd article about people making $100K annually feeling a sense of struggle ... which they are, given real-estate values and their desire to present a certain way of life to the world, god help them when their kids want to go to college and the six-figure sum that will entail.) The reason I can roll with so much misguided working-class grousing is that, well, I'm From there, but also I recognize most of us are in much the same boat, however we chose to live.