As we sat huddled at crowded tables in the Peacock Room of the elegant Mark Hopkins Hotel in San Francisco, my deja vu struck: I was watching a Tony Robbins motivational conference on PBS.
The dozen or so men and women on stage, all shapes, sizes and ages, stood up and gripped the mic—some with more confidence than others—and told their stories: “Three years ago, I too was sitting where you are, my book idea barely conceived, uncomfortable and unproven but here I am now a published author with an advance and another book on the way.” Riotous clapping ensues. Rinse and repeat with other inspiring stories.
I realized that the attendees at the 50+ tables wide-eyed and straining to listen, weren’t attending this conference to refresh grammar rules, learn story arcs, or methods to hone their pitch. They were here to fulfill their dream: The ecstatic giddiness of writing a book and getting it published.
I also understood clearly at that moment that it wasn’t just about writing the book, it was the desire for others to read your book. It made me wonder: could one exist without the other? I loved writing but if no one read it, did it count? If I don’t have feedback does it mean I won’t know if my writing is good? Does any of this even matter? My mind raced with “If a tree falls in the woods and no one hears it…” questions, but was brought back to the noisy excitement of more clapping.
Once I checked back into the reality of the room, I felt a sense of shame and idiocy recalling the one-in-a-million chances and fakery we’ve all seen on TV: The faith healer raising a small boy out of his wheelchair. “The Price is Right” contestant who wins a car because she reveals a stapler in her purse to Bob Barker. The lottery winner on TV grinning ear to ear. Could this dream really happen to me?
But then I checked myself.
I too could be on that stage. I too could write that book. I too had that passion—and it was nothing to be ashamed of. In fact, it was one of those rare moments I felt a deep sense of camaraderie with every person in the room for their passion to write, no matter how different we were. And believe me, we were miles apart.
From the young woman writing about birthing in the wilderness to the female coach advising how to say “no” without guilt. Or the San Francisco hipster taxi driver musing on his rides to the serial dater writing about her kooky love misadventures. Then there was the doctor penning a story of a 5th grader doing surgery and a famous cartoonist’s son spinning historical fiction. The list goes on.
This quilt of ideas and passion in the room strangely seemed to fit together: We all have a story to get out and conversely, want someone to read it. But I still couldn’t help asking myself if I was part of a group of unrealistic dreamers or soon-to-be successes.
Throughout the weekend I attended classes about parables, platforms, and pitches, which only served to fuel the strike-it-big fantasy. Excitement was sparked by topics like: how to option your book; rules for media interviews; scheduling out book series.
Though I became weary of all the advice, potential triumphs, and scribbling notes, I nonetheless stayed motivated by the possibilities of writing dreams. In the evenings, between sips of wine and bites of networking snacks, we tested our pitches and ruminated on fears and fantasies for our books.
But there was the subtext buzzing beneath the surface during the entire conference: Self-publishing is the last resort if you don’t get published. It’s the First-Class versus Coach of the industry. The unspoken message is that if you are a published author, you’re legitimized, if you self-published, not so much. After all, anyone can publish a book these days. That doesn’t make it a bad option, but it means you have no other option. Some authors don’t care. But some care very much.
Of course, the (again one-in-a-million) example heard of self-publishing throughout the weekend was the lucky author of the “The Martian” discovered online, then part of an Oscar-nominated movie, and the rest is history. Yes, sometimes luck, talent, and timing really do intersect in life. But how many lives? How many times?
By the end of the conference, through all the classes, writers, agents, and publishers I encountered, the biggest discovery had nothing to do with potential book fame—it only had to do with my relationship to writing.
For those who lament with words every day, it is not a choice, it’s something we must do, no matter how painful or glorious it is. It’s more than getting our thoughts on the virtual paper, or praising ourselves for the beauty of perfect prose strung together, or slogging through that final edit that renders us broken but exhilarated. It’s about completeness. The End. Ready for Prime Time—whatever form that takes.
The truth is that writing is the least of the work if you want to be a published author—whether you seek a contract or self-publish. For those of us who live in the world of feared procrastination just looking at the blank screen, that alone can be enough to click on Facebook for life.
You’ll be eeking out every page, editing and re-editing, creating your platform, finding publishing options, hiring a coach or an editor, getting educated on contracts. It can make your head spin. And maybe if you have the time, reading other works to continue that inspiration. It’s enough to look at your book as a side project, which it is already if you are working to support yourself to write (99% of us).
This isn’t all bad though, it means that it will light a fire under your ass—or it won’t. The passion you feel for your project comes completely from within. Being a “published author” can come in many forms —but that flotation device in an ocean of words that keeps you above water is shaky at best and may or may not sink at any point.
But then I slipped into my imagination and clearly saw a snapshot of the glossy cover of my book, the title a bit fuzzy and the image splashy color but illegible. But what I did see with extreme clarity, was my name in big bold letters staring back at me.
And as I learned from 74-year-old Walter at the conference, now is when you should write your book. “I don’t have a lot more time to tell my story so I need to do it now.” He see’s the ultimate deadline and in doing so, has accomplished the seemingly impossible.