Thanks so much for Story Club! Seeing the photos from tour, I was wondering if you would be up for sharing your reflections of the ups/downs of the journey at its various stages of success. In many ways, the world tour, the filled auditoriums and talks w Marlon James and others in front of an audience who has come to hear you/your stories is the author’s dream. And I imagine on the other end, at some point you had the bookstore appearances where there were two or three in the audience (one of whom just wanted a place to sit for a while). What have been the benefits/pitfalls of the various stages of this journey for you? Right now it sure seems to be the dream, but I’m wondering if you’d say this is accurate, or have there been unexpected realizations from success that you wish you’d known earlier? And given your interest in Buddhism, any insights on the topics of author despair, desire, longing, and how it’s related to this journey?
Well, yes: the early days could sometimes be pretty lean. For my first-ever tour, for CivilWarLand in Bad Decline, I had a well-attended event at Prairie Lights Bookstore, in Iowa City (because of the MFA program there, I expect), then went confidently on to a Barnes & Noble in Des Moines… where I read to a crowd of five, two of whom came up after to say they’d come because they thought the book was a history of the Civil War but had felt too sorry for me to leave.
Total sales: two books.
So, I’m always (always) very (very) grateful to see a big crowd. It’s kind of a crazy privilege, to go to a city and…find that people have shown up. It’s also, I’ve found incredibly helpful to my writing, to be in front of a crowd and, especially, to be able to talk to people afterward, in the signing line.
This is something I’m really missing this time around but I thought, given Covid, it might be expedient to skip, just in the name of 1) making it through the whole tour, and 2) minimizing the chance of me unwittingly giving it to a bunch of people. Anyway - it was a tough call and I’ve missed it - I’m finding that my mind & body “expect” to meet people afterward, and it’s feeling oddly anti-climactic to just schlep back to the hotel…
Next time, for sure.
But having, and getting to know, an audience over the years has increased my confidence that, if I go somewhere new, difficult, and/or weird in my work, the audience will follow. In the early days, looking out at an audience, I was more inclined to think, “Oh, they’re going to hate this.” But then you start hearing enough stories about how your work has pleased or even helped someone, and you start to internalize that - to “correct for confidence,” as I once heard it put.
When I was working on Lincoln in the Bardo, this was really important - this imagining of a willing & supportive audience. It’s also helped me in my goal of trying to learn how to really communicate with a reader, and to become more comfortable with positive valences —to not just be a sort of AutoDark gloomster. The people I meet in my audiences tend to be active and positive and engaged and fun/funny - open to the world and doing things in it, with commitment.
So, that’s a nice group to imagine trying to please.
The biggest thing I’ve learned over the years has to do with where to look for satisfaction in writing. There’s a very samsara-esque quality to this endeavor (well, to all endeavors, but). That is, there’s a predictable & cyclic quality to it all, that goes like this (and I’m sure this will be familiar to many of you): First, the feeling that I’ve got no ideas, and despair over that (“I’ve lost it! I’m finished!”). Then, an idea comes, or at least a place to start. Is it good? Months of work to find out, and: Yes, it is, or could be. Work, work, work. Finally I finish it, feeling good. Send it out. Maybe it’s accepted. Yay, it is! Ugh, I hope I don’t mess up the edits. But no: the editing process goes great. And now the story is coming out! Will people like it? Some do. Hooray! But wait: I’ve got no ideas.
Then it all starts over again, over and over, until I die at 120, busily enacting one of those phases described above.
So, there’s actually no settled place of fulfillment. And maybe that’s as it should be. What’s happened over the years is that, aware of the above, I’ve gotten marginally better at being content/happy during any/all of those phases, kind of like, “Oh, I’m in that phase now. That’s fun.” It’s still frustrating, scary, sometimes euphoric…but less so, or more controllably so - I can be in a certain phase of the creative process, struggling to move out of it, even as I’m looking over at myself struggling, slightly amused by the whole thing.
And the “no fulfillment” idea pertains on the larger scale too. Like now: I’m at LAX, heading to NY, to be in Colbert on Thursday (tonight, that is, by the time you read this). Everything to do with Liberation Day has gone pretty darn well. Mostly good reviews, lovely events, so many heartfelt responses to the stories…continued viability, in other words.
When is the moment of celebration? Well…never. Or, more honestly, a little bit every day, mostly in the form of gratitude…but even now I’m starting to hear this little voice: “Well, what else have you got? Still coasting on this book you finished in January? Sheesh.” In other words, my confidence is very tied to whatever story I have going at the moment (and at the moment, I’ve got zippo going. That is: I can feel o.k. for a little while on past accomplishments…but not for very long. In this, I guess, my saggy self-regard is a good artistic friend.
In truth and, as we used to say in engineering school, “by observation,” there’s one place where the satisfaction might most reliably reside (and on which I try to focus): that first period when a story starts to work, when “the figure starts to emerge from the stone.” It’s a complicated moment, sort of anxious, because nothing is certain. But I’ve learned to savor & enjoy that moment when the story is starting to assert itself and is wresting control away from me - it is as good as it gets, because the mystery of the whole thing is most keenly felt then. What’s happening here? What does the story want from me? How can I best serve it?
And that’s less a moment of satisfaction, and more a moment of participation. The self that wants to win temporarily vanishes. It’s replaced by the self that wants to do good work. Or just have some fun. It’s something like that moment when an errant Frisbee comes your way and it occurs to you that you could catch it. (Why not? That’s fun.).
That state…I could stand to be in forever.