I had lunch last week with a friend who is a publisher-editor. We do this occasionally at one of the cheap and cheerful small restaurants near his office. We do not have any specific agenda and usually talk about several things. Topics include goings on at our church–where we rarely cross, not least because we attend different services–and ‘compare notes’ about how things seem to be developing or people appear to be reacting to various changes taking place. We discuss politics sometimes, in particular, how things have been shaping up in the selection process for Republican Party presidential candidates. He often mentions books that are in his publication pipeline and issues that may be arising with the authors. We talk about our wives, their work and other activities. He asks about my daughters.
He has a small office in a suite of offices, where he works alone. He told me during our first lunch several months ago that his doctor had warned him about the negative effects of working in a basement office; he took it seriously and moved out of his basement home office to a rented space. He frowned when I told him that ‘office space’ had been created in our basement. However, I mentioned that I was familiar with some research on the effect on moods, creativity, and productivity of location. I told him that I had the recent accidental good fortune to work from home in the tropics for several years, with an office set up in a light and airy ‘basement’. The house ‘basement’ was at ground level with two bedrooms and a large living space, and led directly out to my gardens. The main entrance and bulk of the house, however, was on the upper floor, which had more bedrooms, kitchen, and large living space. Admittedly, not typical basement space. But, I had also become accustomed to working at the same house in my upper floor ‘office’, which was the verandah, overlooking a garden with frangipani trees: that was my preferred working space. My current house, has a large conventional (underground) basement, which has windows but no direct access outside. I try to not work in the basement too much when it’s daytime, preferring to work on the ground floor in my kitchen-living area, which gives views of my garden and pond. I told him that I take seriously findings about the the psychology of office space. He had smiled at that news.
His publishing house is small, but is not a vanity press–where authors pay publishers to issue their books–although he handles authors who often want very limited publications or distribution. He focused initially on private circulation or informal distribution. Now he does what he calls ‘venture publishing’–books meant for trade circulations and sales, although addressed to small, particular audiences.
He has also written and had published several books and mentioned that he was about to move to the other side of the table, so to speak, and look to write another book–his memoirs. He asked me if I had thought of doing the same. I told him that I had and had started to do so a few years ago, trying to develop my recollections chronologically. I had left the draft at a point where I found an emotional block as I recalled events in my life. He laughed. He too had started before and had hit a similar problem. He had tried to tackle his recollections from a different angle, but had hit the same block from this other direction. Now, I laughed. I had also tried to write about my life based on a range of themes, but had hit the same emotional blocking point that braked me before. We agreed that life has those moments that just stop us short. Such points are not necessarily personal events, but they relate intimately to our lives and we believe they had some major significance in shaping the direction our lives took. Neither of us had a solution for getting past our particular blocks, but agreed that we should try to get the stories out of our heads beyond the blocking points.
Publishing his memoirs was going to be a big deal, perhaps writing ‘full time’. He had not yet finalized the financial deal that he wanted. He knew that to get the writing done he would have to put his publishing business ‘on hold’ (or “do it with my left hand”, in his words), but the lower income that would imply would be more than covered by his book deal.
I admit that I had never heard of Walter Dean Myers until today, when I read this morning’s Washington Post (Bad boy makes good as children’s author). He is a high school drop-out, who now writes children’s books. He is now the new National Ambassador for Young People’s Literature. His novels include stories about children in difficult urban settings, facing serious social problems, which may make some parents or adults leery of putting his books in the hands of children. However, children react to his writing positively for its realism.
Now that I have heard of him, I will seek out some of his novels to read for myself.
His story, however, provides inspiration for writers. A few budding writers whom I have met recently have been searching for inspiration, because they have struggled to keep up the process of writing. Myers gives some ideas that are worth noting. Citing from the Post article (with my highlighting):
‘He started writing in 1961 as a means of escaping the lousy world around him. He eventually got a job as an editor in a publishing house. When he was laid off, in 1977, Connie [his wife] urged him to give full-time writing a shot.
“He’s been writing at home ever since,” she says.
He rises by 5 a.m., writes five pages a day, five days a week, and doesn’t goof around. Last year, at 73, he published five books.
He hopes to accomplish a couple of things in his two years as ambassador. He wants to convince parents to start reading to their children as soon as they’re born and constantly until they’re 5. And he wants to help remove the stigma from teenagers who can’t read well.
“I’ve seen the value of that in my own life.”
So, those who want to tackle writing have to become serious and disciplined about their undertaking, if it going to progress. It needs regular time and good space (both physical and mental) to go well. For many people, that’s how they see their commitment to a full-time job. So, if writing is not the full-time job, then it has to be given similar importance–and income is not a part of the consideration. So, the business of writing comes down to going about it like a ‘business’.
To borrow from comments from a professional trader to an audience of new and experienced traders, about how someone should treat trading: “It is not a ‘job’ in the strict sense of the word but it is a profession and unless you put yourself in a position to succeed by treating it as a business, you are going to find out the hard way how physically, psychologically and economically taxing it can be.”
Myers was laid off before he was able to devote himself to writing full-time. My friend will choose to give up his full-time job to allow himself to write full-time. Different routes, but each got into a position to succeed.