Writing is a Humiliation Banquet

Please find here my piece recently published on She Writes, a wonderful website  for women writers.

NOTE: If you go to the post on that site you’ll find wonderful, funny, entertaining comments from readers in response to this humor piece.  Also, my dear friend, the brilliant writer, Catherine Mayo, wrote a response giving her own wise and funny and helpful perspectives on the humiliations that come with publication.  Here is her website, Madam Mayo, which is packed with goodies for writers: http://madammayo.blogspot.mx/2013/05/so-hows-book-doing-and-how-many-books.html

Here is the piece itself:

Writing is a humiliation banquet.  It is time that everyone who reads books or counts a writer a friend be acquainted with the menu of this exclusive club:


Plat du Jour


Rot-Gut Wine

The pitying looks, false cheer, and stumbling superlatives, handed to you by fellow students at writers workshops, and your own friends or family, upon the first tentative sharing of your work, who let you know, though they wear little smiles on their faces, that they consider your writing very poor indeed.  Welcome to this oh-so-shi-shi club.


Clams on Toast

 The platitudes offered you by agents who turn down your work with responses such as “Memoirs by women aren’t selling this year.”

Wilted Celery Sticks          

 The rejection notices from publishers who write that your book, while impressive, is “not quite right for us.”


 Thin Gruel   

 The fact that, though, by some miracle, your book is now published, it receives no reviews.


Chopped Liver        

The time you are presenting your work on a panel of four writers, and the good-looking young man who just told stories, and read not a word of his writing, is rewarded with long lines of buyers, while you have none—and just to add a bit of sauce, you have to buy your own book in order to trade books with the other panelists at the end of the event.



The kindly looks of writer friends who have looked up your sales on Amazon—something you studiously avoid—and let you know, in so many words, that their sales have surpassed yours.

Poached Tongue                

The kindly looks of writer friends who let drop the number of new twitter followers they get every seven seconds.

Stewed Prunes

The confit you must swallow when you show up at a bookstore for a reading and there is no audience, or there is one psychotic man pulling flies from the air and a ten year-old, and you have to decide whether to put your chin up, smile, and read, or find a hole to vomit into.


The sweet, ingratiating smiles from well-meaning people, at whom you must smile graciously when they tell you they are so eager to read the book you worked on for ten years at less than slave wages, and will get it from the library.

Bitter Cabbage                   

The other well-meaning people who, thinking they are helping you and not knowing, perhaps, that you have to buy your own book, tell you they want to give your book to someone who will love it, and could just you send them one to give to the friend for a gift?


Killer Sundae                      

The kindly meant but misguided question put to you by your very best friends, and everyone else, after your book comes out: “How is the book doing?”  The friends have no idea how this scrapes the writer’s oozing, ever-raw wounds.  “How is the book doing?”  Now what does that “doing” mean?  People mean well, they are not really thinking, but I’m pretty sure that sentence means, if I am not mistaken (and writers eating this daily humiliation fare can most certainly be deranged), “How much money are you making?”  Or: “Just how worthwhile an author are you?”  The same goes for “What was the print run?”   This is the question, the cherry on top that some people who really badly want to know how much you have made, push on to ask.  Who else do we greet by asking how much money they are making?

Here is the truth, the secret answer to that eager question, “How is the book doing?”  Let me herewith dispense with the common illusion held by those outside the club: that writers make money.  These are the facts: Advances for books are minuscule for most writers: from $0 to $25,000.  Bottom line: not enough to live on even for one year.  Seven out of ten books do not make even these tiny advances back, so seven out of ten writers receive no royalties at all.  As for royalties, a writer typically receives ten percent  of the cover price for the first 250,000 copies sold.  This means, for a book listed for $25, the writer will receive, if the advance has been earned back, $2.50 per book.

And as for sales ambitions, everyone assumes—in this America where we believe we can achieve anything we put our minds to and where anyone not a millionaire just isn’t working hard enough or is a self-promotion wimp—that every author any good would be making sales in the six figures.  Publisher’s Weekly reported in January, 2012 that the average U.S. nonfiction book now sells fewer than 250 copies per year, and fewer than 3000 over its lifetime.  And moreover, as the wonderful, best-selling author Anne Lamott has said—to paraphrase her—no matter how much praise you receive or how high your royalties are, it is never enough to feel worthy in this measure-people-by-money land we live in.  Whenever you look up your sales, it is humiliating because, as she would probably put it: if you’re any good, you should make as much as God would if she’d written a book.  Keep in mind that Virginia Woolf hoped fervently that one of her books might sell 500 copies.  I won’t go into why the books that do sell, sell, but it is not always their literary quality.


Stiff Brandy             

The last, fast gulp of the dawn-to-dusk humiliation, of spending your time in an activity that everyone in America views as self-indulgent unless you are making the income of Stephen King.  Let me tell you, writers are afflicted beings—afflicted with the need to make arrangements of words.  They have to do it, like others have to eat donuts, but they sacrifice financial security and suffer daily, second-by-second humiliation to put forth their scribbling to the world.

“Writing is like prostitution,” a wise friend and wonderful writer commented to me recently.  As a writer, you strip down, put out your best wares for all to see, and stand there at the corner, being brave, sucking in your belly, hoping to get a sale.  And each moment of each day on that corner, even when you know you’re looking your best and you’ve produced something of real quality, you are subject to mortifying humiliation.

So when you see your writer friend next time, know she is dining on celery sticks, gruel and stewed prunes.  Buy her a real meal.

Originally posted Tuesday, May 28th, 2013

The Memoir-Writing Process: A most rewarding journey

Often, while in the possession of the demon called the memoir, there is a sense of a brain burning too bright, like Van Gogh’s.  There have been moments—brief but flashy–when I thought it might drive me mad.  Re-living the hard stuff can bring you close to the brink.

And then there is the downer of coming up against real life: like when the insightful adolescent in your head comes up against the boring, stupid adolescent-you of the diaries you dig out; like when you make contacts with old friends  who seem too strange to touch, or too disappointing, or even frightening.  Interactions with a couple of old friends have changed the actual content of my memoir.  One contact fired it up.  The other, with a friend of whom I was once fond, was so bitter, I eliminated the person from the book.

And finally, there is the disappointment of finding out that when you are in the mood to re-contact people, or when you are in the wistful, nostalgic mood, your old friends are not.  They went through all that, and purged, long ago, or aren’t yet ready to touch the fire.  No one is back there where you are, when you are.  This brings you to think: How alone we all are.  And yet how vivid everyone is, and how clamorous and crowded the life while writing.

All in all, despite it all, memoir-writing: a most rewarding obsession.

Originally posted on Monday, December 3rd, 2012

The Memoir-Writing Process: Prone to fits of idiocy

Write a memoir at your hazard.  It is a precarious activity.  One that makes you prone to embarrassing yourself.  All the awkwardness, the idiocy of youth come flooding back, and, believe me, you suddenly really are fourteen.  You do stupid things, you act weird, because it’s like you’re half your forty-nine year-old self and half- your fourteen year-old self and you lurch around in your harlequin garb, unable to stand.  One moment you’re tongue-tied at the edge of the dance floor, the next you’re pitching to the torrents, pulses, surges, and swayings of first love.  In the course of the writing, when operating under the influence of my mixed selves, I have put three feet in my mouth (the urge to self-humiliation was so great, I needed a spare), acted mentally ill, become a lovesick puppy, and delivered lectures, mature as Athena, all at once.

Originally poster on Monday, November 26th, 2012

The Memoir-Writing Process: Hazardous

Sometimes as I wrote, I was in a fugue, as when I was drugged at sixteen, an episode of the memoir.  And all along, the process led me toward the precipices of foolish acts, unaccountable acts.  For instance, immersion in old years left leaves me prone to fits of sweet love, when I wanted to fling my arms around all the people of the past, throw caution to the winds, and kiss them passionately.

…This brings me to the hazards associated with writing the memoir. Warnings for the novice, for any about to set their walking sticks on the memoirist’s trail.

Many have noted how the writing robs the writer of his memories.  Nabokov laments, as he refers to the writing implements of his childhood, “Alas, these pencils, too, have been distributed among the characters in my books to keep fictitious children busy; they are not quite my own now…Few things are left, many have been squandered…”

In Proust we find the thought that it is not the author who creates the story, but the story that creates the author. Beware who you create.  She’ll stay with you, take you over, define you forever after.  I think it prudent—and I have done this myself—to purposely leave out, preserve, some memories, episodes, and favorite people, so that not all your memories are stolen from you, trapped in the cage of sentences.

Another hazard of writing a memoir:  the people of your past seem, alternately like a pack of zombies ready to attack and submerge you, and a throng of dream people showering you with love.  Either shakes your little pram.

Originally posted on Monday, November 19th, 2012

The Memoir-Writing Process: The neglect of friends

While in obsession’s thicket—it is true—I neglected my friends.  I couldn’t talk to them while I was in this haze, this morass of yearning, this bubble, while I tried to negotiate this watery ground, palpitate this tumor of the past.

Originally posted on Monday, November 12th, 2012