Picture Hemingway. Or Thoreau. Or Virginia Woolf.
The idea is to get in your head the image of an author; someone from before the computer. Before the transistor, even. Someone who has only been featured in black-and-white photos or sepia-toned daguerreotypes.
Real old school. This person maybe used a typewriter, or more likely wrote their work by hand. You’ve seen examples of their handwriting, something you don’t see too often anymore. I’ve never seen any of my friends’ handwriting, unless they scrawled it onto the face of a mix CD or protest sign. With a Sharpie.
This author you’ve got in your head, the black-and-white one, he or she had a lifestyle very different than yours or mine. Back then, anyone with a touch of brilliance and a vocabulary worth a farthing could snatch up a book deal. Which, if you think about it, makes their work all the more amazing, as a whole lot of their work still holds water today, but that’s not the point I want to make.
The point I’m aiming at here is that their lifestyle involved less self-promotion and more work. Notice I didn’t say more ‘writing’ there, but more ‘work.’ In order to be a good writer, one must partake in many non-writing activities. Things like relationships and philosophizing and strolling about mid-century gardens and getting oneself into trouble are all important aspects of the writing process, even if they don’t involve applying ink to paper (or e-ink to pixel). Walden was not written by a guy who sat down at a computer and thought really hard about self-exploration. He had to do some living, thinking, feeling, first.
Now, though, we find ourselves living post-desktop publishing revolution. And like the Industrial Revolution, it was a good movement that has drastically improved the efficiency of our processes, but has also left in its wake a great deal of pollution. In this case, the pollution takes the form of bad habits and false ideas of what it means to be an author or publisher.
Sitting at home, in front of a big screen, tip-typing away at all hours of the night, bathed in the opalescent glow of their monitors, the modern author is a recluse. They are cloistered, like monks who have vowed not just sexual celibacy, but celibacy from life, as well. And this is not their fault, it’s just the shadow of a remnant of an idea that has been passed on through writerly magazines and blogs that trumpet superficial solutions as to how you can become a published author in ten easy steps, or how you should be preparing your work to suit the needs of the agents and publishing company reps that are ‘so over vampires and zombies, but still interested in metaphysical young adult fiction,’ rather than writing what you know, or what you really feel is good work.
This is not how things really are, it’s just the antiqued visual where too many budding authors plant themselves, leading to a frustrating and unfulfilling career.
All that stuff, it’s more than you need. We’ve been provided with a lot of technology and well-meaning suggestions and industry-perpetuated baggage, and we don’t need any of it. We can use whatever. That’s the contemporary advantage, should we make use of it.
Today, an author uses whatever tools she wants. She can handwrite everything and hire a typist, or publish the handwritten copies to her readers as daily serials or weekly inspiration. They can be bonuses for microfinanciers or artwork sold alongside the book. An author today is a publisher without even trying, because the technology required has blended into the background, and the walled-garden writers once played in has been breached so often, one need not even start inside. One can plant one’s own garden.
When I picture a modern author, making full use of the available tools and resources and cultural advantages, I see a man or woman who is in charge of their destiny. They live where they want, travel when they want, surround themselves with whomever they want. They require little: maybe a small laptop, maybe a Moleskine notebook and pen. Whatever their tool of choice happens to be, they use that tool to build the world they want to see, both on their pages (be they e-pages or paper-pages) and all around them.
They have a lifestyle that allows them to live in the world, rather than being crammed into a small, dark room somewhere, destined to live out their lives in seclusion, tweeting desperately, hoping to build a career from the mound of words they’ve piled up and glued together with advice gleaned from too many ignorant sources who themselves are drawing upon other ignorant sources.
The author I see is an artist and a business person. They go through life, being black-and-white photographed and daguerreotyped. You may or may not recognize their handwriting, but you recognize the mark they leave on the world.
What will your mark look like?
Update: April 6, 2017
It’s so much fun seeing essays that were originally published in my Exiles twice-monthly newsletter on here. It was a project that a let lapse years ago, but it had such a huge impact on my writing style, and having that deadline, and knowing that people were paying me to meet it, was a massive incentive to iterate quickly and keep things fresh.
I may do something else like that someday, though I have no idea what it might look like. That direct connection with the reader is immensely satisfying, though, and all my entrepreneurial concepts in the years since have more or less aimed to lessen the distance between them and me.