During a break from writing in the shed, purely for fun, I Google “being a famous writer.” Here is what comes up: How To Be a Famous Writer in Ten Easy Steps.
This is the actual the title of the post, as if “fame” is as simple as planting a flower garden or losing five pounds. Nearly everything revealed by the search is about how a writer can check off a number of steps and become super successful, make millions, and have their book made into a film directed by Martin Scorsese. Page after page of tips, to-dos, and action plans.
A friend of mine once asked, “You’re a good writer, why don’t you write a mystery?”
“I don’t want to write a mystery,” I answered.
“But mysteries sell.”
“But I don’t want to write a mystery.”
“Good mysteries get turned into movies.”
“I don’t want to write a mystery.”
He was dumbfounded. “Don’t you want to be famous?”
Do I want to be famous?
In today’s world, famous means selling a million books. It means selling your book to a movie producer and the movie being an enormous hit. Of course, the book has to be moderately famous first. And just a moderate box office hit will not bring you fame. Being “famous” also means being asked to appear on the Ellen DeGeneres Show, and it means Oprah, even when Oprah is no longer a thing.
Do I want to be famous?
I read a not-so-famous writer’s Tweet the other day in which he said he would “rather write a cult classic than a bestseller.” He was referencing a lyric from a song by The Streets. And in a recent online interview, Cheryl Strayed (who in many circles may be considered famous because her book Wild was made into a movie) said she would rather be known for “beautiful work” which is different than “saying I want to be famous.” But that’s easy to say when you are at least semi-famous already. And consider this, most writers who are “famous” in the literary world are invisible in pop culture. Stop people on the street and ask if they know these names: Raymond Carver, Tobias Wolff, Mary Oliver, Phillip Lopate, Karl Ove Knausgaard. Most, would not know these names. So, famous to whom?
Do I want to be famous?
I write what I write. A memoirist is what I’ve been called. I’ll take that. I’ve been lucky to find publishers who like what I have to say and see merit in it. But if they had not accepted my words, I would have found a good editor and self-published. Would I turn my head from a contract with a Big Five Publisher? Maybe. I honestly mean that. In the world of today’s publishing, that might not be the best route. And I’m not talking about dollars or percentages of sales, I’m talking about artistic work, work you are proud of. I do not have a Big Five Publisher knocking on my door, and maybe I would think differently if I did, but publishers routinely alter manuscripts, even very good ones, to make them, in their estimation, more market friendly. That does not necessarily mean this makes them better books, just more likely to be digested by the masses. I had an agent once who joked with me after a book’s fifteenth rejection, “Maybe you should add a few vampires to the story?” The book did eventually find a publishing home. And no vampires were added.
There are plenty of publishers who take on works they know will never sell a million copies, will sell barely a thousand, simply because they believe in the work. Those independents are vital. And writers who write what those publishers love, not what someone else can easily market, are also vital. This is not to dismiss those who write popular fiction or write purely for sales. Many do. More power to them. And I am not implying that I am some sort of artistic snob that would forever avoid succumbing to the level of what a snob might call the ignorant masses. I am not an elitist. Honestly, I’m not. I, too, in the end, like all writers, want readers to read my books.
But…do I want to be famous?
Let’s put it this way: It’s not something I think about. I’m not trying to be famous, although I am curious to wonder what that might be like. Maybe what and how I write will never be considered worthy of fame. My books will never be what the New York Times considers bestsellers and are highly unlikely ever to be cult classics. But that is okay. It does not matter. Truly, it doesn’t. And while I hang out in the shed, waiting for that slim-to-none possibility, I will not be reading any blog post entitled: How To Be a Famous Writer in Ten Easy Steps.
What I will do is get off the internet, pour myself another cup of coffee, and go back to writing.
10 thoughts on “How Not To Be a Famous Writer”
As a painter, I could entertain the same question. And my answer would closely parallel yours. Any artist, in whatever medium, who sets out to become famous by producing work that leads to wild popular acclaim is on a fool’s errand. There is simply no way to anticipate what’s going to move the masses in that way. I, too, have been approached a number of times with an artwork version of the “why don’t you write a mystery” question. My reply is no different than yours. Some people simply don’t see the intrinsic value of “ars gratia artis”: without the payoff of fame and fortune, what’s the point? The answer, of course, is the creative process itself, and out of that realizing work that gets to the heart of what we’re trying to achieve. But I don’t paint to simply hang canvases around the house. I want an audience who responds to what I’ve done. I want approval, and I wouldn’t mind wider acclaim as long as I felt I was staying true to myself and not trying to tailor my work to someone else’s idea of what the marketplace was thirsting for. I won’t have to struggle with that dilemma, just as I’ll never have to fret over spending a billion-dollar lottery jackpot. But, to be honest, I’ve also had the briefest flights of fancy in which fifty or a hundred years from now my work is admired in the finest museums and sold at Sotheby’s for undreamed-of sums. That’s when I know it’s time shake off the reverie, pour myself another cup of coffee and . . . paint.
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We are twin-sons-from-different-mothers, my friend! Coffee black, please.
David – Your writing has more HEART than many famous writers. Trading heart for fame is a bad deal. Stay on The Path With a Heart:
“Anything is one of a million paths. Therefore you must always keep in mind that a path is only a path; if you feel you should not follow it, you must not stay with it under any conditions. To have such clarity you must lead a disciplined life. Only then will you know that any path is only a path, and there is not affront, to oneself or to others, in dropping it if that is what your heart tells you to do. But your decision to keep on the path or to leave it must be free of fear or ambition.
“I warn you. Look at every path closely and deliberately. Try it as many times as you think necessary. Then ask yourself, and yourself alone, one question. This question is one that only a very old person asks. My benefactor told me about it once when I was young, and my blood was too vigorous for me to understand it. Now I do understand it.
“I will tell you what it is: Does this path have a heart?
“All paths are the same, they lead nowhere. They are paths going through the bush, or into the bush. In my own life I could say I have traversed long, long paths, but I am not anywhere. My benefactor’s question has meaning now. “Does this path have a heart?” One makes you strong; the other weakens you.
“The trouble is nobody asks the question: and when a person finally realizes that they have taken a path without heart, the path is ready to kill them. At that point very few people stop to deliberate and leave the path.
“A path without a heart is never enjoyable. You have to work hard even to take it. On the other hand, a path with heart is easy; it does not make you work at liking it.
“For my part there is only the traveling on paths that have heart, on any path that may have heart. There I travel, and the only worthwhile challenge is to traverse its full length.
“And there I travel looking, looking, breathlessly.”
— Don Juan, Apprentice to a Yaqui Sorcerer
Thank you. And a meaningful, thoughtful reply!
Be steadfast, David.
But I still hope you hear a knock on your door.
The shed door is always unlocked. 🙂
In all honestly I did not read every single paragraph of what you wrote but from what I read you are looking to be AUTHENTIC which in my world could make you famous, but is that what you really want:)!! Thank you for being you.
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Thank you! Authenticity is a big thing for me. In work, in writing, in art, in music, in relationships, in everything. Thanks for noticing. And go ahead and read all those words. 🙂
A friend tells me he’s always looking for clues and follows them when they’re found. That’s a lovely way to stay open to possibilities while paying attention to where you are at any given moment.
That’s a good way to create art, isn’t it? Follow the muse. Don’t wait for it.