I like to know a thing or two about the world around me, so I read widely and watch a lot of film. However, when I write, I write for myself and I don’t do fiction. That’s not because I don’t like it, but because I can’t manage it. I’ve made a sad attempt or two, but reality always slips in, and to me, that’s far more interesting material. I get pulled along by truth and fact. I start to draw on what I’ve seen and what little I know. Eventually the project strays into memoir and that’s an inclement stretch of water, my dears.
If I could make things up, pull them into being from nowhere, writing would be so much easier. I wouldn’t have to use myself up to tell a story that has little chance of ever being read or liked. I wouldn’t have to sound out my soul and consume every good thing that makes me. I wouldn’t have to give away what I’ve held so closely all these years, to total strangers.
Life loses something when you try to reduce it to the written word. I know this, and when I write, I watch a story unfold with extreme self-consciousness and an unhelpful sense of personal irony running non-stop. Once it’s all on the page the winds and seas have become less fearsome, the women more beautiful. The dark times seem full of levity while you’re reading about them, the merely good has somehow turned into great. I am as mystified as anyone by this. You go back and revise with withering precision, then you revise again, killing off the walking wounded from previous campaigns while resuscitating others. You begin to doubt what you remember. You look for and snuff out borrowed ideas or conceal them in layers of new meaning. You repunctuate until you don’t even know what you’ve just said. You put your project down for several months because now, even you think it really is terrible. So you try to get away from it but if you’re a writer you never can. Later, in the process of hanging the chapters together, something comes to light that’s not entirely what you were going for when you started. The time comes when more words don’t help. If what winds up on the page gets the job done, you leave it there.
That’s not to say you should settle for something less than perfection in your writing. All I’m trying to say is that language is a sharp chisel that must be wielded carefully. You think you’re only going to chip off a small shard on the way to revealing your masterpiece but there’s an unseen fissure running jagged within and the next thing you know, a block has fallen away from the parent stone that cannot be reattached. And readers? Well, they can be an untrusting and skittish creature that must be coaxed along with morsels set down with the utmost care, if you want them to linger long enough to show them something good. I often wonder if it’s worth all the trouble.
I spoke to a writer who pitched herself for five years before she found an agent. She waited another three years before she sold a book and will wait another two years to see that book in print. The Paleontologist’s Apprentice’s Wife, I think it was called. Catchy title. What if it’s no good? Wasn’t Suttree “good”? Who’s to say? Have you ever heard of it? I can assure you there’s more than one Matisse you wouldn’t pay twenty-five dollars for if you found it at a yard sale. There’s a Niagara Falls of writing these days; only a teacup of it is any good and there’s only a thimble’s worth of capacity for all of it. The craft beer revolution has come to the book business.
This is probably a good time for me to thank my publisher Inland Waters Press and a few of the people who helped me with my book, both before and after the fact. Megan Kathleen Stocklin deserves particular recognition. She has a preternatural ability to erase what is uncalled for and to encourage what must be built upon. She cannot be reasoned with when the issue is of any import and she cannot be cajoled out of an opinion informed by even her vaguest instinct ($200/hr). Her word is law, appeals are rare, few if any judgments can be overturned and for that I am grateful. I’d also like to thank Shawn Donley at Powell’s City of Books and Brian Juenemann at the Pacific Northwest Bookseller’s Association. They flipped through the pages of a vain little book that came to them by way of a nobody from nowhere. Also, Julie Isgrig, Margaret Lane and Barbara Moffitt along with everyone else at Baker & Taylor. I’d also like to offer a sincere and very special thank you to the pensive reader who willingly turns the pages of a book; to the reader who trusts a faceless, anonymous author to guide them and (in some cases) to lie to them for their own good and to love or hurt them as need may be.
I had very little hope for Tranquility : A Memoir of an American Sailor, while working on it. When it was finished I set the bar for success low: If one person who isn’t related to me in any way, says they liked this book, it will have been worth it. I still go by that. I’m told it’s not half bad and that’s quite nice considering that I was raised by a family of squirrels, have dylsexia, barely graduated from high school and did not have a grasp of remedial math until age 36. When my eleventh-grade English teacher, Mr. Harvey, told me what to expect from my life he used these exact words: I’m the one with the master’s degree! and YOU will never amount to anything. He was correct at the time, and that’s been oddly helpful. I’m not convinced any of that matters, because if you are unsure of the quality of your work, no amount of praise or financial reward will replace the genuine success-of-esteem you wish for yourself. On the other hand, if you’re certain that what you have written is good, even brilliant, then no amount of silence from the literary gatekeepers can convince you otherwise. Besides, the applause and respect you believe writers are due isn’t waiting where you imagine. It’s inside of you and that’s no platitude. If you must write, then write and try to forget about the rest.
I haven’t suffered at all for my art but I can tell you one thing right now, I come from the real world where you sure as hell don’t wait for permission from anyone (agent, publisher, bookstore-owner-running-scared, self-help writing group or romantic interest) to do something you want in life. I mentioned a writer who waited ten years for her first book to be published. Of course she was thrilled but I was wondering if maybe we could pick up the pace a little.
Ten years is one-seventh of a lifetime.
Here’s what PNBA President Shawn Donley of Powell’s Books had to say about Tranquility: “While many of us have dreamed of leaving it all behind and embarking on an epic ad- venture, Billy Sparrow actually did it. In 1997 he cashed in his savings and bought an old wooden sailboat called Tranquility (which proved to be anything but tranquil). The account of his journey is both inspiring and entertaining. It’s the type of book that should come with a warning sticker that says, “Caution: May cause reader to quit job, leave family, sell house, and set off for parts unknown!”