the value of a good essay

Still in crisis mode, here, but I made an effort this morning to get my head out of things I can’t fix (at least not immediately; she hedged), and I went to read Garrison Keillor’s column on Salon.

Are you familiar with the way little kids were soothed and comforted by Mr. Rogers? I watched it happen more than once with the hoppity rabbit that was the Girlchild at age three. Often when she3 was siitting on my lap I had a mental image of a tornado waiting to let loose. Desperate for a few quiet minutes, I sometimes turned on Mr. Rogers. Her whole body would immediately begin to relax, but her attention stayed focused.

Garrison Keillor is my Mr. Rogers. His voice on the radio is better than any chemical devised for the quieting of an overbusy mind. His essays often move me to tears for reasons I can’t quite explain. His tone is never harsh, though what he has to say is often thorny and unrelentingly honest. On Bush:

It’s a hard fall for George W. Bush. His career was based on creating low expectations and then meeting them, but Katrina was a blast of reality. The famous headline said, “Bush: One of the Worst Disasters to Hit the U.S.” and many people took that literally.

Today he had an especially good essay on spring and politics called Love will Outlast Bush. I cringed a little at the title, which sounds like an entry in a bad lyric contest, but the essay itself? It keeps going through my mind. Here’s part of it:

Politics is a slough, and maybe we should let the weasels have it for now. Even if two more Republicans follow the Current Occupant into office, this country will still be around in some form or other. Cities may crumble and we may be forced to reside in walled compounds and hire security men to escort us to Wal-Mart and back, but much will remain, such as love, for example, and the quickening one feels in the spring. Flowers will bloom in whatever wreckage we make. Somewhere, someone will sing the old songs about love walking in and driving the shadows away.

People have been falling in love through every dismal era of history and through every war ever fought. Enormous black headlines in the newspapers and agitated talk in the cafes and yet she waited for him on the corner by the hotel where they had agreed to meet, and as traffic streamed past she watched the buses pulling up to the curb, looking for his familiar shape, his beautiful face, his slight smile. Under her arm, a newspaper, and inside it a columnist shaking his tiny fist at corruption, but it isn’t worth two cents compared to what’s in her heart. When her lover steps down, the air will be filled with bright purple blossoms and they will embrace and turn and go into the hotel, and on this, the future of the world depends.

Keillor can be melancholy, but it never lasts for long. Sooner or later he has to give into the urge to tell the better story. The hopeful story. Especially on those days when it’s hard to keep my own melancholy at bay, it’s nice to have him around.

whining, whinging, survival

There’s a lot of back and forth in the blogosphere just now about the pros and cons of trying to write for a living. Not that this is a new topic of discussion; writers like to whine only slightly less than they like to appear stoic and above it all. I try for the second, and sometimes, in spite of my best intentions, end up in the first camp muttering to myself balefully.

At any rate, all this newest discussion has been sparked by an anonymous essay on Salon called The Confessions of a Semi-Successful Author (you don’t have to subscribe to read it; you can get a day pass by agreeing to deal with the advertisements; oh and, Robyn pointed it out to me first). The gist of this article is that the author has four books published which (1) won prizes and (2) got good critical reviews but (3) made little or no money and (4) got her no lasting recognition so that (5) she had to get (gasp) a day job.

My problem with her essay is this: she never addresses the crucial question: do these prize winning books of hers actually contain a good story? Because, as she notes so mournfully, other, less well written books are selling like hot-cakes; what she fails to realize is that there’s a simple reason for that. People want a story. They will put up with awful writing at the sentence or paragraph level as long as you give them a reason to turn the page.

Really, I hadn’t planned to write about this here but then I caught’s reaction to the Salon essay, which made me laugh and cringe at the same time with statements like this: “Of course the article is also running in Salon, which has a history of chronicling the ‘misfortunes’ of unfathomably privileged people who by all rights should be beaten in a public square for their heedless lack of clue.”

Scalzi had a longish entry earlier this week with advice for writers which I liked a lot. The highlights:

1. Yes, You’re a Great Writer. So What.
2. I Don’t Care If You’re a Better Writer Than Me.
3. There is Always Someone Less Talented Than You Making More Money As a Writer.
4. Your Opinion About Other Writers (And Their Writing) Means Nothing.
5. You’re Not Fooling Anyone When You Take Your Laptop to a Coffee Shop, You Know.
6. Until You’re Published, You’re Just in the Peanut Gallery.
7. Did I Mention Life’s Not Fair?
8. Don’t Be An Ass.
9. You Will Look Stupid If You’re Jealous.
10. Life is Long.

My favorite of these are numbers six and eight; go read them, I promise it’s worth the jump. But I take exception with number five. For whatever reason, Scalzi dislikes people writing on their laptops at Starbucks, but that doesn’t mean that some of them aren’t on the up and up. Of the million words I have in print, about a third of those were written at a Starbucks, before I had a place to write at home.

Scalzi’s main point — and it’s a good one — is that you can’t go into this business expecting to make a living from it alone. Many published novelists teach creative writing while they are pecking away at their next book. You have to take a day job as a given; if by some chance you get to the point where you can write full time, that will be the metaphorical icing on the cake. And it may not last. I have every expectation that some day I will have to go find an employer, and I’m prepared for that. In some ways, it will be a relief.

In the meantime, I’m not planning on divulging what kind of advances I get or how much I clear each year, because those numbers would have no substantive value to anybody else, at all.