On a recent flight to Dallas, I read a short biography of Thomas Edison put out by Time Magazine that I’d bought at an airport kiosk. I learned that Edison’s first invention was a commercial failure. He invented a vote tabulator so that votes could be counted efficiently and quickly. When he took the invention to politicians, he realized that the losing side wanted a slow head count so that they could gather support; and at some point or another, every politician is on the losing side of a vote. No one wanted it.
And so Edison decided he would never invent another product that didn’t have a built-in demand.
When I first started out, I would have never applied this lesson to writing. In fact, I would have seen this kind of thinking to be sell-out thinking, and I’d have street-fought against it thuggishly.
I believed in writing what I now call heart work. I think most novelists have heart work – the things they must write because they’re bound up in the pistons of the heart itself. It’s part-exorcism, part-translating-the-senseless-world — part-respiration, breathing in some organically necessary way.
I’ve written a lot of my heart work, that stuff that needed out, but, at a certain point in my career – and it wasn’t a dramatic shift, it was a slow dawning – I realized that I’d written much of the stuff I needed to write, for my own sake, and I started to think about what readers needed and wanted to read. The novel as a collaboration between writer and reader – the incredible translation of the worlds I’ve created then inked on a page that then become images in the reader’s mind, that fascination took hold. I wanted to collaborate. I wanted to be read.
In the film world, this idea of wanting an audience isn’t thought of as selling out at all. Theater needs people in the seats or it isn’t theater. The film world both begins and ends with collaborative thinking. The idea of one person dreaming something up and creating it, stem to stern, doesn’t exist there.
This brings me back to Edison, who was one of the first to really set up a research lab full of people working on the same problem. Before, we had the system of the solitary inventors, working on their own.
But the idea of solitude – and even isolation from readers – still exists for writers. We have still have solitary novelists; and the idea that solitude – and being cut off from the demands and desires of readers – persists, as an ideal. (Edison fits here too; he also made important advances in the film industry and created the first kind of modern day studio, again collaborative in nature.)
Novelists get very, very hung up on the idea of selling out, of purity of purpose. It often makes them rigid. These novelists often resist criticism and balk at anything that seems to sniff of bowing to what the reader wants.
Steven Soderbergh recently gave a beautiful speech, talking about the decline of cinema. He pointed out the distinctions between movies and cinema. And, at least in part, he talks about audience. “[Cinema] is the polar opposite of generic or arbitrary and the result is as unique as a signature or a fingerprint. It isn’t made by a committee, and it isn’t made by a company, and it isn’t made by the audience. It means that if this filmmaker didn’t do it, it either wouldn’t exist at all, or it wouldn’t exist in anything like this form.”
He contends that both movies and cinema can be wonderful, and both can be crap. The difference is that cinema has a specific point of view. I would agree that literary and commercial novels can both be crap, can both fail, and also each can be excellent. And, personally, the blur of both is where some of my favorite writing exists, but here I’m speaking as a reader. What Soderbergh longs for is freedom to create.
Since novelists don’t require millions of dollars to make their art, we have an advantage in freedom, but that freedom can be our damnation too.
After reading Soderbergh’s speech, I began thinking how very behind literary writers are in our thinking. We’re spoiled in that our creative process is God-like – we create our entire worlds with autonomy – and yet when that God-like creative process hits an industry, are writers ever truly prepared?
In part, I think MFA programs protect young writers from the commercial demands of the business – with good intentions. But in so doing, they cut them off from some essential discussions, some ways in which the students must decide how to see themselves in the great landscape of the publishing industry. Sometimes, just to put it plainly, they don’t discuss how to be an artist and still be able to eat, much less send your own kids to college. While programs protect their students’ relationships with the page, MFA students aren’t often challenged to see what’s coming and how to adapt, perhaps, in order to survive.
I talk about art versus entertainment from time to time. No one knows – aside from myself – whether any certain work of mine is art or entertainment or both; that’s my call. I’ve learned – having done much of my heart work – that when I’m creating art, entertainment happens. And when I think I’m creating entertainment, art happens. I would add that both entertainment and art can happen when the reader is considered, even deeply, bowingly considered.
Many novels back, I started writing things with the reader’s heart leading mine. My own heart was tired, in fact, having done its heart work, and wanted to be led. (I’d published three literary novels in three years – by literary, I mean that I was focused mostly on art happening, but even from the start, I was always aware of audience. I was never a full purist.)
First in considering the reader more keenly, I started to write what I’d wanted to read as a child, writing under the pen name, N.E. Bode, weird, wild whimsy for ages 8-13 – most notably The Anybodies Trilogy.
I collaborated on a novel with Steve Almond called Which Brings Me to You, leaning on his heart a little, hoping that his energy would fuel my own work, and it did. Which Brings Me to You is a fiery novel in many ways. Both Steve and I were the other’s immediate reader – chapter by chapter – and that had a profound impact on the creation of the book. In fact, it was the book.
Eventually, I started writing novels under the pen name Bridget Asher because there were things I wanted to say to women my own age. This could be labeled “building a brand,” and these would be foul words in some literary circles, and a term I’ve never heard whispered in an MFA program. The most recent is The Provence Cure for the Brokenhearted, and so, even under a pen name, my heart work continued even as I was looking more outward than inward.
My poetry followed a similar pattern. This Country of Mothers is very personal and includes a lot of heart work. The next, Lizzie Borden in Love, however, is a collection of poems in famous women’s voices. I delved into their heart work, and, in the end, found out that their voices charged mine, the pistons were thrumming again. And here, because we’re talking poetry, this isn’t about commerce, but it is still, very much so, about reaching readers – in other words: accessibility. (The same arguments abound in poetry circles. We just use different terms. Readership and respect are things I’ve talked — both as different kinds of handcuffs.)
The truth is that even when I don’t think I’m doing my own heart work, and I think, like Edison, that I’m creating something that I hope people want to read, something they actually might need, my own heart work is still getting done. It’s simply more subconscious.
While writing the dystopian thriller, Pure, did I have much in common with the main character who has a doll head fused to her fist, the ash darkening the doll’s pursed lips, the click of its eyelids? On the surface, no. But, later, I knew that I was writing out fears and desires that ran deep in me – things from my own childhood and teen years and, later in the book, my own fears as a mother.
Over the past few years, I’ve tried to understand what makes a bestseller. (And here, I’d love to talk about how Soderbergh’s take on the studio system parallels the publishing industry, but I have to save that for another time…) My definition of a bestseller is multilayered, but one simple version is this: A bestseller is made when the writer’s urgent need to tell a certain story is met with the audience’s urgent need to hear it. I have more complex theories – ones that only explain backwards and can’t truly predict the next big book – but this is my clearest definition.
Urgent need – in the telling and in the receiving. If your story isn’t urgent to you, it isn’t going to feel urgent to readers. Of course, you can’t gauge what readers – on the large scale – urgently need to hear. But you can start with yourself. What’s the urgent story I need to tell? In fact, you have to start with yourself. Who else is there?
Regardless of what I write, and for whom, the heart has to be there – whether writing from a deeply personal place or in the voice of Camille Claudel or Helen Keller or from the heart of a girl with a doll-head fused to her fist, hiding in an ashen cabinet in a post-apocalyptic world.
Let the pistons in your heart start pounding.