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Realities of the Writing Life

 No matter how talented and committed you are to the craft, the solitary writer's life -- without the right supportive, intellectually stimulating and synergistic group affiliation -- can be daunting, particularly if you are trying to make a living from writing.

Waiting for Godot? Or is it Max Perkins?

     Part of the problem it supply and demand: there are too many writers chasing too few outlets and sources of revenue. Some writers don't take a professional approach to their craft, never bothering to develop comprehensive Business Plans. Others seem to be “Waiting for Godot” or more accurately, “Waiting for Max Perkins.” They are hoping to connect with the right literary agent or editor, someone like Max, who would smooth their way to literary stardom. Perkins, it will be remembered, was the legendary editor who helped unlock the talents of the likes of Ernest Hemingway, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Thomas Wolfe, James Jones, Ring Lardner, Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings -- people we probably would never have heard of, if it weren’t for Max.

     Regrettably, Max Perkins has been dead for a long time. Meanwhile the publishing world has been turned on its head. Perkins was not under constant pressure to produce blockbusters. He had the time to develop new authors even if their initial books didn’t sell that well.

     So given the realities of the present day conglomerate publishing industry, it is not surprising that some of us have become so obsessed with producing blockbuster books and worshiping at the altar of the New York Times best-seller list, that we have became disconnected from our creative wellsprings, our passions, and our real audience. Instead of writers we have become entertainers pandering to the popular, mass escapism market.

     Does all this smacks of Catch-22? How do you develop as a serious author and gain a foothold in the book world when the mainstream publishers will not even look at your manuscripts unless a literary agent represents you and your book has blockbuster potential? And agents are too busy struggling to survive and deal with their ever-mounting slush piles, to have the time to develop new authors.

     The short answer to the above question is: We do it ourselves within the collegial setting of the Verist Writers Network™ -- just like the Southern California Sorcerers and the hundreds of other network groups did through history, described by Randall Collins. For the longer answer, please read on.

Which Writing Track to Take?

     Have you followed the conventional wisdom and opted for Track One: You worked up a dynamite book proposal and then attempted to buttonhole agents at writers’ conferences or through networking, and tried to convince them that your book will sell big time and that he or she should represent you? But unless you’re a celebrity, a serial killer or otherwise notorious, the odds are very much against you.

     But say that you hit what some consider the literary lottery: you write that blockbuster book, which makes the New York Times best-seller list and your publisher puts you on their three-week world-wind book tour. You get to do six to eight interviews each day, in the country’s top TV and radio markets. And your publisher gives you a sizable advance toward your next book.

    So what happens after the tour, the book presentations/signings and a wild ride on the ego roller coaster? Unless you have a supportive writers’ group to come back to, it’s return to the solitary literary existence for another year or more until your next book comes out.

     And even if you should get a big advance for your next book, you’re not home free. Will the publisher go all out to market your next book, unless a “buzz” develops? Or will you be left to promote it largely on your own, as is normally the case? And then, if that book doesn’t hit the top lists and isn't a best seller, where do you go from there?

Track Two?

     Question. What do the following authors have in common: Mark Twain, Herman Melville, Henry David Thoreau, John Ruskin, Zane Gray, Walt Whitman, Virginia Wolf, Gertrude Stein, Edgar Allan Poe, James Joyce, Carl Sandburg, D. H. Lawrence? They, themselves, self-published all or some of the books they wrote. Why? One reason, as Prof. Robert L. McLaughlinof Illinois State University points out, is that “commercial publishers, in abrogating their cultural responsibilities, have simultaneously ignored or suppressed most of the major experimental literary movements and their authors of the last 250 years.” He further documents that self-publishing "is a tradition in the U.S., as old as commercial publishing ... created and maintained by individuals and groups who sought to redress the failures of the commercial publishing industry..."

    The good news is that technology has opened great new opportunities for writers: computers, the World Wide Web, desktop publishing, e-books and publishing-on-demand. There are alternatives to conventional publishing, where the deck, more than ever before, is stacked heavily against writers. Not since Gutenberg invented printing has there been a greater opportunity for writers to take control of their destinies and explore alternate cultural values, new techniques and fresh genres. At last we can write our passions, deal authentically with the realities of modern life, and maintain our integrity, instead of pandering escapist entertainment for mass consumption.

     A computer, an inexpensive, easy-to-learn desktop publishing program and a little HTML and Google savvy for setting up a Web site are all the tools necessary to get started. Then finding a printing company with printing-on-demand capabilities and running off a few hundred Advance Reader’s Copies (ARC) inexpensively is likewise no big deal. And voila: you have your very own publishing enterprise. You have taken charge of your literary career and become a Proactor, rather than staying in the Reactor or Victim mode, as solitary writers tend to do.

     A computer and your own Web site come in handy in a number of other ways, such as syndicating a column for newspapers, magazines or online journals, putting together e-books or enabling people to subscribe to your Web site. As a SCORE entrepreneurial counselor for the past five years, I have advised writers about both tracks.There is also of course Track Three: general freelancing and various permutations of the above tracks. Finally Track Four: the broad spectrum of writers who are employees of newspapers, television, radio, academia, government and other institutions, or are employed in various other writing day jobs.

Incubation and Mutual Assistance

     Verist Writers Group members have the opportunity to assist each other with their individual and joint projects. They have a forum to present their works-in-progress or finished projects before the entire membership and the public, followed by open discussions and debates. The Network's Web site is a gallery for displaying those creative endeavors to the world.

    Have you been experimenting with new ideas, methods, designs, styles or literary devices? Have you come up with a different, new or innovative lifestyle arrangement you would like the world to know? Send it in to the Network or the Verist Forum, and if it has possibilities, we'll publish on the Web site.

     Group members can obtain even more intense, personal involvement. Example: A developing screenwriter completes a script, passes around copies for critique, and then involves the group in the staging of a dramatized reading. Where more extensive input may be required, money may exchange hands, creative barter may be agreed upon or a contract for certain percent of the gross of the finished production signed. The screenwriter might eventually form a production company for commercializing the work.

The Arrangement

     The Network’s ultimate central location will eventually be an easily accessible, safe town or city with a pleasant year-around climate, low cost of living, an adequate infrastructure for work and play, near water, and English at least widely spoken if not the official tongue.

     “But if I elect to move, how will I be able to sustain myself financially with the VWN, before my income stream becomes adequate from writing?" is a question that invariably comes up.

    Renowned Verist writers such as poet Carl Sandberg and short story writer Raymond Carver worked as janitors for years; T.S. Eliot was a bank clerk for Lloyd’s; and Nathaniel Hawthorne was a customs inspector in Boston as he wrote The Scarlet Letter.

     More recently, as a SCORE entrepreneurial counselor I have come across countless ways for making a living via the Web, thereby enabling one to reside anywhere in the world -- even on boats and RVs with satellite Internet connections.

     “Cashing out,” is another option. Selling off assets, especially if you have built up substantial equity in your home, and then investing in diversified, low-risk funds and living off the dividends and appreciation, with occasional dips into capital, supplemented by commissions and part-time work. Check with your CPA or financial planning professional about the advisability of doing that.

     You could also start a business providing goods and services for locals as well as tap into the tourist market. What about an import-export business? The new location might have goods that are in abundance and cheap for which people elsewhere may be willing to pay a premium. And vice versa: there might be shortages of important items in your new location that are plentiful where you come from.

    Then, there is always the possibility that you, like many other writers through history, may never be able to earn your living from writing alone. You may have to supplement your income from alternate sources indefinitely.

     The Verist Writers Community is not modeled after a commune or some utopian community with a rigid ideology and governance. To understand the Network's broader perspective and frame of reference see Sebastian de Grazia’s Of Time, Work and Leisure, and consider Paris of the 20s and 30s. As Robert L. McLaughlin described it, "The resulting artistic community in Paris formed a sort of cultural critical mass in which writers challenged, influenced, supported, and nourished one another in their production of ground-breaking literature."

     Most current so-called writers’ and artists’ colonies are places where guests writers stay for pre-determined periods of time, often requiring considerable advance notice and having to undergo somewhat burdensome application procedures. The Community will be more flexibility because we will not attempt to house every one in a central facility. Potential guests would get e-mails with a list of accommodations available in the area, with brief description, prices, contact names, fax numbers, and e-mail addresses for making their own arrangements. Community members of course will be able to invite guests writers to stay with them.

     Also people could stay for various periods of time, depending on their schedules, and how well they connect with the group. Their stay could be as brief as a week or as long as a month. Guests may have varied agendas. They might be there to explore whether they may want to join, or be there to complete some specific projects or assignments. Essentially there will be two tiers: guests staying for a limited period of time, and members whose residential status is open-ended. Some members may want to stay there on more or less permanent basis, while others for varied periods of time as their lifestyles dictate.

     The idea is to keep infusing new blood and maintain the vitality of the Community while perpetuating its vision, collegiality and warm camaraderie, and thereby avoiding inbreeding and organizational arteriosclerosis.

     That's why the heart of the Community is not the geography, climate or infrastructure, but the participants and their esprit de corps. It will be a special place, away from the stresses, pressures, social isolation and the hectic pace of the normal urban environment, providing opportunity for relaxed reflection, discourse and argument, and for stimulating each other's innovative spirit and creativity. To find out more about the Verist tradition click Verist Writers.

Al Louis Ripskis, Coordinator

If you have an original article or comments to submit for publication on the Verist Writers Network, e-mail it to It may be edited for space reasons. On the subject line please include NETWORK in caps; otherwise your e-mail may get deleted by the spam filter. For more information about me click author.

Copyright © 2008 Al Louis Ripskis. All Rights Reserved.
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