I Am A Writer, And This Is Where I Write

I see posters around New York City advertising “LEARN HOW TO GET PUBLISHED”. This seems to me a rather indirect goal; a more useful advertisement would say “LEARN HOW TO GET READ”.

Of course, a writer yearns to be published and widely read, but only an innocent writer believes that publishing a book guarantees a real readership, or a long-term career. A look at Bookscan or any other source for book sales statistics shows that most literary novels by new authors sell less than 1000 copies. You can spend years working to get that first book out, but if it fails to make a splash it may be quickly forgotten, along with your glorious future in the literary field.

Emerging writers should dream of fame and fortune, but they’re fixating on the wrong goal if they obsess over official “publication” as the only route to success. Recent articles by Laura Miller and Angela K. Durden aptly describe the current explosion in book self-publishing (but seem to fall short in equating writing with book production, as if a book must exist for reading to take place). Elsewhere, misfiring pundits like Nicholas Negroponte lazily predict the death of the print book, but then hilariously suggest that it will be uncomfortable electronic devices like the Kindle and the iPad that will kill the print book.

In fact, digital technology has already been changing the literary landscape in a more immediate way: it’s allowing new talents to find reading audiences online, through blogs, online publications and social media. Book deals may arrive for these new talents, or in some cases book deals may be an unnecessary afterthought: the relationship between writer and reader can be fully consummated online. This is already forcing a redefinition of what the word “writer” means. Before the Internet age, you were a writer if you got published. Now, you are a writer if you have readers.

In 1995 I published my first full-length work of creative writing online: a set of ten lyric essays and short stories about raising a family in New York City, arranged in the form of an imaginary 1960s folk-rock album called Queensboro Ballads. I put posters up, emailed friends, and got a lot of nice coverage in venues like the New York Times and the Village Voice. I considered Queensboro Ballads a big success at the time, and to this day people will still warmly mention the project to me.

However, few people then (or now) were willing to call me a “real writer” because of Queensboro Ballads. The success of the project led a small publishing company called Manning Books to offer me a modest book deal for an anthology of online writing called Coffeehouse: Writings From The Web, which came out in 1997, failed to become a hit, and quickly went out of print. I believe that several thousand copies of the book were sold (most of them, I suspect, by the parents and grandparents of the 47 writers included in the book).

Far more people have read Queensboro Ballads than ever read Coffeehouse. People still read Queensboro Ballads today, while Coffeehouse is impossible to find. And yet, according to the conventional definition, it was Coffeehouse that turned me into a “real writer”, because it was published by a “real publisher”. It had an ISBN number, and it got a couple of sniffy reviews in a couple of newspapers. Queensboro Ballads, on the other hand, earned me no status upgrade at all.

More recently, I was talking to a friend about the first draft of the memoir of Silicon Alley that I wrote here on Litkicks, one chapter per week, in 2009. This friend asked why I don’t work at finding an agent for the memoir, and compared me to Stephen Elliot, a “real writer” whose own memoir Adderall Diaries has gotten a lot of positive attention in the past year.

Well. I am reading Adderall Diaries right now, and I like it. Stephen Elliot has obviously got a lot of talent. I’m sure his memoir has sold many thousands of copies. But my memoir has also racked up many thousands of pageviews, tens of thousands, even though it’s still only a first draft. I think that’s pretty good. Why am I not also “a real writer”?

The answer is clear; I only need to reach up and grab it. I am a real writer, and if you have a website and you have readers, then you are also a real writer, and you don’t need anybody else’s rubber stamp. And I’ll even take this further: if you used your fancy college credentials or your parents’ connections or your favorite MFA teachers recommendation letter to wrangle yourself a first-novel deal with Simon and Schuster or Random House, and your first novel came out and nobody read it and nobody reviewed it and nobody bought it, then you might not be a real writer. Because, it turns out, what you need to be a real writer is to have real readers.

Personally, I may or may not ever get a book deal again. I’ve tried a couple of times since Coffeehouse, but I’ve never tried very hard, because I don’t care enough. I already have Literary Kicks, and I love it that people read my words right here. This gives me the satisfaction I need, the satisfaction that I suspect every writer craves.

Hello, everybody. This is my blog, Literary Kicks. I am a writer, and this is where I write.

21 Responses

  1. Here, here! and Quite right!
    Here, here! and Quite right! (always wanted to say those two phrases).

    I haven’t commented much on the question of “printed book vs. ebook” or the changing definition of “being published” because none of it seems to matter. The written word exists on stone, parchment, paper, hardcovers, paperbacks, magazines, newspapers, tracts, microfilm, blogs, websites, ebooks, holograms, and who knows what-next. It will go on, no matter what.

    I do strongly identify with Kerouac’s intention to “leave a long shelf full of books there, and die happy” (from the Preface to Big Sur), but the books don’t necessarily have to be made of tree pulp.

  2. Well said……..and might I
    Well said……..and might I add, if folks are reading, in any form, then writing will never be a dead craft so all you guys out there bemoaning the loss of the written word…yo chill.

  3. Great post Levi.
    I’ve been

    Great post Levi.

    I’ve been thinking about this a lot lately (posted about it here). Being traditionally published is no measure of a real writer but neither is a wide readership. The many permutations of publishing method and readership (traditional and wide readership, self and wide readership, traditional and no readership etc.) do not fully capture what it means to be a writer.

    Do you feel the compulsion to write? Are you dedicated to the craft? Are you writing stories that mean something, anything (stories that willfully mean nothing really mean something)? Are you brave enough to expose everything you are in your writing?

    If you answer yea to these, then methinks you’re a writer. Even with no publishing contract, no self published book, no litkicks, no internets, you’re a writer.

  4. When I retired from broadcast
    When I retired from broadcast back in 2005 and then started telling people I was a writer (I’d been published in hundreds of places since 1976) people still asked the eternal question “yes, but what do you DO?” I started a blog. (Yes, I’m a writer, just click here. See?) Then I submitted to online sites, including LitKicks. Now that I’ve got a blog, that takes care of many of the well-meaning but puzzled questioners. Now if I could only come up with an easier answer to “where does your idea of art come from,” I’d be all set.

  5. Litkicks may be the best
    Litkicks may be the best literary blog around. Also, Litkicks “Action Poetry” page doesn’t restrict a writer. A person may write what s/he feels inside,etc.

  6. real writers really write.
    real writers really write. they write well, offering new arrangements of language to clarify thought. Or, to play off Mayowa: Compulsive purveyors of meaning in a constant search for clarity.

  7. Mayowa, I think you’re
    Mayowa, I think you’re correct that anybody who wishes to be a writer is a writer, and I’m not sure why I wrote that sentence about “you may not be a writer” in my post above. I think I was in a pissy mood at the moment, but anybody who writes is a writer, whether they have readers or not.

  8. I used to think that ‘getting
    I used to think that ‘getting published’ was the validation I wanted/needed to be worthy of being called a writer.

    Two years and some 1,000 stories/articles later and a promotion to the editorial position (of a community newspaper) in just 14 months, I realize that what defines me as a writer is not the act of being published, nor the calls, emails, or comments that people make about enjoying my writing when they meet me. Sure they’re an added bonus, and I am not trying to be modest, nor am I being arrogant, but rather I am relating that from my personal experience there is nothing more validating to me than my own desire, my own passion for writing. Therefore I believe that validation we all seek must come from within.

    Bonjour, my name is Carole and I am also a writer.

  9. Bill,
    I recently attended a

    I recently attended a radical sex workshop (yes, I was the oldest person there, but I figured the contrast of having a member of the slave generation present might help the young people see how awesome they are) and was surprised to learn that periwigs–along with dental dams, silicon or water-based lubes, latex gloves and Saran™ Cling Plus® Wrap–are the hotgasmic accoutrements de jour. I don’t know why man, something about the way you said “quite right” made me slide off my task chair. Ta.

  10. Yeah Bill, periwigs. I didn’t
    Yeah Bill, periwigs. I didn’t mention condoms especially in conjunction with lube, lube, lube (keeps ’em supple); they were repeatedly emphasized but I figured Litkickers already knew they were de rigeur and in some sense old hat.

    Not that they would ever be crass enough to be looking for a plug, but I probably should mention that the workshop was conducted at Bluestockings, a Radical Bookstore on Allen Street. Tonight there’s an interesting sounding program I plan to attend as well. From their website:

    “Release Party: Agent 409 Zine “Number Six!”
    An unruly bunch of multi-racial queers and trannies gather weekly to write poetry, prose, and comedy for the revolution. These are the agents of Agent 409. They are anti-everything oppressive and wrong. They are pro-everything liberating and good.”

    Screw restrictive taxonomies. I’m so there.

    Oh, I learned another thing (at least in theory) to pass along. If you’re putting a condom on your partner and it comes off for any reason. DON’T turn it inside out when you try again. I probably would never have thought of that, even though it seems obvious once it’s said out loud.

  11. A poet who doesn’t publish is
    A poet who doesn’t publish is an *aspiring* poet – same goes for a painter, novelist, and so forth. Publishers perform an important function as filters. Where there is no filter (as in the Usenet poetry groups or fan fiction), the work is always awful because the bad drives out the good. No one with an ounce of talent or ability would have their work seen along with the drek.

  12. Bill – true. There are two
    Bill – true. There are two kinds of drek – professional drek (Steve King, Danielle Steele), and amateur drek. I was referring to the amateur kind.

  13. Thought this quote by the
    Thought this quote by the recently departed Beryl Bainbridge was timely and appropriate.

    On writing…”Once the grammar has been learnt, it is simply talking on paper and in time learning what not to say.”

  14. i write, people read. i’m a
    i write, people read. i’m a writer. searching for the the ego-driven publishing deal is very dated and ultimately can impact the art with mediocre motivations. writing, for me, selfishly lifts the burden and allows me to walk lightly. recognition, money, admiration, and conversions are all fine, but only as by-products of the pure motivation to write. creative art is a selfish act. performance art is a selfless act. most artists flounder in the confusing middle, some bias to one side, and a few get close to purity. keep writing and let the world sort out the future of writing. the only deadline you have is death.

  15. Thanks for this wonderful
    Thanks for this wonderful post. I used to belong to an email list where the people there felt a real writer is someone who gets paid for his writing. At the time, I had only had a few short stories published; however, I had free articles published online and was still trying to get more stories and a novel published. I was writing all the time. I thought of myself as a writer, but according to them, I shouldn’t be calling myself “writer”. They said a writer never gives his writing away for free. Well, since then, I’ve self-published two creative writing exercise books and just put out a short story collection. I’m considering self-publishing my first novel as well. I’m definitely a writer, whether or not I make any money at it. I also have a writing blog. Now all I need are more readers/fans and I can be a happy writer 🙂

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Litkicks will turn 30 years old in the summer of 2024! We can’t believe it ourselves. We don’t run as many blog posts about books and writers as we used to, but founder Marc Eliot Stein aka Levi Asher is busy running two podcasts. Please check out our latest work!