It’s the opposite of my last post about being inspired by creative people. The recent Melissa McCarthy movie “Can You Ever Forgive Me?” paints a bleak picture of a lonely, struggling writer who turns to forgery to pay her bills. McCarthy was nominated for a Golden Globe for her moving portrayal of one author’s quest for respect and success. It’s difficult to write about a movie without spoilers, but I’ll try. This isn’t a review so much as some thoughts about the difficulties for writers to be creative and stay true to their vision while dealing with the realities of commerce. This is a theme I often struggle with as I continue to blog and write my book without any compensation in sight. A review in Town and Country was titled “Can You Ever Forgive Me Is the Funny-Smart-Sad Crime Caper You’ve Been Waiting For” . By the way, it’s based on a true story.
Desperate Times, Desperate Measures
Lee Israel was a biographer who had two somewhat successful books published. The third didn’t do so well, and she was on welfare. To make ends meet, she happened upon a career as a forger. Using her talents as a writer, she managed to fool alot of people and make alot of money. She wrote a book about the experience, on which the film is based. Obviously forgery is not a path any writer, amateur or not, should pursue.
This reminds me of another scandal, James Frey’s “A Million Little Pieces,” in which he famously was chastied by Oprah on herTV show for embelliishing and inventing parts of his addiction story. What drove either writer to their dishonesty is a longer post, but for me it shows how hard it is to get published. And how even published, talented authors who’ve had success still have to struggle to remain relevant and continue getting published.
I’m nowhere near that stage, since I’m still working on my first draft of my book. It’s a memoir, about the two years in which I bicycled 10,000 miles. I have no idea if it’s any good, will interest anyone, or ever get published. But ever since January 1, 2018, I’ve been writing this blog or that book every single day. And nowadays with self-publishing, there are other options. Still, a lesson from the movie is that while you may not have to be the most popular person around, having some people skills is important for writers.
Lee Israel: I’m a 51-year-old who likes cats better than people.
Marjorie: You can be an asshole if you’re famous. You can’t be unknown and be such a bitch, Lee.
–from the movie
The Almight Dollar v. Creating One’s Art
Other people have figured out this conundrum. (My brother among them.) Many have not, and not for lack of trying. Fellow blogger Milly Schmidt with The Cat’s Write in Australia has written about this alot. She’s a beautiful writer who has sent manuscripts to countless publishers but yet to be published. Her struggle isn’t unique but she keeps at it. This is my first attempt at a book. Who knows what camp I will end up in? I sure don’t know. I have what feels like a very long way to go to get to a publishable product.
Working for money is something most writers had to do, at least starting out. And even the famous ones who developed a fan base and sold tons of books still have to work. But what is the struggling amateur writer to do to avoid having to turn to a life of crime to pay the bills? Well, some people say well-intentioned things like “Have you thought about trying to get a job in the publishing business?” and “Do you have an agent yet?” or “Why not just try to meet some published writers and ask them for advice?”
While well-intentioned, those don’t really get me anywhere. I think some better questions are: “How do I find ways to continue writing while having to do things to pay the bills?” and“What does a balanced life look life for someone who has many interests, limited energy and the same 24 hours a day as everyone else?” and “What do I not know that I need to know to move forward?” For me I will have to live with those questions and simply do my best as life changes. I have to move. I have to have money to pay for that move. And right now the income that I was hoping to get that would allow me to at least finish the first draft is in limbo.
Tell Your Story
Will I turn to a life of crime like Lee Israel? No, let’s hope not. I’m too much of a Boy Scout and not a very good liar either (which is why I’m not an actor or politician). Short of finding sponsors and donors, I will have to do the work. Keep writing — daily if possible, regularly and more on the weekends if not. Find paid work that maybe will be tangential to writing, like proofreading. Keep up with my biking, walking, yoga but be flexible about how much. Watch less of the stories of others, and tell mine more.
The moral of the story for Lee Israel is that she took shortcuts, and paid for it dearly. She had had success, so she had talent and knew how to work hard. But when that acceptance, approval and popularity faded, she didn’t adapt with the times. Eventually she learned those lessons the hard way, and told a new story: a memoir about herself, instead of celebrities. I think that’s very telling.
After all, telling a story is what so much of life, and art, is all about. Blogs, books, comic books, movies, TV shows, movies, songs, plays, dances, operas… they all tell a story. Maybe money will come of it, maybe not. Most often, not. But if you do your art, regardless of whether you ever see a cent from it, you are being true to and expressing yourself, you are particpating in and contributing ot culture, and most of all, you are creating. It may be trite, but it’s true: art is it’s own reward. So enjoy the journey. Thanks for being part of mine.
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