“Got to pay your dues if you wanna play the blues, and you know it don’t come easy.” – George Harrison
“Meanwhile, back on my suicide farm, I’m reading about Snooki’s book deal.” – Suzy Soro, Comedian
This dispatch comes to you from a Starbucks parking lot, where I’m sitting in a very used car that’s leaking oil onto the cold pavement. I find myself in need of a thick wool sweater for outings like this, when I travel 10.5 miles to get free Wi-Fi and a cup of decent coffee. I’m also in need of a bottle of red wine (to take back to my hotel room), several trips to the dentist, and a reason not to jump off the tallest building I can find. Around here that would be Walmart, though, and I’d most likely survive the jump, which would prove not only anticlimactic but also rather pathetic.
Upon hearing the news that Simon & Schuster signed Snooki as an author, I felt the same kind of futile desperation that I did a decade ago when a roommate suddenly moved out and I had to take a low-paying temp assignment in a penile implant factory in order to cover my now-doubled rent. $7/hr. was not going to cut it but I figured it was better to ineffectually tread water than to drown altogether. I also figured it might make for a good story one day which is, perhaps regrettably, the basis for many decisions I’ve made in my life. I’m infinitely curious, even to my own detriment, and I couldn’t wait to see what awaited me on the penis assembly line.
My job, as it turned out, was to fill the implants with saline, pump them up until they were good and hard and then bend them back into softness before placing them in a sterile box. I dressed in surgical garb for this and five minutes of my ten-minute long breaks were spent getting in and out of uniform. The allure of my duties quickly wore off but I contented myself with the thought that as wretched and mind-numbing as the work was, I was contributing to the greater social good. 75 year-old men could now perform like studs because of something I did. FTM transgendered people would no longer have to get their penises out from a drawer. Porn stars like John Bobbitt wouldn’t have to worry about being inadequate on the job. And there were side-stories, like working beside a cagey woman who was a defendant in one of Minnesota’s most notorious daycare abuse cases. She claimed innocence but at the same time seemed pleased to be in the newspapers. Then there was the day we all got called to a sensitivity training meeting after a group of Hmong workers protested that the three sizes of implants were routinely called African, Caucasian, and Asian.
I’ve tried to keep my sense of humor although desperation has been a long-running theme in my life. I began praying to Martians and/or God and/or Mother Nature as a multi-theist toddler, begging one or all of them to take me home. I knew early on that I didn’t really belong to the strange group of humans that were my family. I didn’t care if I was sent to a fiery planet, became a chubby naked angel, or was reincarnated as a duck—I just wanted an out. The deities let me down though, so at 16 I hit the streets in search of the American Dream that had been pounded into my head by teachers, authors, and civil rights leaders. I found plenty of jobs (working at an ice cream shop, a burger joint, and a Silicon Valley stockroom), but I didn’t find inspiration, only a red-headed Cuban boy whose silence I mistook for depth. It turned out he just didn’t have much to say, even when he left me at 21 to raise two kids by myself.
I’ve lived in ghettos and suburbs. I’ve been a cocktail waitress, a radio sales person, a airplane parts greaser, a student, an advertising executive, a short-order cook, a factory worker, a bookkeeper, a copywriter, a counselor, and more. At last count, I’ve worked 42+ jobs—not because I love working, but because I’m a lousy employee. I was not meant to be a massage therapist, a media buyer, or a farmhand. I was meant to write stories. It’s the only talent I have, really, even it is highly subjective and often capricious, and not everything I write is well-polished or streamlined, including this rant. Then again,the kids in the car next to mine are screaming because their mom got them juice instead of Frappuccinos, and I’m worried that turning my engine on and off to stay warm is going to make the oil leak even more. Distractions, distractions, everywhere.
“Never give up,” the actress Ruth Gordon once said, “and never, under any circumstances, face the facts.” I’ve unwittingly spent a lifetime subscribing to Gordon’s philosophy if for no other reason than I have always preferred perpetual naïveté to the kind of angry cynicism that I feel when I’m forced to pay attention to the way the world actually works. My resilient sense of idealism has allowed me to keep putting one foot in front of the other even through the worst of circumstances. There are times, though, that such blinders simply do not work and this is one of those times.
Unlike Snooki, I have never aspired to be anything other than a writer. It’s not a a temporary infatuation or a quick way to cash in on fleeting celebrity status. I had my first two poems published in the school newspaper when I was 10. My mother set my newly minted works under a stew pot and threw them away after dinner. Still, I wasn’t discouraged. At 13, I had saved enough money from lawn cutting and babysitting to buy my first Smith Corona. I regurgitated the fucked-upness that was my childhood onto reams and reams of 20# bright white paper. I later wrote horrible rhyming poetry and stories that featured talking dogs, dead grandmas, and stilted dialogue. I did everything wrong for many, many years. Eventually, though, I became a “real” writer, trading in my wooden speech and the strings that were being pulled by authors I admired (and wanted to be like) for my own strong, authentic voice.
In 1996, I moved to a small town near the Canadian border. I lived in the cement basement of a restaurant, on a cot next to an ice machine. The owner of the restaurant was a 36-year-old man who looked like Wolfman Jack. His girlfriend was a 16 year old who spent hours studying for her GED at the lunch counter, wearing striped tube socks and cut-offs. There was a Pentecostal waitress there who had five different children by three different men, but who warned tattooed customers that they were going to hell for marring the temples of flesh that God gave them. One day, she cornered me in a freezer and threatened to kill me for cutting a pie the wrong way. The next night, she showed up in a purple mini skirt and black boots and asked me if I wanted to go dancing. It was a crazy place, filled with too many out-there characters and absolutely no peace, but then I found a tiny cabin on Lake Superior to call my own for a few months.
I thought I was a good enough writer by then to submit my work to literary publications. I spent a small fortune on subscriptions, printing, and postage. I had a file cabinet full of short stories that no one had ever read. I took them out, polished them off, and began submitting: 298 times in all. In the course of that year, I received three acceptance letters, all from journals so small that they weren’t even listed in the Writer’s Market. In total, I received $75 for my efforts.
I was so dispirited that I didn’t write for a year. The rejections weren’t the only factor that made me feel hopeless; it was the quality of work that was chosen over mine. I distinctly remember sending one of my best pieces off to Peregrine, the literary journal of Amherst College. The editor rejected it immediately. When I received the publication the next season, it was rife with horrible writing. “Dis poem be bad, ‘dis poem be da bomb….”. “Petunia red, I love you…. let me roll over into your morning dew.” I was stunned. Nothing I have ever written, not even when I was 16 and trying to be the next Maxine Hong Kingston—not even my most tongue-tied and bloody Gothic poetry—approached that level of awful. I was stunned and I was disgusted. I wanted to throw away everything I’d ever written and in a despondent fit, I did. I wiped my slate, and my file cabinet, clean.
Eventually, I got over my panicked sense of futility and began writing again. When I felt confident enough, I started a blog, writing about everything from politics to love. Encouraged by readers and friends, I even managed to swallow my trepidation and began submitting work to literary journals again. When nothing came of that—and after I got sidelined by a long lasting illness—I decided to go on a year long road trip. During the trip I realized that what I really needed to write was a memoir and a few novels. My reservoir of experiences was overflowing and I believed they would be better told in whole books rather than piecemeal, in short stories.
When I ended my trip I was poorer than usual, jobless, and car-less, but the friends I’d gathered across the U.S. were supportive, and I began writing the story of my journey in-between searching for jobs and an inexpensive place to live. I thought the story would be easy to tell, but it hasn’t been easy at all. There are parts that are so difficult to write that I have to get up twenty times and smoke twenty cigarettes in-between paragraphs. Author Nadine Gordimer nailed it when she said, “Writing is making sense of life. You work your whole life and perhaps you’ve made sense of one small area.” In the process of writing, I’ve had to try to make sense of some really painful, senseless things that ache to be told nonetheless.
I felt like I was making progress even if slow, but more than that I had the “this is it” feeling that only comes when I know I’m writing from the rawest, most deeply connected part of myself. That feeling was expansive enough to lead me to believe that I might have a shot with one of the major publishers.
Then came news of Snooki’s book deal with Simon & Schuster. It was like sticking a hot knife into old scar tissue, and dredging up every rejection letter I’ve ever received and all the palm-sweating, missed-it-by-a-hair, we-changed-our minds and wish-you-luck moments I’ve ever known. Snooki is an “author” who giddily admits to having read only two books in her short adult life. A “writer” whose entire life experience can be encapsulated in a single, shallow paragraph. Really, Simon & Schuster, I want to scream, really? Why not just shoot all actual writers point blank and be done with it? What’s next, a ghostwritten memoir from one of the Gosselin kids?
Yes, I am as bitter as I sound. The news of Snooki’s book deal made something in me want to curl up into a self-comforting ball and die. This is more painful than when my jaw was broken in juvenile hall, or spending most of my 20’s plagued with a head-to-toe skin disease caused by stress. It’s worse than when my millionaire boss gave me a $10 Christmas bonus when I was on the verge of homelessness, or when I found out that the one great love of my life didn’t love me at all. It’s worse than when my mother shaved my head for stealing a candy bar at six years old, and it’s even worse than when a well-known personality came to my blog to offer me a regular spot on her radio show and then never contacted me again. (I was sure my tide was going to turn on that opportunity and so were my readers. We were wrong).
The news of Snooki’s book deal frustrates me even more than when a comfortably situated stay-home housewife who dabbles in scrapbooking and blog writing tells me in superior tones that it shouldn’t matter—that she writes for the love of writing, because she needs to, because it’s a calling. Snooki’s book deal doesn’t matter to her because she doesn’t need to be published to make a living. She has a partner who doesn’t care what she dabbles in between soup and sex, as long as the soup is hot and the sex is willing.
I feel more deflated by the news that Snooki is now to be a published writer than when readers and friends tell me to hang in there, my day will come, my ship will come in, and that there’s a reason for everything under the sun, we just don’t know what it is yet. They mean well, but they have no idea how many closed doors, rejections, and broken dreams I’ve had to absorb over the last two decades.
And there is no reason for Snooki to have a book deal outside of the ugly turn the star-making machinery has taken—turning the basest, most talentless spectacles into hope-draining, logic-defying, space-sucking, how-low-can-we-go before the public screams foul celebrities. There’s no reason that Simon & Schuster signed Snooki (and I can only assume a ghostwriter) other than to hop a ride on the reality television train which, no matter how hideous or freakish, still manages to gather fans and steam.
That’s mortifyingly sad to me and probably thousands of other writers who’ve spent years collecting stories that we were sure would one day be retrieved from the slush pile and read by someone who actually likes to read and who might be excited by the prospect of finding new literary talent, instead of just waiting like a scavenger to throw lipstick on the latest pig to come out of the celebrity barn.
“Write what you know.”
“In order to write about life, you have to have lived.”
“Writers are not born, they are created through experience.”
Everything I’ve ever been led to believe about writing and publishing has been corrupted by Simon & Schuster’s book deal with Snooki. I now find myself in need of a warm sweater, some hope, and a cabin in the middle of nowhere where I might be able to stop thinking about jumping off of a cliff long enough to repair my threadbare blinders.
I also need my car to last through 2011, and a sense of redemption—or at least the kind of apathetic acceptance that will somehow make it okay that even my best stories may never find their way to a book that’s not self-published. That, instead, they will be left to the archives of a blog that a handful of kind people read and just as quickly forget. A blog is not a book after all—it does not get dog-eared and taken from the shelf to be read again on a rainy night. And the internet is not Barnes & Noble. In cyberspace everything is free and everyone is a writer. Including me. It’s just not the kind of writer I ever dreamed of being.
A 23 year old with big hair, a spray-on tan, and no discernible history of ever having to actually work for the riches she’s received will be signing books while I’m rifling my car for change to buy my next cup of coffee. If dreams could be stolen, Simon & Schuster would be guiltier than Snooki could ever be. They’ve shamelessly contributed another piece of shit to the cultural cesspool that places even the most perverse kind of fame over talent and experience.
The only fitting punishment would be if no one bought Snooki’s book, but given the popularity of reality TV, with its blight of spoiled kids, teen moms, and rich housewives I’m sure Snooki’s novel will do far better than it should in any rational world, although perhaps not as well as the book Lisa Vanderpump’s Pomeranian is sure to write one day soon.