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Manuscript Slightly Above Water

I have started this piece the night I will submit it. This is not unusual for a blog, nor is it unusual for most of my writing. I surely think about my subject for some time before sitting down to write, but the experience is not exactly Mozart composing a symphony in his head before writing the first note. I’ve got the lump of clay, but then I have to work out if I’m making a bowl or an ashtray. I usually have a couple of false starts, which end up with me on HuffPost or ESPN’s AFC East blog. Even now, I expect I will depart at times for a domestic interlude or two; that trash won’t throw itself out, you know. Upon completing my piece, I allow for some time–a bit of time–to review, during which I might get my clothes together for the next day and floss. Then I look at the time, proofread like a mother, and click a button. Finis.
From this, I could call myself a writer, but that’s like jogging up the steps and declaring “Today, I am a runner.” After half a lifetime of romanticizing the art of words, the profession of writing, and the lives of writers, it doesn’t feel right. My references are very old, though, so I may need to get with the times. Just because there is more written content produced weekly in a Cambridge coffeehouse than the surviving work from Elizabethan England does not mean that any of the newer are any less a writer than the older. And it’s not as if the writers of earlier times would not have preferred newer publishing mediums if they were available. Painstakingly sharpen several quills, set up the ink bottles, roll out some parchment, light the oil lamp, and hope to write enough pages before the plague kills you? Or log on to nanowrimo.org, crack open a beer, and start typing? Even the Venerable Bede would choose Option B.
The deciding factor is not up to any of us who write, of course: It’s what of the writing is read 100, 200, 500 years hence.  Whether we published books or online posts, we will be remembered as writers if our work continues to be read. This is always the same, whether Aristophanes or andydick@twitter.
What is different is what challenge each group faces in being remembered, then and now. Every older writer we can think of is, at the very least, lucky. The odds that their work, available only in a paper format, made it to the present has to be part luck. Every 100 years you go back adds onto the unlikelihood that we know who these people are, let alone know their work. How many ancient writers simply disappeared after the fire at Alexandria’s Great Library? How many important works were lost because the last remaining copy was lost during a enemy’s raid, or ignored as languages evolved, or withered away from the ravages of the elements? Even our best known “old” author, Shakespeare, had a chance to be so important because two of his friends thought to collect and publish his work together. Even with this effort, there are plays of his that may have been lost, Love’s Labour’s Won and Cardenio. Whoever finds those plays will make a smashing Antiques Roadshow guest.
My favorite story of luck involves Luis de Camões, the Portuguese author of the epic The Lusiads. I will write much more of his amazing life story in a later post, but suffice it to say that after losing his eye in war, being imprisoned after a duel, and being shipped off to Goa to pay his debt, he wrote one of the world’s masterpieces. Finally heading back to Lisbon, he gets shipwrecked near what is now Cambodia. He manages to grab his manuscript and, holding it above the water, swim to shore. This may not be totally true, but this is totally awesome. Yes, he had to be great to be considered worthy of reading by later generations, but it’s luck that delivered his pages to us at all.
Words and writers now are unlikely to lose their work in such ways, unless every server in all the hosting countries and every motherboard in every laptop craps out at the same time. Our challenge, we who write with any hope of being remembered after we are gone, face a much different problem, our work being lost within so much other work. Who will be able to find the great pieces? Will James Patterson rule the literati of the future if only because so many of his books will be available? Will future scholars uncover some special element about a writer that we cannot conceive of yet, that separates her from the ever-growing crowd?
These are musings of curiosity more than worry (except for the James-Patterson-being-important-in-the-future bit, which scares the hell out of me). Not all great work makes it. Most of us won’t make it. Those of us used to getting instant kudos for our clever lines just need to accept this. But a lot of great work will make it, and our forebears will be better for it. The way to contribute to this is write for the now. Shakespeare wrote plays for his time, for his acting troupe, so he could make a living. Ben Jonson, his contemporary, wrote to be famous. Which one do you know better now? That’s the best lesson for any of us who scribble or type.

8 responses to “Manuscript Slightly Above Water”

  1. Avatar Tapscott says:

    Nicely done. I wonder what your thoughts are on the roles of distribution versus skill versus timing versus mind in successful writing. Anyway… Well done Leary… Well done.

    • Avatar Tapscott says:

      And by successful I mean commercially successful.

      • Jason Jason says:

        Thanks for reading, Mr. Tapscott. Distribution, and great agents, are vital to widespread successes. To my amateur knowledge, books aren't like movies, which through word of mouth can become runaway financial successes. Books can pick up steam through word of mouth (especially if that mouth is Oprah's, may she be resting in peace), but that more sets up the follow-up. With the follow-up comes inevitable new pressures of deadlines and expectations of what will be written, and generally the work suffers. It's a rare writer that can get super-rich and write super-great stuff. However, if one tapers the sense of financial success, and we don't look at the top-five money makers, then there's a lot of excellent writers who benefit from distribution, but who also have a strong base of readers and may have work that lasts beyond us living now. Oh, and timing is always key, no doubt about it. But the luck of timing is less significant for those authors who keep at it after countless defeats.

  2. Avatar Tracy Baker says:

    You want a kudo? I got your kudo right here, bub: Nice work, Jason!
    As a fellow scribbler, the scariest thing about the ease of writing and publishing these days is that people like us have no more excuses. We can write something, pay someone to edit it, format it, and put a cover on it, and push it to e-readers at whatever price we set, reaping royalty rates that are unheard of for our predecessors who did it the old fashioned way. The only thing stopping us is us, and the only thing standing between us and fame/fortune is the quality of our work.
    To paraphrase Cory Doctorow, a writer's biggest obstacle is obscurity. That problem is compounded by e-publishing, which smashes most barriers to entry in this market. Glad to see you're still here providing some much-needed clarity in the bloody shark tank it has become.

    • Jason Jason says:

      Thanks so much for your kudos–more rare than a Honus Wagner rookie card because of your high standards, sir–and your commentary. Your success at a writer is as significant to me as any well-known author, because that's your livelihood. I don't think any of us who scribble ever lose sight of wanting to be read by all, but maybe we start to get more comfortable with obscurity–at least obscurity in the global sense. I'm finding a lot of contentment in just writing to a small universe of friends and family. Sure I'd love to also be read by Chinese dissidents, but I'll have to try a different tack, because no luck so far. Thanks again, Tracy.

  3. Avatar Meera says:

    Good one, and very scary for a wannabe scribbler like moi! Although I must say that a mass blackout of the internet, or erasure of all electromagnetic data devices is not unthinkable. I'd still say print out your best stuff and keep it safe for posterity!

    • Jason Jason says:

      Meera, your practical approach is always refreshing. Just print it out, of course! It worked for King Alfred's writings in Old English, so why not for us? Oh, and for the record, you can omit "wannabe" to any description of yourself as a scribbler. You're the real deal, no doubt about it. Many thanks for reading!

  4. Kail Kail says:

    Nice work Jason! Made me want to work on one of several different stories I've been lazy with over the years.
    Your point on Shakespeare writing for his time and to make a living (compared to Ben) is a great one.
    I'm curious how Patterson feels about that. Someone like him, is he writing to be famous or writing to make a living? I feel like he'd say the latter, but part of me feels like it's the former! Or at least his agent/editor/publisher (who spend gobs marketing his stuff) care about his notoriety/fame but only to make him (and them) a better living…not to actually, you know, be good.
    I still want to be published the old fashioned way: agent…editor…publisher…print. Does that still happen? 😉
    Maybe I'm just old fashioned!
    It doesn't matter if I don't actually finish stories I started years ago.
    And blogs like yours here, they inspire me to do just that, so thank you!

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