“There are three rules for writing a novel. Unfortunately, no one knows what they are” – W. Somerset Maugham
Authors of fiction rarely consider the existential threats involved with writing. There are too many empirical threats. Poverty, for instance, followed by starvation. Insanity, eviction, divorce, and self-loathing rank pretty high in the pragmatic list of dangers imminent in the life of letters, as well. Once committed to our art, we shouldn’t overly concern ourselves with such obvious pitfalls as poor career choices, bad credit, the predicted death of the print medium, or the unbalanced economics of blogging. These simply come with the territory. If you’re pyrophobic, you don’t become a firefighter. By the same token, if you feel an overwhelmingly powerful need to eat or pay your bills, you don’t dedicate yourself solely to writing. Certainly there are a few notable exceptions out there, just as there are a few lottery winners. Writing is like alcoholism. Anybody can be a drunk, and many are. Being a functional alcoholic is hard work. It takes discipline and an appreciation for the craft, not to mention certain obsessive-compulsive inclinations to maintain, for as Ray Bradbury exhorted, “You must stay drunk on writing so reality cannot destroy you.”
Don’t get me wrong, I’m not trying to scare struggling writers away from the literary life. Unless you have nothing to say. Although, maybe you should write anyway. You’ll find something. Long ago, an editor at a newspaper I worked for asked me in a pitch meeting, why every story I proposed started with “Do you know what bothers me?” Grumpiness was my thing. If you find the thing that burns a hole in your gut every time you think about it, you’ve probably got a serious writing project inside. Everything else is style. Unfortunately, as we’ve learned from Project Runway, style is everything. See what I did there? Basically, if you choose the writing life, odds are you’re screwed, regardless of whether you are exhaling the next timeless masterpiece or dashing off a commercial hack-job. Either way, you’ll likely be long dead before you enter the canon of great literature. Mark Twain said, “I was sorry to hear my name mentioned as one of the great authors, because they have a sad habit of dying off. Chaucer is dead, so is Milton, so is Shakespeare, and I am not feeling very well myself”.
So, you write your book and hope for the best. Probably die first. Maybe get an honorable mention in somebody’s classics of the Nebraska School of Pastoral Short Fiction in the 2250 A.D. Guide to Comparative Literature. You got it off your chest, and an earnest undergrad in the college of the future may discover pearls of wisdom in your work that change his life. No harm, no foul, right? Wrong, you selfish jerk! We have far too many examples of eerily prophetic fictional writing for you to just put anything to paper. Most folks will point out that writing is all about imagination, so obviously if someone can conceive of a plotline, the possibility that it could happen in real life under similar circumstances are not entirely remote. To those naysayers, let me simply say, “Shut up.” I’m not talking about the Jules Vernes and H.G. Wells of the world extrapolating forward and weaving fantastic yarns based on as of yet undiscovered, but conceivable technologies. Nobody ever died from that. What we do have are abundant examples of instances of synchronicity (acausally connected parallelism in the Jungian Sense) where an author jotted down the horrors in his head, only to see those same horrors visited upon reality.
Edgar Allen Poe’s single novel The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym of Nantucket (1838) was the heartwarming tale of a stowaway on the good ship Grampus. The Grampus founders, and the survivors find themselves adrift without food or water, opting to draw lots and determine which crewmember should sacrifice themselves to be eaten with some fava beans and a nice Chianti. The unfortunate soul selected was a cabin boy named Robert Parker. The first lesson is not to ship out as a cabin boy — ranking low on the nautical totem pole seems to render one susceptible to cannibalism. And nobody likes being eaten. Not like that. Get your mind out of the gutter. Poe, while not being particularly well adjusted could write himself a good tale of terror. Sadly, he ignored the possibility that the universe was paying attention, and in 1884, the four-man yacht Mingonette, sailing from England to Australia sank in a storm, the survivors escaping on its sole lifeboat without provisions. Sustained briefly by a turtle which they caught (which happened in Poe’s story as well), they quickly realized how dire their circumstances were, and elected to choose one of their crewmates as the next meal. That crewmate just so happened to be a 17-year-old cabin boy named Robert Parker. If you are a sailor named Robert Parker, I recommend either a change in profession or legal change of name.
In 1898, New York author Morgan Andrew Robertson published a novel called The Wreck of the Titan: Or, Futililty. The extraordinary number of correspondences between the sinking of the fictional Titan and the all too real Titanic disaster are astounding, and were immediately remarked upon fourteen years later when the Titanic went down. The poet Ella Wheeler Wilcox, best known for the phrase, “Laugh, and the world laughs with you; weep, and you weep alone”, noted the strange correspondence in her 1918 autobiography, commenting “In England I had my attention called to a story by Morgan Robertson, which had been written more than a decade before the Titanic disaster, and which was being republished because of its peculiar plot. The story was entitled “Futility,” and described the building of an enormous ship, the Titan, and of its destruction by an iceberg the second day after being launched. At the time the story was first published no such monster passenger ships were known; but Mr. Robertson’s imagination had given a picture of the Olympic and Titanic which was almost photographic in detail, and had called his ship the Titan”. Wilcox only scratched the surface of the innumerable correspondences including the home country (England), the ship length (about 800 feet), the maximum passengers (3000), the same number of propellers (3), the number of lifeboats aboard and their inadequacy for the number of passengers, the advertised “unsinkability”, the month of the disaster (April), the speed at impact (around 23 knots), the time the iceberg hit (around midnight), and the location (off Newfoundland). The similarities were so startling that Ms. Wilcox wrote a letter to Robertson inquiring about his apparent prescience.
So, be careful when you put pen to paper, or finger to keyboard. Worldly success might elude you. Financial success may be fleeting or non-existent. You might have to move into a cardboard box or eat Ramen noodles seven days a week, and you can console yourself by saying, “this is the sacrifice I make for my art”, but it seems the universe is a capricious place, and who knows who else you may be sacrificing. Most writers want to breathe life into their work, but fail to consider the implications of putting something out there into the universe for all to read. Writing is dangerous, and as Carl Jung said, “Sometimes, indeed, there is such a discrepancy between man’s genius and his human qualities that one has to ask oneself whether a little less talent might not have been better”. Then again, maybe I’m just trying to clear away a little of the competition. Daddy needs a new pair of shoes.