Hacks Have Lives Of Miserable Karaoke

Dennis Potter’s Last Interview, On ‘Nowness’ And His Work

Although there’s a little bit set in the karaoke clubs, obviously karaoke is a metaphor: there’s the music, and you have your little line, you can sing it, and everything is written for you, and that is the way life feels to a lot of people. For some, you haven’t got much space, and even the space you’ve got, although you use your own voice, the words are written for you.

Boldfaced emphasis added by me.

There are writers out there who lament that they are not bringing in the big bucks.

They read stories like this that bleat about an “eBook gold rush” and wonder what they’ve been doing wrong.

Ayn Rand wrote a brilliant short story called The Simplest Thing in the World, which appeared in The Romantic Manifesto. Even if you thoroughly despise Rand’s work and philosophy, this story is something every writer should read.

It addresses this very issue.

Here’s an excerpt:


Click = big

Some people — OK, not some, probably only me — see “Paul Pattison” and have their mind skip to today’s James Patterson.

Why not?

He pulls in the big bucks. And it’s well-known — because he’s admitted it — that he no longer does most, if any, of the writing of the books that have his name on them. He’s a brand, always intended to be a brand, not an artist.

Should any writer sit and stew about the money Patterson is pulling in?

Hell no.

No writer competes with any other writer.

And that includes non-writers such as James Patterson.

At one time, Patterson had to compete against what all writers must battle: being unknown, an indifferent and busy public, a flood of other things trying to attract attention.

I know there are trends and fads out there that seem to guarantee an audience these days: vampires, zombies, zombie vampires, vampire zombies, and things like that.

Some writers will jump on that bandwagon for a quick buck.

That’s suicidal.

Consider the case of Arthur Conan Doyle. Do you know that he hated Sherlock Holmes? Hated his creation so much that he had him plummet to his death in one story.

I don’t know why Doyle created Holmes. I haven’t found a biography that sufficiently explains his motivation. It couldn’t be that groundbreaking detectives were a fad he decided to capitalize on — because he just about created that mold.

Holmes went on to be greater than Doyle’s entire career. He never expected Holmes to be a massive success. He considered the stories to really be a trivial amusement. He wanted to be known for his novels, especially the ones that were historical. They were serious. Holmes was fluff.

But he found himself trapped.

He life was turned into writer’s karaoke:

you haven’t got much space, and even the space you’ve got, although you use your own voice, the words are written for you.

The words Doyle had to write were basically written for him because they were Holmes. He had created something that had a certain shape and form and he couldn’t deviate from it.

That’s karaoke.

Is that the kind of writing life you want to have?

Because if you jump on a bandwagon and find success, that’s exactly what will happen to you.

You will be trapped churning out things you never intended to do. You will lack the enthusiasm to do them. You will come to despise and have contempt for your audience. Your life and what talent you started out with will drown in a pool of frustration year after year.

Ask anyone in this life and they will tell you that the best thing — second to having someone in love with you — is being able to do what you like to do.

That is a very, very rare thing.

Most people have lives of miserable karaoke. What they must do has already been decided for them. They look busy but accomplish nothing that fulfills them.

To whatever degree, writing is ideally an expression of self. No one is really like anyone else in terms of what they can do and how they can do it. This especially applies to writing.

And I don’t mean “literary” writing. That’s an error. There’s more similarity in that than there is in any other kind of writing.

If you genuinely like writing about vampires and zombies, make them your zombies and vampires, dammit. Because that might be all your career will amount to, so you really had better love them.

If you genuinely like writing what only you can write, keep doing it. Don’t think about the money, think about the pleasure of being able to do it. And, for god’s sake, be certain that it really is what you want to write.

Because even success can bring with it the threat of writer’s karaoke. So make sure the songs are all yours.

Previously at The eBook Test:

How Much Can You Take?

4 Comments

Filed under Writers, Writing

4 responses to “Hacks Have Lives Of Miserable Karaoke

  1. Mike, I’ve been a bit of a Holmes scholar for the last 20 years or so. Maybe I can help. While Doyle’s passion was historical fiction, he wrote a variety of tales during this period. Humorous stories, horror, “The Firm of Gridlestone,” a contemporary novel. It was all about the paycheck, and the publishing credits and editorial contacts that would lead to more publication.

    In a word, he wrote Holmes for the money. He killed the detective off when he felt he was financially secure.

    And the reason he brought Holmes back? Money played a big part of it.

    There’s a book I’d like to recommend to you, but I don’t think it’s available as an ebook. “Arthur Conan Doyle: A life in Letters” is by Jon Lellenberg, Daniel Stashower, and Charles Foley. You can get a used copy at Amazon. I spotted my copy on the remainder table at B&N. If you’re interested at all in Doyle, you’ll want to read this book.

    • mikecane

      If that was one of the recent ones — from the 90s — I read it. Unfortunately, it was from the NYPL, so I don’t have a copy handy to refer to. So, after all, Doyle deserved the karaoke he found himself trapped in! What a shame. Holmes was great.

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