WHO NEEDS MONEY ANYWAY?
Let’s face it. Mr. Sullivan-the editor at Life who told me to give it up-was right in one respect. If I wanted to write to make money, forget it. I should have studied biochemistry or rocket engineering instead. It would have been easier, and taken less time.
If it’s not for money, why does one want to write? When someone tells me they want to write and I ask them why they do, most likely they won’t have an answer. They will hem and haw around. What they really mean, and are unwilling to admit, is that what they want is to do something, a profession that will make them happy. Happy is the key word. We want to be happy in doing what we are doing. What pleases us the most? After all, what is our goal in life? For most of us, it is to be happy. Wikipedia, the on-line encyclopedia, states, “Happiness is an emotional or affective state that feels good or pleasing.” It goes on to say that the happy or ideal life is sometimes referred to as the American dream-or anyone’s dream, I say-which can be seen as the idea that most goals can be attained through sufficient hard work and determination, birth and privilege notwithstanding. While many artists, writers, scholars, and religious leaders can and do consider their work to fall within the dream, it is usually thought of as being measured by financial success. I like what Albert Schweitzer had to say on the subject. “Success is not the key to happiness,” he said. “If you love what you are doing, you will be successful.”
If we really like what we are doing, and for me that is writing, then we can at least acquire a measure of happiness. Albert Schweitzer was right. If we base happiness on financial success, then, as writers, we are wrong. If we write because we like to write, then we may find happiness. If we write because we want to get rich or be famous, then unhappiness is likely to follow. I do not write for money. I get paid for my writing, but that is not my aim. I write because I like to write. I want to write. Friends, and even relatives, will criticize me for putting effort and time into a book that may never sell. Does it matter? I am doing what I want to do, not for the profit it will gain for me but for the desire to do it-like being able to swim the length of the pool underwater with one breath. As some people enjoy sitting in front of the TV watching soap operas and quiz shows, I like to sit in front of my computer (it used to be my Hermes) writing stories. I am not saying that I reject profits from the results of my writing when they come my way. And, unlike William Saroyan did, I would not turn down the Pulitzer Prize for believing writing should not be for profit. When money comes, well and good, but that is not altogether my motive. As it is, from my working hard at my trade, I have lived rather well from my writing-but there is no home in Malibu.
There is one dimension for the writer that reaches beyond wanting to be happy, and that is purpose. A writer will never fully be happy without a purpose. What is our purpose for wanting to write? We have a message we want to tell. We’ve heard it said that most people work a lifetime with one objective in mind-to retire. To sit back, relax and enjoy life. That’s not a writer’s aim, not a sincere writer. What did Ernest Hemingway say about writing? “As long as there is me, as long as there is pen and paper, that’s how long I will write.” Somerset Maugham was still scribbling out plot ideas when he was ninety-four.
James Clavell, the author of Tai Pan, set me straight on what is meant by purpose. I had the good fortune to meet the author through mutual friends, and we talked about the writing business. I recall his saying that book editors these days are interested in blockbusters-nothing else. He used the term “blockbuster” and gave it meaning-over-inflated productions that rely more on special effects than words and characters. The intent of a blockbuster is to distract the readers rather than engage him. Blockbusters marked the death of good writing. They are the product of market strategies. Their purpose is well defined.
Great editors like Maxwell Perkins who fostered Ernest Hemingway, F. Scott Fitzgerald and others are no more. Today there a few dozen successful authors who write what the movies want; they are the ones who hold the monopoly on writing. They follow a prescribed format. We began to see the change coming in the late 1960s and 1970s when the blockbuster fiction writers began to take over with the sole purpose to entertain and make money while doing it. Their glossy-covered books began to appear everywhere, with a name like Robert Ludlum, Sidney Sheldon, Stephen King, Ken Follett, Harold Robbins, Danielle Steel and John Le Carre appearing in print bigger than the titles of their books. Their books dominate the bestseller list. Some will say that is what the public wants, so give them what they want. I don’t go along with that at all. More likely, it’s what the public is fed, fed by paid critics, fed by paid book reviewers and fed by the media on the take. I had one critic tell me you can take a mediocre book and, after dumping enough money into it for promotion, you can make it a best seller. Good writing, he concluded, is not necessary.
Clavell felt sorry for new writers, for many writers might have good stories to tell, but the chances of finding a publisher for them is almost impossible. What options do they have? One, they might consider publishing themselves.
Of course, just mention publishing your own book and you are bound to be criticized. It’s demoralizing to have someone say to you, “So no one will publish your book, you’ll have to publish it yourself.”
Hold on! We should not let that faze us.
First, there is no denying that there’s a stigma attached to publishing one’s own book. When writers do, they have to face criticism. But self-publishing is better than not publishing a book at all. So, I say, what if the public looks down on self-publishing, does it matter? If people find that self-publishing has such a stigma, then don’t bother reading George Bernard Shaw, Charlotte Bronte, Rudyard Kipling, Virginia Wolf, Walt Whitman, and Henry David Thoreau. Why? Because all of them first appeared in print through publishing their books themselves. Apparently Tom Sawyer sold so badly in its first printing that, to get it into print the second time, Mark Twain started his own publishing company.
Literature has, in fact, quite a tradition of legendary figures being rejected time and again by the mainstream before they gained acceptance. This includes James Joyce’s A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man which was turned down by every publisher in England. Forty-seven publishers knocked back J.P. Donleavy’s The Ginger Man. Did he give up? No! At one time, self-publishing was an honorable method of self-expression. But then something happened. By the early 20th century, as publishing firms grew, “vanity publishing” became a derogatory term, synonymous with a desperate writer. “It’s a wrong perception,” says Doug Ingold, managing Director of Wolfenden Publishers. “Self-publishing has always been a vital alternative outlet. It has its own important cultural function to perform. Today, with the frenzy of publishing house amalgamations, it is more important than before. With the advent of desktop technology, it is more accessible than ever.”
My objective is to write, to write what I want to write, and worry about having my work published when it is ompleted. I don’t need to worry about what I will feed my horse until I buy the horse.
People ask if I ever have writer’s block. Some call it the scourge of writing. I daresay, I have in late years l amed to overcome writer’s block. When writer’s block gins, I grab my notepad and go for a walk or take a drive.
I do much of my writing away from my desk. Sometimes I take my pocket tape recorder with me. People ask how I can produce so much. The reason is I write constantly . When I am on the road or soaring across the skies, I jot own notes about how I feel at the time, the sounds and smells, the other people I see. Since I write a lot of adventure stuff, I actually jot down notes when the action is happening, and that can be during a storm at sea or at a rest stop on a jungle trip. If l go mountain climbing, I take tape recorder. The grunts and groans, and the panting from being out of breath help by reminding me later of the agony I went through. I transcribe these notes when writer’s block approaches.
Other than cash rewards, writing does have perks all own. “I cannot help thinking just how good a life I have as a writer,” writer Robert Davis wrote in an e-mail to me while sitting in a beach resort on Koh Samui on the east coast of Thailand overlooking the Gulf of Siam. He was on a magazine assignment. “I still can’t believe the perks that we enjoy as travel writers-from flying business-class to being treated as a VIP at many five-star hotels around the world.” Robert enjoys the thrills from the benefits of writing as much as seeing his name on by-lines. You might say he’s a happy man. His problem is sometimes he’s too happy and forgets to write. That’s the time when he grumbles.
Those benefits Robert mentioned are the perks of travel writing. But there is also a downside. If you get a “freebie,” you must follow through with the assignment. Sometimes sponsors become impatient when they don’t see immediate results. It becomes my duty to keep sponsors informed. Sponsors have to be reminded that most magazines need at least a two-month lead time, and many editors may plan a year in advance. It is not unusual for me to have as many as ten to fifteen travel articles and features out with different magazines at the same time. I make a point not to annoy editors with questions, querying them over and over as to when their feature will run. Submit it and forget it-that’s the rule I follow. It’s important for me to keep records, where each story is and when it was submitted. For years I kept records in a bound notebook but now with computers I file them on CD.
Generally speaking, writers might not be well paid, and by some standards, it’s pathetically low, but how do you evaluate free hotel accommodation, free air tickets, free dinners and free-guided tours that come with the business? You can’t.
How many times have I heard people say they envy my job? They would like to do the same, but would they be willing to suffer through lean times when the checks are slow in coming? Writers are usually the last in line to be paid. First come editors sitting at the top, followed by sub-editors, proofreaders, clerks, receptionists, sweepers, and, most definitely, the printer. The printer is pretty high up the scale. Only then, at the very bottom is the writer. Getting that check can be most difficult. Payment varies from publication to publication. Some publishers, but very, very few, pay when the material is received and approved. Others pay upon publication, and then it might be at the end of the month or their so-called pay period. Still with others, it’s a flat thirty days, and even ninety days after publication. Of course, you have to send in a voucher, and more than one. Vouchers have the habit of getting lost. Sometimes the vouchers I had to submit and re-submit totaled in paper volume more than the story itself. It’s criminal. It’s no small wonder that The Writers Guild of America went on strike in the fall of 2007 for more benefits for their writers. It’s a pity freelance writers don’t have a union.
When I began making a living at travel writing, I enjoyed the freebies that came my way-airline tickets, hotel rooms, meals, rental cars. However, in time I learned that nothing is free. I became careful with what I accepted. But I also found, on occasion, to be grateful for a freebie. I can think of a free room I got at the Oriental as an example. The Oriental Hotel, as we know, is reputed to be the best hotel in the world, having been voted the best for ten consecutive years. It’s a splendid hotel, and you know it the moment you step through the front door. Ever since Joseph Conrad appeared on the scene, although as a seaman and not an honored guest, writers have always had a special affinity to The Oriental. Many of their names still live on in the hotel, tacked to the wall in the Author’s Lounge, and include Somerset Maugham, Noel Coward, James Michener, Alec Waugh, John Steinbeck Ernest Hemingway, Gore Vidal, Han Suyin, Peter U tinov, Barbara Cartland and many more.
Back to my story. The hotel was having a Food Summit Conference and as a writer for the Bangkok Post at the time I was invited. Being a busy weekend with heavy traffic-that was before the Skytrain-Mr. Kurt Wachtvietl, the general manager, offered me a room at the hotel, which I gladly accepted. The next day when I was leaving, I thanked him and said that one day I might be wealthy enough to pay for my stay at the hotel. “Nonsense,” he said, “most anyone who has money to spend can stay at the hotel, but not everyone can get a free room.” Not everyone gets a free room! How could I not be happy being a writer? I might also add, the hotel has placed my book At Home in Asia in a sealed time vault to be opened when the hotel celebrates its 200th birthday-some seventy years from now.
I had a heated discussion with my own son Paul about being a travel writer. It was all about money-he had applied to enter Berkeley. “That’s setting your goals pretty high,” I said. “It’s a good idea, but I don’t want you to be disappointed. Berkeley is tough to get into.” And then I made a rash statement that I could have regretted. I told him, mostly joking, that ifhe were accepted, I would take him on a trip around the world. I was sure he wouldn’t make it. He did make it and was accepted, so I had to keep my end of the bargain. But imagine the cost for two for a trip around the world. I needed two airline tickets to begin with. I approached the general manager of Scandinavian Airline System in Bangkok. I convinced him what the airline needed was a good history book of the airline’s involvement in Southeast Asia. It was not a bad idea since SAS is one of the oldest airlines to operate in that part of the world. The manager liked the idea, but he was under a tight budget. I explained that writing such a history was a major endeavor and required a great deal of research and endless interviews-but I would write it for airline tickets. I asked for three tickets around the world. Since we were at the bargaining table, I pitched high, leaving room to negotiate-three tickets, one for me, one for my son, and one for my wife. I didn’t have to bargain. The manager agreed.
We made the trip-Bangkok, Singapore, Bali, across India, to Scandinavia, Paris, New York, Washington, D.C., Chicago, St. Louis, Albuquerque, San Francisco, and back home. Hotels gave us free accommodation; AVIS provided a car to drive around Europe and another one to drive across America. We climbed to the top of the Eiffel Tower, stood in front of the Capitol in Washington, visited the Indian reservations in New Mexico, hiked to the bottom of the Grand Canyon and drove over the Golden Gate Bridge in San Francisco.
At the conclusion of the trip, the sponsors were happy, and I made sure they had stories in newspapers and magazines. But there was a rub. I asked my son, after he graduated from Berkeley, what he would want to do. He was very frank. “Dad, I hope you don’t mind, but I would like a job where the checks are on time. Writing and photography, you have to wait to get paid and then you never know.”
“Fair enough,” I said, “but what do you want out of life?”
“Dad, I want a good job, and I want to travel. I want to see more of the world.”
I didn’t want to discourage him, and I certainly hoped, like all fathers do, that he would land a good job after graduation, with good pay. But what did concern me was how he would ever be able to squeeze all that travel he wanted to do into two-week vacations every year.