There isn’t much that I wish I’d known when, but early on it would’ve be helpful to have considered the difference between being a writer and an author. There might not be much of a synonymic distinction, but there’s definitely a cognitive one. As a writer I’m usually at my best when I’m lost and oblivious, or at least feigning such know-nothing states. Too shy and stubborn to ask for directions, I, more or less, manage to figure out where my work is going. However, as an author — the tweed-jacketed, pipe smoking, absentminded, whiskey-sipping, bon mot spewing, wood cabin recluse — that I’ll never really be; I’m fairly incapable of coping with expectations and responsibilities of the profession. I don’t mind being responsible for what I’ve written, but I hate being responsible for who I am, and even more so for being who others want me to be.
I had no idea how different publishing fiction would be from publishing poetry. As a poet I found a semblance of success fairly quickly, and while people had varied opinions as to what type of poet I was, no one ever pressed me to write haiku or language poetry because those genres were hot and marketable. I just wrote. I don’t remember whether it was before or after I published my first novel, but a friend, the writer John Farris, once cautioned me that I’d now have to learn my craft in front of an audience. His words stifled me for a bit because the notion of having an “audience” felt burdensome and pointed. I now had a vague awareness of a literary destination, and after my first novel editors, friends and agents were all too eager to pull out road maps with highlighted routes to a town just north of Writer’s Writer, a place called Mainstream Success. I started making decisions for careerist reasons, figuring how to become an author, rather than continuing being a writer. I had trouble distinguishing between the roles of publisher editor, agent, and friend. I realized that sometimes books are published for reasons other than why we write them. That sometimes one is published not for what one has to say, or how it is said, but for the thrill of the literary crapshoot. Let’s take these first novels, throw them against the wall, and see what sticks. See who has the talent, the persistence, the vainglorious will to become the author that allows, we, the publisher, and the reader, to pat ourselves on the back for our perceptive powers, good taste and diverse sensibilities.
I felt a bit of pressure that if I wanted to be an author, I’d have be relatable, tell people what they wanted to hear, what they believed to be true about themselves, if not the world around them. Be like one to those corny Netflix stand-up comedians who win the (always overwhelmingly white) audience over by pillorying the easy target, pretending we’re all in this together, cultivating what Jerry Seinfeld calls the “we agree applause”.
But my books didn’t sell very well. So no beard scratching, personal-boundary-violating authorial daydreams of that cabin in the woods, a former-student laying voluptuously in my bed, as I composed the proverbial “scathing letter” in the fine cursive inborn only to the Mont Blanc pen. I can’t say I’ve ever stopped worrying about becoming an author, and it’s not that I ever actively tried to become one, but I did stop thinking about trying. Reading WG Sebald’s Austerlitz and Percival Everett’s Erasure, listening to Bernadette Mayer and Rebecca Solnit talk about their forthcoming projects Helens of Troy and Infinite City, respectively, helped to remind me that the work is about the work. That in the words of my mentor, Louis Asekoff, “Writers write.” It’s a simple as that. And to whatever degree I am an author, the position is not a mere appellation or bestowment, but the residue of hard work and the lingering hope that no one thinks or writes like I do — and never will.
Paul Beatty won the Man Booker prize in 2016, and the National Book Critics Circle Award, for his novel The Sellout. He’s the author of two books of poetry, Big Bank Take Little Bank (1991) and Joker, Joker, Deuce (1994), and three other novels — The White Boy Shuffle (1996), Tuff (2000) and Slumberland (2008). He’s an associate professor of writing at Columbia University.
This article is the first in a new series of experienced writers and authors sharing what they wish they had known when they first started writing.