My not-quite-book-tour in Orlando
Dear James Franco:
On Thursday I arrived in Orlando for a sort-of-but-not-quite book tour. If I haven’t said this enough, my first book, a novella called Wally, was just published by Burrow Press. Buy it: http://burrowpress.com/wally/
You can get it on Amazon as well: http://www.amazon.com/Wally-Don-Peteroy/dp/0984953817/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&qid=1352535226&sr=8-1&keywords=don+peteroy+wally
And if you need a better sales pitch, you can watch the trailer: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=2G1IdIjfmBI
Anyway, I want to inform you about my Florida trip, but I fear boring you. Been there, done that, right? You’re probably desensitized to the enormity and significance of experiences like I had last weekend. Yet, my gut insists that I tell you the story, though I’m not entirely sure why. Maybe you’d benefit from vicariously positioning yourself within the realm of my small-scale triumphs. Maybe I’ll evoke your nostalgia for the early days of your writing career, when you had to fight your way up from street-level; when you stuffed countless envelopes with stories and braced yourself for the subsequent deluge of rejections; when you felt bewildered, lost, intimidated, terrified; when nobody complemented your writing or even wanted to help you make it better because, to them, you were no one special, you were just one of the thousands of aspiring writers; when the idea of having an agent seemed as impossible as trying to count how many miles are in the color orange; when you wished to God that someone would show you how to navigate your way through this massive and confusing culture, with all its AWP stuff and lit magazines and contests; when you wished to God that someone would grant you all the time in the world to focus on your writing, while he takes care of figuring everything out for you; someone who’d know which of the thousands of magazines to send stuff to, how to find their addresses and current editors, and how to write a cover letter. Nostalgia is healthy James. When we remember how hard things were, it humbles us and quiets the ego.
My flight arrived on Thursday at 1:00. Ryan, the publisher and editor at Burrow Press, picked me up at the airport, and then drove me to Scott’s house. Scott is a kind man who puts up couch-surfers. This all worked out favorably, since I didn’t have money for a hotel. Originally, I wanted to pitch a tent at a campground or sleep in the bushes at a nearby park. The latter seemed more appealing. Although this sounds nonsensical, I’ll take any opportunity to manufacture my image in creative ways. My favorite writers were also skilled at performing the role of the aloof and crazy writer. Think about it: a writer comes to town for several events pertaining to his book release, and when people ask him where he’s staying, he answers, “I’m sleeping in a park. I found a nice cluster of bushes that I can crawl into.” He’s disheveled, mildly smelly, and dirty. He rolls out of the bushes all scraped up, walks six blocks, and arrives at the venue hosting his reading. Then, when he’s done, he goes back to the park and slithers back inside the bushes. I like that.
Ryan wasn’t thrilled with the idea. I understood why. But maybe if I’m lucky enough to have a third book one day, I’ll say, “I will only come to do a reading if you let me sleep in the bushes.”
After meeting Scott, we headed down to the University of Central Florida. I’d been invited to do two events on campus. A professor of Creative Writing had invited me to read to his undergraduate class of about thirty students. They were taking am upper-level section on the novella. Incidentally, I’d written a novella. I would read for about fifteen minutes, and then open the floor for a Q & A session.
The reading went OK. The students enjoyed it, but I picked a scene that takes a long time before anything really develops. The Q&A session—my first ever—was far more interesting. Here’s the thing. I’m about to tell you the thing. You’re acquainted with the social decorum of graduate programs; you’ve undoubtedly noticed—and perhaps perpetuated—the unspoken rule that when a visiting writer or scholar opens up his/her discussion for questions, you best not ask anything stupid (or too smart. Asking Denis Johnson to elaborate on the post-Lacanian mirror-inversion of gender commoditization would make you seem dickish). Dim-witted inquires, supposedly, involve subject matters like author biography, inspiration, ideas, habits, and influences. Whenever a writer visits UC, those are precisely the questions I’d like to ask, but I bite my tongue. Undergraduates, however, don’t give the fuck about etiquette or asking impressive, theoretical questions. They’re eager, and they want to know The Secret; they want The Answer to this whole writing business. During the entire forty-five minutes, there wasn’t a single moment of awkward silence lingering in the classroom because we had urgent and important matters to discuss. Typical questions were, “Where do you get your ideas from?”, “How do you know when a story is finished and ready to be sent out?”, “How much time do you spend writing every day?”, “How do you become a better writer?”, “How do you find your voice?”, “How did you write Wally?”, “How did you go about finding a publisher?” and so on. I loved it. They wanted to know every effing thing about the writer, the writer’s lifestyle, the writer’s struggles, the writer’s work ethic, and it was—to coin a new phrase—a breath of fresh air to be in a classroom where students weren’t ashamed to be beginners.
I’ve gone on too long already, and I’m still on day one. Let me just wrap up this posting by telling you about the rest of Thursday. After my classroom visit, I kindly “invited” the students to buy my book. I anticipated that maybe four or five would make the purchase, but get this: everyone bought it. I think I outsold Cincinnati in that one undergraduate class. I suddenly have an urge to visit more undergraduate writing classes. Hmmm.
After the class, we (me, Ryan, and the professor who’d hooked me up) went out to eat. Then, it was onto the next event—a public reading at UCF, sponsored by one of the student organizations. Days prior, when I’d imagined the event, I saw myself in some trashy community room in the student union. I visualized leftover pizza boxes from the day’s earlier functions, a threadbare carpet marked with soda stains, old couches and recliners filled with holes and gashes and bleeding out their cotton interiors, the walls a patchwork eyesore of fliers and announcements, and a rattling Coke machine in the corner. Nope, James Franco. Fantasy fail. My imagination was incorrect. The event was in a partitioned ballroom, a location that seemed far too elegant for someone who isn’t even considered an “emerging writer.” There was a stage with drapes hanging from the back wall, a podium, a microphone, and rows of seats. Not metal fold-out chairs or those generic plastic ones found in student union buildings, cafeterias, and dorms, but nice, cushioned seats. This was some AWP-style shit. I thought, “Have you mistaken me for someone else?” I glanced around for Lorrie Moore. I checked to see if Ron Carlson was taking a shit in the bathroom, or if Steve Almond was sitting at a table outside, with his head planted down on his arms. No, James Franco, this was about me. How’d I know? There was a cookie cake on a table by the door. “Welcome Don Peteroy” was written in sugary goo across the cake’s surface. Again, this seemed unreal. I’d spent most of my childhood convinced that I’d become the kind of person that nobody would welcome, that my celebratory cake would consist of fish guts and kitty litter, and would bear the words “Go Elsewhere” in the blood and tears of my traumatized victims.
The place filled up, just about every seat taken. I read. I read a better part, a manic interior diatribe about the Transformers action figure, Soundwave. They loved it. And then, the Q & A. I wasn’t nervous at all because I absolutely love talking to aspiring writers. Halfway through, I’d discovered my shtick. I’d received the same variety of questions that were asked earlier, and my responses—at least according to how I heard myself—were more along the motivational speaker lines. I was the Wayne Dyer of young writers, telling them that in the first draft, they mustn’t judge themselves; rather, they must outrun the inner-critic who always says, “Your writing sucks! Just look at that sentence! It’s horrible! Why even bother to go on? Face it, you’ll never been a good writer!” Once that first draft is finished, catch your breath, take a shower, eat, and watch some TV. Later, the critic—who you’d left in the dust—will finally arrive, panting and sweating from a long jog. Invite him/her in. Return to your draft, and now give the critic permission to trash it. He’ll be loud at first, pointing out every little mistake as evidence of your ineptitude, but the more you revise, the less he’ll have to say. You’ll know your story’s done when he’s quiet, when he’s searching hard for menial flaws, when he occasionally mumbles something trivial. Revising draft after draft effectively covers the critic’s mouth with duct tape. (If you don’t have a critic—if you’re so confident in your ability to write wonderful prose—find a critic. You’re deluding yourself. You’ll never get anywhere).
I was digging it James, not in a self-obsessed way, but on a more karmic level. Here’s the thing. I’m going to tell you the thing. I strongly believe that you can’t keep what you have unless you give it away. When I first started writing, I had no community—no workshops to point out my errors; no mentors; no way to develop craft other than through trial and error; no knowledge of the literary magazine culture’s conventions and practices; no understanding of how to gain access and maneuver myself through that world; and no insight about what it means to fail (I would have loved to know that most writers amass hundreds of rejections). Here I was in a position to both inform and encourage, to let confused and timid writers know that getting 100 rejections isn’t the end of the world—it’s not even close, to impart them with the uncomfortable wisdom that if you want this, casual reading and writing won’t suffice—there are no shortcuts, unless, of course, you have an economic and cultural advantage, but those instances are rare.
I felt alive again, James Franco. Not because I got a lot of attention and praise, but because—I hope—a whole bunch of writers left the ballroom feeling better about themselves, feeling optimistic even though failure is the most common outcome, feeling determined and inspired to read and write as if the world depended on it. The crazy thing is, after winning the Playboy College Fiction contest and getting Wally published, I’ve had a difficult time writing. Talking to these students brought me back to my ground-state. I felt inspired for the first time in about a year. I’ve got some stories on my plate, and I’m eager to make another full revision on the Wally’s sequel, My Helicopter Heart (The 600 page novel about Wally stalking your friend Kirsten Dunst during the Christian Apocalypse).
I have three other events I’d like to talk about. It might take me a long time to cover them because I have a more important blog-related project in the works. Something interactive.
Anyway, I hope that my success reminded you of all your little successes you accrued on your way up, and that you’re feeling a bit of gratitude about where you’ve gone and where you are as a writer.