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Swearing off Writing One More Time

by Joan Shaddox Isom

About every other month, I swear off writing for good. It's a habit, a cycle that I can't break. For years, I've puzzled over my compulsion to sit at the computer until my fingers are like gnarled sticks and my shoulders so stooped I could double for Quasimodo. I'm not alone. Why we write has been explored endlessly by authors whose names are household words. Anthologies are published on the subject, theories have been proposed and psychological studies made. In truth, I've tried my hand at the topic myself, but nothing of any profundity ever came to the page.

One thing I know, a person who writes should evoke either an image of dignity or a spit in your face attitude. I've been straining toward the former since I wrote my first play in third grade, but here is what invariably happens to me:

One of my publishers insists on calling me "Jane," even in print, even in their book catalog, which is where I caught the error first, before it ended up on the actual book cover. They pay no attention to my written, Faxed and E-mailed pleas to note my change of address. My royalties from this book, if I have any coming, will go off somewhere in snail mail oblivion. When I call my editor, she's never there. In fact, she may have moved on a year ago. Who would know?

I usually swear off writing for good after I've given a reading or a presentation to promote a book, something writers are expected to do. The naive public fantasizes a scenario like this: An author will be flown, at publisher's expense, to a major city where she'll be met at the airport and whisked away to first class accommodations. Someone will come to take her to a lovely dinner, then on to the bookstore or conference center where hordes of people will be waiting and chanting her name. She will graciously approach the lectern and give her talk while people jostle for a good position in line, craning their necks to see her, hanging on her every word. She will sign hundreds of books, the bookstore having stocked five-thousand copies. At the end of the signing, they'll give her a dozen roses (they checked with her family so they know her favorite color), take her for a glass of sherry in a quaint little pub, then drive her to her hotel, promising to pick her up in the morning and get her safely to the airport.

Sure, if you're an Opra pick.

Here's the real story:
You call up major bookstores, knowing your publisher probably won't, and you tell them you have a new book. Only one seems remotely interested. She yawns and put you on hold. When she returns, she says you'll have to talk to Jerome and he's not in. You work on catching Jerome from August 3 through September 28. When you finally reach him, he complains because you haven't called sooner, as their calendar is almost full. He grudgingly squeezes you in on November 19, between signings for Bosom Bikers: Seeing America Up Front, and Tractor Pulls: Their Contribution to Our Culture. You imagine sharing the bookstore with your conservative relatives and swarms of men either in black, studded leather or overalls, and perversely, you agree.

You scan the newspapers the week before your signing, hoping your event is listed. It is not. You get yourself to the bookstore location any old way you can (translation: you pay for your own airline ticket or you drive there). When you walk in, you see a sign with the title of your book and your name, the latter spelled incorrectly. They give you a table the size of a kindergarten desk, perched near the entrance so that the wind blows your hair every time the door swings open. No matter, the hairdo you tried to effect didn't work out anyway, and people wandering by give you maybe a half-second glance, except for one who sees your name, recognizes it from a book of your earlier work that has some Native American themes, and says, "You don't look like an Indian." Clearly, he's disappointed, perhaps expecting feathers or at least a breech clap. You fill the time by reorganizing your purse, making a list of your friends who have not shown up (for later retribution), and you ponder the long, dark road down which your obsession has taken you.

Or, you get to the conference center where you are one of the featured speakers. They won't show you where the bathroom is, and they try to make you pay the registration fee. At the general assembly before the group splits up to go to various sessions, you are introduced last, with no mention of the title of your book. The celebrity speaker is a writer known by her first name only, which is one vowel letter. She is not prone to modesty. She tells the group she is, in her words, "Kin to important people, people so important that she can't tell you their names." It would be dangerous, she infers. You consider the fact that you may be a bit too retiring, and you long for a more distinguished name.

They take you to your presentation room down some dark stairs. Dispiritedly, you look for the bathroom on the way, but it is not forthcoming. (Later, you accidentally find it behind a concealed door made to look like the paneling beside it, but apparently only a minute, arcane few are party to this information). You end up in a moldy basement with a 30-watt light bulb hanging from the ceiling. People straggle in and talk among themselves. When you get their attention, you are upstaged by strange shrieks and whistles from some unknown source. No one seems to notice the noise but you. When you finally are driven to ask if anyone else hears anything weird, you're told there's a parrot under the table in a cat carrier, but you never find out why. Upstairs, after the sessions end, they are selling books. Yours are there, stacked neatly underneath those belonging to the Writer-Kin-to-Important People whose books are snatched up like Gucci bags marked half of half.

On your long drive home (you were not, of course, offered dinner) you convince yourself that if you could just find that one word, or maybe a one letter nom de plume, your writing career would flourish. Somewhere between hysteria and depression, you try out various sounds as you drive. A? E? I? O? U? Something in the timbre of your voice reminds you of the parrot incident and you pull off the road, stop the car and laugh-no-you howl. Before your next book signing, you decide to take matters into your own hands. You stack the deck with relatives and friends, sending out hundreds of invitations. Some show up, probably out of pity, and buy the nine books the bookstore has generously stocked. When you ask the manager why he didn't order more, he explains haughtily that he did order a dozen, but three had sold the day before. So people won't be disappointed, you end up signing personal copies out of your car trunk in the parking lot in a 45-mile-an-hour gale.

Back at home, you go to the supermarket and someone asks what you are working on now. Wildly, your mind flick back over the hundreds of just started or unfinished files in your computer. Before you can stammer out an answer, she asks about your twin brother, which you don't have, but apparently because you wrote about one in a short story, you should. Hurriedly, you try to conjure up the protagonists in every piece of fiction and poetry you've ever written, hoping you haven't any who sound too depraved. Paranoia sets in. Is everyone pushing their carts to other lines, perhaps speculating that you are really the axe murderer in a mystery you wrote for a tenth grade English assignment?

Sometimes I imagine my friends sorting through my stacks of unpublished manuscripts and boxes of reject slips after my demise. "What on earth was she thinking?" they will ask each other.

My writer friends and I joke about starting a treatment center for people who can't stop writing, but most days I deal with my obsession positively by opening a fresh file and starting another piece.

And during really grim times, there's always the memory of the parrot.


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