William Urban: The perils of publishing – Monmouth Daily Review Atlas

Posted: May 20, 2021 at 5:01 am

William Urban| Daily Review Atlas

Every writer has experienced someone coming up and asking how it feels to be a published author. Locally, one can ask Sue Van Kirk, whose books have done very well. Most of us would say, that if money is the object, there are easier ways to make it. Like mowing lawns.

The truth is that professional writers have to write a lot, and writing is a lot of work. Not many are so lucky as to turn out just the right book at the right time. Bob Hellenga over at Knox College did that, turning his personal and professional experiences during his first year in Florence into a popular book. He died too young, but his books, especially that first one, live on. That must be one of the things that drives us, to create something lasting.

Of course, we know that books dont live forever. Thats why we have libraries book stores clear their shelves once the managers see that books arent moving. Libraries save these books, at least one copy, until it hasnt been checked out for a few decades. As a means of achieving immortality, writing a book is only marginally better than writing poetry.

Moreover, male book authors sitting alone at a bar dont find that mentioning their occupation is a particularly good conversation opener. Poets do better. Perhaps its because young women, who are the traditional focus of western poetry, are more likely to appreciate a sonnet than a weighty tome; perhaps its because poets are more likely to develop an artistic persona dark wavy hair, grubby clothes, mysterious sighs. Writers at least male ones tend to be bald and the sighs reflect recent interactions with publishers and editors. Female writers must be about the same, but fewer are bald.

Somewhere we must mention stimulants. Coffee is probably more common than alcohol, and marijuana seems to induce a what-the-hell attitude unlikely to help getting the manuscript finished. Hemingway drank a lot which might explain why his best works were short stories and short books.

Bottom line: writing is a lot of work, and any writer who is at a bar had better be in Paris like Hemmingway because writers need to concentrate and the French will ignore you, especially if youre an American. For me the best time was lunch in my office. Friends went off for good conversation and a break. (Joining them may be a good strategy for inspiration for an academic novel. It doesnt do much for scholarship.) Every now and then Id have a student come by at that time, so Id set the work aside to talk. I drew the line at playing chess, lest Id lie awake at night with the game in my head, working out what I could have done differently. (If you cant see the board in your head, youre not a serious chess player, just as if you cant remember the paragraph that isnt working, you arent a writer.)

Not many people realize that writing a book is only half the work. Then comes editing. Editors are good people, but slave drivers. They have hard deadlines, too.

There is also the promotion industry. In 1970 I wrote an outline for a novel/play called "The Dean Is Dead." The story took place in an obscure college in the middle of nowhere that was on the absolute bottom of the US News ranking of liberal arts colleges. The dean had hired a recent Ph.D. in Sociology who could not even get an interview elsewhere because he had been a policeman. (1970!) When the dean was found drowned in the college pool, the new hire found himself working with a police chief who had little experience with crime beyond car theft and vandalism. Complications arose when he was attracted to a young colleague who believed that all cops were fascists. (1970!) I finally self-published it in 1995.

It was not a best seller, but I enjoyed writing it, and everyone who read it said that they recognized the personalities on their own campuses. But academics have little tolerance for satire. I have to explain this to promotors who still contact me to offer putting me in contact with publishers, movie producers, and television studio heads. I tell them that I have a sense of humor, but not enough to pay them for their services.

My serious publications, twenty-odd by now, came about because publishers heard of my work somehow and contacted me. So I never underestimate the importance of luck. But luck appears after one writes an article or gives a talk that impresses someone.

Should you write? Short answer if you want to, it would be hard to stop you. And youll love it. Give it a try!

William Urban is the Lee L. Morgan Professor of History and International Studies at Monmouth College.

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William Urban: The perils of publishing - Monmouth Daily Review Atlas

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