Three For The Price Of One

In a recent Q and A in Pittsburgh, Stephen King was asked how he managed to think of the horror plots he comes up with and still live a normal life.

Here’s his (paraphrased) answer:

There are three Stephen Kings. The first is the guy who goes out to his office in the barn every morning. That Stephen King thinks of the plots and writes the stories, but when the writing is done, he stays in the barn. The second Stephen King is the man at home, the guy who still takes out the garbage and whose wife tells him not to go out wearing that shirt. The third Stephen King is the one who goes on the road and does readings and answers questions. When my kids were little, they used to say “Dad’s leaving to be Stephen King again.”

I know exactly what he means.

Now, I can hear your question: “Wait a minute, Kenyon. Your popularity as a writer is as far away from Stephen King’s as earth is from a quasar, so how can you know what he’s talking about?”

The answer is this: Most writers are not going to be able to make their living purely from writing, so they have to find another way to earn money. Quite a few writers go into teaching. It’s a good choice. Why? For many reasons, but one of them is because teaching is a lot like a 15-week Q and A session. And to do it well, the writer has to develop a classroom persona which is akin to the persona a writer has when she goes out to face the reading public.

This persona is vital. If we are completely ourselves, meaning we are the same in front of the classroom audience as we are in our lives, we (and the audience) are in for a rough ride. Whether facing the reading public or the student public, you’re going to be asked the same questions, many times over, and you have to realize that while you may be talking about this book or this subject for the 30th time, the reader/student is hearing it for the first time.

I tend to be very out-going in the classroom. I get pumped up about my subjects, sometimes to the point where I have to rein myself in so I don’t overwhelm the students. I feel the same way when talking about my writing. But I remember one student who took to dropping by my office after class to chat about other topics. After the fourth visit, the student leaned back in the chair, eyed me a bit suspiciously and said, “In here, you’re nothing like you are in the classroom. You’re more laid-back. Less, you know, energetic.”

I couldn’t and didn’t argue. In everyday life, the Joseph Kenyon who takes out the garbage and whose wife tells him not to wear that shirt is passionate about what he writes and teaches, but he also is someone who likes his solitude. This is the entire premise behind my novel All The Living And The Dead: The brash and out-going student vs. the quiet and introspective professor. Which one am I? Both. And neither.

I don’t say that to be coy. Human beings are complex creatures, and if each of us is to be the most complete human being we can be, then we have to find a balance between the parts of ourselves. Each of us is the writer – our internal selves; the person – our friends and family selves; and the persona – our professional selves. Knowing which person to bring out in which situation is the key to keeping all three in balance or all three balls in the air. When one starts to bleed into the other – when we bring our personal lives into the professional, or our writer lives dominate the other two aspects – we get into trouble.

Still, in every encounter, every action, we offer pieces of ourselves to others. If you are a regular reader of my blog, then you see a piece of me that is as genuine and true as the piece of me my students see in the classroom or that my friends see at a party. The phrase “Getting to know” someone involves taking these pieces that another person gives us and fitting them into the puzzle. Each piece we add brings us closer to the total picture of that person. If we like what the big picture is becoming, we build a relationship and keep plugging in the pieces. If we don’t like what the picture is turning out to be, we stop.

But if we see a piece or two and assume we know the whole person, then we’re headed for either a great misunderstanding or great disappointment. Or both.

A Beggar’s Confession

I’m a beggar.

No, I’m not homeless. I have a job that allows me to pay my bills and live my life mostly the way I want to live it.

But I do a fair amount of begging because, well, as of April, I’m a published novelist.

Please don’t read that as a complaint but more a fascination with the way publishing – and society at large – has changed.

It used to be that novelists were among the nobility. They wrote the words, and a publishing house did the rest. That house not only published the book but also hired people to do the publicity, set up the tours, and market the book. In other words, the publisher took care of the grubby work.

That freed the novelist to show up at signings and readings, answer questions, and move on. Tours of this nature could be grueling but not out-of-pocket. I attended a lot of readings by famous and not–so-famous authors and even the not-so-famous writers admitted that they had varying degrees of help in booking and executing these tours.

While some of that old structure still exists in the larger publishing houses, I notice that friends and acquaintances who publish through those houses are doing a lot more marketing these days than they used to. And if you publish through an indie publisher, then you become your own marketing-PR-cheerleading team (unless you have a loving partner or someone who owes you a lot of money).

Now, I’m the first to admit that novelists had it easy for a long, long time. Poets hardly got the same treatment, even when poetry was king. Musicians played a lot of honky-tonk places or busked in the streets and had to schlep their own instruments to boot. I’m sure avant-garde performance art had a bit of marketing behind it: No one wants to see your paintings? Show a canvas on the street while lighting your pants on fire.

Today, however, this sort of begging has been re-branded brilliantly so that it’s not only socially acceptable but expected. We call it crowdsourcing.

Many artists are turning to this nouveau way to underwrite their ventures, but they aren’t alone. Pretty much any endeavor which has seen its funding dry up (and that’s pretty much any job under the level of corporate officer or professional athlete) now asks others in the community — real and virtual — to help fill in the funding gap.

Just two or three generations ago, this idea would have been unthinkable, even if the technology had existed to support it.

There is a legendary story in my family about my grandfather who was so adamant about not accepting “charity” that he wouldn’t sign up to receive his social security. My mother tried to explain to him that it was his money, that he had paid into the system for 20 years and that he was just getting it back. He refused.

So, one day while she was having him sign other paperwork concerning his retirement, she slipped the form in and told him it was an insurance form (not technically a lie, as the program’s real name is Social Security Insurance). My grandfather signed it.

When the checks began to arrive, he refused to cash them and he refused to talk to my mother. Eventually, he got over it, as have we all.

What would he make of me, I wonder? I’m the grandson who has spent much of his free time since April hounding family and colleagues, life-long friends and new virtual friends to buy his book. I’m about to beg some more, asking these same kind and open-handed people to review the book on Amazon, Goodreads, Barnes and Noble, or any other site, virtual or real.

A part of me likes this new, wild-west world where I get to publish (and beg) with a lot more input than writers of a bygone era got, but I also have some of my grandfather in me, some small voice that says “you know, Kenyon, there’s something unseemly and unmanly about asking people to spend their time and money for your benefit.”

That voice isn’t loud enough to stop me from doing it, but the voice is prompting me to write this next sentence: To my family and friends, those near and far-flung, I apologize if I’ve said or done anything to make you buy a book you really didn’t want to buy or to spend time reading a book you really didn’t want to read. I am very, very sorry. And even more thankful and appreciative.

But since what’s done is done, if you could see your way clear to write a review of that book, I’d be immensely grateful.