October 15, 2008

"A book is something you write in order to get you to where you're going."

Writes Penelope Trunk:
If you have nowhere to go, a book will insure that you stay where you are: Lost.

People use books like law school. They think if they have some piece of paper – a degree, a contract – then people will respect them and then they'll respect themselves. But self-respect comes from having some sort of vision for one's life and heading in that direction. And there is no one who can give you that vision – you have to give it to yourself, and before you can feel like you have direction, you have to feel lost — and lost is okay.

So stop with the idea that you need a book. Most people who think they need a book deal probably need to answer the question: What will I be doing two years after that book? Do you really need the book to get where you want to go? Probably not.
And yet Penelope Trunk wrote a book. What's going on there?

Disclosure: Past history of Penelope Trunk and me not getting each other.


bleeper said...

You can insure that? State Farm? Geico?

MadisonMan said...

Do as I say, not as I do.

Ann Althouse said...

She's saying (in so many words) that she has vision and is heading in the right direction.

bleeper said...

She should use standard English next time.

Christopher in MA said...

"No man save a blockhead ever wrote anything except for money," said Samuel Johnson.

Works for me.

bill said...

Neal Stephenson, slashdot interview, discussing the difference between "Beowulf" and "Dante" writers:

To set it up, a brief anecdote: a while back, I went to a writers' conference. I was making chitchat with another writer, a critically acclaimed literary novelist who taught at a university. She had never heard of me. After we'd exchanged a bit of of small talk, she asked me "And where do you teach?" just as naturally as one Slashdotter would ask another "And which distro do you use?"

I was taken aback. "I don't teach anywhere," I said.

Her turn to be taken aback. "Then what do you do?"

"I'm...a writer," I said. Which admittedly was a stupid thing to say, since she already knew that.

"Yes, but what do you do?"

I couldn't think of how to answer the question---I'd already answered it!

"You can't make a living out of being a writer, so how do you make money?" she tried.

"From...being a writer," I stammered.

At this point she finally got it, and her whole affect changed. She wasn't snobbish about it. But it was obvious that, in her mind, the sort of writer who actually made a living from it was an entirely different creature from the sort she generally associated with.

[...]But there is a cultural difference between these two types of writers, rooted in to whom they are accountable, and it explains what MosesJones is complaining about. Beowulf writers and Dante writers appear to have the same job, but in fact there is a quite radical difference between them---hence the odd conversation that I had with my fellow author at the writer's conference. Because she'd never heard of me, she made the quite reasonable assumption that I was a Dante writer---one so new or obscure that she'd never seen me mentioned in a journal of literary criticism, and never bumped into me at a conference. Therefore, I couldn't be making any money at it. Therefore, I was most likely teaching somewhere. All perfectly logical. In order to set her straight, I had to let her know that the reason she'd never heard of me was because I was famous.

Palladian said...

"Just don't take any course where they make you read Beowulf."

George M. Spencer said...

If you want to write a book, write it.

Do it for the fun, not to make money.

As a law professor and prominent blogger, you have the "platform" from which you may attract an agent and thereby a publisher. If you get a deal, understand that the book would be a "billboard" to promote your existing businesses as professor, legal consultant (?), and blogger. You should not expect to make more than low five figures no matter what you write about, unless the book's title is....

"The Lady Lawyer's Diet
(The Sue-the-Fat-Off-Your-Thighs Guide to Love and Life)."

Seriously. There would be money in that. Ask Prof. Reynolds how his "Army of Davids" sex book did.

rhhardin said...

But self-respect comes from having some sort of vision for one's life and heading in that direction.

Write a self-help book!

Swifty Quick said...

Just don't take any course where they make you read Beowulf."

In 1967 as an eighteen-year-old college freshman my very first college assignment in the very first college class I ever set foot into was to read Beowulf. The class was Survey of English Literature.

bleeper said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Wince said...

P Trunk used to write a column over at Yahoo! Finance until she got mercilessly called-out by readers.

In sum, she took what ever was happening at the time in her little free-lance writer mom world and tried to package it as an insight into a "trend" in the economy.

So, let me guess: a P Trunk book proposal was just widely declined by publishers.

NotWhoIUsedtoBe said...

I got a degree and wrote a book. She's right. It's meaningless unless it does something for you. When the damn thing sells or I get a better job they'll be worth something. I like how she dances around money. "Getting where you're going" is financial success. So, it's "Ha! I'm successful!"

LOL at the Neal Stephenson story. I know which kind of writer I'd rather be. I'm not writing for literary critics. I don't crave their respect. I crave money to pay the mortgage.

I'd buy an Althouse book. Might have to stop blogging so much to write it. My book kicked me off the internet for five or six months. I think that was good for everyone.

bleeper said...

So long as Prof. Reynolds never publishs a book of his "photography" our retinas will be safe.

A book of Miss Ann's photos would be fine, if she omits the photos taken with a fish-eye lens.

Richard Dolan said...

Trunk is writing about (and for) a certain kind of annoying person we've all met along the way, and that she seems to know well. Perhaps someone like herself.

PT: "So stop with the idea that you need a book."

Sounds right to me, not that I ever thought I "need[ed] a book." Or a law review article, for that matter. If such things weren't required for tenure, the world would be spared a lot of writing (to say nothing of footnotes) that no one will ever read. I wonder if the student editors ask themselves whether it's worth it to put in all that effort (all those footnotes) to publish articles that no one even wants to read.

PT: "People use books like law school." Certainly, the student editors use law reviews that way, which explains why the major law schools all publish multiple law reviews. A credential for everyone, which seems to be the main purpose of the exercise. Not exactly what Trunk has in mind in saying that they have "some piece of paper" that lets them "respect themselves." But close enough.

Ann: "She's saying (in so many words) that she has vision and is heading in the right direction."
Earlier in the same article, Trunk suggests that writing a book, and waiting two years or more for it to be published, hardly makes sense anymore -- put the ideas in a blog, and get instant feedback (assuming that others are reading and commenting on it, of course) along with whatever benefits come from having a successful blog. Less risk and effort, with a greater chance of having one's efforts rewarded (however measured).

Trunk's book seems to be about advice to those who want to advance a career. Putting the pieces together, I think what Trunk is saying is that publishing her book was part of her effort to advance her own career. Whether it worked, I don't know (having never heard of her before Ann's post). But she does say that it's not a great strategy. Perhaps she came to her current views after putting all that effort into writing her book, and saw what it really got her.

Smilin' Jack said...

There are already more good books out there than anyone could read in a dozen lifetimes. What's the point of adding more to the pile?

Paddy O said...

I wrote a book.

After writing the book, I got a girlfriend/fiancee, who was attracted to what I had to say and pursued me more, which led to increased interaction.

I spoke at Duke at a major academic conference, on a major theologian who sat in the front row as I spoke and liked what I said, and we've stayed in contact.

I was accepted to a PhD program even though I spent the last five years outside of academia. And they gave me a full scholarship to cover tuition.

Haven't made a lot of direct income from writing a book. But, I'd say that writing a book helped transform my life and led to a whole lot of other opportunities.

Course, I wrote a book that came out of a vision and direction. I wasn't lost at all, though some might have assumed I was, especially when I was still writing the book.

blake said...

Too many books.

Aren't most Dante writers failed Beowulf writers?

Benjamin Bach said...

"I'd say that writing a book helped transform my life and led to a whole lot of other opportunities. "


Writing opens opportunities. For very few, it will create enough income to live off of. For most who are succesful from their books, it's because their books opened a door to something else. I know many entrepreneurs, myself included, who have benefited from writing info and giving it away for free.

Think of it as a blog, that's been packaged as a pdf e-book or a print book

Synova said...

In 1967 as an eighteen-year-old college freshman my very first college assignment in the very first college class I ever set foot into was to read Beowulf. The class was Survey of English Literature.

Heh. ;-)

My freshman English was all "how to write a paper in your Engineering class," so no Beowulf. I read Beowulf after I bought a box full of my cousin's college books. There were two translations and one was actually nicely readable. It's a great story.

I like the Neal Stephenson story. He's one of my husband's favorite authors.

Me? I'd love to do what he's done. And I know that the "right people" won't be impressed even if I do. And I don't care. I can make up stories in my head all day long. If my goal isn't to sell a story, why do all the work involved to write it up, rewrite, and care about doing it well? Few writers are as successful as Stephenson and have a day job even when they are considered successful. Even if I'm never making lots of money, money is still the goal.

DaLawGiver said...

Neal Stephenson is my kind of writer. Thanks for the excerpt bill.

Jim Howard said...

My friend Rob is just a regular guy who was the music department manager at our local bookstore until he wrote a very successful book that has changed his life and that of his family for the the better.

Steve Dublanica was a waiter until he turned his blog into a book, and now he's on Oprah!

I think that writing a good book can really change one's life for the better.

Celia Hayes said...

Oh, good lord - you write a book to tell a story or something like it. Me, I've written two of them so far, with a trilogy of historic novels about the Texas Hill Country coming out in December. (which would put me at five books, and counting, because I have plans for another trilogy.) It's called the Adelsverein Trilogy, if anyone cares to take note. The first two are on Amazon already, but they aren't available until December.

You write books because you have to write books, you have something to say that's more complicated and takes longer to explore than a post on a blog, and because you have plans to intrigue and enthrall more than just your immediate family and friends. (Making a bit of money at it would be nice, but not absolutely essential.) It's like those salmon going upstream or whatever. You write because you are a writer - nothing more esoteric than that.

blake said...

This guy has a book deal. A story to tell, some might say. A stern warning of future peril, mayhap.

Or just a bunch of douchebags with hot chicks.