Thursday, December 26, 2013

Fast Fiction Equals Fast Food?

As the year winds down, I've been thinking a bit about my writing career lately, as well as the state of publishing in general.  I suppose waxing philosophical is only natural at this time of year.  In any case, it led me to reread one of the sections in my memoir in which I compare fast food with fast fiction.  I'd elaborate further, but then, I might as well just post the chapter.  So in any case, happy holidays to everyone, and here is the aforementioned chapter from Memoirs of a Starving Artist: 

Fast Fiction Equals Fast Food?

 Everything I needed to know about how to make it as an independent author I learned from the very first self-published success stories.  Authors who made it big in this new paradigm, such as million-selling paranormal writer Amanda Hocking or mystery writer John Locke, did the same things.  As I mentioned earlier, they picked a popular genre, created a recognizable brand, and cranked out books with incredible speed.  Without the same massive overhead, they were also able to undercut the traditional publishers on price.
In the years since these two writers set the publishing world on fire and marked the beginnings of an ebook revolution, many other authors have found self-publishing success of their own.  Few have achieved the blockbuster sales levels of Hocking or Locke, but numerous writers are generating comfortable six-figure annual incomes.  All of them, by and large, follow the same strategies listed above.  Some write erotica, others sci-fi, romance or mystery.  These authors tend to put out a new book every two to four months.  One such author wrote her first-ever book in 2012.  Within one year she’d written and uploaded fifteen full-length romance novels and earned more than $100,000.  That’s roughly one new novel written, edited and uploaded every three weeks without a break.  Another successful thriller writer wrote and published 27 novels in 36 months.  The pace is simply astonishing. 
All of this points to a literary landscape that is changing in numerous ways, though even before this ebook revolution, plenty of authors made their living by writing what used to be known as pulp fiction.  Back in the 1950s and 60s, these were the cheap, disposable novels of the day.  Some were erotica, others sci-fi, romance, mystery or “noir.”  They were churned out quickly without much heed to quality.  It led novelists as far back as the 1940s to grapple with some of the same issues that I struggle with today.  Italo Calvino, my favorite Italian novelist, wrote to his friend Silvio Micheli in 1946:

I know you get through tons of writing a day, that you write novels with plots, with incest-plots, crime-plots, hot novels, lukewarm novels, novels with hot and cold running water. This fills me with envy because I’m still here just wasting time.

…I’ve started a novel too: I wrote four pages in a week. Weeks go by in which I can’t even add a comma, whole days are spent wondering whether in that sentence going up is better than ascending.

Is there room for such philosophical novelists in today’s publishing environment?  The prospect of spending a year or two working on a novel of substance seems like a dwindling luxury.  If Calvino struggled with these pressures even in his day, how would he have reacted to the current environment?  In another letter, this time to Eugenio Scalfari, Calvino wrote:

All the ideas currently in my head are subject to a strange phenomenon: while I work on them and perfect them continuously from the philosophical point of view, they stay rudimentary and barely sketched on the dramatic and artistic side. In my creativity thought has the upper hand over imagination.

This concept is the exact opposite of most books on the market today, where imagination has the upper hand and philosophical thought is virtually non-existent.  After all, how much thought could really go into a book written in three weeks?  Or even in eight?  There are exceptions no doubt, but in general these are not thoughtfully considered, carefully crafted works.  This is stream-of-consciousness flung out onto the page.
These days, literary works are still the domain of the traditional publishing industry.  They simply don’t do well as self-published books.  They take too long to write, can’t be easily branded and aren’t part of a popular genre.  A self-published literary novel is likely to disappear in the flood of new content and never be noticed by anyone at all.   At the same time, as publishing houses become more risk averse, literary novelists are finding themselves in an increasingly perilous position.
A number of concrete, specific market forces are currently working in favor of genre fiction and against literary novels.  These are only in part related to ebooks.  One issue is that publishers make nearly all of their profits from a few bestsellers.  It is the J.K. Rowlings and the James Pattersons who grease the skids of the publishing industry.  Typically these bestselling mega-authors bring in the money that the publishing houses use to fund smaller projects they believe in.  Profits from the latest Dan Brown novel might go toward publishing a whole slew of literary novels that the publisher is willing to take a chance on.  With pressure on the entire publishing industry, this is becoming less common as the publishers expend more of their energy searching instead for the next big thing.  They want to find “franchises” that can guarantee an oversized return.  They are desperately searching for the next Harry Potter or Twilight or Hunger Games.  They have less time for the small literary novel that probably won’t sell anyway.
Part of the reason for this shift in dynamic is that thousands of bookstores have gone out of business in the U.S. in the last ten years.  This has two effects.  First, with fewer bookstores there are fewer bookstore clerks personally recommending their favorite new books to readers who might otherwise never find them.  Second, with fewer bookstores around, many readers buy their books at discount stores like Wal-Mart, or drugstores like CVS.  These outlets don’t want literary novels.  They’re not interested in the books themselves, like a bookseller would be.  These stores are simply trying to move product, and that means genre novels; romances, perhaps some sci-fi and fantasy, and all of the bestsellers.
Yet another reason for the downfall of literary fiction is the decline in newspapers as a source of information.  Numerous newspapers across the country are declaring bankruptcy and going out of business.  Those that survive are downsizing.  They are eliminating as many daily sections as they can to reduce costs.  One of the first sections to go in many papers is the book review section.  In the old paradigm, book publishers sent the novels they believed in to newspapers for reviews that could make or break an author.  Now the number of newspapers that are willing to publish book reviews is shrinking dramatically.  If readers can’t go to bookstores for recommendations and can’t find them in their local newspaper, where do they go?  Perhaps to the internet where new book review blogs are popping up all the time, though most of these concentrate on popular fiction.  Genre novels.
On an indie writers forum not long ago, the question was posed as to how Ernest Hemingway might have reacted if he’d come of age in our time.  I can’t help but wonder if there’d be room for him at all.  If publishers did take a chance on his stories, it would probably be for less than a living wage, with little to no promotion.  His novels don’t portend the best-seller potential most publishing houses are looking for, yet for Hemingway the indie option seems even less likely.  Ernest Hemingway churning out genre fiction?  I think he might have shot himself a whole lot sooner.
Publishers now compete with indie authors to give the reading public what it wants, and increasingly that seems to be books that provide a quick and easy escape.  In many ways, fast fiction equals fast food.  Just consider for a moment which restaurant is the most popular in the world.  Is it the best restaurant?  Is it even good at all?  I won’t answer that last one, but hands down the most popular restaurant in the world is McDonalds.  The reasons are fairly simple.  It is cheap, it is easy, and people know what to expect.  There are no bad surprises when you go to McDonalds.  You probably won’t love it, but you probably won’t hate it either.  You can be comfortable knowing what to expect.  It is unlikely to provide you with a healthy, balanced meal, but it will fill you up.
Consumers often react to books in much the same way.  They are not usually looking to take chances.  These risk-averse readers aren’t particularly interested in thought-provoking works.  They are not in the market for books that bite and sting.  As Kafka would say, most readers want books that will make them happy instead of searching for that ax to break the frozen seas within them.  They are searching for something that is familiar and that will make them feel better.
Again, branding has much to do with this equation.  Just like with McDonalds, readers want some assurance that what they are about to buy and read is something they will be comfortable with.  They also want to be in on the next big thing.  They want to be part of the public conversation and know first-hand what everyone else is talking about.  Big name authors who have generated this brand-recognition sell whatever they come out with, whether it is any good or not.  When J.K. Rowling released her latest novel, A Cuckoo’s Calling, she opted to use a pen name, to see what it would feel like to be a typical, anonymous writer without the pressure and expectations that came along with her notoriety.  The book still had a major publishing house behind it, along with a moderate marketing push.  In the ten weeks that the secret held, she managed to sell about 7,500 copies across all platforms.  Shortly before the secret was revealed, according to the online tracking website Novel Rank, the book was sitting at around 35,000th on the Amazon bestseller list.  Once the news leaked that Rowling had actually written the book, it shot up to number one overnight.  This after her previous book, The Casual Vacancy, was generally panned by readers and critics alike.  That book was a number one bestseller, too, primarily because J.K. Rowling is the most recognizable brand in fiction today.
        All of this leaves me with the question of where to take my own writing career from here.  I have a literary novel in mind but after all these years, maybe it is time to forget about changing the world for the time being.  I haven’t proven to be very good at that anyway, and besides, I need to survive.  I’ve got to do whatever it takes to get by.  One thing that I have come to accept is that I don’t have the talent for greatness.  If I did I’d have reached it by now.  I do still think that I have the ability to spin an entertaining yarn if I set my mind to it.  Maybe I’ll never win the National Book Award, but I can still aspire toward writing novels to be proud of, with well-developed characters and interesting plots.  Some writers of pulp fiction carved out relatively distinguished careers for themselves.  There was Dashiell Hammett, for instance, or Philip K. Dick.  The ranks of today’s self-published novelists are just as likely to deliver some authors of note.  At least it is something worth striving for. 
        If this sounds a little bit like rationalizing the abandonment of a dream, perhaps it is in part.  After 25 years, reality is hard to escape.  Maybe I’ve given up on changing the world but I still haven’t given up on writing.  As I wrap up this memoir, the wheels in my head are already in motion, formulating a romantic series about a group of young adults coming of age in the city.  Los Angeles?  San Francisco?  I’m not sure yet, but I will write it as quickly as I can.  If things go well, perhaps I will finally be able to support myself from my writing, not just in some inexpensive city halfway around the world, but in the city of my choosing, wherever that may be.  It is one decision I long to face.  

Thursday, December 19, 2013

Umm... thanks?

Anyone who stops by this blog from time to time knows that I came out with a new book last month, Memoirs of a Starving Artist.  I've worked away at marketing and promoting it, though sales have been modest.  Up until yesterday I'd sold about 15 ebook copies, mostly to friends and family.  I'd also sold four paperback copies, all to one close family friend.  Today I checked my paperback sales report and it says that I've sold 20 paperback copies in the past 24-hours.  ???  My natural reaction is to think that this must be some mistake.  I can't help but expect that those sales will vanish once the computer error is discovered.  Still, part of me is very cautiously hopeful that it might actually be true.  Perhaps just due to a lag in reporting?  From overseas sales?  In any case, if anyone out there reading this did actually buy a copy, I just wanted to convey my most heartfelt appreciation!  I hope you like the book!  And if those sales do all disappear, I'll stop back here for an update. :-)

Update: I've noticed that ten of these sales were to the same buyer.  At the same time, Amazon says on the books' product page that there are "Ten left in stock."  So I guess they are warehousing them and counting it as a sale on my report?  That still doesn't account for the ten other individual sales.  It's still a mystery to me...

Update #2: I'm thinking now that all 20 sales were just Amazon ordering the books to stock them in the warehouse.  It's a bit funny for a book that has only sold 4 copies to date, but I'm not complaining!

Saturday, December 7, 2013

Struggling through... some rain.

As people in most of the U.S. are doing their best to survive a brutal cold snap, here in California things aren't so bad.  At least not in So Cal!  Mammoth Lakes in the Sierra Nevada currently has a temp of 6 degrees Fahrenheit (-14 Celsius) but here in Laguna Beach we're managing through an afternoon of 59 F (15 C) and rain.  It could be worse.  Actually, it is ideal writing weather.  I already got out to play soccer in the morning before the rain moved in and now I can put on some tea, a bit of music, and settle in to pound out some words.  Really, what more could a writer ask for? :-)

Monday, December 2, 2013

Congratulations to the winner!

Happy December everyone and congratulations to Mercedes F., the winner of the giveaway for one paperback copy of Memoirs of a Starving Artist.  I hope all of the Americans out there had a nice Thanksgiving holiday weekend!

Thursday, November 21, 2013

Paperback Giveaway

This week I'm giving away a paperback copy of my new memoir through Goodreads.  One winner in the United States (sorry foreign readers!) will get a copy of the book.  Sign up here:

Goodreads Book Giveaway

Memoirs of a Starving Artist by Kenneth Rosenberg

Memoirs of a Starving Artist

by Kenneth Rosenberg

Giveaway ends November 30, 2013.
See the giveaway details at Goodreads.
Enter to win

Friday, November 15, 2013

Memoir Now Available!

Woo, hoo, it is finally up and available!  My new book, Memoirs of a Starving Artist: An Itinerant Writer's Journey through an Unconventional Life, is now live on Amazon and Barnes and Noble as an ebook and on Createspace as a paperback.  This book has been quite some time in coming, but I'm excited to get it out there.  Now of course I'll have to see the response...  Because this one is a memoir and not a novel, it is obviously quite a bit more personal for me, so any reviewers out there go easy! ;-)  Just kidding, really, but for anyone who does download it, I hope you like it!

Monday, November 11, 2013

Memoir Monday - Last Installment!

And so here we are, ten weeks into Memoir Monday, where I've posted the introduction and one chapter per week of my latest book, Memoirs of a Starving Artist.  I hope you've enjoyed following these adventures as much as I enjoyed writing them up.  This week marks the last installment here on the blog, but have no fear, the rest of the book will be available through Amazon and elsewhere starting this Friday!  Woo hoo!  In the meantime, here it is, the grand finale of Memoir Monday:

Chapter Nine – On Beauty and Commerce

By now driving solo across the country was almost routine.  This was the fourth time I’d done it.  Five and a half days on the road.  I felt like Kerouac and Cassady, racking up the miles in an incessant search for truth and meaning.  When I arrived in San Francisco I spent the first night with Carlos and his girlfriend Bridget at their apartment in the Marina District.  The next morning Carlos took me across the Golden Gate Bridge and down through the sleepy, quaint town of Sausalito to my new home, a 38-foot trawler with two staterooms, two heads, a galley, TV, stereo; the works.  As he showed me around, Carlos opened a cabinet and pulled out a bottle of red wine.
“If you ever get a girl back to the boat and you need some wine, you can drink this.  In case of emergencies,” he said.
“Let’s hope I need it,” I laughed.  Over the next few weeks I quickly settled into my new home.  I’d work on the teak for a few hours a day and then write.  I started a script about a pretty, determined girl dealing with the moral and practical conflicts of trying to succeed in the male-dominated world of military aviation.  I wrote a short story about a middle-aged surfer rediscovering the sport and sent it to Surfer Magazine.  I came up with an idea for a script about three of twenty-something guys in LA who go around sneaking into fancy parties.  One night they hop the fence of a Hollywood mansion and find themselves at an A-list engagement party.  The shy guy falls in love with a bridesmaid just before they are thrown out on the street.  Now they must find a way to crash the wedding itself or he may never see her again.
This last script was going to be the one, I was sure.  I could tell I had a winner on my hands.  If I didn’t have the talent to tell a story of depth and insight, then so be it.  Maybe trying to change the world with my writing was simply more than I was capable of in the end.  I still had it in me to spin an entertaining yarn.  By this point I simply wanted to make a living, period.  I was tired of all of the struggle and disappointment.  I would stop trying to write dramas about fraternity boys suffering from alienation.  I would tell a simple tale of love and innocent hijinx.  I called this latest script The A-List and slowly but surely worked out the details and put it all on paper.  In the meantime I made the most of my surroundings.  One of my best friends from college was also living across the bridge in the city.  Joe and I spent weekends watching UCLA games and heading out to Irish pubs.  Writing is such an isolating exercise that having good friends around is an imperative to remain centered and happy.  With Joe and Carlos in the same city it felt a little bit like home.
On days when I didn’t feel like writing I explored what San Francisco had to offer on my own, strolling through Chinatown or Fisherman’s Wharf.  One afternoon I headed over to the Legion of the Palace of Honor, an art museum located in a tree-shaded park overlooking the Golden Gate Bridge.  This architectural splendor is an imitation of a French palace and its stunning location does justice to the impressive collection within.  August Rodin’s famous sculpture of The Thinker sits in the courtyard forever pondering the passersby.  I managed to make it over for my first look on the monthly free day.
Given the price, I was surprised to find few other people in the museum on this morning.  The wood floors and spacious interior add to a homey feel and I took my time, enjoying the ambiance as I wandered around looking at paintings by the Dutch Masters, the Impressionists, and a few modern Americans.  In the very center was a round room lit by skylights and containing an assortment of smaller Rodin sculptures.  As I turned from one to another I heard a zip, zip, zip sound coming from behind me.  In my peripheral vision I saw that someone else was in the room.  Again, zip zip zip, zip zip zip zip.  I turned my head ever so slightly to take in a girl walking past.  She appeared to be in her early-20’s, with bleached blonde hair and a pretty, round face.  She wore baggy nylon pants and as she walked her legs rubbed together and made the zip zip noise.
I looked from the girl, to the sculpture, and back to the girl.  “Rodin may have done some wonderful work,” I thought, “but he’s got nothing on her.”  My pulse quickened.  I tried to concentrate on the artwork but by now I couldn’t help sneak another glimpse or two of this girl.  She wore shiny purple sneakers on her feet, the blue nylon pants and a tight gray hooded sweatshirt.  Her wavy blonde hair was held together at the back by an elastic band with clear plastic stars, filled with water and glitter.  Before long she disappeared down a corridor.  “ZIP ZIP Zip Zip zip...” The sound faded away.  “Ah well, the art will have to do,” I thought.  Twenty minutes later, there she was again taking in a room full of 19th-century paintings.
It was obvious that the girl was alone.  The prospect of actually talking to her crossed my mind.  This seemed reasonable enough in theory, yet getting up the nerve to initiate a conversation proved daunting.  We moved around the room, the girl bouncing joyfully from one picture to the next, until we stood side by side in front of an unusual painting; a dour-looking woman staring out in hatred from the canvas.  The perfect picture to comment on.  And I stood there.  And the girl stood there.  We were both equally aware of one another, yet no words came out of my mouth.  “Talk to her!” I thought in desperation.  And she walked on into the next room.  I was hot on her heels.
We both headed slowly through this last room and toward the exit, giving each other quick, furtive glances as we went.  I walked out the door and into the sunshine, expecting her to follow.  When I turned around she was nowhere to be seen.  “Uh oh,” I realized in a panic, “She is still inside and now I’ve left, and she knows it.  It’s all over!  I’m finished!”  I continued walking on out to the front garden where I stood in disbelief.
“Damn, I blew it!”  I considered the possibilities shattered.  Admittedly I knew very little about this girl, but she’d seemed so happy and carefree.  She was interested in art.  That counted for a lot, in and of itself.  If only I’d spoken to her when I had the chance!  Now I’d never know what might have been.  I would beat myself up over this for days.  It had happened to me time and again.  I’d be captivated by a girl I’d seen somewhere in public; on a train, at a coffeehouse or at the beach.  I’d contemplate a way to approach her, running options through my mind.  I’d consider the perfect opening line.  Sometimes I’d manage to follow through, but more often I’d simply freeze and let the opportunity pass me by.  In most of these cases, I’d spend the next several days thinking over what had gone wrong.  In my mind, the girl would always be my perfect match.  They were always my soul mates with whom I would have found everlasting happiness, if only I hadn’t blown it in one way or another.  I couldn’t face the prospect of going through that again.  Even if it meant humiliating myself, I had to talk to this girl in the museum.  If she shot me down she would be doing me a huge favor; keeping me from obsessing over her for days on end.
I hesitantly made my way back inside and then quickly scoured the entire upper floor.  She was nowhere to be found.  I made my way downstairs and looked left, then right.  I moved around to the very last room, and there she was, staring into a glass wall case near the restrooms.  When she saw me, I sensed an immediate awareness in her eyes.  Was she pleased?  I couldn’t tell.  I stood at the next case over.  “Ok,” I thought to myself again, trying to rally my courage.  “Now or never.”  I walked straight toward her.  As I drew near she turned and walked toward me.  Our glances met and she barely contained a laugh before putting her head down and moving past with only a few feet separating us.  Just then the door to the woman’s restroom flew open, stopping an inch short of the girl’s nose as another woman hurried out.  My girl stumbled backwards in shock.
“Wow, that almost got you!”  I finally managed to get some words out.  After so much stress and strategizing, I’d broken the ice.  At least it was something.
“Yeah, that was a close one!” the girl answered.  We both turned to head toward the stairs.
“You have an interesting accent,” I said, pressing my advantage.
“I’m Australian,” she replied, “but I live in London.”
“That’s funny, I was just in Australia.”
We chatted all the way out and by the time we stood in the garden together it felt like we were already fast friends.  A wave of relief washed over me.  I’d actually done it.
“What’s your name?” I asked.
“Serendipity,” she replied.
“Isn’t that funny…”
Serendipity was visiting friends in Oakland and had no set agenda.  Of course I was more than happy to show her around.  We headed to Height Street for lunch.  First time fish tacos for the girl from London and then we wandered the Height-Ashbury neighborhood, poking our heads into the funky shops to take a peek at everything from shoes to feather boas.
“Ohh, I’ve got a pair just like those at home,” she said pointing to some thigh-high black leather boots.
“I’d like to see you in them,” I replied with a sly grin.  Was it too much?  Apparently not, as Serendipity smiled flirtatiously in return.  This was promising.  We’d gone from being complete strangers to what was beginning to feel like so much more than friends in the blink of an eye.  I tried not to read too much into it.  That was a surefire pretext for disappointment, but I knew that I liked this girl.  There was something infectious about her effervescent optimism.  Even just walking down the street Serendipity had a spring in her step, as though she were dancing her way through life, embracing it to the fullest.
In the later afternoon we headed over to the botanical garden in Golden Gate Park.  A big wrought-iron gate out front was closed and locked tight.  We were twenty minutes too late.  Serendipity held onto two of the iron posts, staring into the garden on the other side.
“Too bad we missed it,” she said.
“Yeah, it’s a shame,” I answered.  I gathered my courage and put my hands on either side of her waist, testing the waters.  Serendipity turned her head, beaming broadly.  She let go of the gate and spun to face me.
“What will we do now?” she asked.
“I don’t know,” I answered.  The tension was palpable.  Two strangers in the city, filled with loneliness and desire.  I leaned forward slowly to kiss her and Serendipity wrapped her arms around me.  We stood in front of the garden, locked in an embrace.
“How about sunset at the beach?” I asked.
“Sounds wonderful.”

That evening we drove across the Golden Gate Bridge.  I turned off at a lookout on the Marin County side and pulled into a parking space.  The sky was dark and all of the lights of the city were lit up gloriously before us.  Serendipity slid across the bench seat of my pickup and leaned back into my arms.  Entranced by the view, we sat and talked.  Serendipity was a waitress back in London.  She loved techno music, rave parties, and dancing all night.  She wore glitter makeup, changed her hair color monthly, and had an affinity for Hello Kitty.  This was a girl who seemed worldly beyond her years on one hand yet clung to the trappings of childhood innocence on the other.  Mostly she was all about freedom, to live her life how she wanted no matter what.
From the overlook it was only a short drive down the hill to the marina, where I’d offered to give her a tour of the boat.  When we came on board I remembered Carlos’ emergency bottle.  I opened the cabinet and pulled it out.  “Some wine?” I asked her.
“Marvelous,” said Serendipity.  “Let’s go sit up top and drink it there.”
I grabbed a few warm jackets to ward off the winter chill, two glasses and an opener.  We climbed up to the fly bridge and settled in on a settee beneath the star-filled sky, surrounded by the light specked hills of Tiburon and Sausalito.  There could hardly have been a more romantic spot on earth.  It seemed clear that Serendipity would spend the night.  The signs were all there, in the way that she cuddled up to me with one hand on my thigh.  In the gleam in her eyes when I gave her a light kiss.  We’d come together somehow in the mad, chaotic world and for this one little moment in time there was nothing that could tear us apart.

Late that night in the stateroom below, Serendipity slept peacefully beneath the sheets beside me, her warm body banishing the usual loneliness that was my life on the boat.  I should have been happy.  I should have felt content, but I couldn’t keep my mind from contemplating the fleeting transience of youth.  I was ten years older than her and felt every bit of it.  Serendipity was living the most glorious years of her life; wild and young, beautiful and free.  But I knew that eventually her youth would go and her beauty would fade.  Where would she be when she reached her 30’s?  I don’t know why I was worrying so much about her but I couldn’t seem to help it.  When I finally fell asleep myself I dreamt that Serendipity was applying for a flight attendant’s training course and crying because she just didn’t want to do it.  Perhaps it was my own unfulfilled promise that was haunting me.  She had no focus in life, but I was the one who knew firsthand where that could lead.  Or at least what could happen when dreams did not come true.  Without any real dreams at all, I worried that she was setting herself up for a failure of her own, but what could I do about it?  Serendipity would find her way without any help from me.
The following morning, the sun rose on a glorious day on the bay.  It was easy to put any dark thoughts aside.  Serendipity and I were so comfortable together that I felt like I had known her all of my life.  She was flying up to Seattle that day to spend the week there with a friend, so I drove her first to Oakland to pick up her bags and then on to the airport.  When I dropped her off curbside she gave me a big going-away hug and a kiss before heading into the terminal.
“See you in a week!” she said.
That week went by and I didn’t hear from her.  Every day after that I knew my chances of seeing her again diminished.  I worked on my script and varnished the boat.  At some point I gave up on the prospect of ever seeing Serendipity again.  Then on the tenth day my phone rang.  She was back in town and had brought her friend with her.  They were at the bus station downtown.  Could I come pick them up?  Twenty minutes later I was driving down Market Street trying to spot them in the crowds.  I knew she changed her hair color often, so I wasn’t sure what to look for.  Her new purple streaks threw me at first and I drove past once before I came around again and finally spotted them.  I pulled my truck into a parking space and hopped out.  A big hug on the sidewalk and we were together again.
Serendipity’s new side-kick Cathy was just as friendly but without the wild clothes, hair, or attitude.  No techno music or rave parties for her.  She was a down-to-earth kind of girl.  Together the three of us toured the outdoor cafes of North Beach and the famous City Lights Bookstore.  We had a picnic in front of the Palace of Fine Arts and then headed back to Height Street for another look at the funky shops.  With a bright smile on her face, Serendipity skipped ahead in a short skirt and torn fishnet stockings.  Sitting on a cement step nearby, a ragged homeless man whistled and nodded his approval.  I nodded back.  He was right; she was quite a sight after all.
At night we had sushi on the boat and I set up Cathy in the second stateroom.  The next morning Serendipity and I stood outside on the bow, taking in another beautiful new day.  “I wish I had a magic money machine,” she said, “and I could just make as much as I needed.  That way I wouldn’t have to go home.”
“That would be nice,” I answered.  I was in no position to let her stay long-term.  It wasn’t my boat.  Serendipity’s spirits seemed to drop, but only temporarily.  She wasn’t the type of girl to let anything get her down for long.  After a few days all together, eventually it was Cathy’s turn to go.  She’d booked a bus back north to Seattle.   Serendipity was due to fly out for London the following morning.  A bittersweet parting loomed.  Just past sunset we took Cathy to the bus station downtown.  She was on the Green Turtle; a worn-out hippie bus outfitted with bunk beds from front to back.  As the bus got ready to leave it was big hugs all around before Cathy tearfully climbed on board and was off.
Serendipity and I headed across town to the Marina District for one last dinner together at a trendy sushi restaurant.  It was one of her things.  Serendipity loved sushi!  She was crazy about it.  In fact, it was a sushi restaurant where she worked back in London.  Only she didn’t like raw fish.  Never mind that those two concepts don’t compute.  She made do with edamame pods, California rolls and smoked eel.
With Cathy gone it was all the more obvious to Serendipity that she was next.  The mood was somber.  “I wish I could stay longer,” she said absent-mindedly, staring out the window as we drove.
“Too bad you don’t have that magic money machine,” I replied.  I didn’t mean anything by it.  Just words to fill the silence.  Whether it offended her, I couldn’t say, but she was unusually distant.
“I used to sort of have one,” Serendipity said after a pause.  “I’m sitting on it right now.”
“WHAT?” I thought.  My eyes opened wide.  I looked at Serendipity beside me, then back to the road ahead.  Was she telling me what I thought she was telling me?  No.  It couldn’t be.
“I hope that doesn’t bother you,” she added.
I looked back to Serendipity.  “No, that doesn’t bother me,” I lied.  Suddenly I felt lightheaded.  Everything was blurry.  This girl I had come to know so well was...was a HOOKER!?!  Could it be?  Was she just a dancer, maybe?!?  No, I knew better.
When we got to dinner I was in a mild state of shock.  We were seated in a row of tables that were all within a few feet of one another.  It was almost like we were having dinner with the couple on either side of us, all well dressed professionals having dull, inane conversations.  Serendipity and I stuck out like two sore thumbs.  Her with purple streaked hair, glitter make-up and a short black skirt with fishnet stockings.  Me in a sweatshirt and old jeans.
I wanted to ask her all the details of her sordid secret.  For the couples around us it would have made their night.  “Oh my god, we went to dinner at Ace Wasabi, and this girl at the table next to us was telling this guy all about what it’s like to be a hooker, can you believe it!?”  I decided it was better to wait.
“You seem a little quiet,” Serendipity said to me.  “Are you all right?”
“Fine,” I answered.  “Just a little tired I guess.”
We finished dinner and then headed to a coffeehouse across the street where we found some space to ourselves in the back.  I couldn’t put off the questions any longer.  Where exactly did she work?  Was she afraid?  About disease?  What got her started?
Serendipity answered every question without hesitation.  Life on her terms meant keeping no secrets.  She seemed to want me to know.  She’d run away from home when she was 16 to live with her boyfriend.  Within a few years she was supporting them both by working at a “full-service” massage parlor.  She always used a condom and had weekly medical checkups, much to my relief.
“What about the first time?” I asked.  “Did you know what you were getting into?”
“Yeah, I knew what I was doing,” she answered.  “A friend of my aunt worked there and she suggested I try it.  The first time I did it, the madam set me up with a friend of hers and it wasn’t too bad.”
“But how did you feel about it in general?  Over time?”
“It was exciting!  I made a lot of money.  I used to make $700 a night.  That’s what excited me the most, making all of the money.”
“But what if some big, fat, ugly guy came in that you just couldn’t stand the sight of?  What would you do then?  Did you have to sleep with him?”
“I would just say, hey, this is a massage parlor and I don’t do that, but if you’d like I can talk to one of the other girls.  Sometimes I would offer to do a massage topless for an extra 20 bucks.”
“If you liked it so much, then why did you stop?”
“When I moved to London I knew my boyfriend there wouldn’t want me to do it.”
“Would you do it again?”
“I don’t know, maybe.” Serendipity thought back.  “I remember one guy gave me $100 just to give him a hug.”
“And did you give him a big hug?”
“Oh yeah, I gave him a hell of a hug!  The biggest ever!”
I couldn’t imagine charging someone for a hug, but I was not going to be judgmental.  Worried about her, but not judgmental.  Her freedom to do what she wanted was one of the things I’d admired after all.  She did whatever she wanted to do, period.  I had more freedom than nearly anyone I knew, but still there were limits.  I had a nagging guilt in the back of my brain telling me that I should be working harder, living a respectable life and aspiring toward standard middle class ambitions.  Serendipity apparently had none of these hang-ups whatsoever.
On the way back to the boat we stopped again at the overlook to admire the lights of the city, sitting quietly for a while to take it all in one last time.  “What do you want to do now?” I asked.
“Let’s just get a bottle of something and drink it,” she answered.
“I’ve got vodka on the boat.  We can get some juice on the way.”
“That sounds perfect.”

When the vodka was nearly gone we climbed into bed to spend one last night together, doing our best to banish the pain and heartache of being human.  We’d both known from the start that this relationship had an expiration date.  It was part of the appeal, on both sides I was fairly sure.  No commitments and no opportunity costs.  That didn’t make it any easier to face the end, despite her revelations.
The following morning I drove Serendipity to the airport once again.  This time she cried quietly on the way.  When we unloaded her bags at the departure terminal she wrapped her arms around my shoulders and gave a desperate squeeze, as though she couldn’t bear to let me go.  “This must be a hundred-dollar hug,” I thought as I squeezed her back.  After a few moments I had to pry her arms away.  I gave her a last kiss.  “Thanks for everything,” I said.
“Thank you.”
Serendipity turned and headed into the terminal.  One minute she was there and then she was gone, never to be forgotten.
Back on the boat I smelled Serendipity’s sweet perfume in my sheets for the next few days.  On the pillow I found a little butterfly sticker that she’d had pasted on the inside of one breast.  I missed her happy outlook, her bright smile and her warm body next to mine.  I also felt that I really was living the life of a writer now.  Henry Miller, Bukowski, and even Kerouac would have been proud.  Sometimes over the years I’ve found myself wondering where life might have taken Serendipity after that, the girl with the ultimate freedom.  In the end I’ll never be able to think of her without a smile.

Monday, November 4, 2013

Memoir Monday - A Bit of Philosophy

Memoir Monday this week takes a philosophical detour as Chapter Eight in Memoirs of a Starving Artist looks at whether choice brings happiness to our lives.

First, though congratulations to this week's winner of an ebook version, David Womack.  I'll be giving away one more next week, drawn from people on my new release and giveaway mailing list (scroll down sidebar on the right to sign up).  The full book will be released on Amazon and elsewhere November 15th.

In the meantime, on to this week's installment!

Chapter Eight – The Anguish of Freedom

One of the great fallacies of the modern world is that the more choices we have in life, the happier we will be.  This helps explain why automobiles come with so many different options, including numerous choices in engines, wheels, colors, sunroofs, sound systems, interiors and overall configurations.  You can get a hybrid, plug-in hybrid or all-electric.  Two-door, four-door or hatchback.  Theoretically having all of these choices is a good thing, because with them you have the opportunity to get exactly what you want.  The same holds true for all sorts of other products large and small.  Consider toothpaste.  You can get mint gel, baking soda or cinnamon flavor.  Whitening, breath-freshening or tartar control.  These types of choices are among the thousands that we make every day.
Scientific studies have shown that some degree of choice does indeed make us happier.  We don’t all want the same things after all.  After a certain point, however, these studies suggest that the more choices we have, the less happy we tend to be.  Indeed, too much choice can actually make us miserable.
In an article for Scientific American (The Tyranny of Choice, April 2004), psychology professor Barry Schwartz explains some of the reasons for the stresses we face when confronted with an abundance of choice.  First and foremost is the idea of “opportunity costs.”  In our minds, every choice that we make represents not just what we have gained, but also the opportunities that we have lost.  We may have gained the mint gel toothpaste, but we lost the opportunity to try the cinnamon flavor, at least this time around.  The more choices that we have, the more opportunities we must give up in order to make a decision and the greater the sense of loss that we potentially feel afterwards.  A person who chose the mint gel flavor might take it home and think that it is ok, but still regret not having tried the cinnamon, or the baking soda or any other number of options.  It is these regrets added up, large and small, that can leave us feeling decidedly unhappy with our lives.
In his research into this phenomenon, Swartz and his colleagues refer to two different personality types, “satisficers” and “maximizers.”  The first group, the satisficers, are more willing to choose things that they consider to be “good enough.”  They aren’t so worried about making the best possible choice every single time.  They are more relaxed about their decision making.  The other group, the maximizers, do try to make the best possible choice every time.  They are willing to expend much more time and energy into their decisions and are not satisfied with “good enough.”  They are out to ensure that their choice is “the best.”
The biggest difference between these two groups, it seems, comes down to regret.  Maximizers tend to be people who feel regret much more deeply than satisficers.  They aren’t spending greater time and energy on their decisions so much because of what they might gain, but rather because of the sense of loss they are trying to avoid.  It is fear of regret that motivates them.  The greater the number of choices, the more likely they are to feel regret.  The more regret they feel, the less happy they are likely to be.  As Swartz says in his article, “…people with high sensitivity to regret are less happy, less satisfied with life, less optimistic and more depressed than those with low sensitivity.”
These distinctions in personality types don’t just describe our purchasing decisions.  They also go a long way toward explaining how we relate to the world in a much broader sense.  As the French philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre said, “We are our choices.”  In other words, the essence of who we are as human beings is determined by the choices that we make, and there is no escaping those choices.  This is what Sartre referred to as the anguish of freedom.  Avoiding a decision is a decision itself and any belief in fate as a way out of this dilemma is self-deception.  Applying these ideas to Schwartz’ research would suggest that so-called maximizers are people who feel this anguish of freedom and decision making more deeply than others.  Freedom and choice are inherently traumatic.  How we cope with that trauma defines in large part who we are as individuals.
Traditional roles in our society tend to load a person up with commitments that severely limit their choices in life.  A traditional job, marriage and the responsibilities of raising children curtail one’s freedom in many ways, though taking on these traditional roles is itself a choice.  Our friends and family may pressure us to assume those roles, hold a normal job, get married and have those kids, but these are choices nonetheless.  By taking on these roles, one is intentionally giving up some of their freedom for the comfort and security that they find in a more traditional life.  When I came home from Australia and went back to work at the engineering company, I already knew that a traditional role was not for me.  The opportunity costs were too much to bear.  I was not willing to give up my freedom.  The choice to quit my job once again, and all of the security it afforded, was still not an easy one.  As I wrote in my journal on June 8th, 1998:

One thing I’m feeling is a mild sense of well-being in that I am here in DC again, and I’m making it on my own.  I have a nice place to live, two nice roommates, and I’m making enough money to get by, pay all my bills easily and save some as well.  This is a feeling that I hate to give up and that was hard to deal with when I left the job last time.  It is never easy to go back to having no job, no income and no prospects.  Usually at work, though, I just keep thinking about how much I want to get out, and how it is melting my brain.

Most of my colleagues at work didn’t seem particularly happy with their jobs either, or their lives for that matter.  They weren’t where they wanted to be, but they stayed because for them it was good enough.  For me, “good enough” was itself not good enough.  I would classify myself as a maximizer in many ways, and this distinction goes a long way toward explaining how I relate to the world in a larger sense.  I don’t sweat the really small stuff, like what kind of toothpaste to buy, but I do have a hard time making personal decisions.  I expend a lot of energy worrying about opportunity costs and the regrets they might engender.  This can make the writers’ lifestyle a particularly difficult one at times.  Most people would never honestly consider picking up and moving to another country, for example, simply because they can.  Their prior commitments act to help simplify their lives.  A writer has no such simplifications.  A writer can live and write anywhere in the world, as long as he is able to afford it.  His life is one of unlimited choices, and thus of exorbitant opportunity costs.  It might be hard for someone not faced with such decisions to fully understand, but these opportunity costs equal the potential for significant regret and despair.  Wherever it is that a writer does choose to live, he is giving up the options of being in any other place on earth.  That is a heady cost.
Even a starving writer like myself has managed to live in numerous exotic locations around the world.  Every time I do choose to go someplace new, the decision as to where is excruciating.  Should I go someplace that I have friends?  Somewhere cheap?  By the sea?  In the mountains?  Will I miss my family?  Will I be away during the holidays, or perhaps miss the wedding of a close friend?  If I go to one place, will I regret not being in another?  If I decide to stay home will I lament the adventures I’m surely missing?  People often tell me that they envy my freedom but they don’t understand how difficult the choices can be.  Finances are always a big factor in my case.  I’d like to think that it would be easier if I could afford to live wherever I really want, but that would only increase my choices.  The real truth of the matter is that I’ll always be a little bit stressed by the decision of where to live next.
These same forces come into play on an even more personal level when it comes to relationships.  I’ve always had what could be considered a “fear of commitment.”  What this really means more than anything is a fear of opportunity costs.  Other issues are also at play, such as the prospect of having to live up to someone else’s expectations and to rearrange my lifestyle, but what worries me most about a serious relationship is the potential sense of loss that might result from it.  All of the other choices of romantic partners out there in the world will suddenly be off-limits.  That is one massive opportunity cost.  On the other side of this equation is the cost of not finding someone to settle down with at all, which means the prospect of growing old all alone.
As with other big decisions in life, some people subscribe to the theory that holding out for their “soul mate” is impractical, since this idealized vision of their perfect partner probably doesn’t exist in reality anyway.  Instead it is better to settle for a relationship that is “good enough.”  These are the satisficers.  Similar to their everyday decisions about what products to buy, they are more likely happier with their relationships than the maximizers who hold out for that illusive perfection.  For the maximizer, who doesn’t want to “settle,” the quest for a soul mate produces expectations that can probably never be met.  This in turn makes the maximizer either eternally single, or dissatisfied with their ultimate choice.  This theory goes a long way toward explaining my own seemingly perpetual bachelorhood.  It’s not just my choice, of course, it is someone else’s as well, but I still hold out hope that eventually I’ll strike a balance between my high expectations and my yearning to spend my life with someone.  I’ll meet that person with whom the desire to grow old together is mutual.
These theories on choice also help explain my writing process.  Maximizers share much in common with perfectionists.  In some ways the definitions overlap.  Perfectionists are looking for order in the universe.  Maximizers want everything to be the best that they can be.  While perfectionists might feel annoyed or adrift if something is out of place, a maximizer will more likely dwell on the regret that things aren’t better.  As far as my writing goes, I could be described as having both tendencies.  This is the reason I am so slow when it comes to my writing.  I go over and over each manuscript time and time again, tweaking this line and that, trying to make sure that the prose is as perfect as it can be.  When it comes to my writing I can never be fully satisfied.  Every time I go over a page I find things to improve, a word here or a sentence there, no matter how many times I’ve gone over it before.  At a certain point I simply have to consider that the manuscript is “good enough” or I would never be finished.  I have to force myself to become a satisficer and move on.
Despite the inherent frustrations, being a maximizer does have its benefits.  I’ve struggled with personal decisions all of my life, yet I’ve also had a vast array of amazing experiences that I will always cherish.  Settling for “good enough” may elicit a greater overall sense of contentment, but holding out for “the best” can make for a unique and extraordinary life.  The trick is to learn not to dwell too much on what you’ve lost, but rather to appreciate what you have.
After just three months back at my job in Washington, I’d reached the end of my rope.  It was time to move on.  This left me with the seemingly eternal question of where I should live next.  On this occasion the choice was not difficult.  An old high school friend of mine was living in San Francisco.  When I told Carlos that I’d quit, he thought it over for a moment and then made me a proposition.  “Why don’t you come out and live on my boat in Sausalito?” he said.  “You can stay here rent-free and write.”
“What’s the catch?” I asked.
“No catch,” he said.  “But if you want to work, you can re-varnish the teak on the boat and I’ll pay you.  It’s up to you.  I got a quote for $10,000 to have it done by a pro.  If you can do it for half, it will be good for us both.”
An offer like this doesn’t come around too often.  I was smart enough to take it.  I packed up my truck and headed west once again.