I recently had a woman come up to me at a book festival and ask for advice on how to construct her author’s platform. I didn’t know what she was talking about. Images of an Olympic diving platform with a disheveled, bleary-eyed, over-caffeinated writer in three-day-old sweatpants and a baggy salsa-stained t-shirt typing madly on a Mac flashed through my mind. She then proceeded to throw around a bunch of terms I didn’t recognize that sounded like they came from a study guide for an IT class and told me she already had a website, Facebook page, Twitter account and blogged daily. Rather than admit I was having a hard time understanding her and didn’t really follow social media, I asked her what her novel was about. She told me she hadn’t written one yet.
I had no idea what to say to that.
I write novels because I have to write them. I have stories and characters inside me that need to come out. Once I finish a book, I crawl back into the light, blink a few times, look around me and wonder if someone would like to read it. Wondering if someone might pay me to read it usually doesn’t occur until I get my latest VISA bill.
I was about to ask her, “What’s the sense in trying to figure out how to sell something before it even exists?” then I realized that this was the very definition of a “business.” She thought of writing as a business and novels as products to be manufactured. Writing, to me, is an art. My art. I’ve devoted my life to appreciating it, to studying and consuming it, and to creating it. And yet, it’s also how I make my living.
The blending of commerce and art has always been a tricky merger and one that sometimes causes the artist angst. Some have gone so far as to claim the selling of one’s art is tantamount to prostitution. Philosophically speaking, this isn’t that much of an exaggeration. There’s nothing more intimate and more precious to an artist than his or her art. Being paid for it seems somehow . . . sleazy and demeaning; but why shouldn’t we be paid for something that we do well? Something that requires a rare talent and fanatic devotion few people possess? Something that has value in the market place? (Prostitutes have been putting forth this same argument for centuries.)
Maybe I should spend more time maneuvering robotically around an author platform. Maybe I should treat my writing as more of a business than a passion, but I don’t know how to do that. I can’t whip up a book like I’m placing an order for hot wings on GrubHub. Art can’t be controlled. No one – including the writer – knows where her characters come from, when they will appear, how long it will take for them to tell their tales and how difficult it will be to chronicle them. This unreliability is what makes art thrilling; you feel lucky and amazed when you stumble upon a great book, like you happened to glance up and see a shooting star.
That woman I met at the book festival has her author’s platform. I can see it clearly in my mind: clean, sturdy, modern, impressive, and empty. I have an author’s front porch crowded with old wicker furniture, flower boxes, a squeaky porch swing, a dozing dog, a threadbare welcome mat, a pitcher of iced tea, a basket of kittens and dozens of my characters sitting around waiting to tell you their stories.