Saturday, May 20, 2017

Reflections on Having Been a Writer

Some of you with long memories may recall that this blog was not started as a publicity platform for my books. It was quite the other way around. The books grew out of the blog.

This blog was begun before blogs even existed. Back then, I was uploading essays about my adventures in Britain to a web-log. That was in 2001. Blogs didn’t come along until 2004 or so, and I didn’t succumb until 2006. Even then, there were not so many blogs, and I was riding the crest of the wave. Accordingly, I drew a large following and, when the blog-to-book craze hit, I published Postcards From Across the Pond.

I followed that up a few years later with More Postcards From Across the Pond and Postcards From Ireland. I knew, even then, that I would publish no more essays, as I had said everything I had to say about being an expat.

The essays were good, however, and I was proud of the books. I can say that without reservation. In those days, every event was a delightful surprise, and everything seemed so wonderfully exotic that I couldn’t help but share it. My life was exciting and joyful and it would have been a shame to not let others in on that excitement and joy, and that joy came through in my writing.

Then the culmination of my life-long quest to be a published author came about when I published an actual novel, Finding Rachel Davenport. It wasn’t supposed to be the culmination; when you finally reach a lofty goal, you are supposed to seize that opportunity and build on it and move on to the next, better book, and then the next. But I somehow failed to do that.

When Hemingway stopped being a writer, he shot himself. 
At the time, I recall looking though Finding Rachel Davenport and remarking that it seemed as if someone else had written the book, and that I didn’t know if I could do it again but I did know I didn’t want to try. And, indeed, I have not.

In the years since (six and counting) I have been working on an eight-book fantasy adventure series for my grandsons. Currently, I am having a difficult time with book 5, so difficult, in fact, that I have begun thinking about abandoning the project. It’s not as if my grandsons care about the books, and I think my son and his wife probably wish I would stop, so there is little reason to carry on, except that I started it, and I feel I ought to finish it.

The problem with the series has always been, should I publish it to the wider world. As a published writer, I think I should, but as a published writer I also know that they are not that good. While I am pleased with the story arc, and think the adventures are good, the characters are two-dimensional and my research is, to be kind, a little light.

Sylvia Plath stuck her head in the oven.
What prompted this decision to keep them private (at least for now, I go back and forth on this a lot) was that I just stumbled across a review of Postcards From Across the Pond and realized something shocking: people are still buying those books. And reviewing them.

The books are going on ten years old, and some of the essays are over fifteen years old, yet people are still reading them, and publishing their opinions of them. This delighted me, but it is also humbling.

For the most part, people like the Postcard books, and the reviews—some as recent as last week—are kind. But there are also the detractors, who call me an Ugly American, or someone they would not care to meet, and suggest that I go home and stop whining. Those reviews are few and far between, but it stings when strangers make judgments about you based on something you wrote that they didn’t happen to like.

And poor Rachel. The reviews on her were split between the 30% who hated the book and the 60% who loved it and another 10% who weren’t sure about it. Some of the detractors were so vehement about the book's awfulness that I had to wonder what book they had read. Conversely, the praise some people heaped on it was so lavish that I had to wonder what book they read, as well.

For Rachel, however, the bad reviews won. The final two reviews in the list were both one-star. One simply said, “Stupid” and the other “A disappointment.” And then the sales, and the reviews, stopped. That was in 2014. I have sold hardly a book since.

Virginia Woolf filled her pockets with stones and walk into the river Ouse.
But what does all this have to do with what I am currently working on? Nothing, and everything. A fantasy adventure series is not a comic novel or a collection of humorous essays. It would have a different audience, but they would still be critical, and the criticisms would be valid, if picky. “Who is this so-called author who doesn’t know that shoe-laces weren’t invented until…” or “Everybody knows that Roman soldiers in the era he’s talking about didn’t wear that type of breastplate. What an asshole!” The way I feel right now, I don’t think I want to subject the books to that sort of criticism.

When you publish a book, you willingly open it up to scrutiny by the general public, and I don’t think I want strangers picking over the prose I wrote as gifts for my grandsons. It’s not fair to the readers, my grandsons or the books.

And so the books will be just what they were originally intended to be—personal gifts from me to my grandsons, which means I am no longer an active, publishing writer. And I have no plans to become one.

Hunter S. Thompson shot himself in the head.
That’s no bad thing, however. I did achieve my goal. I have four books published* and enough dwindling talent left over to produce a unique gift for my grandsons. That’s something not a lot of people can do, and I’m pleased that I was able to accomplish it.

My life is no less joyous now, but having been here so long, I find little to surprise me any longer and, being retired, my life is a bit more settled. There is, in short, little to write about, so I don’t see any hilarious American-out-of-his-comfort-zone essays on the horizon. And, as we have just decided, the novels I am writing now are not ready for prime time.

I think I’ve known for some time that I am no longer a real writer. When I get into conversations with people about how I find life here, I rarely think to say, “I like it so much I wrote a book about it. Let me give you my card.” And that’s just as well.

Additionally, in preparing for this article, I discovered that I don’t even own a copy of Postcard From Across the Pond. And while I think I should have it in my library, I just can’t be arsed to buy one.

And so, what does a person, who has wanted nothing more than to be a writer since he was eleven years old, do with his life once he realizes he is no longer a writer?

Well, he takes over running a choir, of course.

Mike Harling started a choir.

*Postcards From Across the Pond was published by Lean Market Press, and Finding Rachel Davenport was published by Prospera Publishing. The contracts have since run out so all the books are now self-published on Kindle (begin promo/ for £.99 each /end promo) and as paperbacks through Amazon’s CreateSpace.