Tuesday, January 26, 2010

Author speaks candidly on the courage to write

Author Ralph Keyes’ advice to aspiring writers is direct and no-nonsense:

“If you want to make a living in the usual sense of the word, don’t expect to do it from your writing,” he said in a recent interview. “You might as well become a professional gambler. It’s comparable.”

Keyes will speak on the highs and lows of life as a writer when he gives a free talk at Epic Book Shop & Mermaid Café on Saturday, Dec. 6, at 5 p.m. For more information, visit www.epicbookshop.com or call 767-7997.

With 14 published books behind him (and a 15th due in April), Keyes cautioned writers who dream of financial success and literary acclaim to consider their motives carefully.

“I’ve been writing [books] since 1970,” he said. “It’s a meager living unless you have a string of best sellers. Your prospects of making an adequate living are slim and none. If I had it to do over again I would find some other way to make a living and then write on the side. It’s just not a very lucrative thing to do unless you happen to hit some commercial success.” And commercial success, he added, is not a reliable indicator of one’s ability.

How does Keyes’ audience respond to him bursting their best-selling, book-writing balloon?

“College students hate it when I talk to them this way,” he admitted. “Their reaction is ‘Well, sez you! We’ll just see what happens once I’m out there.’ My response is, ‘Go for it. Prove me wrong. I hope you do. I’m just trying to be realistic in telling you what your odds are.’”

Keyes did not grow up dreaming of one day becoming a successful writer — a background that he feels saved him from being psychologically crushed by the industry. “If I send something out and it gets rejected, it hurts,” he admitted, “but the dream isn’t shattered because I didn’t have a dream in the first place. If it had turned out that I couldn’t be a writer, I would have found something else to do and enjoyed that.”

Keyes is equally grounded and realistic when discussing his celebrity-studded list of radio and tv interviews over the past thirty years. Appearances on Oprah, The Today Show, The Tonight Show (with Johnny Carson), and 20/20 along with NPR interviews with Robert Siegel, Noah Adams, and Terry Gross only feed his ambivalence about the media.

“On the one hand,” he said, “you know you need that kind of media attention to make people aware of your book. The most frustrating thing in the world is to write a book — and this has happened to me — and have it get so little publicity that nobody even knows you wrote the book. On the other hand, you don’t want to confuse the media attention with what you actually do. I want to be judged on the quality of my writing not the quality of my banter with Johnny Carson or Oprah Winfrey.”

Using himself as an example of what can go wrong, Keyes explained what happened when he pursued a deeply personal idea.

“I’m half Jewish,” he said, “and I wanted to write a book about it. I spent a lot of time researching it and writing up a detailed proposal. My agent sent the proposal out. One editor said, ‘I wished I’d gotten this a month ago because I just signed up this book.’” Keyes reached up and pulled out a book from a crowded bookshelf called The Half-Jewish Book. By somebody else.

“It happens all the time,” he said. “I hate to tell you how many unrealized projects there are. How many months and years of my life I’ve spent pursuing a subject that didn’t pan out. I learned a lot about my Jewish heritage by researching that one. I wanted to write a book on the underground railroad. I spent the better part of a year studying that topic. I learned a tremendous amount about race, about slavery. I’m just so grateful that I learned that even if I didn’t get to write the book.”

Early in his career, something happened to Keyes that few writers get to experience. His second book, Is There Life After High School?, was made into a Broadway musical.

“It was fascinating,” Keyes recalled, watching his material metamorphose into an entirely different medium. “I love what [the playwright and composer] did. They ‘got it’. The score especially is outstanding.” Twenty-five years later, the play is still being produced all over the world. “It was just recently produced in London, England,” he said. “There was a production in Marion, Ohio, and at Wright State. It’s been produced in Australia. Everybody can relate to it. Everybody went to high school.”

In 1992, he did his first book on misquotations — Nice Guys Finish Seventh: False Phrases, Spurious Sayings, and Familiar Misquotations. The Quote Verifier came out in 2005. I Love It When You Talk Retro will be out April ’09. ‘Retro talk,’ Keyes explained, is phrases like ‘double whammy,’ ‘98-pound weakling,’ ‘hoochie coochie’ — “anything that grows out of our past that may not be clear to younger people.” His 16th book, due out in 2010, is called Euphemania: How We Got from ‘Gosh Darn’ to ‘Collateral Damage’ and explores “the role euphemisms play in our social discourse.”

His book, The Courage to Write: How Writers Transcend Fear still sells steadily after 13 years and has become the go-to book for aspiring writers.

“My follow-up to The Courage to Write is called The Writer’s Book of Hope,” said the author, explaining that although he is realistic with his audience about the publishing industry, his focus is on nurturing the writing process. His message of hope acknowledges the revolutionary power of the internet.

“The internet has provided wonderful opportunities to publish in the broadest sense of the word,” said Keyes, brightly. “You don’t have to wait for some editor in New York to give you his or her blessing. You can just post your stuff tomorrow on a blog or a website. I don’t think there’s ever been a better time to be a writer so long as you don’t assume you’re going to make a living at it.”

A long-time board member of the Antioch Writer’s Workshop, Keyes will teach a class in personal essay and memoir at the workshop next summer.

Originally published in the Yellow Springs News.

Susan Gartner is a freelance writer and photographer for the News.