Tuesday, March 22, 2011

A Writer's Dark Tower

I'm a big fan of The Dark Tower, Stephen King's seven-volume tale of Roland, the gunslinger, and his obsessive quest for the Tower. For those unfamiliar with the series, Roland is a knight (of sorts) on a quest to find the Dark Tower, which he believes will save his dying world. The series is the center of King's vast fictional universe and definitely worth a read.

Lately, I've been thinking about what it means to be a successful writer, and when I heard that King would be releasing an eighth Dark Tower novel (set between Books 4 and 5), it occurred to me that there are many parallels between a writer's journey and Roland's. 

I'm not sure how old I was when I realized that there were people who wrote books for a living, as opposed to, I suppose, my prior assumption that books were monoliths, simply appearing out of nowhere. The fact is that I didn't really understand the concept of employment generally when I was a kid. Case in point -- for a while, I actually believed that my father paid his employer for the privilege to go to work. I think this was because my parents sent me and my sister to private school, which they definitely paid for, and which I imagined was as tough and miserable a place as any workplace. Regardless, when I finally realized that there was a potential career there, it became my life's quest, my own Dark Tower. This quest has been marked with success, with failure, with fear that that I'd never reach the Tower, with the siren call of false Towers, and with bourbon. A lot of bourbon.

But are all writers' Towers the same? Probably not. And what happens when you find your Tower? What happens if you DON'T find your Tower?

Here are the various goals I've thought about in my own career that could serve as any writer's Dark Tower.

1. Seeing your book in print
For better or for worse, this is my Dark Tower, and if you're a fiction writer, it's probably yours, too. Seeing my book in a bookstore is a picture I've had in my head for 20 years. Why is it so important? Ego? The naive belief that a published book equals a financial windfall? The sense you're now the thing you were supposed to be when you grew up? So you can point to tangible proof that all your efforts weren't for naught?

Is the publication of a novel the standard by which a writing career is defined? The strange thing is that with my videos and my blog, it's quite possible I've reached more readers (and viewers) than I would have if any of my prior manuscripts had been published. So why do I still feel like the videos and this blog are just a stepping stone toward some grander goal, toward my own Tower?

Obviously, with the advent of e-readers and self-publishing, anyone can publish a book - I have a couple I could throw up (pun intended) on Amazon tonight (doesn't mean I should). Given the success of a number of independent authors, a bunch more are hurtling toward a digital Tower as we speak. I wonder what they'll find when they get there.

2. Financial independence
This is the sexiest of all the possible Towers. I'd be lying if I said I didn't think about making a nice living from writing. But like all sexy things, it could be the most dangerous Tower, both in terms of the journey and in terms of what you find if you ever get there. It could even be described as a false Tower, whispering a promise that lures you away from your true goal. Stranger still, with a few independent authors striking it rich, you could reach this Tower without ever setting foot in a bookstore, let alone seeing your book on the shelves in one.

3. A wide audience
This blog has gotten about 50,000 hits in the past five months. Hundreds of thousands of people have seen my videos, although because of the way videos spread on the Internet, they may not know who wrote them. But I know they're out there, and either way, I'm beyond thrilled to have had so many eyeballs on my work. But in the same way that Roland recruited Eddie, Susannah, Jake, and Oy, I want to take all my blog readers and video watchers with me on my quest for my Tower.

4. Personal satisfaction with what you've written or with simply having written
It's hard for me to be satisfied with what I write. This is probably true of many writers. For that reason, this could never be my own Tower. I know this for several reasons. First, I'll always walk that line between confidence in my own abilities and constant self-doubt that I'm a hack. Second, I've tried to abandon my quest, only to have it call back out to me, call me names and triple-dog-dare me to keep going.

5. The "I did it, I wrote a book, I can move on with my life" feeling
This doesn't apply to me, but I imagine there are a bunch of people out there who wrote a book, got it published (or didn't), and moved on with their lives. Remember -- Harper Lee wrote To Kill a Mockingbird. And Nothing Else. Ever. Maybe she had another Tower to find.

6. Self-publishing a print book
If I were you, I'd sell any stock you own in any print-on-demand or vanity publishers.

7. Happiness
Writing may not make me burp sunshine and puppies, but I know that I'm a hell of a lot UNhappier when I'm not writing. I get antsy. I like being on the road, no matter how noxious the challenge. When I am writing, I feel like I'm doing the thing I'm supposed to be doing. When I'm not writing, I feel like I need to be writing.

Perhaps there is no ultimate goal, no place to stop and think, "I've done it. I've achieved my goals."

Perhaps there is no Tower at all.

Perhaps the path itself is the Tower.

Perhaps I need to stop hitting the bourbon at lunch.


  1. Maybe this falls somewhere in with 3, 4 or 5, but to me, there's a strong appeal to the idea of producing a tangible, substantive piece of work that entertains as well as gets people to think a little bit, and that outlives you. That makes the novel somewhat unique among all the different creative pursuits available today - I don't know that any of the others offer that the way the novel does.

  2. Number one is definitely my dark tower. It is not driven by money or recognition, but the mere 'high' I get from knowing others have read my work. I enjoy feedback from readers, be it positive or negative, because negative feedback doesn't necessarily offend me. I like the opportunity to discuss my work in greater detail and learn how my words have been interpreted by others. I guess this is what drives me to the keyboard daily.

    Number four hits close to home. Doubt runs my life. It keeps me from taking risks and tackling projects I desire to attempt. Confidence is a foreign concept, and I'm not sure I even understand its meaning. But, despite that, I keep writing. And hoping. And learning. And growing.

  3. As attorneys, young and naive, wrestling with (and losing horribly to) the billable hour, unshackling ourselves from the law firm salary was the original driving force behind our novel--so, No. 2. As qlder and wiser attorneys (maybe wiser, certainly older), still unpublished and still somewhat shackled, we tend to think the path itself is the Tower. Here's to enjoying the journey . . .

  4. Matt- yeah, the novel form does have that strange draw, doesn't it?

    Paul - well, having read your blog, I think you should have some confidence. And I agree, there is a high from knowing your work has been read and gotten some reaction, whatever it is.

    Jayne - a fellow attorney! welcome! ehh, we can dream about unshackling ourselves from the law -- I think it's an ABA requirement that all law students think about one day writing a bestselling legal thriller.

  5. Ah, the Tower... great one. Having worked over a decade in Corporate America, I'd forgotten how to say what I really mean. That's sort of disouraged. So now, as a writer, I want to say what I really mean. I feel like someone took the "mute" button off of my soul. (I realize that's terribly disparaging of my old world, which was also full of fantastic people, but that's where I personally ended up.)

  6. A writer friend of mine just told me how much he loved the Dark Tower series. I might have to check it out!

    You said this well. My tower is making a career out of writing. I want to be published by a traditional publisher, and I want to be published over and over for years.

    This is a discouraging, competitive business. Jim Beam and I have shared a few Friday nights. But it still excites me. I'm with you--I can't not write. And having manuscripts on my computer is not enough for me. I want it all!

  7. @Melissa - well, the important thing is that you're doing what you want to do now.

    @Jill thanks for the comment. The Dark Tower is terrific, you should definitely check it out! And the more I thought about it the more I realized how much Roland's story applies to all of us.