I probably should have called this ‘what does it mean to write for publication if you are Brandy Lain Schillace.’ (But that would be a very long title.) I am about to get a little bit personal about the writing life today, and to talk about something that doesn’t get a lot of air time. Being a professional writer, for better or worse, requires the author to do a lot of things that have nothing to do with the actual written word. It’s about publicizing, and social media, and making appearances, and doing the legwork, and being a graphic artist, and maybe a web designer, too. And for many, it means holding down a separate job (or three), and sorting out how to make the disparate pieces connect. It’s hard, and pretty un-sexy, too, at times. So: How’s it done and why?
The Hemingway Mythology
Let’s start with the great story of writers: The author makes brilliant words happen and then someone publishes it and the work grows legs and carries itself all over the known galaxy while the author continues working in his/her chateau with her/his whiskey, cigarettes, and Underwood typewriter. Friends, it just don’t play that way. Some very successful colleagues of mine spent nearly a year after book release doing the circuit. But that means all energy focusing in one direction–the social media, the website, the emails, the appearances, the interviews all pointing to one work and lifting its profile. Assessment of this practice? Effective, but personally exhausting. And it has a few drawbacks, too–you cannot really do anything else. That means holding down another job (or three) isn’t practical on that model, and it also means there isn’t much time to work on the next book you want to write. For a large swath of writers, particularly public intellectuals or academics who write public histories, even very popular ones like Sean B Carroll, writing and publicizing your work must fit in with other duties, from teaching and research to (in my case) public engagement, museum work, and editing a journal and magazine. What’s the solution?
Person of Many Hats
Surprise! No solution! But don’t despair. Just as writing is an individual endeavor slotted into individual grooves for each person’s life, there are as many solutions as people and problems. If you have the capability to do publicity, do it. Obviously, the publisher will help; Pegasus has worked hard to get CLOCKWORK FUTURES into the mainstream, and I’ve been very lucky to see reviews in the Wall Street Journal, Science Magazine, and various podcasts, radio and online interviews. I did a three city launch of the book in September, with an opening night at Union Hall in New York City (with the Empiricist League), and a costumed party back home in Cleveland. And I’ve done it on a budget you could laugh at (and which would buy you at least three or four lattes at Starbucks). Some of my friends and colleagues do online “blog tours” that let them turn up digitally or, as with my #altac colleague Jennifer Polk (a different sort of work, but a good example of getting your brand out there) has done–hosting conversations and forums through #twitter and social media. There are ways of making it happen that work for you, specifically. And that depends, also, on your speed of production.
Moving at Light Speed
Yes, I *am* still obsessed with the latest STAR WARS release. Who isn’t? I have a secret love of physics, and so of course I’m often embroiled in discussion of what precisely would happen if you did move at the speed of light. Another non-fiction writer whose work I admire, Brian Green, has plenty to say about theoretical physics, and as near as I understand it–moving at light speeds would not make a difference to the mover. You would just toddle along as usual. But to the rest of the galaxy, you would have become drastically foreshortened, you look different because time might be standing still for you, but for everyone else you appear to have shot ahead. Probably I’ve mangled this, but since we are talking about the writing life and not the problem of space travel, it’s a useful metaphor. For me, writing is a fast-paced process. From start to finish, it takes me an average of 1.5 years to write a book–wedged into also working at the museum (Dittrick Medical History Century), at the journal (BMJ’s Medical Humanities), the magazine (Dósis), and various public engagement and film, media, or radio events. I am usually researching and writing at the same time. Imagine me sitting at a desk with two monitors and a veritable wall of books from which I emerge, blinking blearily, as though climbing out of a well. But, given this timeline, I turn in the edited copy of the last book and immediately dive into the next one. The week I turned in CLOCKWORK FUTURES was the week I began the proposal for my book on science and sensation at the dawn of American forensics. Surely you jest? I wish; but then again, I enjoy living at this speed. The trick is, by the time the book hits the open market, I am about two chapters into the next writing project. I market one, and write the other; I live in the past and future at once. Go ahead, say it: that part if at least *kind of* sexy. But I don’t have this multi-tasking spotlight to myself. In today’s fast-paced world, that is how the majority of writers work.
So back to the original question: What does it mean to write? For me, writing is more than getting a book out in the world. It’s a way of catalyzing the whole arc of your career, of bringing points together and finding convergence. I have a PhD; I work at a history museum engaging the public through programming–so I write to bring sometimes inaccessible works to the public, including history of medicine, tech, engineering, and science. I used to edit an anthropology journal and now work with BMJ Group (British Medical Journal Publishing) for #MedicalHumanities, so a lot of my work is also about starting conversations to relate disparate fields. My magazine looks at health and social justice, and so issues of history, access, and policy make up a large part of my mental real estate, too. As a result, I work to build bridges among and between these things, and that happens in books, in blog posts, in TED talks, on television: everywhere I go, in everything I do. Writing is about doing, about going, about reaching. It won’t make you rich, but the risk is worth taking for most of us–and I don’t call myself an adventurer at the intersection for nothing. In summary, I write because its my connection to the world, and because making those connections for the sake of history, humanities, science, and story, matter a great deal to me.
And…I’d better get back to it. The parsecs are ticking away.