The Treachery of Bookstores

There is no shortage of poetic musings about the unmitigated wonderfulness of bookstores, both as physical places and all the intellectual and creative avenues they contain. The smell of so much paper stacked on old wood shelves, everything clean and well-lit. The mountains of stories, characters, and information—delightfully paralyzing in its massive potential for entertainment, whimsy, education, and catharsis. So many exciting authors to discover, so many favorites to be revisited. For bookish people, there is nothing quite so perfect as bookstores. It is truly where we feel safe and accepted, if not by our fellow humans, then definitely by the characters that populate these millions of volumes. We find our true selves among them, and that journey begins with a bookstore.

I used to feel that way about bookstores. I would walk into any bookstore, regardless of my intentions of buying a book. I loved to browse, read the cover flaps and plot-teasing summaries, examine the cover art, flip through the first pages, taking small lessons in writing along the way. I would examine the author photos on the back covers, imagining that one day someone would be looking at the back cover of my book, my book’s cover flap, the author photo, wondering if my book was worth their $23. An indulgent but hopeful fantasy.

In recent years, though, bookstores have become increasingly vexing and anxious spaces for me. What used to be places of peace are now fraught with urgency; not about which books to read, which should be the only anxiety one has in a bookstore, but rather my continual failure to finish any one of my three novel manuscripts (to say nothing of a fourth one I badly want to start). I look around at the tidy stacks of books, the phalanx of colorful spines grinning at me from the shelves and no longer feel hopeful and optimistic about joining their ranks. I no longer feel inspired by all the hard work of hundreds, thousands of authors to bring their papery brain babies into the world. I feel self-loathing that I have not worked harder; I feel defeat that my talent, while not imaginary, is certainly not up to the par of the authors I admire the most; I feel fury that writers who can hardly craft an artful cliche-free sentence still have such an effortless grasp of plot, character, and story that their books are undeniably successful, while I struggle to connect the dots in a novel I’ve been working on for ten years; I feel depressed that I am so very neatly fitting into that category of writers who spend their lives talking about what they’re writing, writing diligently all the while, never truly completing anything, never succeeding in even the most modest way.

To be fair, it is an enormous category. So, existentially speaking, I have a lot of company, which I suppose could be seen as some sort of comfort.

In the meantime, it seems that I am good enough at my job of being a copywriter for a pharmaceutical advertising agency that my bosses have asked me repeatedly what I want out of my “career,” which means, essentially, You are a competent professional; how can we give you vastly more responsibility for a little more money? I know the correct answers to such questions require a certain ambition, a striving nature, which I don’t not possess, but I also do not embrace. I could pull various triggers at work and set myself up to eventually become a harried creative director who walks the political tightrope between client service and creative work, probably get ulcers, double down on my already fairly heavy drinking, abandon my workout routine completely, get high blood pressure, and have an anxiety induced heart attack by the time I’m 54, and live the rest of my ever-shortening life with the stressy work dreams that have been plaguing my sleep more and more every passing week. And I could have all that for a relatively princely salary that is vastly higher than the earnings of the huge majority of working, publishing authors who are not Stephen King, Neil Gaiman, Jonathan Franzen, Zadie Smith, Danielle Steel, et al.

Yeah. I could totally do that. But heart attacks and stress dreams aside, I know that going all in on an advertising career like that will completely eradicate what little time and energy I have for my own writing. I have wanted to be a novelist my entire adult life; if I go for a full-on advertising career, I may as well take a big-ass knife and stick it into the heart of that lifelong hope and goal. It will never happen.

But, also, it may never happen anyway. Because my job even as it stands saps me dry of creative impulse and energy on any but the lightest weeks. If I eke out three or four hours of writing work over a weekend, I’m stoked. Those three or four hours here and there aren’t nothing—but they make finishing a novel, let alone three (possibly, soon four), monumentally slow going.

It also may never happen for less concrete reasons. It may never happen because I lack the caliber of talent required for even middling success. It may never happen because for all the wordy verbal skills I possess, I do not also have a knack for seeing through promising ideas to their full potential. It may never happen because I often fail at patience and focus. It may never happen just because statistically speaking, it usually doesn’t.

Which brings me back to bookstores, which are real, physical testaments to the creative resourcefulness and tenacity of writers. They contain the evidence of uncountable hours of intense toil; of uncomfortable compromises and glorious moments of pure creative joy; of surmounting self-doubt, self-loathing, and self-flagellation; of plans forgotten, dates broken, relationships neglected; of carpal tunnel and wide asses and high cholesterol; of characters who start out as incomprehensible strangers with strange motivations who are painstakingly created on paper, word by word, action by action as whole lives are created, manipulated, destroyed, and saved as the author plays god over their little world; of alcohol and/or drug abuse in the service, management, or medication of creativity; of the endless rounds of brutal, plot eviscerating edits and revisions both self- and editorially imposed; of getting to “The End” for the first time knowing that only means it’s time to go back to the beginning; of spending years on a manuscript only to have it summarily ignored, panned, misinterpreted, or vilified; of sending one’s creative heart and soul out into the world with no guarantee whatsoever that it won’t be unceremoniously obliterated by agents, editors, publishers, slush-pile readers, reviewers, and/or the general public—if one is so lucky to even get to the point of having the general public deign to regard one’s life’s work.

Bookstores remind me of the fact that no matter how hard I think I’ve worked, I haven’t worked nearly, nearly hard enough. Bookstores taunt me. Bookstores hold up the hard work of others right in my face and say, “You haven’t even begun, and you’re nearly 45. Get. The fuck. Going.” Bookstores passively aggressively suggest that maybe I should just give up on the whole writer thing and go do something else, go ahead and be an overpaid advertising monkey, because it would appear, based on trends established thus far, that I am not up to the task of working for the one thing in my life that I have always truly wanted. Bookstores, with smug logic, show me that the escape I long for on vexing workdays, the tunnel I’m allegedly digging one word at a time to a future as a full-time fiction writer, seems to be forever stalled in my own apathy, moderate talent, and creative exhaustion.

Yet I continue, as all writers do. I still put in my three or four hours on the weekends (usually). I still peck away at this blog-like object. I still have new ideas for stories and books that I want to get into. If I could come around to seeing that as the point of all this—creation, creativity, making something out of nothing, even if no one ever, ever sees it. It is one of the things I do truly love about my job: creation, ideation, storytelling, all at an urgent clip, training my mind to work faster and faster, even if my writing is getting slower and slower. I would like to keep it just there though, and not have to veer into understanding interoffice politics and budgets and all of that tiresome stuff. Like all creative people I just want to make things. Making things is the point. Showing those things we make to the world? Well, if you can, more power to you. But for me, I need to start thinking of that part as optional, so maybe I can start enjoying bookstores again.