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The Signing Line
At a recent literary festival I sat in my designated seat at the signing line and talked with another author about the experience of waiting for people to show up and ask you to sign their copy of your book for them. We wore our business casual attire in the summer heat and sipped our bottled water and fidgeted with the sharpies provided by the nice festival volunteers. People came and went on occasion. We wiped the sweat from our brows.
I’ve done festivals where I’ve had a healthy line but usually never anything extraordinary. That day I had ten people show up, maybe, over the course of an hour, including one woman who had read everything I had ever written and two cute teenage girls who were taking a writing class where they were working on memoir and were looking for “a little inspo.” One woman asked me where to buy my book and I pointed her toward the bookseller stand but then I never saw her again, which felt about as online as real life could get.
There were about thirty other authors seated around us. Some were doing a brisk business. Some were like this gentlemen and myself. Sitting and talking in the summer heat in a beautiful city that would a week later lose access to clean drinking water for the foreseeable future, a shocking disparity from our experience that day.
But we didn’t know how bad it was going to get yet. We were just meeting lazily at a literary festival. Chit-chatting about the small stuff in front of our nose. He was talking about how it felt like a competition. That wasn’t how I felt about it, but I did not have words yet for the feeling. I could see his point. You can publish a book and live in oblivion forever about your sales if you choose. But that day, that we were all lined up next to each other, and there was an actual visual representation of who was selling books and who wasn’t, at least in this city, or on this day.
Of course, the signing lines aren’t designed to make us feel that way. The signing lines are meant to connect the author and the audience. But sometimes we feel the way we feel anyway.
Later I messaged with a different author about his signing line — his had been long, I noticed. It was a fluke, he assured me, and then regaled me with some stories of readings from his past where no one had shown up. Empty chairs in an empty room with huge stacks of unsigned books. Afterward, a bookstore employee gave him a store t-shirt that never fit him quite right. He remembered the names of people he had sat next to in signing lines who were wildly popular. Colson Whitehead, Jonathan Franzen. People waiting for hours to see these famous authors, while the rest of us hope someone we went to college with drops by to say hello. Could we do anything but laugh about it though? Is there any point in feeling bad about someone else’s success? At the literary festival that day, it was Kiese Laymon who had the longest line. Is there any way we could argue with that? Who doesn’t want Kiese to sign their book?
“It’s a crazy old life, isn’t it?” said the writer.
A few days later, Laura sent me a draft of her book to read. I took it with me to the woods on vacation. “Lucky Laura to be done,” I thought. But of course luck has nothing to do with it. Laura works harder than most people I know.
Katy came along to the woods, too, and she was revising a new draft of her book. She had a to-do list she had brought with her. A list of fixes. I recognized where she was at with her work. Her book was finished enough to be worked on in a new way.
It was then that I felt a pang of something. I’m still far from that place with my draft. I’m still far from climbing to the next rung. I can’t taste it right now but I have tasted it before.
It would be so easy for me feel jealous or envious, but I know that gets you absolutely nowhere. I suppose earlier in my career I could have used that kind of feeling to drive me to work harder, produce more. That’s not a great spirit to attach to your creativity, though — or at least it isn’t for me.
So what was the feeling I was having? How could I reframe it? I realized it was a sense of longing. I wanted to be there, where they were. I wanted that feeling of doneness, or almost-doneness. I wanted to be in the next phase, because I have been in this one for so long now.
There will always be someone who has gotten something you want. Someone who gets into a fancy graduate school, or gets a grant you applied for, or gets a short story published somewhere amazing, or who gets more applause at the reading, or who gets written about in the local paper, or who finishes writing their book faster than you. There will always be someone getting more attention than you. More followers, more likes. Little pats on the head. Your entire fucking life it will be this way, I promise. What are you going to do with that feeling? Are you going to spin on it or are you going to push it aside and remember what counts?
So I put my head down again to work. I remember that I will be done again someday. There will be another signing line in the future where people will either show up or not show up. But we don’t write toward the signing lines! That jazzy, excited feeling you get if there’s a long line, I know that it doesn’t linger. But the work always does. That satisfaction, that feeling of finishing, completing this beautiful task, making a piece of art, is the memory that nestles inside. We write toward that.
Please read more about our neighbors over in Jackson, MS here in this piece by Kaitlyn Greenridge. And thank you to Ralph Eubanks for his piece on the festival and the water crisis. You can donate water here.
You are reading Craft Talk, the home of #1000wordsofsummer and also a weekly newsletter about writing from Jami Attenberg. I’m also on twitter and instagram. I try to answer comments as best I can, which are open to paid subscribers. You can subscribe here or give a gift subscription here. (If you are a teacher let me know, and I will give you a free subscription.) Fifty percent of the proceeds will go to various cultural, educational, and social justice organizations in New Orleans (and sometimes elsewhere). This week’s donation went to the Immigrant Alliance for Justice and Equity in Jackson, MS.