Don’t quit your day job

Autobiography of An Accidental Author

 My destiny was revealed at a very early age: I was going to be a writer. All I needed was to learn how to read and write and then get some mileage on the clock, so I had something to write about.

My first work appeared when I had just turned five. It went like this (roughly translated, remember, I am actually a Boeremeisie):

“Mama, I’m writing a story for you. About the sun and the moon. Now it is about the little sheep grazing in the field. He eats grass.” It was written on a page of blue Croxley’s notepad and I even illustrated this phenomenal oeuvre myself, being quite artistic as well. It was stuck up on the wall in front of my mum’s sewing machine, and it stayed there for a few decades. (Limited edition digital reprints will be released in 2012. Order now.)

Limited edition. Order now!

Years went by after my promising debut, but, due to leading a rather sheltered life with my family, I wasn’t really able to travel and do much research. Consequently, from 1976-1985, nothing much happened in terms of my writing career. I did self-publish a number of smaller works on horses, dogs and fairies and one story of the love between a Native American girl and her horse, just to keep my hand in. Sadly, no major works published from that period.

When I was 15, I started a journal. By the time I was 16, I was writing 500 pages a month, but nothing worth reading, let alone publishing.  I was great at essay writing all the way through highschool, and at university, I was writing with what I like to call creative flair, even in the most mundane subjects. But I was still waiting for my novel to present itself. I was sure it would be a novel. A big heavy one. With unforgettable characters and a storyline that would leave my devoted readers breathless.

Nothing happened. I went and got married. Had babies. Tried to cook and clean. Then something terrible and frightening happened: my two year old son asked me to tell him a story. Not read a story, but make one up. I could not come up with anything vaguely interesting. It was utterly and heartbreakingly impossible. Even my child sat there impatiently waiting for the feeble story to go somewhere, and eventually he gave up and fell asleep. I hid my face in shame.

Now, if I couldn’t even make up a story for a toddler, how would I ever make up a story for real people, let alone a story that could fill a whole novel? No, it was obviously impossible and my destiny had clearly been confused with someone else’s. Maybe JK Rowling. She’s about my age…

So I quit. I didn’t even think about writing for many years. I thought only of making it through my children’s toddler years and getting sleep.

A few years later, I wrote a book quite by accident. It started as a two-page hand-out about sleep. Or, more accurately, lack of sleep – which, by that time, had become a mild obsession of mine (since my children also inherited someone’s Bad Sleep Gene – not from me, obviously). It was just a summary of information and tips provided free of charge to the sleep-deprived mothers visiting our clinic. In time, the article grew to four pages, then to eight. The margins and the font size kept shrinking to accommodate all the new bits I was adding.

Then, one fateful day, I sat down at my old computer and opened the document, planning to squeeze in just a few more facts. I little lightbulb lit up above my head. I pressed “select all” and made the font size 14. And I made the margins normal width. I scrolled down. It was now 26 pages long! I remember sitting there for a long time, staring at the screen. An idea was hatching, but it was taking its time working through the thick gloob that once used to be a pretty good brain.

Little by little, The Plan became clear: I would flesh out this lot with some some research, expert opinions, some pictures and tables and graphs, and I would make it into a little booklet. And I would SELL it. And so began a journey of roughly 1044 steps.

The booklet took shape – nothing fancy, 60 pages, photocopied on the inside and a simple coloured cover, but I was quite chuffed. I set about marketing my little paper baby to anyone involved with human babies. Gradually things started happening, and by the end of a couple of years, I had sold 3500 of them. I was making a pretty good little profit. If I had continued just like I was doing, this story may have had a happy ending. But, alas, I was seduced by the big city lights.

After months of deliberation, I decided to take my baby mainstream, and get it published. Getting a publisher was quite easy, contrary to my expectations. I had a little book already selling like hotcakes, which greased the tracks somewhat.

The editing and graphic design took a full year. I was impatient, I wanted to hurry them along, but I was told by my publisher and other authors that this is just how it is. Hurry up and wait.

Finally, finally, it was ready, and I received my first box of books. It was amazing. There it was, in all its full colour glossiness. My name, my face, on a real book! I even had an ISBN number! “I’m an author!!” I shouted. It felt good. Seriously good. (I was over the whole novel thing. That was just a cosmic mix-up. All is forgiven. Really, no big deal.)


Some time after the accidental book, an actual accident happened to my family, and this finally put enough real mileage on my clock to write about. Again, I never sat down and said, “Now I am going to start writing a book.” Yet another accidental one. I’m like someone who has had TWO unplanned pregnancies. This one started out as a diary – simply a way of putting thoughts and feelings onto a page so that they wouldn’t have to stay in my head, where they scared the hell out of me.

A few years later, my publisher asked the million dollar (I wish) question: “So what is your next book going to be about?”

“Well, I doubt if this could ever become a real book, but… but, uhmm, I have been writing about what happened to us.”

“Send it.”

All that diary writing when I was a teenager must have paid off, because the very next day, my publisher phoned to say, “I want to publish it.” And, gee whizz, who can say no to those magical words?

And so another year passed and another box arrived and was opened with great anticipation…

Now, for mental health reasons, I will not go into details about the rest of the book publishing fiasco here. I’m trying to breathe through this tissue – oops, I meant ISSUE, and perhaps one day, when I can afford therapy, I can finally come to terms with it. Suffice to say, neither fame nor fortune ensued. At roughly R8 a book, fortune is pretty unlikely. As for fame…? Even after selling 2000 books, no-one is famous. Forget it.

Hence the title of this little piece: Don’t quit your day job.

I’m not saying, “Don’t write”. By all means, WRITE! Today! Start NOW! What do you think I’m doing? I’m writing for all I’m worth, every day! All I’m saying is, “Don’t think about writing a book in order to have it published.” More importantly, don’t PUT OFF writing your story, your novel, your whatever, because the publishing process scares you or you don’t think you have enough talent. Just write. Write for the sheer joy of it. For therapy. For clarity. For fun. For sanity. For catharsis. Write because you can’t seem to NOT write. Write for YOU. Write for your children, and your parents, and your siblings, and your friends. Write for the record. Write whatever you want. Write for the heck of it. And then release it into the wild!

That is what I have decided to do. I am writing because I love it, because it prevents my brain from degenerating into a gelatinous blob of oatmeal again, and because, in the process I am putting down on virtual paper the story of my life – an ordinary life. I am also recording snippets of my parents’ (mostly ordinary) lives, and my kids’ (mostly ordinary, possibly boring-as-can-be) lives. And my Moonman and his family’s lives. For several years now, I have been quietly tormenting myself: “What will I write about next?” – but let’s face it, there are already 10 books and 1000 articles on the web on every subject you can come up with – everything has been said and done and gotten the t-shirt.

Martha Beck, famous author of Expecting Adam talks about the “Shitty First Draft.” Don’t sit there for weeks trying to come up with the perfect, captivating opening sentence. Don’t worry about how you are going to structure it all. Don’t worry about who your target audience is or whether you will get a publisher and whether your book will sell. Just START. You don’t even have to “start at the very beginning” like they say in Do-Re-Mi… start anywhere you like. Chronology will come later, if it is destined to come. If not, who cares?

Elizabeth Gilbert, who wrote Eat Pray Love, says she found it almost impossible to write again after having published a best seller. The pressure was just too much: thinking of the millions of people who had loved Eat Pray Love and who were eagerly anticipating her next book. So she decided to write for 27 people. Some family members, a few friends, a neighbour, a colleague. And, writing with only these 27 people in mind, she was able to write Committed (which, BTW, is much better than Eat Pray Love.)

So if you want to write, but can’t find your voice, perhaps start by writing for your own 27 people.

My grandma, Ouma Nora Neser, sat down one day and started writing down her life story. I don’t know who she was writing for, but I imagine she might also have had her 27 loved ones in mind. She filled two or three pages with her delightful wit and irepressible spirit. But, being a wife and mother of five sons, I guess real life soon called her away – there was supper to be cooked or clothes to be washed – and she didn’t write any more. Reading it for the first time, I wanted to cry when I reached the premature end of her writing. I wanted MORE. I wanted to know about her daily life, her parents, her twelve siblings, her life as a young woman. I wanted to know her as a person, not just as the funky grandma she was to all of us. I wanted, I craved, I longed, but it was no use, because Grandma is no longer with us. Her unwritten stories have gone with her, and to me, this is a great loss. Thankfully, the story of how her mother built a chicken coop with her father’s tools and broke just about all of them, remains with us.

Which is why I am writing now. I don’t have any monumental, historically significant life-changing stories to tell. This is me describing how I built a metaphorical chicken coop. So that one day, if they want to, my grandchildren (if I have any) can read about it. So that they can know me as a person who lived an ordinary life in ordinary but interesting times. Because one thing we can be sure of, is that times will have changed again by then. Today will be the olden days. Our grandkids will say, “Gee, Gran, did you still have laptops and cellphones and iPods back in your day? That must have been weird!” (Or, worse still, “Gran, what’s a CD?” “Oh, I remember the days, when we still had CD’s… They were these shiny round disks which you put into this machine called a CD player …”)

I have absolutely no intention of publishing another book. (At least not a paper book. An e-book maybe, now that the Amazon Kindle has been invented…). But I do intend to write a great deal more, now that I have shaken off the pressure I’ve put on myself: What is my next book going to be about? Forget the next book! There isn’t going to be a next book! Yay!

Even so, it does feel a bit like cheating, perched here on my bed with my little laptop. My youngest comes sidling up to me, then leans over to see if it’s MS Word or Facebook on the screen. “What are you doing?” She’s at that age now (and she can read). I tell her I’m working. But I’m not! I’m pretending to work! Working is earning money, or, at least, doing something that you hope will earn you some money in the future. And writing about sailing with my Moonman is never going to earn me a cent, so, in reality, I’m not working. And of course, I should be working. Because, as a poor author, I need the money.

Even when I was working on a real book, doing real writing, it felt like cheating. How can you sit typing away while the children are hungry? While the dishes are piling up in the sink and no-one has clean clothes to wear?? You can’t. You leave your labour of love and go labour for your loved ones (just like Ouma Nora did). Let’s face it – writing doesn’t LOOK like working. And here in our country, no-one I know gets an advance of a few hundred thousand rand to come up with a book in the next year. You write first, then hope for a publisher, and a year and or two later, you might get your first royalty cheque. And it might even be more than R500!

Becoming a full-time writer was and still is my ultimate fantasy. I dream of living a minimalistic life somewhere in the Karoo, where the Moonman can keep his chickens and goats, getting up in the morning (late), getting a cup of tea and some rusks, and sitting down at the computer to do nothing but WRITE, the whole day. But, much like the empty nest, this, too, is a fantasy. It will probably never happen.

So, in its place, I carry on a secret little love affair with words. I write in stolen moments, late at night when I should be sleeping. Or during happy hour, between putting the rice in the pot and when it boils. While waiting for the toast to pop, waiting for the kettle to boil. Scribbling little notes while hanging up the washing. While the domesticated me is noisily vaccuuming the floors, my dream-self is quietly writing a masterpiece.


Erica Neser © 2011


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