Writers on Writing #52: Ryan Werner
How to Make -$1377 the Hard Way
Punk rock means that not only do all the eggs go in the basket, but you decide what the eggs and the basket are. Anyone who understands this probably doesn’t need the reminder and anyone who doesn’t understand it probably isn’t going to have a revelation concerning it, so I’ll stop being indignant before I get wet under the arms about it.
I started a micropress, published my own chapbook, and got in a car to drive around the country promoting it at any place that will return my e-mails and phone calls not because I think the system is broken. I just think the system is bigger than it appears to be.
This isn’t a rally against anything, unless you want it to be.
Get in the van.
I figured out what an indie lit journal is because the big journals with a state name and the word “review” in their title kind of scared me, had me convinced that only professionals were allowed.
Regardless of how much I complain about lots of journals now—full immersion in anything really lends itself to bitching—they’re still the same thing they’ve always been: a place where one or two or a handful of people publish the things they like to read, almost always without having to be concerned about a market or sales and general bullshit.
Very few of us are making a ton of money by writing stories or poems or essays. No matter the size or prestige of a journal, take comfort in knowing that if your work is accepted by a small place that only has a handful of likes on its Facebook page or doesn’t really have an awesome layout on their website or is essentially unknown and untested in many ways, that a stranger read your work and wanted to put their name on it. You can’t pay the rent with cred.
I trust the folks at Breadcrumb Scabs who accepted my work as much as I trust the folks at The Indian Review who accepted my work. A good journal, online or otherwise, is proof of why writing and the community that surrounds it is awesome, even if it occasionally means dealing with obvious image construction and the comments section at HTMLGIANT.
I’m assuming most of you know this already, but it never hurts to hammer in the basics: what you want is out there.
In making Justin Lawrence Daugherty’s chapbook Whatever Don’t Drown Will Always Rise, I had a bunch of ideas, and one that I was committed to was printing out some cryptic stuff on tissue paper and stapling it into the book. The next thing I was committed to was picking scraps of tissue paper out of the guts of my printer.
It turns out that was a bad idea, to run tissue paper through a hundred dollar printer. I ended up unscrewing lots of parts from the printer, taking the same screwdriver and unfucking all the little pieces of thin blue paper that were wrapped around the rollers. Then I set to putting the printer back together.
My first reaction to something isn’t to see how it works. I like to see what something does when it works. I don’t know if that’s the way most people are or not—like I said, that’s not the sort of attention I pay—but it’s convenient to be that way when it comes to building anything.
It won’t always be putting a printer back together, but sometimes it will, and if you’ve attacked things like a composer, looking at individual parts and seeing the places and reasons they nearly miss or nearly hit and keeping in mind what it should look like when completed, then you can surely, easily, handily screw together a goddamn printer, right?
As for Justin’s book, the tissue paper was a no go. Instead, I printed off the cryptic things on a sheet of paper, folded it in half, crumpled up the right side of it, made some smudge marks over the phrases, and burnt a hole through the page. This was considerably more work and, despite having a handful of people tell me that their children like to do similar arts and crafts things, it turned out much more rad than some bullshit tissue paper with stuff on it.
This positive spin on saying fuck it is another thing to keep in mind. Sometimes you can’t fix it. That’s fine. If you can’t climb the wall, tear the fucker down.
Things I didn’t have time for but somehow had to do between my overly-American 40+ hours a week at two different shit jobs, three bands, and pinball: learn how to use Adobe InDesign, correspond with artists about arwork, edit manuscripts, send edits to the author, edit manuscripts again, tweak layout all the time, print test runs and (slowly, slowly) read through for errors, edit the goddamn manuscripts again, arrange the final draft of the artwork, remind the author that I need their blurbs soon, contact places about offering review copies after taking like two hours just to figure out how to export the InDesign file as a motherfucking PDF, go pick up the covers sometime between the hours of 8:00 AM and 5:00 PM even though the place is twenty minutes away and I work between those exact hours almost every day, make the pre-title pages for the books (including ripping up newspapers and taping them back together for mine and the crumple/smudge/burn process described above for Justin’s), line up the cover and the pre-title page and the body of the book and hope that they stay that way when I staple them, package all the orders with a handwritten note and a sticker to show that, yes, there is a person doing all of this shit and I am very, very happy to be doing it.
The shitty attitude towards self-publishing both makes sense and totally sucks. Terminology is important, I guess. DIY is what people say when something funded and propelled by the person who created it is cool. Jon Konrath’s collections of bizarro fictions are DIY because he’s an insane person doing the thing he has to do to put what he believes in out in the world. The lady I worked with at Wal-Mart who wrote detective romance books that I’m sure read like Sue Grafton in an iron lung is very, very self-published.
One of the first things I think when I find out someone has a new book is Who’s putting it out? I don’t know why that matters to me. It matters less to me now than it did a year ago, and a whole lot more than it did a year before that. Still, the question exists, and I think it’s part jealousy and part expectations, that it’s not good in the lit world unless someone else signs their name to it.
But I’m still kind of a dickhead, and it’s still mostly jealousy. I’m jealous that Tao Lin has publicity and I don’t, that people lose their minds over Ben Tanzer and I just think he’s okay, that I literally threw Care Fake Bear Torque Cake across the room out of disgust and was hoping it hit my copy of Scorch Atlas.
Those are just names of people and books that came to mind, but they work.
I have opinions and so do other people. I work hard and so do other people. I have ideas and so do other people. We do all of these things in different ways. It took me a lot of years and a lot of conscious effort to make myself realize that, aside from there being a vast-but-finite number of journals and publishers and multiple-but-limited opportunities within each realm, someone gaining something is not the same as someone taking something away from me.
Tao Lin’s success has nothing to do with my failures. I think he’s a joke, but he’s done something right, apparently. I think Ben Tanzer would be better suited writing screenplays and sitcoms, but he seems like one of the nicest guys out there and he writes all the fucking time. That dude busts his ass and kicks out material daily. And even though Take Care Fake Bear Torque Cake is garbage—I refuse to preface that with “I think,” though I will cop to Scorch Atlas just not being my thing and nothing more—who gives a shit?
The number of people who make it without putting in the work is pretty negligible. All of the aforementioned people put in the time, all of the aforementioned books are crafted and have an aesthetic. I can’t figure out why I let taste and my perception of how much work an author did or did not do be the biggest chunk of my focus, but I keep reminding myself that we’re all sitting down and doing the same thing and I should probably stop being such a dick about it.
I guess I’m just trying to say that people believe in all sorts of things. If the thing they believe in is something they created and then nurtured and maybe fronted some cash to make it be a thing that can be held and possibly enjoyed by others, awesome. If someone else fronted the bill and did the legwork, that’s also cool, because, in the end, I probably have the same chance of throwing the goddamn thing across the room in a rage.
Blame it on love. My buddy who I lived with was selling the house and moving in with his soon-to-be-wife. I ended up back at my parents’ farm, about twenty-five minutes from where I worked my shitty day job and a different twenty-five minutes away from where I worked and played in bands and saw my girlfriend.
I lived at home, worked two jobs, and spent most of my free time driving to band practice or work. I started putting away a grand a month, easily. Within a year I’d have enough for a nice little two bedroom farmhouse in Southwest Wisconsin with an acre of land and a half-mile driveway, all for about the price of a few used Buicks.
I never bought a house. After three months of saving and The Real Housewives of Atlanta with Diane Werner, I quit Wal-Mart, got an apartment with my girlfriend and the bassist in one of my bands—the rent was less than what I was spending on gas each month—and decided that I was going to go on a book tour.
I didn’t exactly know what that meant when I decided to do it. I knew that most book tours are some combination of New York, Portland, Chicago, and LA and that there’s a lot of flying, and I knew that my name and bank account wouldn’t make that any sort of option. I also knew that if I figured out what the fuck a book tour is when I don’t have a publishing company to bankroll it and my car works fine, then I could make it happen.
Before I left for tour, I needed to have a lot of each book. That meant around 200 books, considering I was doing my book and Justin’s book, but also limited runs of my Neko Case sonnets and a pre-release of Matthew Burnside’s Infinity’s Jukebox coming out this fall. I wouldn’t sell them all, but erring on the side of too little is silly.
My girlfriend was pleading with me one night to stop printing, stop stapling. I told her I have to.
And I was right. But so was she, because, yes, I remember other things, and they are wonderful.
If you start your own micropress, make sure you can make it work. A micropress, like any other thing you love and have to focus really hard on as a byproduct of loving it, will consume your life. Your big stupid goddamn awesome life.
Tour is mostly waiting. The way I did it is the way bands do it. I looked at a map and then decided how far I wanted to go and how long I wanted to take to do it. I got in touch with friends or just writer acquaintances and asked them them to either set me up with a show or asked them where the cool places to read are. Then I repeated that for every city and hoped that some kind soul would let me crash on their floor when I get there.
The first thing I waited for was people to respond to e-mails, dozens of e-mails that I sent to coffee shops and book stores and cool little spots that purportedly have shows, none of which, I realized, really gave a shit that I was altering my entire life to possibly come to their city. I followed up some of the e-mails by phone and waited for return calls. I sent more e-mails after a week of waiting, just asking if the e-mail was received.
Nobody would even get back to tell me to fuck off. I had a month and a half to set up a dozen readings in eleven states and the only thing I could get back was silence.
I bottled up a lot of anxiety and spent a lot of time sweating through my minutes, waiting for the options I was exhausting to bloom, and when they somehow did, the next thing I had to wait for was actually doing it, lots of long days of hyperfocus on packing and getting books ready and mailing out fliers, just a shaky dream sitting on the long side of my gut.
As far as the other waiting goes, I saw most of the country, but I saw it in a bunch of 600 mile stretches from one of several windows in Justin Daugherty’s 2010 Toyota Corolla.
The weird thing about having a dream is that sometimes you wake up and you’re still in it. Of course, at that point, touring wasn’t a dream as much as it was the next logical step in the work I was doing to get there. Just like I dreamed about someday being published and someday having a book, by the time they actually happened it just made a lot of delightful sense that I’m extremely grateful for.
I won’t do this forever. I think Passenger Side Books probably has a few good years in it and one or two bad ones. As for me going on tour all the time—for two weeks every three months with random readings sprinkled in—I don’t know how long that will last. It’s a consuming, expensive process that my whole life is currently working around, but it’s not a job or a family or a responsibility to anything other than itself. It’s a hard thing to justify.
Still, these things are important, subversion and money and glory and connections and craft and satisfaction and so. I can’t say for sure if making books and touring and, really, writing in general, are the places that I’m looking for, but what a beautiful way to get to there, smashing my head upon the punk rock over and over and over again.
Ryan Werner is a janitor in the Midwest. He is the author of the short short story collection Shake Away These Constant Days (Jersey Devil Press 2012) and the chapbook story cycle Murmuration. He runs the small chapbook press Passenger Side Books, is on Twitter @YeahWerner, and has a website named www.RyanWernerWritesStuff.com.