My response was one I felt didn't even need to be said: basically, I've written a lot of stuff, and most of it I've never sent out or shown anyone. At this point, I've published eleven books and have two more forthcoming. After the conversation, I dug around and discovered around thirty pretty much complete manuscripts--poetry collections, short story collections, and mostly novels. I couldn't say how many unfinished ones I've got. I didn't count screenplays, but I've written maybe four or five complete ones. It's a relatively new pursuit for me. So what? I've been writing seriously for fifteen years. I would hope to have amassed a decent amount of material.
I was met with not just amazement but disdain. The guy acted like I was lazy and woefully disconnected from reality. "I would have those scripts in the mail," he said. "Are they any good?" Hard to say, but I was happy with a couple of them. "Send them out," he said. Didn't I realize that I could be signing a multimillion dollar production deal right now instead of wasting my life?
That's when I realized two things. One, I wasn't going to be working with this person. Not just because he clearly had a bad attitude, but because of reason two, which is: he's not a writer. Not really. Maybe he will be someday, maybe he's just starting out, whatever. But at the time of this conversation, this guy was not a writer. If he were, he would know that writing isn't about creating a finished project to sell, a screenplay to send out. If it were about that, well it would be a hell of a lot easier. Writing is a compulsion. I read updates on FB from writers saying things like, "I got to 40,000 words. I guess this might be a novel." I imagine a statement like that must be confounding to this person. What it means is that sometimes you write nearly two hundred pages (that's probably close to a couple months commitment) before you even know if you've written anything worth editing. Or, sometimes you write a whole novel, sometimes you write ten novels, and they're just not on the level of your other work. It doesn't mean they're bad. It can mean a lot of things. Maybe they're too personal. Maybe they're just not right. Maybe they're good, but this other manuscript is better, so you focus your energy on that one.
I'm not saying that writing is a magical unicorn fart and we must all attune ourselves with the crystalline energies of its, like, inspiration, man, and not get bogged down in that whole money thing, ya dig? The hope is always that something really good and, hey, lucrative, emerges from the word pit. Of course. But you never really know until you...well, actually, you just never really know. I've heard writers say they regret publishing a particular novel, so even at that stage, you can still not be sure if what you've written is worthwhile, good, whatever it is we're actually striving for.
And, to clarify again, I don't have thirty manuscripts and some screenplays (stageplays, a memoir, etc. etc.) sitting in limbo because I'm a perfectionist. That's not what I'm saying. I may well dig several of them out some day. But, to be honest, it's a hell of a process to undertake, not just revision, but sending a book out, waiting, being rejected, finally placing it, revising it ten more times, not really making enough money off it to have bothered, dealing with crappy reviews, if that happens (it's only happened to me once or twice, but that was enough), or the book just kind of being ignored, which is what happens to the vast, vast majority of books published. It's emotionally draining. To be honest, most of the books I've published survived this whole process because they either were really important to me, or, in the case of my genre novels, once I established a relationship with my publishers, it was a lot easier placing more books with them. But it was still a long and difficult process.
Another thing to consider, not to go too deep into this: it takes me a couple months to write a draft of a book, more or less. Let's say it comes out pristine. I revise it, maybe take a couple weeks to do that because I'm in a hurry for some reason. I tend to revise as I go and mark possible trouble spots, so I can revise pretty quickly usually. But, to be really honest, I'd probably sit on the book for several months, maybe years, before I even look at it. And I'm still writing that whole time. So that's at least one more book. Then, I send it off. While it's in the mail, I keep writing. Let's say the press picks it up in three months. That's crazy-quick, but let's say it happened. Well, I actually wrote another book during that time. The press schedules the first book to come out in six months time, which is pretty quick. Two or three months go by, I've written another novel, and they send me edits. So, I revise, maybe take another couple weeks on that, send it back off, get edits back, this repeats a few times, etc. etc. So, by the time the book comes out, I've written three more books. These are just drafts, mind you. The book does okay, the press liked it a lot, and they want another. But they want something similar. So that means I write a whole new book and go through this process again. What happened to those three books, plus everything I write during the revision time for this new one? They're on my hard drive.
What I'm saying is: Jesus, a writer fucking writes, just like Billy Crystal's character said in Throw Mama from the Train. If you don't, you're not a writer. Writing one book doesn't make you a writer. Sorry, but it doesn't. (And, hey, if you only ever write one book, you're probably not very good.) I cannot tell you the number of people I know from grad school or wherever who wrote a handful of stories or poems, maybe one complete manuscript, won some award, and never wrote anything again. Hey, guess what? Not writers. Not really. They figured that out--they were lucky enough to taste some success and realize that wasn't enough and quit. Writing isn't about awards or product. It's about process. Being a writer means you write when you can, without anyone holding your hand, without anyone caring in the slightest, and maybe some of it sees the light of day. Most probably won't. Or maybe you quit writing for six months and drink scotch and smoke cigars and then finally, finally put the razor down and get back to it only to write the best thing of your life and then never show it to anyone because you might be wrong. Or you might be right. So yeah, I have all kinds of crazy shit on my hard drive. I've got screenplays. I've got stuff in all kinds of different genres. I dabble. I practice, and I don't send every practice session out into the world.