Next Table Please

The writer community is a lot like a high school cafeteria. Not because of the food (although your w.i.p. diet of Cheetos and Dr. Pepper does bring back fond and/or frightening adolescent memories), but because of the cliques. For the purpose of this blogpost, we’ll use a different term: Tables of Earned Privilege.

Chances are you’re sharing a Table of Earned Privilege with Writers of Similar Experience. Let’s say you’re a self-published author. I mean the kind who hires an editor and a cover designer and a copyeditor and cares enough to produce something of quality, not the kind who throws a first draft at Amazon and suddenly thinks himself the next Stephen King. (Those particular writers are sitting at a different table – the Table of Delusion. It’s in the Janitor’s closet.) You’re seated at the Making a Go Of It And I Really Mean It Table. Look around your table. See any traditionally-published A-list authors?

Hey, stay focused here. Your eyes are wandering. I get it, there are some really cool tables.

Like that one with all the pizza and wine. That’s the Hocking-Howey Table of Self-Publishing Success. (It’s a somewhat honorary title, since they both also have seats at another table I’ll describe in a moment, long after this metaphor has exceeded its sell-by date*.) They’re a good bunch of folks, eager to engage in writerly conversation. They were you once. But let’s be realistic – one of the reasons for their success is all the time they spend writing and editing and marketing. So if they don’t have time to chat, don’t fret. You can always visit their website or buy their “How I Made It” book to pick up a few tips. I don’t mean that snarkily. Many of these folks have really good advice.

Or look at that table with all the home-made food and a box or two of Chinese take-out. That’s the Barnes & Noble™ New Book Table of Mid-List Authors. They’re a kind-hearted, sincere, yet surprisingly anxious bunch. If you study them for a while, you’ll see them stealing glances at the Hocking-Howey table, wishing their personal budgets allowed for Pizza Whenever, too. They’ll chat with you if you tell them how much you love their books, or if you manage to say something clever and/or re-tweetably hilarious. But don’t expect to sit with them for long. There’s only so much room at the table. (“But it’s a huge table,” you argue. Yep. And yet they’re always one seat short. It’s like a perpetual game of musical chairs.) Besides, they feel most comfortable talking amongst themselves, sharing encouragement and contract horror stories while they pass the potatoes and scratch-made gravy. Keep watching, though. They’ll often wander off to visit another table. Yes,  the one you’re pretty sure is catered by Ruth’s Chris Steak House, though it might be Outback Steak House – it’s hard to tell from this distance.

That would be the Limited-Seating-Available Table of A-List Authors. Oh, they don’t call it that themselves. They’re mostly really nice people who don’t have much inclination to live up to their iconic status. The best ones are happy to wander around the cafeteria to chat when they have a rare, spare moment. They love writing and writers. But once again, there’s only so much time left for such things, what with the TED talks, the multitude of ancillary projects, the sold-out book signings, the month-long writing retreats in Bora Bora and the wistful moments staring across a mirror-still lake at twilight remembering what it was like to be anonymous.

Pretty much everyone in the cafeteria is a hardworking writer just like you. Some are more talented. Some are more prolific. Some just happened to be in the right place at the right time. But they aren’t jerks who would rather get a one-star review than be seen chatting at your table. (Well,  most of them, anyway.) They’re just doing the best they can with what they have, wherever they sit. So it shouldn’t be too disheartening when your tweet to an author who sits at a different table goes un-favorited, un-responded to.

Of course, it often is disheartening. We say we write because we love to write; that even if we never find success we’ll keep writing. But we say it while staring longingly across the cafeteria. We want to sit where the coolest** kids sit.

Maybe someday you will. But you won’t get there by staring longingly at them across the cafeteria. You’ll get there by writing. A lot. You’ll get there by engaging with other writers, no matter where they sit. You’ll get there because of your talent. Or your hard work. Or because you happen to be in the right place at the right time.

But if you don’t? That’s okay too. Because Cheetos are delicious and all tables are suitable for writing. Yes, even the one in the janitor’s closet.


*I’m aware the table-lines aren’t so neatly drawn in reality. But I liked the metaphor. I’m a big fan of metaphors. Especially imperfect ones. They go nicely with my collection of incomplete thoughts and broken dreams. 

**Each of us has a unique definition of “coolest.” You might think the author who sells a quintillion novels is coolest. I might think the author who can burp the alphabet in Klingon is coolest. (Is that even possible?)



4 thoughts on “Next Table Please

  1. And then there are those of us who are far too shy to enter the cafetaria and are eating our homemade lunch outside under a tree, watching light and shadow dance for each other in an ancient cosmic love story, and taking notes.

    I want to tell you again how much I enjoyed reading Duck. It was so masterfully written, I truly hope for its success and especially that you feel encouraged to publish more, because the world needs more Stephen Parolini books.

    1. Yes, I’ve spent plenty of time outside under the tree. It’s nice there.

      And thanks again for your kind words about Duck. I need to do some marketing to people will know about it. But I’m mostly just happy I actually published something. Now, if only I can find the time to write the dozens of stories that litter my brain.

  2. I’d be the one running through the cafeteria with ketchup down her shirt, trying to stop my kids from squirting their grape juice box all over the nearest A-List Author. After which, I’d probably just drag a table out to the playground where I can eat my Lean Cuisine, write, and watch my kids eat sand.

    It’s a happy place to be, minus the Lean Cuisine, and the sand, and the kids. Actually, can we move the cafeteria to the Four Seasons?

  3. Nice metaphor 🙂 I never cared about it, but now I can see that you’re right, there are tables. However, what I would enjoy more is walking around, chatting with the folks without sweating about which table I can sit at.

Comments are closed.