She’s the woman wearing a red hat, a feather curled over the brim, the small woman hustling her suitcase along the platform of the train station in Lamy, New Mexico, to hop on the coach car heading west. I notice her because she is of the age of those we don’t expect to hustle, or to wear a red hat with a feather curled over the brim, or to hop on trains heading West without any need of assistance.
In the diner that evening, I’m seated across from her at a table set for four. She is eating earnestly and enjoying her glass of wine. Two other women join us, and the conversation turns rapidly to writing; I mention my new collection of short stories, Mending, and the woman in the red hat produces a plastic bag with five of her small self-published books inside. They are romances, set in the south west, and she sells them on her frequent train trips and at crafts fairs; because it is now so cheap to self-publish, she makes more money off a single copy than I do.
And she is intrepid. She has no interest in literature, in editing, in the history of writing, or in other books. She is single-minded in her determination to sell one of her books to everyone she meets—for five dollars. On each sale, she makes three dollars, which over a considerable period of time pays for her seat in coach.
Recently she heard about an app that allowed her to make a preview of the movie she hopes will be made from one of her books: “A preview,” she says good humouredly, “for a movie that doesn’t exist yet.” She passes her iPhone around the table so we can all look at the three minute preview: a girl chasing a train, a man riding away with a letter, two cars being driven one behind the other. “Every movie has to have a car chase and a man riding off into the sunset,” she says with total assurance. Since she has these ingredients, she’s certain the movie will be made, although the preview has nothing to do with her book. “But the movies change everything anyway,” she tells us.
I find myself somewhere between laughing and crying.
For a long time now, I have been a believer in something called creativity: that we all have it, in one form or another, and deserve encouragement in developing our talent, whatever it may be. I’ve taught for years along these lines. For a while it seemed to me that creativity had no need of context: education, wide reading, a sense of what is happening in the literary world—all that was certainly elitist, limited, perhaps even detrimental if it squashed the creative spirit that springs up anywhere, any time, in any one, independent of all other factors.
Now technology has given this faith a reality I could never have imagined when I was encouraging everyone in my workshops to try their hand at writing. The iPhone, the iPad, the e-book, the apps and self-publishing make it easy and cheap to produce books—a solid thing, in the hand, or a bright thing, on a screen. No apprenticeship is needed, no long struggles with rewriting, editing, and the self-doubt that used to be the hallmark of serious writers.
Serious writers? Who are they?
Our books are expensive and employ language that is rapidly becoming obsolete. They are sold in bookstores, which are themselves, special, separate, threatened, and rare. These books are written slowly, sometimes painfully, and edited slowly, and also sometimes with pain, all to conform to a standard: what serious literature ought to be. But to uphold a standard that no longer means anything to most people seems an exercise in futility.
Now, in the diner, the lady in the red hat is recounting her one disappointment: “They asked me to come and take my books back,” she says with astonishment as she eats her ice cream. She’s speaking of a well-known literary bookstore in a large city. “But I’m going to put an ad in their local paper, saying, “LAST CHANCE TO BUY…” and when I go by that store, they’ll hand me a big check and ask me to bring in more books.”
And maybe they will.