Leaping Into My [New] Future --- By Building On My Past

I used to have a sizable audience for this blog --- back before I let it go in order to focus on the meat book. These days, I don't think anyone reads it and, these days, I've not devoted much effort to it.

 aka The Bomb

aka The Bomb

But this site, this blog are important to me, my daily life, even (at the risk of sounding high falutin') to my professional identity. So although no one's reading, I want to report interesting (to me) news.

The meat book bombed. As of this date, ten months after publication, it's sold a mere 2,000 or so copies. It’s bombed so badly that I get the impression that the publisher isn’t planning a paperback edition. Typically, that would publish a year after the initial launch, which would mean just about a month from now. But I've heard nary a peep from the publishing company, and that’s not a good sign. (The corollary to book bomb is that as far as mainstream publishing is concerned, I’m dead. Toast. Finito. No one’s gonna offer me another book contract.)

For this failure, I blame myself. Mentally and physically, writing the meat book exhausted me in a way the other three did not. Presumably that's in part because I turned sixty a month before the book launched in November 2013. I'm not the same person I was when I started the book in 2006. I have less stamina. Even less tolerance for crap than I did when I was younger. I care deeply about the world around me, but the parameters of that world have shifted markedly in the past few years.

As a result, I didn’t put much effort into promoting the book. I should have been out there 24/7 hitting social media, chiming in on relevant web sites, or writing op-ed pieces and trying to place those (after four or five failed attempts with those, I realized that a) I suck at writing short opinion pieces; and b) no one was interested in my take on meat or food politics).

 The last days of my last book

The last days of my last book

But I didn't. I was exhausted and burnt out and . . . I gave into my exhaustion. 

(It didn't help that the publishing house washed its hands of the book even before it came out. I hired an outside publicist for the initial launch, and they were fabulous. But I had little money and could only hire them for a few weeks. After that I was on my own.) (And yes, being abandoned like that infuriated me and I wasted energy being furious. Which didn’t help the situation.) 

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Eventually, of course, the haze of my exhausted stupor gave way and I was forced to ask the Important Question: "What next?" 

This was the first time in twenty years that I was not contractually committed to writing a book. The first time in twenty years I wasn't spending every day in the university library wading through microfilm, books, papers, etc. 

As a friend put it the other day, I was unmoored. And, I'll be honest, sad, depressed, angry at myself. Blah, blah, blah.

But I trust my mind. I knew that if I waited, eventually my mind, always clicking away in the background, would tell me which fork in this road to travel.

 Where I spent much of the summer, awaiting my brain's plan.

Where I spent much of the summer, awaiting my brain's plan.

And, whew, finally . . .  it has done so.

To wit: It’s unlikely that I’ll write another book. 

THAT, it turned out, was the vague but hefty obstacle that prevented me from moving forward: I didn’t want to commit to another monster book like the four I've written.

Lest you think I'm lazy, let me explain: The meat book, to use the most recent example, took seven years to create. Six of those years, I spent sitting in various libraries slogging through the documents. 

People, it's work. Seven, eight, nine, ten hours a day at the library: reading, sifting, analyzing, pondering. Once I cobble together a foundation of research, only then can I start writing. But getting to that point takes years. The meat book, for example, took about a year to write, but six to research.

And at age sixty (at least for a few more days), I can’t think of a single reason to bust my ass for another five or six years on a book that no one will read. And a book whose fate would be primarily in the hands of a Big Publishing House. Not gonna do it. 

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The instant I admitted that I wasn’t interested in writing another book, an enormous load, one I’d not even realized was there, lifted from my shoulders, my spirit, my heart, my whatever, yougetthedrift.

But euphoria has its limits. I gotta do some kind of work, right? If not a book, then . . . what? 

The sad --- no, the embarrassing --- fact is that I have almost no skills. I spent fifteen years waiting tables, but my old body isn't up for that again. (It's HARD WORK, people.) I've got zero entrepreneurial instincts; okay, less than zero. I doubt anyone's gonna hire me to be a file clerk. I could probably get work at Walmart as a greeter.

No, that didn’t sound appealing. But then my brain pointed out that twenty years of writing books had taught me a few skills. I can write a coherent sentence. I'm not a "writer," and never will be --- but I can craft a coherent piece of work. And I'm interested in a bunch of things. And I have a shitload of self-discipline.

As important, the world of publishing has changed, radically, since 2006 (when the beer book came out and I also began work on the meat book). These days it’s possible to publish a piece of work and earn money without dealing with a middleman. Indeed, I’ve got several friends who've turned their writing skills to money by writing longish essays about this, that, and the other. 

Henceforth I’ll be combining my [limited] writing skills with new publishing technologies. I’ve got a bunch of ideas for short essays. If I sell an essay for 99 cents and get, say, 70 cents of the sale price, and five hundred readers buy it, hey! I'd earn more money than I am now. 

So that’s my plan: to write and publish short pieces, ones that require relatively little or no research. (By "short," I mean 20,000-50,000 words; by comparison, the meat book's text [not including index and bibliography] was about 95,000 words.)

As soon as I articulated this plan, first to myself, then to my husband, I knew it was solid. It felt as solid and doable and exciting as my last big life plan felt, waaaay back in 1998 when I realized that I had to leave academia in order to save my own life. That moment launched my not-so-brilliant career writing popular history. 

Yeah, I know: that plan failed. Still, I got three books out of it. I enjoyed life-altering experiences. Got to be an “expert” and a talking head. Etc. And had I not made that leap back in 1998, I wouldn’t be where I am now, equipped to make this new leap in 2014. 

 My second selfie ever. August 2014. You can see the, uh, bad hair.

My second selfie ever. August 2014. You can see the, uh, bad hair.

So. The first piece I plan to publish is “My Bad Hair,” which I’ve been working on off and on for about a year. (Apparently my brain knew I needed a new plan long before I did.) I’m hoping to have it out before year’s end. I need to learn the ropes about self-publishing, digital formatting, etc., and of course finish the essay itself.  But every new venture starts with small steps, right? And I’m truly excited and happy to see my way forward.

Thanks for reading this. Thanks to those of you who’ve stuck with me for so long. (Honestly, don’t you guys have something better to do?) (Kidding, people! Kidding.) Here’s hoping for better things ahead. 

And thanks, of course, to those friends who helped me see the way forward. Especially Evan Rail.