As I continue to work on You Will Not Be Forgotten, each Wednesday I am going to post about something I’ve learned in the process of writing this book. Maybe it will be something about myself or about slavery or about history in general; I’m not sure. One thing I do know is this – writing this book has changed me in more ways than I will probably ever know. I hope you’ll check in each week to see what I’ve discovered in the process. I hope you’ll share your thoughts, too.
Here’s my dream – a big publishing house – let’s say Farrar, Strauss and Giroux – picks up my book. They layout the book, have a designer create a spectacular cover, and help me put together a huge book tour that will take me to all 50 states and Europe at their expense. I sell hundreds of thousands of copies and get an advance to write my second book, which FSG has already bought. I’d be over the moon is this happened.
And maybe it will. But I can’t count on that to be the reason I write every day partially because it is beyond my control. Mostly, though, I can’t write for the purpose of selling my words because, well, that’s not the real reason I write.
I write because nothing else in the world makes me feel as sane or whole or strong. Nothing else fills me up like writing. This is what I am made to do.
I can easily slip into a focus on sales, where the value of what I’m doing is based on who buys it, but as my friend Lia pointed out yesterday, even if I never sell this book, the process of writing it will have been so worth it. I would not give up what I have learned about slavery and the South, about how language affects our thoughts, about these people – Cyrus, Isham, Joan, Mourning, Davie – for any kind of book contract, sales record, or speaking gig. There is no way the publishing process could ever pay me enough for what I have gained here.
When I begin to focus on selling my book, I start to tread on dangerous ground. Sure, I want to remember that other people will read this book, and I need to be sensitive to writing for someone outside of just myself. But when I put too much emphasis on selling, it’s very easy for me to compromise my integrity and the integrity of these stories. Suddenly, any reference to scandal could become central because scandal sells. Such a focus would be dishonest because these people were not people of scandal; they were normal, broken, beautiful folks whose lives matter in all their day-to-day normalness. To make this book about garnering readers through the tragedies of their lives, that would be so selfish and so awful of me. This tack would probably sell more books, but I refuse.
Instead, I hunker down into the every day, and I write. I write Primus’s story as best I know how, with as much honesty and truth as I can muster. I so badly want other people to read his story, to know him, but that is beyond my control.
All I can do is write the best I can, every day. That’s my job. The book will be published or it won’t, but I, I will be here at my desk, putting down the words.