Self-Publishing and Suicide
On April 1st, The New York Times ran a heart-breaking story–a profile of therapist and would-be author, Bob Bergeron, which appeared on the front page of the “Sunday Styles” section. Though I’d never heard of Bergeron, I read to the end to find out whether anyone knew why, at age 49, he’d put a plastic bag over his head and committed suicide. Friends and family varied in their opinions, of course–no one can ever truly know why someone chooses to take his own life. What struck me as most powerful in this story was Bergeron’s reaction to the idea that his first book, The Right Side of Forty: Happiness for Gay Men at Midlife and Beyond, would be published not 100,000 copies strong with a six-figure advance, but quietly, garnering just a few thousand dollars up front.
His first long-term partner speculated that perhaps Bergeron planned on a publishing success significant enough to land him on talk shows. “And I think he was coming to realize,” he told The Times, “that all of that might not happen.”
I think most emerging writers dream–upon publication of a first book–of traveling the talk show circuit, selling the film rights, quitting that distracting full-time job. They haunt Amazon.com, monitoring their book’s sales ranking by the hour. They troll Goodreads, rejoicing over a five-star review and despairing over the one-star. Eventually, we realize that most of us won’t get to chat up Jon Stewart on The Daily Show; we won’t see our book jacket replicated inside The New Yorker, and maybe not even in our local newspaper. The revelation’s disappointing, to be sure, but it’s not a measure of self-worth or even of writing prowess. Maybe the trick is, as the Tao Te Ching suggests, to “Do your work and move on.”
I’ve been listening to a podcast by a Franciscan monk, Richard Rohr, for a month now. Titled “The Art of Letting Go,” the six-part lecture reminds listeners that we are not our accomplishments, our job titles, our book sales. We may take pleasure in these, but there’s doom in identifying solely with your latest review (or lack, thereof) in Publisher’s Weekly.
Rohr counts as his major inspiration the teachings of Francis of Assisi, and points out that man’s joyful approach to life. He reminds me of another story in the April 1 issue of The Times–this one below the fold on the front page, titled “Young Writers Find a Loving Publisher: Thanks, Mom and Dad!” This article profiles 14-year old Ben Heckmann, who’s self-published two novels and sold 700 copies. “You can basically do anything,” he says, “if you put your mind to it.”
Heckmann’s euphoria at holding his published book in his hands mirrors that of my high school students who’ve been finishing up manuscripts this year with the goal of self-publishing. Dutifully, I’ve offered to help them write a synopsis and a cover letter to submit to agents and editors. “No thanks,” all three of them replied. “I want to self-publish.” Their goal–not to sell millions, but to simply get their story into the hands of anyone who might want to read it bound and professionally printed.
I have no real point to this post, except to meditate for a moment on the death of an earnest mid-life author possibly devastated by his own definition of accomplishment, juxtaposed with the pure joy of a younger generation open to the humble literary pleasures available to them right now. They haven’t had to learn the art of letting go because they haven’t yet built up grand expectations.
Still, I hold on tight to those e-mails from individual readers inspired by my memoir, Gringa: A Contradictory Girlhood, and by my essays. Individual readers . . . not numbers on a best-seller list. We are human, after all; as writers, most of us hope to connect with readers on a deep, personal level. How I wish I could share the pleasure of that connection with Bob Bergeron, and with those writers who–paralyzed by preconceived notions of publishing success–never even pick up a pen.