I would rather be a superb meteor, every atom of me in magnificent glow, than a sleepy and permanent planet.
I just finished reading Early Labor’s Jack London. And since I live close by, I took a pilgrimage to London’s home and grave in Jack London State Park.
Jack London was a self- made man, an adventurer to be sure, and he started young and ended young. And he was a brilliant writer with many of his works – like Martin Eden, Valley of the Moon, and The Little Lady of the Big House, autobiographical.
He was considered a “man’s man” and promoted that image because it aligned with his articles and books of adventure both in Alaska – White Fang and The Call of the Wild, and in the South Pacific , The Cruise of the Snark and South Sea tales.
His own relentless self promotion was part ego and more about money. He figured that the more famous he was, the more money he could make for his writing. That in of it’s self is amazing to a writer of today, that you could make an actual – good – living writing stories.
Part of the promotion and part of his legend, was that he was a healthy, energetic outdoor man, full of bravado and hubris. But he was actually in quite poor heath and the effort to appear robust must have cost him a great deal of pain. His teeth were neglected as a child and he had all the front teeth pulled. Doctors now believe he suffered from Lupus which was certainly aggravated by the really weird diseases he suffered from during his two years before the mast in the South Pacific. Never mind his physically challenging early jobs as well as far too much smoking and drinking.
He died at only forty years old from kidney failure.
The second part of this legend was one that all authors buy into – the artist alone. The writer who does it all, knocking off perfect manuscripts that are published within minutes of being finished.
London did knock off an impressive number of works, some marvelous and some just okay. He wrote every day – 1,000 words a day, either by hand, or banging away on a typewriter that required the strength of a prize fighting boxer to operate.
But the reality was: London had help. He hired a full time ranch manager for Beauty Ranch in Glen Ellen, California. The family employed household help including a cook (fantasy of mine). Charmian Kittredge London (second wife) edited and typed his manuscripts and organized the household so he could rise every morning and write undisturbed (many male writers enjoyed this, while the female writers had to be craftier about creating time for their work). At that time (early 20th century) publishers promoted books and articles and could be cajoled into sending advance money for future novels. For London, all he had to do was write, and continue to live his own legend.
The take away for the newer author is that the very famous do not do this all alone, they get help, sometimes a lot of help. We are often overwhelmed at both the increasingly low pay for our work and the increasing obligations of promoting our work (never figure your hourly wage; too depressing). You can be great writer. Just understand that it is not fair to compare yourself with great writers of the past. It was a different world, talent was rewarded in a very different way. Sometimes talent is a superb meteor, and sometimes talent is a permanent planet. Either way, you are up there in the sky, illuminating the endless night.