Once an aardvark was set on writing a book. That the aardvark fancied itself a writer was not, in itself, very surprising. It would have been more surprising if the aardvark hadn’t. Most of the population, it seemed, felt they had a story inside them, and according to census projections, the birthrate for aspiring authors would soon surpass that of potential readers. Bookstore shelves sagged and often buckled under the ever-multiplying load of thumbed but unread volumes. Entire book chains were forced to offer last-minute “Special Sales to Authors” in hopes of somehow ending the business year in the black. While the more enterprising of these authors, faced with the threat posed by the Malthusian growth in the number of writers to their own survival, not to mention the planet’s, took to teaming up in a literary version of the old tried-and-true buddy system, pledging to one another, “I’ll write a glowing blurb for the back of your book if you’ll do the same for mine. I promise to use ‘heart-rending and heart-warming’ at least once.” And then there were the writing conferences and creative retreats springing up like mushrooms all over the place, in direct proportion to the steady decline in hours actually spent reading by the public. There were even cruises you could sign up for to rub elbows with a boatload of aging writers who were once famous or near-famous and now had agreed to offer words of wisdom about the state of literature today as they drifted past some distant shore. At this level you apparently could rest on your laurels and didn’t need to write anything anybody in fact actually read anymore. It was enough for you to be introduced as having been “groundbreaking” at sometime or other in the past and then to reveal to a throng of aspiring headliners for a similar cruise in the future just how to make that happen for them. When the aardvark actually sat down to write something, however, it was embarrassed to realize it couldn’t get past word one, stymied by the inconvenient discovery that it had nothing whatsoever to say. This unanticipated reality, which threatened to bring on the earliest and longest case of writer’s block on record, might well have written finis to the aardvark’s desire to join the literary pantheon. Fortunately, however, there turned out to be an amazing number of other struggling authors right in its own neighborhood, many of whom had formed a Saturday morning coffee-and-support group calling itself “Parnassus Bound.” After much initial hesitation, the aardvark summoned the courage to attend one of these sessions in hopes of at least picking up a few pointers. The first rule for success as a budding writer, it heard from nearly everybody present, was to “write what you know.” Most of the veteran members of the group seemed to know quite a lot. Each weekend they’d read aloud fresh accounts of international skullduggery, sociopathic murder and mayhem, page-turner family dysfunction, every sort of addiction imaginable and then some, the long and painful but ultimately uplifting road to redemption from any number of sins public and private, the emotional and psychological toll of middle-class ennui, or was it anomie? Whichever. Compared with the life of the aardvark, this was impressive stuff, but a bit puzzling all the same. For if these people really were writing about what they knew, why hadn’t they all been locked up or committed years ago? When it voiced its puzzlement in this regard, the aardvark met with a chorus of bluff assurance: “Great career move if you can manage it, the federal pen or the psycho ward. Mail your manuscript from either one, or both if you can. That’s guaranteed to get publishers fighting to sign you up as their latest literary phenom.” “Not to worry in any case, though. Fiction or non-fiction, nobody really cares anymore if you’re being ‘true to life’ or simply making the whole thing up as you go along on some chat show. Getting on that chat show in the first place is what counts. So why not just give them what they hanker for from the start?” “The most important move right now,” the aardvark was finally told, “is to get yourself an agent and have some publicity pics taken. A little tip here: rows of books always make a surefire backdrop to your photo if you want to show real writer’s cred. Used to be a lit cigarette hanging from your mouth or from fingers pressed to your forehead went well with the book spines, plus a glass of scotch or bourbon on the desk in front of you. But now you’ve got to get that look of serious talent across without the good old butt and the booze. Thank the anti-smoking lobby and Mothers Against Drunk Driving for that little cramp on self-expression. So, about an agent, want the names of 20 or so I’ve been writing to for the past couple of decades?” Despite the assurance with which all of this advice was offered, the aardvark thought perhaps it should at least have the opening chapter of its book completed before hiring a photographer and approaching an agent. It also guessed, from what it heard, that getting something from this “work in progress” published in a “literary mag” could improve its “market value.” There was nothing for it, then, but to return to sweating word by word through a first chapter, spending long nights at the second-hand kitchen table it had bought to give itself the proper setting for inspiration. Whenever it needed a break from the difficult business of what many in the Saturday support group liked to call “word-smithing” (often several times in the same sentence, as if savoring the wit of linking the jeweler’s delicate touch with a no-nonsense, down-to-earth, broad-chested, hammer-and-tongs approach to the writer’s craft), the aardvark would shift the kitchen table around and try to visualize how it might appear to most advantage in a big-budget film some day based on its starving-artist years. A foot or so this way; no, a foot or so that way. After it eventually finished drafting and redrafting a few pages and then drafting and redrafting a cover letter to literary magazine editors, after it spent hours calculating the most auspicious day and time to go to the post office and then worrying the clerk with whether the stamp on each submission was sufficient, the self-addressed return envelopes the aardvark had enclosed came back in stacks on the same day the following week. Inside each was a printed variation of the same reply: “We have carefully read your submission and regret to inform you that it does not match our current editorial needs. However, we do appreciate your interest in our publication and invite you to support our dedication to promising new voices like your own by subscribing now, for life, at a reduced rate.” The 20 agents whose names the aardvark had been given proved no more encouraging. Their typical reply took the form of a column of boxes on thin photocopy paper with a brief reason for rejection following each. The one most often marked read: “Your manuscript failed to engage our interest. Feel free to contact us again, though, if you have something on the lives and loves of celebrities.” Ironically, it was in the depths of discouragement at these rejections that the aardvark finally had its breakthrough moment. Attending a sold-out talk by a multiple best seller, it had ventured to ask during question-and-answer time about the role of natural talent in success. “Talent schmalent!” scoffed the best-selling author to uneasy titters from the audience. “Publishing’s a business. Get it? Rely on talent alone and you’ll never go anywhere. Nobody’ll even remember your name.” The aardvark was put off somewhat by the dismissive tone, particularly as it had been at pains to introduce itself as “a fellow worshiper of the muse,” but all the same, it couldn’t shake the feeling there might be some truth in what it had heard. Could simply having your name remembered and immediately recognized by millions around the globe be the key to success as a writer? To that end, could a clever pen name determine where you ended up in window displays or at book fairs, just as surely as product placement in the snack aisle? And once an author had high name recognition, what editor wouldn’t be eager to snap up anything that author turned out? Absolutely anything! What an epiphany! If fame or failure hung on little more than something like the inspired choice of a nom de plume, something that showed true artistic flair, the stakes couldn’t be higher in this vital creative decision. “Aardvark” was not in fact the name this literary hopeful had been born with. Nor was it the first pen name it considered, but rather was only hit upon after numerous others had been repeated pensively for the better part of a day and then abandoned. There were two advantages to the final choice that seemed especially promising. First, the pen name began with the letter A, just as the word “author” did. Second, and even more promising, it began with two As. If nothing else, the double A should ensure the aardvark’s masterpiece, when it finally did see the light of day, would enjoy a prime location at the head of every library shelf on earth. Now it just needed to figure out how to write something worth reading.
Copyright © 2010 by Geoffrey Grosshans