Friday, February 13, 2015

Getting Serious

There comes a time in the career of nearly every humorous cozy mystery writer when she says to herself (it's usually she, the men take themselves seriously from the get-go) that it's time to become a Serious Writer and write something Important and True. Yes, my early work was charming, we say to ourselves, but listen, you ain't seen nothing yet. I am about to lay bare the inner workings of the Human Soul.

Then we sit down and undertake to do this.

A number of outcomes can result from our efforts. Hardly any of us actually produce the magnificence we envisioned. Some die before the Great Work is finished. You have to start early, I think. Others produce very long books which the fans and critics find to be bloated and pompous. Others undertake excessively personal works, blowing the whistle at last on their inadequate parents, their disappointing ex-spouses and lovers, their evil bosses, the corrupt System. (Or their sadistic orthodontists. Don't get me started on that.) Some information is better shared with one's therapist, if any, than with the world in general. Bilious rants, while they may be keenly felt, are not Art.

For what we want to do, really, is to make Art. People who want to make money have figured out how by the time they have a couple of books under their belt. You write about things that touch everybody who reads your work, by relating to their own experience or by amazing and thrilling them in ways they never imagined. You find a good agent. Reams have been written on how to that. When your agent sells the book you get busy and promote the hell out of it. Maybe hire a publicist. Soon you're famous, and the money comes rolling in.

Not to disparage the writers who are more successful than others—okay, more successful than me—but what they do isn't always Art. Some of us want to be immortal here. My dad once gave me a copy of Bartlett's Familiar Quotations in support of my writing, and though I thanked him profusely, I was thinking the whole time that I didn't want to quote other people. I wanted other people to quote me. That's what I wanted out of a writing career.

So I tell myself it's time to get all immortal, and I sit down at the word processor to let 'er rip. But the results are disappointing. Sometimes I can't help thinking about Norman Rockwell in his declining years, who had himself wheeled out to his studio and put in front of a blank canvas every morning, where he would sit with a brush in his hand and stare until suppertime. I've made a few false starts. From time to time I revisit The Bodice Rip't, a thinly disguised account of the collapse of my first marriage. But it was so unpleasant. Nobody really wants to go there.

Quite probably I don't have an immortal work in me. Let's face it, few writers do. I have a gift of subtlety, but nobody gets it. Though I used to have a gift of venom, thirty years of churchgoing have drawn my fangs. I'm not at all sure anymore what is Important or True. I have no clue even now as to the inner workings of the Human Soul, and I'm much too private a person to let strangers get a look at my own. An Important Work may be out of my reach.

I can always write another funny cozy mystery. This time I'll murder that son of a bitch who straightened my teeth.

© 2015 Kate Gallison


  1. Is that how you look now? I haven't seen you in a couple of years, at the Carnegie Hill Writers' lunch meeting -- somehow, I thought you were a lot lighter skinned.