You Have What You Need

August 8, 2017

The other day I was being interviewed for the “The Entrepreneur Way” podcast, talking about my forthcoming book The Recipe. Among the many excellent questions my host, Neil Ball, asked me was this one:

“What is your favorite quote?”

Hmm. What was my favorite quote? Did I have one? And what bubbled up from the murky recesses of my brain was this, from Raymond Chandler’s iconic Philip Marlowe novel, Farewell, My Lovely:

“I needed a drink, I needed a vacation, I needed a home in the country, I needed a lot of life insurance. What I had was a coat, a hat, and a gun. I put them on and went out of the room.”

We both had a good laugh at that, and then I set about to explain myself, or try to, anyway. The truth was, I wasn’t sure exactly why that surfaced as my favorite quote. It was more than three years ago that I read the book. But there it was.

After the podcast, I pondered it some more. It made me think about how unqualified I am to be a writer.

That isn’t some sort of false modesty. It’s a serious thought that often pops into my mind, and always prompts a bit of internal dialogue when it does. The fact is, I never really intended to be a writer, and I certainly never gave myself the kind of education that an aspiring writer ought to have.

Sometimes I am flabbergasted by the sheer volume of reading I haven’t done, all the great books whose covers I’ve never cracked. I have read no Dostoyevsky, no Tolstoy, no Solzhenitsyn, no Kafka. No Jane Austen, no Edith Wharton, no Virginia Woolf. A Dickens or two when I was young, but I really don’t remember them — and no Melville, no Henry James. I’ve not read Lonesome Dove, or A Lion in Winter, or The Great Gatsby. All of Phillip Roth, yes, and a smidgen of Updike, but zero Pynchon or Bellow or Joyce or Hemingway. No Proust. No Marquez. (No Marquez! Yikes).

The last twenty years I’ve been doing my best to catch up, on everything from Vonnegut to Irving, Highsmith to Atkinson (and Chandler, of course, all of Chandler) … but as the list above shows, there’s a vast universe of classic must-reads that, while perhaps I must, so far, I ain’t.

I never went to college. I barely finished high school (and then only at an alternative school that my friends and I started ourselves). I am as untutored as a writer could be.

And that is something I find myself thinking about, every time I’m standing on the shore and about to dive into writing another book.

I need an education. I need to have read a ton of authors whom I haven’t read. I need to know my field. I need some serious schooling.

But I don’t have any of those things.

Here’s what I have: a love of words, a brain, a willingness to work hard.

A coat, a hat, and a gun.

So I put them on, and sit down in the chair.

This applies to fatherhood, too. When I was in my twenties, I had two daughters, but that marriage soon fell apart, my ex-wife moved a distance away, and I rarely got to seem them. In my thirties I had two boys — and then that marriage crumbled, too. I lived close by and saw them more, but still, it was far from ideal. Now I’m in my sixties, my children are all grown, and they’ve never really had near enough time with me, nor I with them.

I think about what it takes to be a great father:

We needed a few decades of stable, consistent home life. We needed years of growing up together — bonding time measured in miles, not inches. We needed more time!

Yes, but this isn’t a perfect world; it’s a Chandler world. We don’t have those things. What we have is the time we’ve had, the people we are now, and the lives we’re living today. Coat, hat, gun.

Back in the seventies, the British pediatrician Donald Winnicott coined the phrase “good enough mother” to describe a parent who recognizes the gap between the ideal and the what-is, and reconciles to living in the what-is (my summary, not Winnicott’s).

Good enough father. Good enough writer. What is.

As Popeye might put it, I may not be what I theoretically could be — but I yam what I yam. (It was enough for Olive Oyl.)

The reason that this particular Chandler quote came to me during this particular podcast was that Neil and I were talking about the process of publishing, marketing, and promoting books — and in particular, the extremely peculiar fact that this is something being done at the moment by me.

That was not the plan.

The plan was, my coauthor, Chef Charles Carroll, and I would write this book, and then a bunch of publishers in New York would fight over it (“go to auction,” as they say in the publishing business), and then one of them would buy it and publish it and the marketplace would love it and the rest would be, you know, history.

Nice plan.

When The Recipe was rejected by over forty publishers, Charles and I found ourselves faced with three choices. We could try to completely rewrite the book and turn it into something else, in hopes that one of those no’s would change to a yes. We could put the manuscript quietly on a shelf and say, “Oh, well,” and move on with our lives. Or we could publish the thing ourselves. We picked doorway #3.

But not before some serious soul-searching. Because that’s not what I know how to do. I don’t publish and market books; I just write them. Someone else publishes and markets them.

We need a large, well-developed social-media following — what in publishing they call a “platform.” We need the experienced skill set it takes to promote a book, the tools, the knowledge, the budget. We need the free time to pour our undivided attention into this project, undistracted by our “day jobs” (for me, writing other books, for Charles, running food for one of the country’s busiest country clubs).

It was a sobering soul-search — because in fact, we didn’t and don’t have any of those things.

But here’s what is also true: we have exactly what you have — for whatever it is that you possess the nerve, ambition, and hunger to go out and do in the world, whatever difference you thirst to bring about, whatever mark you aspire to make, whatever footprint you hope to leave:

We have a coat, a hat, and a gun.

So here’s what we do:

We put them on, and walk out of the room.

Note: The Recipe comes out October 17 (you can preorder here). My podcast with Neil should be up on his site shortly.

2 Comments

  1. Thank you, John, for your post! You don’t have to have everything people say you have to have to be successful. I am so glad you & Chef Charles are publishing the book yourselves! You have a wonderful gift, John, from the Lord, and we are blessed to see your works of putting books together! Thanks so much!

    Reply
    • Ahh, thank you, Connie! I love knowing you’re there, reading these posts! And appreciate the vote of confidence ; – )

      Reply

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