Friday, July 15, 2016

Seriously, I can't count that high...

By Art Taylor

This week's question has tongue firmly in cheek: "How long did it take for you to become an overnight sensation?"

Bob Newhart
I'm not sure I'd be considered an overnight sensation even now, but I understand the question: Success and recognition may seem to arrive suddenly, but they do so only after a lot of hard work—days, months, years, many years. And often the author or artist who's stepping into the spotlight is one who has already established a career beforehand. I'm always intrigued by the Grammy Awards for Best New Artist—whose winners and finalists are sometimes musicians that don't strike me as new. Backing me up on that sense, Wikipedia quotes the criteria for the award as follows: "For a new artist who releases, during the Eligibility Year, the first recording which establishes the public identity of that artist"—then notes that "this is not necessarily the first album released by an artist." And in another side note, an interesting bit of Grammy trivia: Did anyone know that Bob Newhart—yes, the comedian—won the Grammy for Best New Artist in 1961, the second year it was presented, beating out now-renowned opera singer Leontyne Price? The things you can learn....

In a recent interview with The Digest Enthusiast (such a fine publication; check it out here), I was asked a question about when I first started writing, and I reached way back to elementary school to answer it. Here was my response:

I think the idea of writing always went hand in hand with my love of reading—that desire to create on the page for another reader the kind of experiences I was enjoying as a reader myself. Sometime in fall when I was in the third grade, I announced to my English teacher that I was going to finish my first book over Christmas break and she should look for it in the bookstore after New Year’s; it was about a country mouse and a city mouse, as I recall. I remember a year or so later adding my pen name, Anthony Twig, to a novel I’d started; I’m sure it’s in a box somewhere now, and I need to look for it one of these days. And then another night—what year I can hardly remember now—staying up late furiously working on an epic poem called “The War of Damascus”—writing lines, crossing out words, working and reworking, reading it aloud to see how it sounded, in love with the act of writing in a way I wish I still felt so consistently now. I do have that poem still on hand, just found it in the back of a filing cabinet; here’s the opening stanza:

There once live a man
  By the name of Belon,
Who was swindled by
  A most masterful con....

So to match that question from The Digest Enthusiast with the question at hand here on Criminal Minds, I'd need to reach back to when I was, what, 8 years old? somewhere in there?

Should I pick a date that year and start counting?

Maybe. But there might also be other milestones to start from—my first publication as part of a county-wide elementary school contest, my first publication in a high school literary journal or my first serious writing workshop in high school, my debut in Ellery Queen's Department of First Stories, or my decision to enter a graduate school writing program. When did I become serious about this writing thing?

Even harder to pinpoint would be that notion of success, even without the "overnight" caveat. I'm very grateful for my track record of short story publications and with all the award attention I've received, of course, but maybe in following some of those Grammy guidelines, I could point to the publication of On the Road with Del & Louise last fall as a debut on a bigger stage: September 15, 2015.

OK, now can I start counting? somewhere in there?

Truth is, regarding success, I still feel like I'm stumbling toward some notion of it. Each day's writing lately sometimes feels like learning to write all over again—puzzling out which word might be best next, and then next, and then next. Day in, day out, writing for me feels more like struggle than success, no doubt about it.

I'll end, though, with something that happened recently that did make me feel some level of fame. My wife, a friend of ours, and I were in the Zoe's Kitchen in Fairfax, VA earlier this week, and after placing our order (pimento cheese and tomato soup in my case) and putting our order number on the table we'd picked, I went back to the drink and condiment area to get a pile of napkins. I ended up getting in the way of another customer doing the same thing, and as we tried to navigate one another, he said, "Excuse me, but are you Art Taylor?"

I am, of course, and told him so—and he explained that he'd heard me read from On the Road at the Conversations and Connections conference hosted by Barrelhouse back in the spring. He'd enjoyed my reading and my book.

I asked about his own writing, how it was going—asked if he lived nearby, but he didn't. It turned out he had driven out from DC to have some work done on his car, was having lunch while he waited. I asked if he had a card, but he didn't, and I tried to look for one myself—in vain and awkwardly since I still had all those napkins in my hand. Neither of us had a pen handy to exchange information. I ended up telling him thanks and good luck with his own work.

Thinking back on it, there it was—there alongside a couple of big containers of tea and a napkin dispenser and an array of silverware while I waited for some pimento cheese: On Tuesday, July 12, 2016, someone I didn't know recognized me in public, said he liked something I'd written.

Honestly, could you ask for any better success?


Meredith Cole said...

Great story, Art! I love it when I tell people that I'm a writer and they ask if I'm famous... :)

Art Taylor said...

Ha, Meredith! I hope you tell them yes!

Alan Orloff said...

Good things come to those who ... wait, Pimento cheese? Gack!

Art Taylor said...

One of my favorites, pimento cheese. I guess we're not alike in all ways, Alan. ;-)