Erica Brown

Writing The Great American Novel

A friend was just telling me a personal story that ended with, “It would make a great book.” No comment. Let’s face it. Most of us do not have book-worthy lives, but many of us would like to believe we do.

“Of making many books there is no end,” reports Ecclesiastes [12:12]. But this wisdom doesn’t stop us. Anyone standing in Barnes and Noble cannot help arriving at the same wearying conclusion. There are just too many books out there. Many are wonderful and will pass the test of time. Most will become remaindered, then possibly pulped and recycled into toilet paper. It’s hard to write. It’s harder to write well. Harder still is to make a living as a writer.

That’s why I am always shocked by the fallacy held tightly by many non-writers: anyone can write a book. The writer Joseph Epstein in a New York Times op-ed from 2003 claims that according to a survey, 81 percent of Americans feel like they have a book in them. Or as someone recently quipped, no one wants to read a book. Everyone wants to write one.

The novelist and bookstore owner Ann Patchett was so tired of giving out writing advice that she put it all together in a memoir: “My Getaway Car.” Slightly drunk at a family reunion and offended by a distant relative’s remark that everyone has a book in them, she pointed to flowers in a nearby vase and asked, “Does everyone have one great floral arrangement in them?”

“One algebraic proof?”

“One Hail Mary pass?”

“One five-minute mile?”

Readers would approach her, often aggressively, after a talk and tell her that they had within them the Great American novel. Problem was they couldn’t write it. Could they enlist her help? Answer: no.

There is a way that your story can get written even if you can’t write it. outsources writing projects so you can stop bothering Ann Patchett. People’s ghostwriting requests are so entertaining that I let them drop into my e-mail almost daily.

Any takers for this? “I need someone to write a book about my outrageous fight against my mortgage company. … My story needs to be told so half of the people in the U.S. can say I told you so to the people that couldn’t imagine what they were going through. My story has to be told!!!!!”

Is this really a story that must be told and half of America will read? Sorry. It’s not.

Alternatively, you can write the eight-year history of a dairy farm if you can make it “both engaging and moving, as much as it is informational and accurate. Also, we want you to tell us: why do you think this story is important?” None of the great writers I know will be able to make your dairy engaging, moving, informational, accurate and important. No one has that much talent.

Those in the throes of litigation often want “the true story told” by an experienced biographer or novelist. What are people willing to pay? Usually less than $500. You may get this compelling offer to turn journal entries into a memoir by an educated and experienced writer: “Take payment from the proceeds.” This book is going to be so good a professional author will write it on contingency.

There is an arrogance to the proposition that anyone can write a book. Remember the story of the rabbi who sat on the plane next to the astrophysicist? The scientist said to the rabbi, “I can sum up your whole profession in one sentence: Don’t do unto others what you would not want done to yourself.” The rabbi then said to the scientist, “And I can sum up all of astronomy in one sentence: Twinkle, twinkle little star.”

Take comfort in the biblical notion that we must tell our stories and pass them down to the next generation, whether children ask for them or we prompt them. Go with a vanity press. It’s a great way to tell your story. And there are many inexpensive ways today to get that story into a book for your family and friends. But the plethora of accessible publishing methods linked to an exhibitionist Facebook post-your-life attitude has promoted a dangerous myth: your story will be a bestseller.

Writing is an ancient Jewish art, starting with the chiseling of two tablets. We do all have a story. Our stories are important to us. But they are not important to everyone. The Kotzker Rebbe’s hardline approach is instructive: “Not all that is thought need be said, not all that is said need be written, not all that is written need be published, and not all that is published need be read.”

Erica Brown’s column appears the first week of the month.

About the Author
Dr. Erica Brown is the Vice Provost for Values and Leadership at Yeshiva University and the director of its Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks–Herenstein Center. Her latest book is Ecclesiastes and the Search for Meaning (Maggid Books).