Publishing, and the Folly of Adulthood

Note: I wrote this blog post in 2016 after Silent Hall came out, and then it sat in a drafts folder for six years, gathering metaphorical dust. My life changed drastically in 2018, and I am now a stay-at-home dad with the occasional tutoring gig, so in theory the desk at home is a reality these days. And yet, as the pandemic and some ill luck slowed my writing and publishing career to a trickle, I find myself in need of the reminder that my childhood dream wasn’t to publish two books a year and make lots of money, it was to see my books in stores and know that somewhere out there, readers were loving them.

A few weeks ago, a coworker of mine told me a wonderful story. His eight year old daughter was flipping through his copy of Silent Hall and suddenly exclaimed, “N.S. Dolkart signed this for you?”

“Yeah,” my coworker said, amused by the awe in her voice. “Well I work with him.”

Her response was an even more awed, “You work with N.S. Dolkart?”

I’ve been thinking about that response more and more lately, especially when I’m tempted to be self-deprecating about my writing career. To this girl, the knowledge that I worked with her dad at the nursing home didn’t make me lamer. It made her dad cooler.

Like many writers, I grew up idolizing my favorite authors, imagining their distant genius and hoping to someday be like them. I imagined sitting at a desk the way my father did at home (he and my mother were a two-person software migration company for many years), creating beautiful and exciting stories out of the wealth of my imagination. And then some other kids could read my books and go, “Wow, this is so good. This guy is my favorite author.”

That childhood vision included both an assumption and a goal. The assumption: being an author involves sitting at a desk in your home in the middle of the day, writing great books. The goal: having other people read my stories and be as bewitched and inspired by them as I was by my own favorites.

Amazingly, foolishly, tragically, adulthood and the realities of the publishing industry have managed to flip my childhood assumption and goal. Being someone’s favorite author is all well and good, the thinking goes, but people have too glamorous a picture of what happens when your novels get published. You don’t get to sit at a desk in your home being brilliant and creative all day; you go to work like everybody else, come home hungry and exhausted, and have to somehow sneak in your writing time either before bed or way early in the morning. If you’re me, that means getting very little sleep and catching lots of colds. I’ve got one right now, in fact.

So now the desk at home is the goal, and getting people bewitched and inspired is the prerequisite. The adult world says, “Good for you, getting published! Are you making much money?” People don’t ask you to tell them about the cool things that happen in your next book (spoilers and all that, you know) – they ask how your sales are going.

And the reality is that although I hear my sales are pretty decent, that desk at home is still a far off fantasy. And so, despite myself, I fall into adulthood’s trap of judging my artistic career by the money it makes, deeming it a disappointment until some point in the distant future when I’ll be able to support my family merely by writing people’s favorite books.

But my friend’s daughter is right: it’s really freaking cool that I’m a published author, and that’s in no way diminished by the fact that I have an unglamorous day job. Who cares if I don’t write my books during daylight hours – I’m writing books, and people are reading them! I’m living the dream!

I have had total strangers leave reviews on Goodreads thanking me for getting them back into reading again. Does it matter that they only bought one copy? That I likely netted less than a dollar on the transaction? Hell, no. My childhood dream didn’t involve royalty structures.

Thoughts on the 4 Children

Passover is still a couple months away, but I was thinking about the Four Children this morning, and specifically about the Wicked Child and the Wise one. I have spent much of my life identifying the Wise Child with more ritually observant Jews and the Wicked one with a sort of New Atheist arrogant secularism, but this morning it occurred to me that the Wicked Child’s question doesn’t actually imply that he’s less observant than the parent. On the contrary, the Wicked Child’s question represents attitudes of distancing and separation that are universal, whereas in this framework the Wise Child can represent a desire to be fully included.

As most Jews are more than aware, in more ritually observant circles there is a tendency to look at more liberal Jews and their services with contempt and ask, “but if you’re not going to do things the Right way, isn’t your observance essentially meaningless? What does any of this even mean to you?”

A quick reminder: you’re instructed to punch the Wicked Child in the teeth.

After that, you are to make the point that YOU, and not he, have been redeemed. He chooses not to identify as your fellow Jew but as a superior one, a more enlightened one, one who is separate from the community, and so he cannot share in its redemption. To put the message in more forceful and profane terms: either we’re all Jewish together, or he can fuck off.

Compare this to the Wise Child, whose question is not about the inherent worth of the seder but about the how of it all. This child doesn’t ask why you don’t just give up if you’re not doing things up to his standards, he asks, “ok, how do we do this?” He wants to be included in YOUR seder, and to do it right by your standards. You are instructed to include him and teach him your ways.

As always, we should see ourselves in all four children: in the Simple one’s wonder; the Unable-to-Ask child’s need for someone else to start the conversation; in the Wise child’s desire to be included and up to speed; and in the Wicked one’s urge to dismiss others and their benighted ways. This year, I submit that it doesn’t matter where you are on the spectrum of ritual observance when it comes to the lessons of the Four Children, only your approach to the community of the seder. Some of my favorite Wise children have been outsiders who became Jewish later or not at all, who approached our rituals and our culture with interest and respect. Some of my least favorite Wicked children have been me.