The Tough Times

Ed. Note: In our spring/summer series – “The Tough Times, and How I Wrote Through Them” – one of this site’s regular contributors will write about a complication they’ve faced in writing and/or publishing, a complication you’re likely to experience someday, and they’ll disclose how they got past it (alcohol may be part of the answer but, no, it’s not the whole answer).

By Tom Sweterlitsch

He was younger by a few years, he was thinner, and when I told him my name was Tom he said his was Thomas, and we wondered whether we should shake hands. He must have noticed the resemblance between us—we were doubles, identical! Or, nearly identical. We had the same eyes beneath the same bushy eyebrows, the same hair frizzed in the humidity, the same freckles, the same moles. But he didn’t remark on our similarities and so neither did I.

Thomas was at a signing table when we met, several copies of his first novel in a short stack by his right hand. This was at the Station Square Sheraton, in a conference room crammed with authors signing their books—mystery and thriller writers, science fiction writers, fantasy writers, academics, amateur historians, poets. Some had lines of fans snaking from their tables, others had piles of self-published chapbooks no one was interested in. I’m socially anxious by nature, awkward, and I was nervous to meet Thomas. Sweating, stuttering. He was friendly, though, and happy to meet me. He confided that he wasn’t sure if he was supposed to be here at all.

“I read about your book on-line,” I said, digging out cash. “It looks interesting.”

Thomas took the money, made change, told me I was only the third person who’d approached him that day and would probably be the last, glancing all the while across the room at the seemingly endless line waiting for one of the other writer’s autographs, another writer named Thomas, whose mysteries were based on Appalachian Murder Ballads. That Thomas wore a suit and turtleneck and slicked his hair into place with gel. He had set up a large-scale poster of himself on an easel, his glossy headshot labeled Bestselling Author. As Thomas flipped to the title page of the book I’d just bought from him, he noticed I already had a signed mass-market paperback of Long Black Veil.

“That guy had a kindle e-book that spiked in sales for one afternoon, on discount, and now he calls himself ‘bestselling author,’ but it’s not the same thing,” said Thomas. “Do you want me to write your name in the book, or just sign my name?”

“You can write my name,” I said.

To Tom…

And then Thomas muttered something about never knowing what to sign, and his handwriting was like a child’s so it was difficult to read what he’d written anyway. A quote from the Beatles, he explained, but he couldn’t remember if he’d “read” or “heard” the news so he wrote both, and “Oh, boy,” looked like “Old boy.” We chatted a moment. He asked if I liked the cover of his book, and I said sure, sure, and he said he didn’t like it at all, and that he wasn’t sure if I would like the book but thanked me for buying a copy. Then he reached his arm across the table and we shook hands—one moment like he was desperate to be my close friend, the next like he couldn’t wait for me to leave.

“By the way, what did you read about my book on-line?” he asked.

“Oh, um…Good things,” I said, which was a lie.

Later, Thomas and I shared a drink at the hotel bar when a poet calling himself Thomaz slid in between us. Rail thin and pale, but our same height and build, with the same eyes and bushy eyebrows and fuzzy hair. He was dressed in black and told us he wrote science-fiction conceptual horror poetry, dismissing Thomas’s first book as “commercial,” which Thomas acquiesced to. Thomaz only begrudgingly chatted with me when I told him I wasn’t a writer at all.

“What are you, then? Anything?”

“A professor,” I told him. “Adjunct, anyway. No publications, no real publications. I’m at the University of Pittsburgh, working on a book about Timon of Athens.”

“I do some teaching myself,” said Thomaz. “At CUNY Buffalo.”

“What classes?” asked Thomas, butting in.

“Bio-Poems and the Unfluence of John Cage,” said Thomaz. Then, turning back to me, asked, “Are you a doctor?”

“Not a medical doctor…”

“Dr. Sweterlitsch,” said Thomaz. “With an ‘S,’ right? My name’s Zveterlitch, the original spelling, before corrupted by the American empire. Thomaz Karl Zveterlitsch.”

“But you’re American,” said Thomas.

“A condition I was born into,” said Thomaz.

There was another Tom at the bar, who looked a lot like the three of us, another novelist whose second book was still months away from publication. And another Thomas, another poet, the youngest Thomas here. And the Bestselling Thomas had drifted in too, surrounded by other Toms and Thomases, to hold court at a corner table, talking about the writer’s craft, and perseverance, sharing how he was first published, casually mentioning the writers’ camps and retreats he would be leading, and the various conferences and appearances he had lined up. We were all drinking White Russians.

“This all reminds me of a story I meant to write,” I said to Thomas and Thomaz. “About all the people in the world who had brown hair and hazel eyes, who were about six foot two and slightly overweight, all being brought into the same room together. There would be thousands and thousands of us, or them, and we would all go mad as the physical traits that went into creating our own individual sense of uniqueness were revealed to be a very, very common type, letting us know that we weren’t unique at all.”

“I thought you weren’t a writer,” said Thomaz, disgusted, as he sneeringly took his drink and left.

“It’s not a bad idea,” said Thomas. “You should write it.”

“Someday, someday…”

Eventually there were thirty-nine of us in the bar, Toms and Thomases, all similar if not quite identical. A few professors, a few writers, several library workers and book store clerks. Some were fatter, others skinnier, stooped, athletic, shaven, bearded. We regarded one another with suspicion but also familiarity, tried to ignore each other to watch the hockey on television, or we sat in cliques gossiping, fighting about our books and comparing dissertations.  

An obese Tom with a madman’s bushy reddish beard stood on a chair and shouted to everyone that he’d booked one of the Gateway Clipper riverboats, and that everyone here was invited, including the other Toms who’d been skulking around the writing convention but were too shy or awkward to join us here at the bar. No one thought the riverboat cruise was a good idea but we went along with it anyway—we all found it difficult to say no to things other people were enthusiastic about.

There were over three hundred of us on the boat once we set off, the evening lights of the city radiant, reflecting diamond-like on the river. The DJ played doo-wop music which put us all in a good mood, and soon we were all talking excitedly about books and reading, though circulating table to table I quickly got the impression that not many of us really knew what we were talking about, that not many of us were as quick-witted as we would have liked, and several of us were getting our facts wrong, forgetting the names of favorite writers, of titles, of details of books we said we loved, and generally weren’t great conversationalists at all.

About a half hour into the boat ride, the mood changed despite the doo-wop. Some of the Thomases, led by the Bestselling Author, became unnerved when the general question of originality rose as a topic of conversation. Which one of us Toms and Thomases was the real one? The first? The original? Which one of us was the authentic Tom or Thomas? Who had the right to represent us to the world? Some of us weren’t handling our duplication too well, and just as in my story idea, started acting out and wanted nothing more to do with the riverboat or any of us, but that was their bad luck because the cruise was an hour and a half before docking.

I hadn’t been too worried about the multiplication of Toms, though soon another Tom came by with his iPhone and showed me various blogs where Toms were posting listicles about the books they’ve read, and little articles that were uninteresting, uninformed, not very well written, that were generally making us all look bad. The Bestselling Thomas was furious that so many sad sack mopey Toms were posting things about how difficult publishing was, and he went around to each of us demanding to know who was posting on-line, using his image, but no one copped to it and so either several of us were lying or, more likely, there were still other Toms and Thomases proliferating online. There were pages of hits when you Googled our name, and none of them particularly flattering. Even some of my old academic papers came up, things I’d written as an undergraduate, papers that I knew weren’t very good, that I had written in a single night, but were now being read, being made fun of, on the Internet forever, old papers I couldn’t scrub away, and the other Toms and Thomases resented me for it.

Eventually, the obese, red-bearded Tom claimed to have found the original and several of us followed him down from the fresh air of the upper deck to a corner table by the empty dance floor. A Tom sat there, older than the rest of us, in ratty jeans and a threadbare Penguins t-shirt, his bulky cardigan equally threadbare and pilled, his hair greying, his beard unruly and starting to grey. He had a belly, a thoughtful expression, was nursing his White Russian, watching the flashing lights of the dance floor. We all crowded around him.

“Who are you?” the obese bearded Tom asked.

“My name’s Tom,” said the authentic Tom. “I’m nobody, really. I work at the Library for the Blind and Handicapped here in Pittsburgh. I used to supervise a half-dozen people but that was years ago, before the new director. You see, I’m not a librarian. The new director only wants librarians supervising people. Still, my job’s fine. I have time to read the Internet in between customers. I write a book review blog, anonymously.”

Other Toms and Thomases interrogated him. He was married, and had two children, but was very poor. His family was in debt, he wasn’t secure about the future. He thought he was unhealthy. A Thomas had bought him a ticket to the boat party, and another Thomas had bought him his drink, and still another Thomas bought him a second White Russian while we listened, which he accepted gratefully.

But soon I didn’t believe that this was the original, that he was any more authentic than any one of us. I met a tenured Tom who taught at Kenyon College, who had a book about Ovid and Shakespeare that he said had been blurbed by Stephen Greenblatt. He thought he was the most authentic Tom, but no one believed him either.

I found Thomaz alone. He was drunk, but unlike some of the others who became silly when drunk, Thomaz was quiet, introspective, depressed.

“There are no originals of us, just a proliferation,” he said when I asked about the Library Worker, the supposed authentic. “What was it Baudrillard said? A simulacrum is a copy without an original.”

“I don’t know if you’re using that term right,” I said.

“No one uses anything right,” said Thomaz. “Who knows what’s right? No one knows anything. All we have are assertions.”

I knew that if I argued I’d sound like all those other Toms and Thomases, ineffective and inarticulate, and the White Russians were starting to make me feel depressed too, so I bought Thomaz another drink and left him alone. Soon the upper deck of the riverboat was crowded, but quiet. The music playing seemed distant, at least it was distant from our thoughts. There were bursts of laughter from the deck below, but that laughter might as well have been echoing from an almost forgotten dream. Most of us decided that nothing we pursued was worthwhile, and that the only worthwhile thing was the images in our imaginations. I found a spot near the rail and watched the reflection of city lights on the river, which at this hour of night, was black but as clear as glass.

Tom Sweterlitsch is the author of Tomorrow and Tomorrow and the forthcoming novel, The Gone World.  He lives in Pittsburgh.

To learn more about Tomorrow and Tomorrow, click HERE.

Previously in The Tough Times (And How I Wrote Through Them):

Writing Through Rejection, by Elizabeth Heiter

Writing Against Deadlines, by Rob Brunet

Facing Your Personal “issues” and “Issues,” by Shannon Kirk

Shutting Down Places Like Eliot Ness, by J.J. Hensley

On Time Management, by Mark Pryor