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The step from notebook to manuscript—even when merely contemplated and not yet taken—can be a terrifying one. The heights are high above and unseeable; the depths are unfathomable.
The story invites. It tugs at the sleeve, inviting the writer to follow. As of yet, there’s no way to know whether we’re being led up a ladder of light or off the edge of a cliff. Scary place to stand.
This space has seen more than its share of notes about holding off the actual writing until the critical mass of the story is near the point of exploding one’s head. The progress of foreplay, building toward an inevitability. At that point, fear is not a factor: compulsion is.
And still, there is one thing scarier than starting a work.
Sending it out.
Searching out an agent, that preening dance of self-promotion, is a horrifying prospect…the story should stand on its own, shouldn’t it? Why oh why must the seeking be so fraught with anxiety?
Fear of rejection. An unwillingness to see the work turned away by “lesser” minds. Blah blah blah. Here it is. It’s good; recognize that. Take. Do. Make happen. Work half as hard for the book as I did in the writing of it. Wake me when someone buys it. Tell me where to go to do readings. Make sure the checks get to the right address. Other than that, leave me in peace. Let me write. That’s why I’m here.
The “just let me write” self is a two-faced critter. One face is real and true: Writing is all I really care to do. The other face looks through eyes of avoidance. I know that. And that avoidance is the cliff’s edge.
The writer regales herself with the many stories of books rejected by umpty publishers before rocketing to the top of the best seller lists. She looks to the horizon at the welcome island of self-publishing waiting to receive the writer if all else fails. She reflects on the sorry state of the publishing industry. She watches as a generation of people refuses to read anything longer than a Twitter feed, and thinks that the right genre-bending approach (hers) might help to remedy that. She dreams of success even as she primes herself to fail. The way of the world.
This is the land of the If-Onlys. If only a friend had a connection who would fall instantly in love with the work and its creator. If only lightning would strike twice, and the writer would find an agent on the first try, and a publisher, too. If only I was free to do what I love to do: Be a little idea factory, leave my guts on the page daily, and leave the rest to the rest.
A book in a drawer goes nowhere, except to the eyes and minds of a few trusted friends. As wonderful as it is, that is not enough.
We write to be read. That’s the damned honest truth of it. That’s what authors do. Which means that I’ve got to suck it up. And put it out there. In a step that no one can take but me.
I live at the grace of a river known to flood, at the edge of a pasture that watches my life’s dramas with a serene indifference. I live at the grace of unreality, in the worlds I create in my head; in the belief I have in the relationship between words and me.
This faith is not an unshakable one. It lives with the success of a phrase. It falters and fails at the whim of a paragraph. It is fickle; it treats me differently in evening than in morning light.
We live, at once, in the privacy of our work, in the need to have it read, in the opinions of others. The perfect pitch of words and story that we labor so hard to develop is no guarantee that others will hear the music the same way.
What is the difference between good and half-good; saleable and unsaleable?
The author of “The Help” was declined by 61, agents. Mary Doria Russell, in her wonderful book “The Sparrow”, was declined by 31. The number of agents who have failed to recognize works that have gone on to become deep-listed books is, sadly, legendary.
I have not been tough. I’ll admit it. After years of writing (and I’m talking about fiction, here, not advertising), my skin has not thickened—especially not in light of recent events. I have set the hunt aside for the moment: Right now, the word “no” is not a word I am willing to hear.
It’s not as if I’ve been turned away by a bunch of folks. Just the opposite, in fact. Not even half-a-handful have sent me on my way. Still, I am waiting for my life to right itself before I start the search again. I am clearing a space in the mental clutter to give my nerve a place to flex its muscles.
For each of you with a carved-in-stone sense of yourself…you who never doubt…you who pick up your faith in youself, brush it off and move ahead: Bless you. How do you do it?
Some of us live at the grace of the day. And who knows what will happen tomorrow.
People are doing less of it. Why?
In a world of bytes, of information pre-chewed and delivered in spoonfuls—a world of reality TV and world problems broken down into two-minute news segments—reading is effort. It’s an interactivity that demands effort. And thought. And time.
Are those things in such short supply in our lives? Or are we just lazy? Or is it something else?
Bookstores are intimidating, in their way. They represent choices beyond counting, with barely the time to explore them. Finding a new writer to love makes demands of time and money. It asks us to clear a space in our lives to accept new views of the world.
It ain’t like plunking down $XX for a movie…a spending of time that hands itself over into our heads, asking no more of us than open eyes and a couple of hours; that tells us in minutes whether the exercise was worth the effort. So instead, when we read, we choose brand names…the easy gimmick rather than the challenge….the safe over the unfamiliar.
How do we muscle the reader into discovering that infinite universe-in-print?
Publishing is in worse shape right now than it has been at any other time in my life. Publishers are looking for the safe, the predictable, the formulaic. The new paradigm of what makes us read is yet to be created. The time to discover our next favorite writer is in short supply.
We read, increasingly, at the pleasure of electricity; with the fast-food instantaneity of e-readers. Perhaps the future is here. Perhaps creating our own worlds, our own markets, through e-channels is part of the paradigm I was talking about.
But the love that drives the enterprise? The foundational respect of the language itself? Here, the problem is…well…more problematic.
Daily, in business communication, in social media, in emails and tweets, we see the butchery of language; the disregard of those building blocks of communication upon which our civilization is built. We no longer seem to know how to write. We no longer seem to care to know. How, then, will we respect reading? Why should we care?
Thinking that the occupation of my life is going the way of the dinosaur—that scares the hell out of me.
And that is the rant of the day.
This is not a “downer” post. I promise.
On a day when my thoughts go out to a dear, dear friend in NYC, I find myself thinking of the uses of melancholy.
Does a writer write from melancholy or from joy?
Melancholy is a boon when you don’t need it; a gift when circumstances don’t demand it.
Joy is bright and brittle. It throws everything into sharp relief and mocks its opposite number. Joy is a dare; a jeopardy. But melancholy?
Melancholy brings a softening of the light. A smudging of the edges of things. Melancholy is without the frantic energies of joy. It whispers; doesn’t shout. It asks, more softly, “okay, what’s next?” Melancholy understands need. Melancholy knows sympathy. Melancholy lives gently in a place it knows it cannot control. Melancholy smiles in the sunset, regretting the passing of day, knowing another day will come.
Hope lives more comfortably in melancholy than in extroverted joy.
Okay, okay, we need both—that energy of joy that makes us dance; that retreat of the extroverted electricity that asks us to sit the next one out and invite the hush to come.
I can easily live with both. But one is sweeter. You can guess which that is. Not a bad thing, after all.