“Talent is long patience.”
— Gustave Flaubert
A few years ago I lay on the couch in my living room, curled up into a fetal position, intermittently groaning and blinking back tears.
I felt as though everything I had worked for had been ripped away from me, as though I had arrived at the party to which I’d been invited, only to have the door slammed in my face, as though the fragile mask of competence I’d been wearing had been torn away, and the whole world now saw what a fraud I was.
I felt that although I believed I had been faithful to what I perceived to be The InEffable’s intention for my life, I had been betrayed, since every path was now barred. It had, I feared, all been a cruel prank.
In short, I believed (with some evidence to support it) that my career as a writer was over. After publishing a collection of short stories and two well-reviewed novels, my publisher had dumped me, refusing my next two manuscripts.
It was a horrible black pit of depression out of which it took me several years to crawl.
But I made it. And during that period of loss and exile, many people told me it would all work out. They told me if I just stuck with it one day I would publish again and all would be well. Look at Madeleine L’Engle, they said. She was rejected for years, and then she published A WRINKLE IN TIME (rejected 29 times) and won the Newbury Prize. Think of Kerouac with his briefcase full of rejection. Joseph Heller, Stephen King, Jack London, Herman Melville, William Faulkner, Samuel Becket, all suffered rejection. Colette was told in a letter of rejection: “I wouldn’t be able to sell 10 copies.”
Fine, I thought, listening to all these tales of pluck and eventual success — but for every one of those stories, there are hundreds and hundreds of writers who persist and never publish at all or, having published once or twice, never publish again. Damn fine writers, too, who for reasons known only to their tight-lipped rejecting publishers, are now lost on the winds of literary amnesia.
No, I insisted, if one’s mental health depends on the bedazzled carrot dangling out there at the end of the brittle branch of public success we’ll all die crazy as a drove of demented donkeys. We’ll die hope-starved for acceptance and recognition.
We have to find another reason to keep going, to keep writing. We have to find a reason that is not dependent on the subjective, arbitrary whims of strangers.
And what might that reason be? A big question, and perhaps one which can only be answered by the individual writer. For me, though, the only way I was able to keep on going was by first accepting I’d probably never publish again and determining if I still felt I was compelled to write. Did I still wake up in the morning feeling nudged to the page? I did. Was I still less crazy when I was writing than when I wasn’t? I was.
Besides, a wise friend of mine pointed out — Even if you were created with the sole intention of being a writer, no one ever promised you a publishing contract. Publishing and writing, while connected, are very different animals. Writing is, for one thing, entirely within your control. Publishing success, good reviews, book sales, prizes and so forth, are not. Okay, you can self-publish if you like, but that’s certainly no guarantee of success (i.e. lots of happy readers), and like anything, there’s a price to pay. (You can read more on my thoughts about self-publishing by clicking here.)
And so, with my pen in one hand and a wad of paper in the other, I started writing again, because I still felt (even if no one agreed with me) that I ought to be writing, that it was what I was made for. If I never published again, so be it. And after a while it felt pretty good, and my life was good again and I taught and wrote and read and lived my life in as full and useful a way as I could.
And then, the first book — OUR DAILY BREAD — which had been so definitively rejected found a home with a small publisher and lo and behold it started getting great reviews and was named on some “Best of the Year” lists. Huh. And the original publisher came back and said maybe they’d made a mistake, they’d like to publish it. And I said okay. And then, rather quickly for me — four months — I wrote another book, called THE EMPTY ROOM. My agent submitted it and yesterday we got news that Harper Collins Canada will be publishing it in May of 2013. Hopefully a US publisher will follow shortly.
And now I feel like one of those people who go around saying, just stick with it and it will all work out! But I still believe that’s a lie, because although I’m pleased with being able to publish again, I will never forget what I learned during that long cold winter (a season which will doubtless come round again, since seasons are like that): that it’s fine and good to publish, but if that’s why you’re writing, if that’s how you define your self worth. you are walking a treacherous path.
The writer’s life is about much more, I’ve re-discovered (and I say ‘re-discovered’ since I’m sure I knew this once, long ago before I ever started publishing), than successfully publishing. It’s about sitting quietly in a room with your thoughts, and observing the world carefully, and examining what’s happening around you, and feeling empathy and bearing witness. It’s about being faithful to what you believe your purpose is in life, regardless of fickle fortune. By this I don’t mean you decline to support yourself, living parasite-like on the largess of others; or that you write while neglecting your responsibilities to your self and your friends/relations/neighbors, but I do mean you keep the flame of your voice alive, even when it feels there’s very little oxygen to feed it. If you do that, everything will be all right, although perhaps not in the way you expect.
Life is nothing if not surprising.