Perhaps it was Philip Roth’s announcement that he’s throwing in the pen that got me thinking about retiring from writing, but the thought has been skittering about in the darker corners of my mind over the past few weeks. It could also be a merely my usual pre-publishing state of mind. My Best Beloved assures me it is. (Although I have no recollection whatsoever of feeling this way just before my other books were published, when I say this he just chuckles.)
He may be right. Pre-publishing, by which I mean waiting for reviews (that I always fear may be scalding) and prize lists and sales figures, is a time fraught with neuroses, only to be surpassed by the moment of actual publishing.
However, apparently I’m not the only writer allowing the possibility of hanging up our pencils to slip out from between the book shelves. Bill Morris write a piece recently talking about it, and looking at some famous writers who pushed themselves away from the blank page.
So, I’m pondering.
Last year, when my novel, OUR DAILY BREAD, was nominated for the Giller Prize (THRILLING!), the idea flashed through my mind that it might be nice to win (for many reasons), but partly because then I could quit on a high note. To which I replied, HUH??? Who said that?
Well, OUR DAILY BREAD didn’t win the Giller, and so I go on. Snort. THE EMPTY ROOM comes out in May, with Harper Collins Canada and I’ve finished another manuscript. But the question remains — will I do this always, or is there a point on the horizon . . . drawing nearer. . . when I might do something else?
I’ve always told my students that if they can NOT write (as with the Reynolds Price anecdote in Bill Morris’s essay) then they should probably do that. I have always said I write because I am saner when I write then when I don’t. However, it must be said, although writing keeps me on an even-ish keel, I’m not terribly sane when I publish. Like many writers, I find certain aspects of the publishing process psychosis-inducing. Still, it’s part of the writer’s life and I accept that and try to navigate it with a modicum of grace, considering it an opportunity to deepen my spiritual life (since with nearly 18 years of sobriety I can’t get drunk over it). I’m not alone in the impression that publishing is . . . ahem. . . difficult. J.D. Salinger famously said, “There is a marvelous peace in not publishing,.” He chose to continue writing, but to stop publishing. Of course, when you’ve written a book that entered the canon, you can afford that. Nice work if you can get it.
Let me be clear, even as insane as the publishing business is, I’m tremendously grateful to have been published at all, let alone at the level at which I have been. I wake up every day pinching myself, knowing how many writers — how many extremely talented writers — never get published. If publishing is nerve-wracking for writers, it is no less for hard-working, brutally stressed publishers, agents and booksellers, especially in these changing times.
For me, writing is a form of spiritual practice, and my agreement with The Ineffable is that I will continue to write as long as I wake up in the morning and feel urged to do so and today, since I’m writing this, for example, I obviously still feel urged. In other words, I’m doing what I feel I am MADE for. (To be sure, almost NO ONE earns a living at this these days — for that writers rely on teaching, waiting tables, digging ditches and any number of other more lucrative occupations.)
This may not, however, always be the case. It is entirely possible that at some point I will wake up and feel urged to do something different.
Life is about a great many things, and writing is just one of them. I have always wanted to be a writer — all my life, and it’s been the best of all possible lives for me — but I’ve never forgotten it’s crucial to be a person who writes and not a writer who tries to be a person.
As an addendum to this – My Best Beloved just read this and burst out laughing. Apparently we have this conversation every time I haven’t yet found the idea for my next book. How annoying.