I spend a lot of time thinking about the writing life, which is hardly surprising, I suppose, since it’s the life I’m in. However, I consider myself living in a sort of authorial hinterland. I am published, thus far, only in Canada, and yet for the entire span of my career, I have not lived in Canada. I started publishing when I lived in France, and now I live in the United States, and my books are not easily available in either of these countries. Also, although I live in the US, I don’t live in New York City, which means I’m not at the epicentre of the publishing world. I live in Princeton, which is hardly a backwater, but I don’t teach at Princeton, and my experience has been that the wonderful, famous writers of Princeton University don’t need any more friends.
All this to say that I live in a something of literary isolation. Most of my friends are not writers, although I am lucky to count a few writers among my good friends. Still, I spend my days more in the company of the groundhogs, rabbits and swallowtail butterflies that inhabit my back garden, than with literary and publishing types.
I’m not complaining, you understand. This life I live is quite by design. I live away from the sturm und drang of publishing, prizes, and literary networking because, frankly, it’s not good for me. That whole scene makes me insecure, envious and sulky – damn near psychotic. There’s never enough worldly praise, I suspect, to fill this writer’s gaping chasm of insatiable need, and so I don’t try.
There is some controversy in Canada right now about an anthology of short stories edited by Jane Urquhart, whom I consider a friend. Now, I should say that I haven’t read the anthology and don’t yet own a copy; my work is not included therein, nor did I expect it to be. A number of people I know, however, are in various degrees of high dudgeon at not being included. So rampant is the general distress, in fact, that there is apparently a protest anthology, in the form of the “Salon des Refuses” (see here as well).
Heavens. I worry about what will happen to people who aren’t included in the second collection either. I mean, really, if you thought you should have been included in the first, and weren’t, and then weren’t picked for the second, well, what sort of bruise will that leave?
Recently I spent several days with people who were ticked off about this perceived slight. They spent some considerable energy detailing why they should have been included, and why it matters. All very good arguments. These are fine writers, with a significant body of work behind them, who have made significant contributions to Canadian literature. And I do understand that not to be included in such things can have negative repercussions for one’s career, or at the very least will not advance one’s career. Still, at the end of these discussions I was more desirous than ever of crawling back to my wee garden and the company of furry and feathered creatures.
I have a friend who, before he became a Very Famous Writer Indeed, told me that his philosophy was, “We are entitled to nothing; everything is a gift.” I thought that was sage wisdom indeed, and tried to incorporate it into my own world view, even after I saw this same writer recently and was somewhat startled when he said he refused to travel without his agent, would only fly first class, never allowed the press to intrude upon him before 2:00 p.m., and insisted his partner travel with him. Well, bless ‘im. I knew him when he couldn’t pay his rent.
Isn’t that the essential trouble, though? We think if we get the next thing, it will be enough. But of course, it never is.
I read a beautiful poem recently, by a splendid poet named Kathleen McCracken, called Saudade (in her collection, A Geography of Souls). I didn’t know what ‘saudade’ meant, but Kathleen has thoughtfully provided an explanation in the notes at the end of the book. She says there that it is a Portuguese word, often translated as ‘homesickness,’ but “perhaps the most accurate gloss on this indelible Portuguese word is by Nick Cave, who in his lecture The Secret Life of the Love Song, described it as ‘an inescapable longing, an unnamed and enigmatic yearning of the soul…the desire to be transported from darkness into light, to be touched by the hand of that which is not of this world.’”
That, to me, describes perfectly what we all crave, or perhaps, what Raymond Carver said more simply when he said in his last poem, Fragment,
And did you get what
you wanted from this life, even so?
And what did you want?
To call myself beloved, to feel myself
beloved on the earth.
All the rest, like anthologies, are simply metaphors. Sometimes we will be included. Sometimes we will stand outside with our faces pressed to the glass. My friend was right. Trul
y, we aren’t entitled to anything. Everything is a gift. There will always be much to gripe about, and much to crave, but there is so much to be grateful for, perhaps even for the things we don’t get, for then, sometimes, we are forced back to our dens to lick our wounds, and there discover the beauty of the afternoon light as it slants between the trees in the bee-loud glade, where, as Yeats noted, peace comes dropping slow.