I recently heard of an internationally acclaimed author whose work I admire IMMENSELY, having his newly finished novel turned down. (And no, I’m not going to name names.) I don’t know why the book was turned down, although I can’t imagine it was because it wasn’t well written. This man is simply incapable of writing a bad sentence. I’ve been thinking of him a lot. You can imagine the pain of working so hard for so many years to develop a readership; how you might deservedly feel, after lots of praise and attention and prizes and so forth, that you’ve earned the right to keep on publishing, and then…it stops; you’re silenced. Agony. I pray he’ll find the inner resources to come back from this, to keep the faith, to write again, but who knows. A blow like that can silence you forever. It can send you into depression’s bottomless pit; it can break you.
One of the things emerging writers (and some established writers)frequently talk about is how to sustain oneself as an artist, psychologically, emotionally, even spiritually, during these times of diminished publishing and reviewing resources. Fewer books are published overall, weighted in favor of the celebrity tell-all or self-help books rather than fiction. The novels publishers lust after these days seem to be of a commercial, plot-driven type. Now, there’s nothing wrong with plot-driven commercial fiction per se, it’s just that if you happen to write more literary, quieter, character-driven books, for example, it’s slim pickin’s out there. There are exceptions — Per Petterson’s OUT STEALING HORSES comes to mind, as does Elizabeth Strout’s OLIVE KITERIDGE, but if you’re a reader who enjoys that sort of novel you have to root a little deeper through the piles of Vatican-Masonic-mystery books.
You don’t have to be a writer to ask this sort of question, of course. How to spiritually, emotionally and psychologically sustain oneself during lean times is a conundrum to everyone, regardless of vocation. How to earn money is a different subject. Writers have always had to struggle for cash, it seems.. think of Faulkner in the post office, Cormac McCarthy getting tossed out of a $40/mo hotel because he didn’t have the rent, Jane Austen struggling to put food on the table. What I’m talking about here is how to keep on going when there doesn’t seem to be a good enough reason to do so.
Well, as writers, we write. Real Writers are not necessarily measured by their publishing history, but by their commitment to the work. I know, you may be muttering to yourself, “Easy for YOU to say; you’ve already published a few books!” Well, that’s true, I have been lucky in that regard, but publishing is like the movie or music business … industry tastes change, some bright new thing comes along to grab the spotlight, or for inexplicable reasons your particular kind of writing falls out of favor… the truth is that unless you are a major prize-winning author, publishing your last book does not ensure it won’t, in fact, be your last book, if you see what I mean. And in some cases, as in the unnamed writer whose book has just been turned down… not even previous accolades are insurance against rejection.
And then there’s my friend who’s been working for eight years on her first novel. She’s had a couple of agents interested, but they ultimately passed. She wonders if she should bother anymore, or if she should just stop and take up knitting or gardening or something.
So, that’s the sort of thing that was on my mind last Thursday evening when My Best Beloved and I went to Philadelphia to see Leonard Cohen in concert.
The story goes that a few years ago he returned from a long time spent in retreat at a Buddhist monastery, only to discover his manager stole his life savings. He was 71 years old, everything he had put aside for retirement was gone, and someone he considered a friend had betrayed him.
In an interview with CTV he said:
“It’s enough to put a dent in one’s mood,” he says of the betrayal by his manager, who’d looked after him for 17 years.
“Fortunately it hasn’t,” he adds after a short pause as if to show that while he’s dejected by the situation, he’s not completely undone.
So, he took to the road again, and has been performing around the world for the past couple of years. I had heard from musician friends in Toronto, Paris and Geneva that this was the concert of a lifetime, an extraordinary experience not to be missed. They were right.
It was a three-hour concert the likes of which I have never experienced before — generous, uplifting, moving, poignant and inspiring. If you have a chance to see him before he stops touring, I urge you to do so. Still, I wasn’t expecting how tremendously touched I was by his rendition, along with the sublime (his word) Webb Sisters, of his song, “If It Be Your Will.” He began by saying the piece had been written during a time of obstacles, when he had been silenced, as happens from time to time. He said it was a poem, a prayer… Here’s the version they did in Dublin:
For me, that prayer is the essence of what it means to be a writer… a Real Writer. All writers are silenced from time to time, some by the business of writing, some by writer’s block, some by addiction, illness or infirmity, some by conflicting obligations… there are any number of reasons. Those of us who aren’t writers are ‘silenced’ as well … we lose our voices, we lose our way, we lose our faith, our freedom, sometimes even our hope. We find ourselves on the broken hill in the deepest night. And then what?
Leonard Cohen has said, of his dark night, “At a certain point, that background of anxiety and anguish lifted.” I suspect that before it did he may have stood on that broken hill, in his “rags of light” and prayed, as he does in that song.
If it be your will that I speak no more, and my voice be still, as it was before, I will speak no more. I shall abide until I am spoken for, if it be your will. If it be your will, that a voice be true, from this broken hill, I will sing to you…
Thanks, Lenny. A lot of us join you on the broken hill, our voices true, praying for the end of night. Because of you, I for one don’t feel so alone.