Lawrence Hill, a good friend and hugely successful writer, wrote to me recently to congratulate me on the success of my recent novel, OUR DAILY BREAD, which has been named to the Boston Globe and and The Globe & Mail as one of the best books of the year. (Yea!) Published by Wordcraft of Oregon, a independent press in the United States, it is also soon to be published by Harper Collins Canada. (Who originally turned the book down — but hey, mistakes happen, no hard feelings, I’m just delighted to be back ‘home’ with them.)
Larry, bless him, has been a wonderful support through difficult times, when the book was rejected by one publisher after another. In his email to me he wrote I had “pluck and drive in the face of disappointments.” He said that marked me as a real writer.
I couldn’t help but recall that very first episode of The Mary Tyler Moor Show, when when Mr. Grant looks at Mary and says, “You know what you’ve got? You’ve got spunk.” When she thanks him, most bashfully, he says, “I hate spunk.” Snort.
What I think I might have is called, in Yiddish, Sitzfleisch. According to Anu Garg at the A.Word.A.Day website, this refers to “what’s commonly called chair glue: the ability to sit still and get through the task at hand. It’s often the difference between, for example, an aspiring writer and a writer. Sometimes the word is used in the sense of the ability to sit out a problem — ignore it long enough in the hope it will go away.”
I tell my students this all the time: if you want to be a writer, you have to write. By this I don’t mean you should write only when you feel like it, or when you’ve finally found the perfect writing spot, or when you’ve nothing better to do. No, I mean you have to write every day. You have to write whether you want to or not. You have to write when you’re sure what you’re saying is garbage — it probably is, that’s what editing is for. You have to write even if you think you’ll never publish — you might not, write anyway. You have to write when you’ve been rejected — we all have. You have to write when your heart has been broken by bad reviews — Herman Melville did, or yet another pithy rejection letter from that agent who promised you a six figure deal when you had lunch last week or one more rejection letter (not so pithy) from the editor who you were so sure would love you book. Write anyway. Write, write, write.
Our Daily Bread sat in my drawer for years before anyone was agreed to publish it. In the meantime, I’ve written a great deal of stuff — another whole book in fact — and that’s been rejected, too. So yes, even after great reviews and “Best of” lists and so forth, writers still deal with rejection. And yet, what am I doing this very moment? I’m writing. And what will I do when I finish this blog? I will write. I have yet another book I’m working on and just like every book I’ve ever written, the damn thing refuses to write itself.
Why do I bother, you might ask, in the face of so much rejection and such little return? Because I’m a writer. I can’t sing or dance. And writers write. Even when no one wants to publish us. Perhaps especially then.
I wrote for decades before I published my first book, back in 1999. Today it hardly ever happens that someone will write and write and write for years before publishing — not with all the self-publishing out there and the weird desire so many people have for instant fame. But I’m glad I did, because with each lousy piece of unpublishable prose I learned a few things. First, I learned how to be a better writer, but I also learned how to keep going and how to sink down into the work so that the act of writing itself fed me. I needed that later, when for a time I erroneously thought publishing would fill up all the hollows in my soul. It won’t. Publishing is lovely, don’t get me wrong, and so are good reviews and all that — it helps, no doubt about it — but you can’t NEED it. The only thing a writer needs is to write. Every day. Even today when you don’t want to.
And now — join me — get writing!