A friend I talked to recently hit on the existential pain of the writer’s life when they said they feared their long years of work and sacrifice were all for nothing since they feared (with good reason) the book they’d been working on for years will never be published. To have a manuscript remain unpublished was, they said, like having a stillborn baby.
I know that feeling. I’ve been dumped by publishers more than once and have myself recently decided to retire from actively seeking publication. Although I still write, chasing publication doesn’t feel like a useful way to spend whatever years remain to me.
So why keep writing, my friends ask? Well, because of my central belief that writing in and of itself, even if no one ever reads it, is an activity that matters and it affects the world.
Buddhist Tonglen meditation is meant to transform the suffering of the self and the world. Pema Chödrön, an American Buddhist nun, provides the following Tonglen instruction:
“…in the in-breath you breathe in with the wish to take away the suffering and breathe out with the wish to send comfort and happiness to the same people, animals, nations, or whatever it is you decide.
Do this for an individual, or do this for large areas, and if you do this with more than one subject in mind, that’s fine… breathing in as fully as you can, radiating out as widely as you can.”
It’s a wee bit more complicated than that, but the alleviation of suffering is at the heart of it. By meditating in this way, Buddhists believe, you change the world. You heal it. (Of course, it also helps if you get up and DO something as well, but meditation influences action.) You can hear her talk about it in this video on Youtube.
In short, the concept is that one’s thoughts, one’s prayers, and one’s intentions have tangible effects on the world. I understand not everyone agrees with this idea, but as a wise friend encouraged me to do years ago: I choose to believe my experience.
When it comes to writing, I recall writing The Radiant City, a novel that asks if, after suffering a catastrophic disillusionment, it’s possible to retain a compassionate heart, or if one is doomed to cynicism. I researched the atrocities of war and conflict. Rwanda and Sarajevo, for example. I researched what happened to war correspondents, and the emotional and physical toll on them. I learned things about my species I’d rather not know, frankly, and some images haunt me still.
With all that sludge, all that suffering swirling around inside me, I began to write. One word after another. One sentence. The next. Paragraph by paragraph. Onto the page went everything I’d learned, and into the characters went all the emotions I was feeling. With them, I walked the streets, cried in the night, reached out to others, became enraged, hid myself away, was filled with despair and with the desire for revenge, and my very soul cried out for solace.
As I journeyed through the world of the novel, my emotions began to shift, and mercy (which is always a miracle, I think) arrived on the page. Slowly, but there it was. Peace came dropping slow, as W.B. Yeats said in his beautiful poem, The Lake Isle of Innisfree. “Dropping from the veils of the morning to where the cricket sings/There midnight’s all a glimmer, and noon a purple glow,/And evening full of the linnet’s wings.” The story concluded with some sorrow, some loss, since it is a story about life and such things are unavoidable in life, but also comfort and acceptance, also hope and peace.
I believe writing such a story, bringing those characters into existence, influences the world. Even if a book is never published, you ask? Even the writer is the only person who ever reads it. Yes. Even so.
Perhaps you scoff. Easy for me to say, since that book was published. Do I honestly believe this blither?
I do. I didn’t always, but I do now. I believe every thought we think matters, and I believe our characters are incarnations of ancient archetypes who live independently from our perceptions of them. (This concept was the life work of Islamic scholar Henri Corbin, who used the term “Mundus Imaginalis,” to describe the very real sphere of existence in which live all archetypes, and which should not be confused with fantasy. You can read more about him and his work by clicking here.) By imagining these people, their desires, conflicts, fears, actions, and the resolution of their suffering, I am tapping into something ancient, something alive, something real, and something that matters.
Is publishing important? Sure. Sometimes. If it works out. But I’m not a publisher. I’m a writer. Publishing exists in a realm utterly alien to writing, at least as far as fiction goes. Publishing’s concern with sales figures, profit, reviews, market share, competition, and those horrible ‘platforms’ and ‘branding,’ etc. can be harmful to the world of imagination. Writing is to me a sacred act of co-creation, whereas publishing is business. I advise my writing students to guard the temenos of their writing life with three-headed Cerberus, guard-dog of the Underworld, if necessary. If you get published and get good reviews and lots of readers, and international deals, and a movie made from your work, and awards, awards, awards, not to mention dump trucks full of cash (highly unlikely!), that’s great and lots of fun. It can also be an awful lot of work that isn’t writing, and it can addict you to the ego-rush, and dash your hopes all at once, and, ironically, success of this kind can destroy your confidence, and fill you with envy because there’s always someone doing better than you are… In short, it’s a lot.
Doesn’t it matter that a writer has readers? Again, sure. Sometimes. If it works out. It’s truly lovely and encouraging to get a letter from a reader who’s enjoyed your work and been positively affected by it. However, not everyone will like your work or understand it. Now, sometimes we have to admit that’s because we haven’t done a very good job and the work isn’t great (although people who are dreadful writers often get lots and lots of readers for reasons that remain mysterious to me), but as often as not, it’s because the reader has read our work through the lens of their experience and has larded it with meaning we didn’t intend. That’s on them, not you. I remember sharing an early story with someone whose approval I craved. She was dismissive. I was crushed and didn’t write for a good long while after that. I now realize she was wrong, but at the time I didn’t trust my vocation enough and allowed her criticism to shut me down. I repeat, Cerberus can be an excellent companion.
All this to say, I hope if in this weird publishing era we’re in – and we’re always in a weird publishing era — is treating you poorly, you’ll remember that writing is sacred, it’s a vocation. If you simply must write, if you’re afflicted with that compulsion to make meaning of the world through stories, then write. Write. WRITE. No matter what. What you’re doing matters. Like Tonglen meditation. Like the Mundus Imaginalis. By writing we are creating something alive, while at the same time accessing something already alive. The creating/access changes the world and it matters profoundly, even if you’re the only one who ever reads it. Even then? Oh yes, even then.