Writing, Publishing & Waiting
June 4th, 2009
Rumor has it that I’ll be getting some actual copies of Shimmer today, with the book hitting the stores over the coming weeks. So I thought I’d post this, a version of a talk I gave to students at MUS (Memphis University School) recently, and that will go into a kind of loose video soon, combined with the slides that went with the talk. I posted a few of the slides here also. I had to give a talk about my novel to a group of high school students recently. And a friend of mine, a teacher, said, “You need to talk to them about failure.” Which might suggest a certain lack of confidence in my speech. But I’d been thinking about failure anyway. Because this book Shimmer − because writing in general − is inevitably tied to failure. Think of Hemingway, one of the most acclaimed American writers, who killed himself at least in part because of his failure to be able continue to write as he got older. Think of Keats, one of the great English poets, who died at a young age, at least by most accounts, considering himself a failure. Or think of the British novelist John Fowles − and this is the one I like to think of − who wrote numerous manuscripts before getting his first novel published. I failed to publish a novel for what seems like a very long time. I started writing seriously almost twenty years ago. In that time, I’ve written four novels, have had five agents. The first novel I wrote, I wrote 900 pages. I then cut that down to 400 pages. Then 300 pages. I spent most of three years on that book. And at the end of those three years, I realized that − truly, honestly − the book was terrible. Horrible. But still, for some reason, I kept writing.
======In part, I wrote short stories. There are probably 200 publications that publish what are called literary stories − not genre stories. Stories that might be very serious or very funny, but that are of some weight. Stories that, for better or worse, aspire to be studied and taught. That aspire to some level of significance. The first story I ever had published, almost 15 years ago, was rejected by something like 75 publications before someone accepted it. Think of it. Nearly half of the 200 publications who might have said yes, instead said no. And in just the last three years, I’ve received exactly 468 rejections of short stories of mine. That’s nearly a rejection every other day. And that 468 is just for the last three years, during which time I have, for certain inexplicable reasons, kept an accurate count of every rejection. This means that, since I started sending out stories 15 years ago, I’ve received over 1,000 rejections. If you think about those 1,000 rejections, in that time I’ve had 13 stories accepted. Which is a success rate of 1.3%. I take a strange comfort in all these numbers. Quantifying and containing the rejections. I turn them around in large spreadsheets, spin them into a database, plot them on well-organized charts. Although, in truth, counting the rejections, doing the math, it’s just a means of quantifying and containing my disappointments. It might be like not getting the job you want. Or being rejected by a college. Or it might be like that woman who breaks up with you. Or won’t go out with you in the first place. These are the disappointments, the failures, that shake you. That make you question who exactly you are. Who you want to be. Who you even can be. The rejections, as they come in, are like votes. Votes against you. Each one adding up. What if you asked out 100 people and they all said no? But, still, I kept writing
=======Like most people, I suppose, I have in my life met many people who say they want to write. You meet a few who actually sit down and do some writing, the start of a story maybe or some chapters for a novel. You meet still fewer who finish what they start. And fewer still who actually get a story, a novel, a biography, a book of any substance published. Writing is the hardest work I have ever done. I’ve worked 60-hour weeks in marine construction, building docks and floats, cold, wet and tired in the rain. I’ve worked 80-hour weeks in fish processing plants in Alaska, where you work till you’re soaked and cold and covered in scales and slime. I went to a fancy college and a top graduate school where students competed, coldly, for the attention of professors. As a reporter I called the father of a girl killed in a car crash and asked him, “How do you feel?” and in business I’ve pulled all nighters before presenting to venture capitalists who held the future of our company in their hands and I’ve walked into rooms of 20 people and told all of them, “I’m sorry, go home, because I’m laying all of you off.” But writing is the hardest thing I’ve ever done. And when you’re done writing, when you’ve finished what you’ve written, then you face that 1 in a hundred chance that your story or novel will get published. And then, when you’ve published it, you’ll struggle to get it read. I heard Philip Roth say one time that in any given city there are maybe 10,000 people who actually read. By which he meant, 10,000 people who read books of some weight, who think hard about them, who stop afterward and consider the significance, if any, of what they’ve just finished. Maybe it’s 100,000 people, he said. Regardless, it’s a tiny number. But, still, you write. For reasons I can’t fully explain, even to myself, I get up every morning at 5, I work late into the night, and I write. It is exhausting, mind-numbing, tedious, and thrilling. And that’s just in the first 15 minutes of working. You sit alone in a dark room, separating yourself from your friends, from your children, from your wife.
=======One way I can maybe try to describe why I write is that it’s an act in the pursuit of something significant. What I write may be somewhat to very to not at all significant, but it’s an attempt. One strange part of this equation, though, is that the attempt to do something significant so often correlates to not being paid well or at all. It’s why the minister at your church, the rabbi at your synagogue, is probably the lowest paid person you know, yet could well be one of the most important people in your community. In your life. Jay Leno makes millions off an auto-biography, yet Cormac McCarthy, one of the most important writers of our lifetime, worked in obscurity and near-poverty for decades. Britney Spears gets paid millions to lip-synch a song she didn’t write, while musicians of immensely greater talent play their trumpet or guitar in front of a coin box out on the street. But, still, you write.
=======People ask me when I start to write do I have a plan. An outline. For me, I start with the vaguest notion of a situation, and in the back of my mind I’ll think and think about that situation, that idea, that premise, and I’ll start to make notes to myself, and soon I’ll have pages of notes, but I’m not really yet working on anything coherent, until finally, at some point, I’ll find the first sentence. And then I’ll write and write off that first sentence. I write in a low grade panic at that point, racing to get everything on the page. I write out of order, I write the end long before I’ve written the middle. I skip around and leave myself notes in the middle of chapters. That’s how I write. Shimmer was the same. Back in 1999, I had a vague notion of writing a book about a company. I pictured a building. I pictured offices. I pictured some kind of technology, an overly complicated, almost impossibly involved technology. I pictured the people who might work there. Those ideas circled in my mind. But they weren’t an idea for an actual novel until I realized I wanted to write a book about a company that was built on a lie. And that’s when if found the first sentence. The first sentence was and is. “I’d started having dreams where I could fly.”
=======In graduate school, in the writing program I was in, a friend and writer started a novel and wrote a few chapters. He was a very talented, gifted writer. He later had a story in Best American Short Stories, in fact. So he comes to our workshop with this first chapter of this novel and most of the students like it, some don’t, but our professor, who has said nothing, toward the end of class he says, “Well, I have to say that I was extremely disappointed in your work. To me, it was nothing more than an ellipses-ridden, scatological string of clichés.” He went on, downward, from there. And so my friend stopped working on that novel. He just couldn’t go on with it. Which is too bad. Because even if there was some truth to what that professor said, there was surely a novel in there somewhere.
=======So what I have had to do over these years is recalculate those rejections. Rethink them. Understand them differently. Because although nearly 200 publications have said no to my stories, although at least 100 different book editors said no to my manuscripts, after all that one editor said yes. To my novel, Shimmer. One publisher accepted my book. And so it will be published. It will, like all books, live on forever. It will live longer than me or my children or anyone listening. It will live longer than every editor who rejected my work in the past. And so that one yes, that acceptance, it in a sense makes everyone else wrong. It makes them irrelevant. Because if you ask out 100 people, and only the 101st says yes and then you realize you are lucky enough to be in love, then all that matters is that 101st person. Everyone else was wrong. Everyone else is irrelevant. And so the question is, did I really fail when I didn’t get published for all those years? The answer was yes, but now the answer is no.
=======For me, even that first novel, the 900 incoherent pages that became 300 unreadable pages, I came back to it ten years later, with an idea − an idea that came to me sitting outside drinking coffee with my wife near Salem, Mass and I rewrote that novel into a manuscript called Circus Vargas that got me my fifth agent, Gary Heidt, who shopped that manuscript to every publisher he could, and while Circus Vargas didn’t get picked up then, Gary came back to me and asked me for another manuscript, which was Shimmer. If I hadn’t written the 900 pages, and the 300 pages, and the novels in between and the stories that were rejected, then I wouldn’t have written and published Shimmer. And Circus Vargas will be published too, some day. As will High of Sixty, Occasional Rain. And Powdered Milk. The other novels I’ve written. They will be published. And then, like Shimmer, those books too will outlive me.