The other day I spent some time poking around the Harvard Bookstore in Cambridge perusing the latest fiction best-sellers, which were displayed front and center near the door. Then, after searching among the variety of literary categories, I found the “Bibliography and Memoir” section. I thought it was a little odd to combine these two very different genres on the same shelf space, but I guess I can see the logic, if I stretch my imagination a bit.
I picked up a recent book by Joyce Carol Oates titled A Widow’s Story: A Memoir and was saddened to learn how Oates’ husband died from an infection he picked up while in a hospital. I also was interested in the fact that she wrote a memoir that might appear, at least through the lens of over-simplification, to be similar to Joan Didion’s recent memoir, The Year of Magical Thinking. I’m sure the books are quite different, as the writers are quite different. But the similarity struck me — two well-known writers reflecting on the sudden loss of their beloved partners and the unexpected onset of grief and widowhood.
Later, I read a short fiction story by Amy Hempel, which is posted online at Fictionaut: “In the Cemetery Where Al Jolson is Buried.” I was overcome with sadness again, this time especially when I read the gut-wrenching ending of the story, which was infused with its own powerful expression of grief.
I felt sad. I felt a sadness inspired by these writers and their stories, but also another kind of sadness that has more to do with my own writing — and that took me a while to identify. I think this sadness is something that has been coming on for a while, prompted partly by a number of recent rejections and partly by doubts about whether my current work is as good as some of the work I’ve done in the past.
I’m not sure how many writers have talked or written about how it feels to reach the place in one’s writing life that I’ve recently reached: a place that involves wondering why I am doing this at all. Why I am “trying to be a writer?” It’s easier to write about the basic stuff: whether or not it’s important to write every day, why one should read as well as write, how structure can influence meaning, the basics of submission and publishing, the importance of rhythm in sentences…
But how often to I really get down and dirty and think about my true motivation for writing at all? Again, there are easy answers we’ve all heard before: “I write because I love to write,” “I write because I have to,” “I write because it’s the only thing I do particularly well,” or even, “I write because I want to be a famous writer.” Sometimes the answers are more directed: “I write to bear witness.”
But standing in the Harvard Bookstore and looking around me, I realized for the hundredth time that there are so many books out there, so many great writers, so many works of art penned by people who are highly trained, highly talented, or both. One book I picked up was a blockbuster best-selling novel written by a woman in her twenties — and it’s not her first book.
At moments like that some of the basic realities about writing and publishing seem to blink in front of me like neon signs. Certainly there are more ways to get your work out there than ever before — there are online literary journals, small presses, university presses, self-publishing options. But, as someone who is currently writing personal essays, I have to look a little more carefully at the realities. Not a lot of people read personal essays, and although you can attempt to publish them in literary journals (both print and online) and achieve some level of “success” in that way, it is very tough to get an essay collection published in the form of a book. It happens of course, but many publishers don’t feel that essay collections sell, especially if they’re not written by very well-known writers or by writers whose manuscripts have won some sort of literary prize.
Realizing this I’ve sometimes thought of joining the ranks of the many writers out there who are “working on their first novel.” In fact, I wrote 118 pages of a novel about 10 years ago, but it’s not very good and I don’t intend to finish it.
Publishing a book seems to be the benchmark of “success” for many writers. Of course everything is relative, and I’ve come to understand that after publishing one book many writers feel that success will only come if they publish a second book and avoid being considered a “one-book wonder” (although I’m currently listening to To Kill a Mockingbird on CD, and if you have to write just one book, as Harper Lee did, I would think it’s not so bad if you write a book like that).
It has been a long time since I’ve taken a serious look at the reasons behind the hard work I’ve put into my creative writing for the past several years (I started my MFA program in 2008). What am I trying to prove? What am I trying to say or leave behind? Do I have the skill or talent necessary to say it in a meaningful or creative way? And what is the point of that even if I do…is my goal to entertain? To touch hearts? To create change? Am I fooling myself if I think I can change the world with an essay published in a literary journal?
I can hear a chorus of voices out there somewhere saying, “You write because you have to write! You write because you’re compelled! You write because you have no choice!”
But don’t I have a choice? Don’t we all? Are writers (in general, of course) driven to write because of some internal creativity that simply has to be expressed, or are they driven to write simply because they are so very frightened to remain voiceless and anonymous?
Is that the driving force behind my writing? Because I don’t think that’s enough if I want to create really good work…is it?
If I had millions of dollars and could create a trust that would support causes I believe in and drive positive change in the world, would I still need to write? Or would that be enough?
I don’t have the answers to these questions. And when I have trouble pin-pointing even one answer, I find myself landing in a place where I ask myself an even more provocative question: “What if I just give it up?” What if I stop blogging, stop posting on Facebook and Twitter, stop sharing anything about my life and thoughts through writing? What if I just step off this path right now? How easy it would be to remove that one big pressure from my life — “trying to be a writer” — along with all the hard work and rejection that goes with it. I imagine the answer always comes back to joy. Where will I find the joy — in the writing or in the letting go of the writing?
So far, only on the saddest days do I think I might find it in the letting go.