August 2, 2019KR BlogBlogChatsWriting

Time, Patience, Paradox

Earlier this year a close friend of mine, R, got a $100,000 advance for two books. To say I was happy for her was an understatement. Although the contract also involves a fictionish volume yet to be written, the primary reason such a vast amount of monetary support was lump sum given to R was for her first novel, one that she has been working on for the past 10 years. R’s a bit older than me, in her mid-40s, and this book was in her life when we were in graduate school together a decade ago and before that as well. Watching others put out books (which she herself helped edit), publishing sparingly, R waited patiently to fine-tooth her own book—and that diligence paid off. Money isn’t everything and the novel still won’t come out until 2021 (which to me seems infinitely far away right now) but in one sense R has already achieved what so many other writers search for their whole careers—support, but more importantly belief in the work, a belief that looms large over that support. Say what you will of big “commercial” presses, but one thing that can’t be denied is that if they believe in a writer and their work, they’re willing to invest the time and money to help make that belief widespread across multiple markets and avenues. That matters, I think. It’s always mattered, but with so much more “stuff” out there of every possible variety, it matters even more now. As an optimist I think great work is being published every day, but as a realist I also know that the vast majority of it isn’t making its way to the proverbial surface. That which is skimming the top, then, often finds itself there with some help. Greatness is never enough and a small or large contingent of people that believe in the author’s creation (besides the author that is) can make a universe of difference.

R is a different writer than me, craftsperson of a distinct variety and order. (She’s also amazing, with the darkly comic aspects of her work hi-fiving the page-turningly suspenseful.) Predicting the future is folly, but at this point in my life I have no desire to write a novel, nor do I even know if I could do so. (If I did, though, I know for a fact that I wouldn’t get a 100K advance for whatever I came up with. I just wouldn’t.)

R’s patience, however, is something that I think is ten times more important than her advance $. At a relatively young age, 23, 24, I set on the notion that publishing was nearly all that mattered and, although never fully interrogated, that belief of mine has reigned supreme ever since. In the last 11 years, then, I’ve published some poems and essays in some well-regarded places, published a couple small press poetry collections and a small press essay collection. I’ve done readings in various locales across the US. I’ve done some book festivals and been paid to read at a university or two. Overall I’ve had a good time of things—and I’ve been lucky all the while. Although I think I’m a good writer, I also know—or have learned— my limitations. I can’t write narratively (at least in a tautly manner) to save my life and mask this fact by claiming I don’t like narrative writing. (I don’t.) I can’t build a scene. Accurately or inaccurately, I find it difficult to write about myself. Skying for the imagistic or metonymic or surreal or even absurd, I often linger on the rhetorical, quicksand myself there. I could go on and I won’t.

Perhaps paradoxically, I’m very happy with my writing life. Even if it’s rutted, my niche suits me. I find fragments and make them my own and if 2+2=8 in some of my works, I’m content with that inconsistency. I like the angulared interstices. I find them far more interesting than the foundational, the plumb and level and precise. Or so I tell myself—and believe it to be true.

Still, lying awake in bed after a long day I sometimes can’t help but wonder what if I’d waited or waited longer. Would the above creative predilections (read: lacks) of mine be absent from my work if I hadn’t fervently sought to publish when I did? Would I be a better writer by virtue of both the prolongment and the sustained silence? Any author who has reached their early to mid-thirties without publishing a book knows well that Toni Morrison didn’t publish her first novel until she was 39, that Wallace Stevens was 36 when he put out his first poetry collection. They know the hundreds of other authors who waited until later in life to publish their first volumes also. The older I get the more I think about them too. In determined seclusion, ten years ago R was still writing what will soon become her first novel. She was unknown then and is unknown now. But she won’t be for much longer. Patience is a virtue and also a teacher. What it maintains is often impossible to believe in the moment and impossible to forget after the fact. Tomorrow never—and that’s the point. R’s book—books—are going to be huge. I know it. Over the long haul, with diligence, she’s believed in herself and her work and in doing so made manifest a broader support system that now believes too. All that’s left is everything else, but that’s easily conquerable too. What if.

(Artwork–Claude Picher–1927-1998)