“All writers are vain, selfish, and lazy…” George Orwell
In the beginning the words flowed like honey, like maple syrup, like corn syrup; yes, the metaphors flowed just like that. Flowed so easily down the page I barely had time to sprinkle a few periods about. It flowed like the Madonna song that I used to listen to on my Sony Walkman while I ran: “Come on girls, express yourself, hey, hey, hey, hey” (not exactly like that, but close, who cares!). I was up and coming, a prodigy, a genius probably. The words flowed from me to page to awestruck reader.
Yes, people were amazed. First my mother, who stapled my poems into a pink and orange construction paper book, then my middle school teacher who gave me a prize for my essay and read it aloud to the whole school, then high school teachers, college teachers, professors in grad school, literary magazine editors, all urging me on, giving me the green light—get out there and express yourself girl, hey, hey, hey.
Okay, true, there was that one professor, an elderly gentleman with lovely thick white hair, who tried to rain a little on my parade: after I graced the workshop he was leading with one of my stories, a worried look crinkled onto his kindly face. “Maybe we read this story for the language,” he said, “since I have no idea what it’s about.”
Pshaw. It was beautiful wasn’t it? Who cares what it means? And so it flowed until I finished grad school and tried to publish my first book.
“Ambition and a little luck are good things for a writer to have going for him. Too much ambition and bad luck, or no luck at all, can be killing.” Raymond Carver
I was saving this expensive bottle of champagne to open when my first book was taken by a publisher. This was right after I finished grad school and I was still in my mid-twenties. I had a fancy agent, and every time she called my boyfriend and I went out to dinner to celebrate at a restaurant we couldn’t afford. Then something untoward happened. The agent failed to find a publisher for the book.
But I kept my sunny side up. I knew it would all work out. I started sending the book out myself to contests, then to small presses, then to smaller presses. Over a year went by. One morning I received a letter from some tiny press in somewhere like Never, Never North Dakota with a name something like Not Going To Happen Press. The rejection was typed on thick grey paper: Dear Micah Perks, we only publish two books a year and though we admired your novel, we have decided to publish two others this year instead. We are sure you will soon find a publisher for this lovely, lyrical work. Then, a handwritten P.S.: If you ever learn how to tell a story you’ll be a great writer.
This was probably my thirtieth rejection. This was western New York in February, and I was in my baggy pajamas and a wool hat inside my apartment at one in the afternoon. I tore up the letter, threw it on the floor. I grabbed up the dusty bottle of champagne, ran out the back door—slipping and skidding on icy back steps in my bare feet into the small backyard covered in snow and dog shit, bare branches of the quince bush still months from budding. I let out a furious sob and threw that champagne bottle as hard as I could.
It bounced off the snow.
I heard a noise. I looked to my side. The two neighbor kids, skinny boys in hats with pom poms and puffy down jackets, were staring at me from their yard. I waved. They did not wave back.
I tiptoed my way through the dirty, crusty snow, picked up the champagne bottle, and went back inside.
Pretty soon I started to write another book to try to teach myself how to write a story.
But this isn’t a story about whether I learned to write a story. Maybe I did and maybe I didn’t. What is a story, anyway? This is a story about why I keep trying to write stories. I started out with surge of ambition and luck, and after that my luck came in fits and starts, like a faulty circuit, a light humming and buzzing, blinking on and off. Sometimes I find myself writing in the dark. Raymond Carver said this could be killing to a writer, so why do I keep writing?
“My wars are laid away in books.” Emily Dickinson
In the beginning, before there was writing, there was reading. I grew up on a commune and went to a school with thirteen kids. We all loved story hour. During story hour, chapter by chapter, day by day, our two teachers Carol and Sandy read aloud all the Little House on the Prairie books to us. Then they started the Narnia books. When we got to The Last Battle, the last Narnia book of all, and the hour was over, we begged them to keep reading. While we sprawled about on the rug and the couches, the teachers did keep reading, taking turns; against all social conventions and rules of behavior, they read and read for the entire day, maybe six hours. Carol croaked out the last sentence: “All their life in Narnia had only been the cover and the title page: now at last they were beginning Chapter One of the Great Story which no one on earth has read: which goes on forever: in which every chapter is better than the one before.”
We just lay there, stunned. Because I’m pretty sure Carol and Sandy changed our neurons that day, created new pathways, chemically addicted us to reading. We rose up with new brains hardwired to believe a doorway to another world was possible.
And then pretty soon after that a door opened to a new world and I fell through. The commune collapsed and everyone scattered, including my father. My mother, my sister, and I moved to another state where I went to public school for the first time. The teacher in my fifth grade classroom put our names up on the wall. He told us to write down the books we read on 3 x 5 cards and put them up next to our names. I hardly spoke that entire year, but by the end of it my list of books wrapped around and around the room, cocooning me in words.
At first I hid away in books, let them speak for me, but then I began to see that books helped me make meaning. Writing became a way to join that great conversation.
How should we live?
What is possible?
Whose story gets told? Whose is left out?
Stories are containers that catch the ineffable before it drifts away. Smoke in a jar. Champagne in a bottle.
“All writers are vain, selfish, and lazy…And yet it is also true that one can write nothing readable unless one constantly struggles to efface one’s own personality. Good prose is like a windowpane.” George Orwell
Since I tried and failed to break that champagne bottle it’s been almost twenty years, and I’m still writing. It still flows sometimes. I still want to be part of the conversation. I still find meaning in the word.
But why do I write?
Maybe because it brings me hope. It’s a transaction. I put in hope and the writing gives it back to me. Isak Dinesen wrote, “I write a little each day, without hope and without despair.” I myself write a little some days accompanied by an anxious slide whistle—sliding tinnily down to despair, then shrilly up up, up to hope, then back down again. It can be grating on the nerves. That’s why I love Isak Dinesen’s quote; it fills me with such longing, and with such hope and such despair.
But so far, the hope always wins out. Hope that it will be easy this time, hope I’ll write something great, hope I’ll be part of the conversation, hope I’ll find meaning in the word. Hope that through the windowpane I’ll glimpse George Orwell, I’ll see you and you’ll see me.
Here’s a good example of why I write: when I started writing this piece about why I write, I didn’t realize the role that hope played in my writing. Now I do. Something small but miraculous happened. A little bit of meaning born.
In the beginning was the word. And the word gave us hope that there would be another word, and maybe that word would be amazing.
Rumpus original art by Jim Gill.