The publication of my last book made me tired. It was a special kind of tired because I was tired of myself–tried of hearing myself talk about a book I’d written and left behind. I was also tired of confusing the tired person who talked with authority on what she’d written with someone who had no idea how she’d written it and no idea what she’d write next.
Georgia O’Keefe said I did my best work when no one knew what I was doing.
I’m sure this is true for all of you who write or paint or dance or write complex computer codes. These are times when you aren’t required to remember who you were or are. There are times when you never have to think about an audience. And there are times when you are all alone.
The artist, Philip Guston said: When I first go into the studio there are a lot of people in the room. Slowly there are fewer and fewer. Eventually, there’s only me. And finally no one’s in the room.
Sometimes readings and book tours are fun. They’re ornate masked balls, jubilant celebrations. At these times I feel privy to a secret: The journey was never the point: It was always the destination. And actually, I always knew. Except now I have proof. The party is happening. And it’s so much more fun than the journey.
But then it turns out the arrival is over: You can’t arrive at the same destination forever.
During the celebrations, I’ve explained that writing is a profession, a mix of discipline and agift that comes from nowhere. Suddenly it isn’t a profession and I don’t receive any gifts–not even a paragraph or a sentence. In a word, I am unemployed.
It’s easy to blame the sense of unemployment after a book on the hysteria of the times: Writers need a platform. There are debates about whether a Twitter following creates an audience or is merely evidence of an established one. There are e-books. And the tragic loss of independent bookstores.
Yet I have a sense that many writers got tangled in self-promotion. Dickens engorged his work because he was paid by the word. At the Beatrix Potter Exhibit at J.P. Morgan, I was astonished to learn that she’d created a Peter Rabbit Doll. And even though Kafka wanted Max Brod to burn his manuscripts (he knew Max wouldn’t), he couldn’t wait to publish The Judgment.
Between books, and after the publicity that makes me tired of myself, I am uninspired, rudderless–wishing I had could join Doctors Without Borders or be an archeologist discovering goddesses from the Stone Age. And I’m painfully aware that I can’t even work a cash register.
What happens to break this spell? No writer ever completely knows since the spell is ready to be broken before the writer is released. For me it’s always a lucky accident–a phrase, a moment of play that eluded me, the sudden appearance of a title.
Often it’s finding fellow travelers.
This time I found two fellow travelers. The first was Mary Ruefle (www.maryruefle.com) who wrote Madness, Rack and Honey. Mary Ruefle is an extraordinary poet with an extraordinary gift as an essayist who engages the reader in a conversation. She is enthusiastic about sharing her mind and sees poetry everywhere —even in Victoria’s Secret ads–which are a seamless part of a rumination about how writing itself is a revelation of secrets. When Mary Ruefle writes she is unpretentious and intimate. She also shares–unselfconsciously–how she feels about her essays at the moment of writing them. I went into her workroom with her. And was reminded that writers all over the world are part of an invisible community.
The second fellow traveler I met was Karen J0y Fowler (www.karenjoyfowler.com). I’ve long enjoyed her work (The Jane Austen Club, Sarah Canary and numerous short stories). And I was surprised when we met together at the same reading. As soon as I met her, I sensed someone who thought about writing—even when she was out in the open marketplace. At one point, during dinner, she said she’d love to give a reading to dogs. I understood! I’d always wanted to read to dogs, too. But I’d never met anyone who said that out loud. Soon I was writing a story called Reading to Dogs.
Thanks, then, to Mary Ruefle and Karen Joy Fowler. Neither of them knew they were answering a call. And that’s the way it is with writing. Just as meetings between readers and writers are invisible, meetings with other writers are often invisible. That’s the conundrum of the journey. It’s also the delight and mystery.