Saturday, May 18, 2013
Reviewed by OFW editor:
Carlos J Cortes
Published: September 04, 2012
Being a writer is hard. I don’t mean posing as a writer (or “author” as fashion goes) but being one. Being a writer is like being tall, or Jewish, or black; one is, and there’s little one can do about it.
The editors of OFW concur that seldom a day goes by without fielding an e-mail from a fellow writer, complaining about the unfairness of it all and in particular the curse of talentless people palming zillions of thinly disguised inanity to their eager fans.
Our kin is a suffering kin; we breathe like every other creature of our species and regardless the thickness of our hide we bleed and despair when another rejection clatters into our in-box.
Over the years I’ve developed an antidote against depression, a simple matter of reading the heroic trials of other writers. Then it dawns on me I have it easy; my tribulations are chickenfeed compared to the gut-wrenching stories behind the publication of some books.
One of my heroes was born in Minnesota on August 6, 1928, and he’s still alive and kicking. He was a bright child, with an IQ of 170 at age nine. He went to university in Minneapolis at 15 but was expelled a couple of years later for failing grades, immaturity and inattention to studies. So he enlisted in the Army and was sent off to Korea for fourteen months, after which—at the ripe old age of nineteen—he returned to the University of Minnesota to study philosophy. He didn’t graduate. Later he would study journalism, making ends meet by odd-jobbing as freelance technical writer and editor. He married and sired a child.
While still writing and editing technical articles for General Mills, our writer returned to the University of Minnesota at age 28, to complete his Journalism studies. He wanted to get out of commercial writing and into something less commercial and more vocational.
After earning his MA in Journalism, he applied for a teaching post at Bethel; later he would teach at Bozeman (Montana) and finally at Chicago. In 1961, aged 32 he was carried off to the University of Chicago mental hospital, to spend Christmas with the salt of the earth.
In fact he would spend the best part of three years in several hospitals for the clinically insane, undergoing comprehensive shock treatment of the kind described by Ken Kesey in
One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest.
Upon his release, he discovered that his wife had divorced him while he was in the hospital biting the rubber gag
Please, stop a second to weigh the wretchedness of our scribe at this particular point in his life. Imagine—you are a writer and can do it—walking out of an institution for the clinically insane to find yourself alone in an alien world you no longer understand. No friends, no family, no kin; just you and your tormented brain with a book inside. And while you’re at it, imagine having a brilliant and busy mind zapped seventeen times with high-voltage.
The writer spent the following years struggling to survive and writing an incredible 800,000-word tome. He rewrote his book, edited, cut, adjusted and finally ended with a 200,000-word novel.
Then, rather than seeking a literary agent he pitched his work directly to publishers. He sent the manuscript off to get his first rejection, followed by another, and another, and another...
Please, stop another second. I know I’m being repetitive, but imagine sending a manuscript by snail-mail, to wait until the postman (this was before the Internet craze) delivers yet another rejection, only to grind your teeth and compose another letter; one hundred and twenty one letters followed by one hundred and twenty one rejections.
Then something magical happened in 1974. A lone acquisitions editor, James Landis, proposed the book to his betters at William Morrow and Company, and closed his pitch with these words:
“This book is brilliant beyond belief, it is probably a work of genius, and will, I'll wager, attain classic stature.”
Landis offered him a standard $3,000 advance and said the book
forced him to decide what he was in publishing for.
I’ve had the words of Mr. Landis pinned to the corkboard facing my desk for as long as I can remember. If only more editors came to terms with the vocational aspects of their profession, instead of practicing literary prostitution, the industry would be different and culture would flourish. But I digress.
As he handed over the contract, the editor then added that although this was almost certainly the last payment—the book would probably bomb—our writer shouldn't be discouraged. Money wasn't the point with a book like his.
When the book was published, The Times Literary Supplement called it: "Profoundly important, Disturbing, Deeply moving, Full of insights, A wonderful book." In his New Yorker book review, George Steiner compared our hero’s writing to Dostoevsky, Broch, Proust, Bergson, and Melville stating that "the assertion itself is valid... the analogies with Moby-Dick are patent." Finally, also in 1974, our writer was awarded a Guggenheim Fellowship so he could write a follow-up.
Robert M. Pirsig’s towering masterpiece
Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance
would sell over five million copies worldwide.
“The funny thing about insane people,” Pirsig once said, “is that it is kind of the opposite of being a celebrity. Nobody envies you.'
There you have it, if Pirsig could endure hell, and one-hundred and twenty-one rejections from as many publishers, surely less talented scribes (I’m thinking of you and me) owe to the likes of him to continue writing with passion and plod the road we’ve chosen.
I’ve selected a few paragraphs from different chapters of
Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance
to share snippets of Pirsig’s wonderful mind:
The truth knocks on the door and you say, "Go away, I'm looking for the truth," and so it goes away. Puzzling.
You are never dedicated to something you have complete confidence in. No one is fanatically shouting that the sun is going to rise tomorrow. They know it's going to rise tomorrow. When people are fanatically dedicated to political or religious faiths or any other kinds of dogmas or goals, it's always because these dogmas or goals are in doubt.
We're in such a hurry most of the time we never get much chance to talk. The result is a kind of endless day-to-day shallowness, a monotony that leaves a person wondering years later where all the time went and sorry that it's all gone.
People arrive at a factory and perform a totally meaningless task from eight to ﬁve without question because the structure demands that it be that way. There’s no villain, no ‘mean guy’ who wants them to live meaningless lives, it’s just that the structure, the system demands it and no one is willing to take on the formidable task of changing the structure just because it is meaningless. But to tear down a factory or to revolt against a government or to avoid repair of a motorcycle because it is a system is to attack effects rather than causes; and as long as the attack is upon effects only, no change is possible. The true system, the real system, is our present construction of systematic thought itself, rationality itself, and if a factory is torn down but the rationality which produced it is left standing, then that rationality will simply produce another factory. If a revolution destroys a systematic government, but the systematic patterns of thought that produced that government are left intact, then those patterns will repeat themselves in the succeeding government. There’s so much talk about the system. And so little understanding.
When a shepherd goes to kill a wolf, and takes his dog to see the sport, he should take care to avoid mistakes. The dog has certain relationships to the wolf the shepherd may have forgotten.
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