Writing is a little like getting married. The minute Peter and I finished our vows my stepfather told us we should start popping them out. In those exact words, I believe (he is no longer part of the family). Similarly, at every signing I did for my novels, readers said, So what’s your next book about? I threw around words like murder, drugs and sex and hoped they’d be patient enough to wait thirteen years until it was born.
The truth is, I have a book, I am just fiddling with the ending. I have been fiddling with the ending for years. I’ve rewritten the book five times. Really sexy things happen in this book, there’s a mute witch who spies, and a Brazilian gem dealer with gazillions of dollars and a hot little army boy who falls in love with a girl with hair down to her waist who runs around the country in silk panties and little else. The novel is set in Panama, where it’s steaming hot and there’s tons of cocaine and prostitutes and guns. It’s the 80s, so everyone’s rich or getting there and the men get to wear tight pants like Don Johnson on Miami Vice.
One night I stacked the drafts of this novel on my living room floor, and just for the fun of it, because who doesn’t have time to waste, I counted the pages. I had 2500 pages of rewrites, which is sad since it’s really a simple boy meets girl story. The novel looked like a mutant special ed kid in most of these incarnations, and it occurred to me there’s a reason for this. I don’t think I want to finish it. Because then I will have to send it out and step foot into the public arena, naked, and say, Here I am! It’s sort of cozy over here with my unfinished book, my friends and my husband and, most of all, my blog.
Blogs are important for writers. First and foremost we are obsessed about and addicted to writing. If you don’t like to write and you are writing anyway, then don’t come complaining to me if you o.d. on methamphetamine. If you love to write, than really the best thing is to blog. You don’t have to deal with magazine editors or agents or literary journals or any other editorial. With a blog, you can write and be loved for it. Only people who love me read my blog. Or at least so far. My readers who are patiently waiting for me to get on with it read it, my mother-in-law (who is not your typical mother-in-law but an angel), my sister, my friends and my husband. They write me warm, fuzzy notes telling me how great I am and asking me to pretty please write another one and no one says one mean thing or tells me I have broken one two three literary rules.
Unlike a blog, when you have a book any old person is ready to tell you what’s wrong with it. I once went to a party and a very nice man, who I always look forward to seeing said, Hey! Guess what? I just read your book! I clinked glasses with him. I liked it, he said. Do you want me to tell you what was wrong with it? Ummm, no? Plenty of other people will have gladly beaten him to the punch. Kirkus and Publishers Weekly give the book to anonymous reviewers who read it in a split second and compare it to every other book they’ve ever read and post a review so bookstore buyers will buy it. Or not.
My agent laughed at me when I told her I didn’t like to look at reviews. “But you get great reviews,” she told me. We know this is true because my agent has the annoying habit of never ever lying, which is why I don’t really want to work with her anymore. But we also know reviewers are paid to be critical, even if they like the book. They circle you with a stick in their hand and just when you are gloating about how they like your ass and your hamstrings, they hit you as hard as they can on the back of the knees, just to see if you feel pain in the right places. Getting reviewed, even if the reviews are 99.9% flattering, makes me want to slip into bed with a pound of chocolate and a gallon of whiskey, imagining my reviewers blindfolded in a P.O.W. camp. Mostly I want to call them up and scream: Why don’t YOU try to write a book you parasitic muffin muncher? And then I want to ask them why in the world they don’t like me when I’ve never done anything to them.
I guess worse than being reviewed is not being noticed at all. We had an author at the lit fest who came running full tilt toward me with an S.O.S. crying, Tom Perrotta doesn’t know who I am! She was almost in tears. I asked him to sign my book, and he thought I worked for the festival! (of course I work for the festival, but no matter). I wanted to blow smoke in her face and say in my best Bogart: Get used to it honey, no one gives a damn about your book. Except of course, some people do give a damn about her book. And… some people don’t. Marshall Chapman, the famous singer songwriter once told me: A third of the room’s going to love you, a third is going to hate you, and a third isn’t going to care about you.
As an author you think that something or someone will be able to give you immunity against being a wallflower and getting bad reviews, like maybe Oprah will call (if she wasn’t going off the air) or Clint Eastwood will want to make it into a movie. But nothing can really save you from believing that your books are just a little more important than the world thinks they are. I remember looking lovingly at Ann Hathaway on the cover of Vogue after she optioned The Gospel According to Gracey, my second novel, which was being treated like a hairlip orphan at the publishing house. But even Ann Hathaway couldn’t save me. When she mentioned my book in her interviews, the interviewer would go rushing past that and say something like: I bet Disney would be happy if you kept working for them forever!!!!
The truth is that writing a book might be your own private, really fun party, but putting it out into the world takes courage. Jump out of an airplane courage. Courage to say, Lookey here! I just spent ten years writing this! While the world was at war and cardiologists were developing a cure for heart attacks, I tried to make the little people in my mind interesting to you! I spent a whole day finding just the right word and scrapped whole chapters and refused sex and wine and food, and dug my fingernails into my skull. And now I’m as vulnerable as the boy in the bubble without my bubble. How do you like me now? It’s no wonder Hemingway and Faulkner and Fitzgerald and Woolf drowned and shot themselves. Because, really, when you come right down to it, even if the reviews do understand the vision and applaud the technique, it isn’t really the reviewer’s fault that you feel like pill addiction might be an option after all. It’s your fault.
And the way we know this is to look at the Tibetans. They consider creation a kind of prayer. Creativity and art is all wrapped up in the sacred. Before they create their infamous sand mandalas they chant and recite blessings. And then they spend weeks laying down millions of grains of fine, colored sand to form geometric shapes that wind up in a final design so painstakingly beautiful, detailed and synergistic, you feel like crying. They consider the art a tool for re-consecrating the earth. And just at the time when they might be calling out, Lookey here! I finished! I made something!! The Tibetans sweep the sands up into an urn and carry the whole ruined thing to a nearby body of water, where they watch the ocean swallow it so they can spread planetary healing throughout the world and better understand the concept of impermanence. They’ve been doing this since the 6th century BC in the face of not only indifference but persecution. The Chinese communists’ genocidal policies have forced most Tibetans out of their homeland, and into refugee camps in India. And here we were about to throw ourselves in front of a train because Oprah didn’t call?
Maybe we really need to pay attention to that delicious feeling we get when we play around with our blogs. Perhaps the gold ring is that soaring feeling we get when we are in the true groove of creating, all by ourselves, in our private little made-up world that feels suspiciously like playing pretend when we were kids. It could be that the poor little ego needs to take a backseat so the creative self can learn something from the Tibetans: We don’t create to be looked at, we create to spread a little planetary healing. And no matter if we do or don’t finish that novel or how many reviews we get, good or bad, everything, and I do mean everything, is impermanent.