Snakes and Ladders

by Kathy on March 15, 2009

Snakes & Ladders.

The phone rings at 7.40 am: I’m easing the kids into raingear and out of the door along with their lunches, books, sports equipment and a recently discovered sheep skull for Show & Tell. Yes? I say, thinking it’s either a UK emergency, another cancelled soccer match or the dentist again – but no: it is the Canada Council telling me my novel Alphabet has been short-listed for a Governor General’s Award. The day – the month – is transformed into a mini roller coaster of interviews and trips. The kids bid for a float plane ride if I win; naturally, I agree – but sadly for them it doesn’t fall out that way. Even so, Alphabet and I have a good time.

There is a silver sticker on my book jacket to draw people’s attention to it and I can tell myself that I must, at least to some degree, be succeeding artistically if three of my respected peers, in a country I am new to, sat together for a day arguing over this and that point and agreed to put my book on a list of five.

So it’s very good. All the same time, this moment in the sun cannot but remind me how strange and difficult the writer’s life mostly is. Not long ago, I was talking with a talented, well-respected writer who, when I asked about her work, burst into a hurricane of tears because she had been suffering an unexpected rash of mid-career rejection letters. We hugged, and I commiserated and but there was nothing to say except that this can be a tough job, and that’s after you have written the book. Whilst writing itself can be difficult, most of us would agree that overall it is both a pleasure and a privilege. Being a writer is a different matter; it requires us to develop skills that have nothing to do with putting words on the page. The sad truth is that while some kind of verbal or story-telling talent is a prerequisite for writers, being able to cope with the psychological hazards inherent in being a writer is at least as important.

Success stories like JK Rowling’s haunt the public imagination but the reality is that most writers write into a void (no one knows or minds much what they are doing until, years later, it’s done) or even face outright discouragement (rejection letters, family disapproval, low sales). You have to be able to sustain yourself, emotionally and financially, under these conditions. You dedicate your time to what others may seem as an insane or lost cause; you must take the solitude you need to work, but at the same time you must not allow yourself to become utterly isolated or totally crazy (a little craziness is fine, even necessary). It’s important to generate ways of looking at the bizarre situation you are in which keep you going rather than stop you in your tracks. As John Gardner pointed out in his mordantly funny piece Do You Have What it Takes to Become a Novelist?, a writer needs to be “at once driven and indifferent” – passionate about the book, but also, I’d add, hard-nosed and realistic about his or her circumstances. This is not an easy combination.

Another difficulty is that in order to write, you must be sensitive, but to be a writer, you need rhinoceros hide or a good supply of bandages: rejection in all its nasty varieties is the biggest hazard of all, and spreads itself like Kudzu over the entire profession. Again, some rarely encounter it, but they are a tiny minority. Most writers must find a way to deal with constantly being judged, ranked and sometimes rejected or not even considered in the first place. Your name is not on the short list… a magazine editor declines your story… the year’s list of recommended books does not include yours… you receive a swingeingly bad review in a major publication just before you have to stand on a platform and read the damn thing aloud to 500 people…

Add to this that if you are so inclined, there is always some other book or writer to compare yourself with: a massive snake this, if you let it grow. You can feel either overwhelmed by his or her superior talent, or grow bitter and twisted because he or she has been rewarded for something that to your mind amounts to lesser achievement than yours. Prizes can have an especially infantilising effect: the chosen few step suddenly up into the limelight, leaving the rest behind. It can take a determined effort not to give in to this kind of thinking, even though anyone who has ever sat on the jury for an award will tell you that another five books could just as easily have been selected.

These are the snakes, and as you slide down their slimy gullets, it’s a good idea to remind yourself of the ladders, the biggest of which is having done what you wanted to do,  being pleased (even temporarily) with the result, and then having someone read it and sees/enjoy/be moved by what you have done. Or, better still, having many people read it and see/enjoy/be moved by what you have done.

Just as in the board game, it is possible to go for long periods where there is a chronic imbalance between snakes and ladders: far too much reptile. At other times, each inviting ladder is followed immediately by a pair of wide open jaws and you never seem to get anywhere at all: the editor loves it, the book is published, the jacket is great – but your book receives no reviews at all, or your book gets great reviews and wins a prize – but for mysterious reasons just doesn’t sell, and your publisher doesn’t want to put it out in paperback/won’t commit to your next.

Again, there is nothing to do but remember: you are writing because you think it is important, because it gives you pleasure, because you want a particular story to be told, because you want to make people laugh or make them think, because it is part of the way you relate to the world, because in the end you can’t not write (all or some of the above). Yes, working in an atmosphere of encouragement, feeling that readers actually want the results of your hours at the desk – basking, even, in their appreciation of your work, is far pleasanter than the opposite and will set you up for better few hours at the computer. Yes, being paid well helps too – and both together is brilliant, but it is only likely to happen some of the time. Meanwhile, find a way to keep on working: denial, distraction, and meditation, laughter, weeping fits, philosophy or simply writing itself… You do whatever works.

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