Publetariat continues its series on The Psychology of Writing with the following essay, by author Merrill Joan Gerber. The essay was originally published in the Sewanee Review, and reprinted on The Rumpus on 1/23/09. In it, the reader learns rejection is never far from any writer, even one with a body of work as impressive as Ms. Gerber’s.
Why I Must Give Up Writing
First let me say I’ve been a dedicated writer for half a century. I’ve published twenty-five books, and I’ve even won some prizes. I know a real writer is supposed to write for the art itself, yearning only toward self-expression and the joy of creation, ignoring the fickle heart of the market place.
I know all about papering the office walls with rejections. I’m not a quitter, not a cry-baby (though I have cried a few times and once I crept into bed for a few weeks till a certain violent literary shock wore off). Looking back on my writing life, I see that some warning moments stand out.
In 1967, when my first novel, An Antique Man, was published, Joyce Carol Oates wrote: “I’ll be reviewing your novel for the Detroit news, and I’ll send you a clipping…” Three months later she wrote again: “…it is a most moving and painful novel, beautifully done, and I will retain certain scenes in my mind for a long time. If the long newspaper strike in Detroit ever comes to an end, I will certainly review the novel.”
I don’t know when the strike came to an end, but there was never a review. There were other hints to me about the nature of the writing life. William Shawn, at the New Yorker, read An Antique Man, and wrote to me that he and his staff had tried hard to find a section to stand on its own but they hadn’t succeeded. Two months later, one of his staff wrote me: “Mr. Shawn can’t get your book out of his mind, so please send it back to us so we can try again to find an excerpt that will work.”
Again, I took the trip to the post office with my mss. Some weeks later Mr. Shawn sent back the novel a second time. He was sorry, he had tried very hard, but he just couldn’t find a section to stand alone. The second rejection was much worse than the first —a kind of brutal blow to the delicate strand of hope that had been fluttering in my mind.
Modern psychology tells us that when a relationship feels wrong, we’d do well to focus on a single issue that’s manageable—not to list all the old insults, failings and faults of the beloved. But the list of the failings of my beloved art continues to grow longer. I feel I can no longer live with them.
Recently, I found a letter from a publisher written to me in 1986. “Thank you for sending me your novel. I think you would have to be dead not to think this manuscript is funny and lively. The only problem with it is a certain lack of discipline…”
For four months I worked to insert certain disciplines the editor felt were essential. Then she wrote again. “I think that your revisions are excellent, and that you have successfully integrated the fantastic and the real. However, difficulties arise after our heroine leaves the hospital. So now what? Can I say to you that I think you have aimed your plot in a misguided direction? I don’t know if I can, but I certainly think so. If these very real difficulties can be resolved we can discuss a book.”
What difficulties did she mean? How was I to guess at them? We had no further discussions and my novel was never published.
In 1989, an editor from Little Brown wrote me about my longest novel, a 650 page family saga called The Victory Gardens of Brooklyn: “I found this novel to be wonderfully engrossing, full of the marvelously realized characters whose personalities propel them into their individual predicaments. But midway though the mss, I felt that the chronological sequence precluded the sort of definable story line that would give each character’s subplot satisfying form and substance. If you decide to rework the novel, I would very much like to read it again.”
Rework 650 pages? On speculation? With no contract? All the while trying to guess what the editor’s vision might be? I wrote, asking if she could be more specific. Well, she could not really point the way for me. I’d have to figure it out for myself. But I had already figured out the way the book should be constructed, that’s what had taken me several years of work. I put the book in the closet where one day I listened in to be sure its heart had stopped beating.
Merrill Joan Gerber’s most recent novel is The Victory Gardens of Brooklyn. She teaches fiction writing at the California Institute of Technology.