I just got back from seeing The Wife, the amazing new Glenn Close movie. Yes, you should go see it. It was terribly relevant and terribly profound. I’m not going to spoil any of the details of the story, but there was one scene that shouted out to me.
An author’s reception in the library at Yale, 1960. At her professor’s urging, a young woman meets with the author, a jaded woman with a Bohemian air. The young woman has promise. And the author’s advice? Don’t do it.
She talks about fighting against the boys club, and doing all of the work of pushing through that, only to sell less than a thousand copies. And, to send the point home, she picks up a copy of her own book off the library shelf. The young writer opens it. You can hear the book crack; the sound of a book that’s never been opened before. “We write to be heard,” she says.
And God, if that isn’t the truth.
The movie touches in on the other aspects of writing: the misery, the rejection, the joy of writing of creating characters and losing yourself in them. The passion of taking this story, writing this thing that you urgently want to say, and putting it out there in the world.
You enjoy writing it. You love the process, even as hard and difficult and painful as it is. But, for most writers, the putting it out there for others to consume is the main purpose. Writing for yourself is definitely a thing — as is talking to yourself — but writing (and speaking) is something you do for other people to hear you.
And it’s okay to want to be heard.
I picture it the same way as I do putting on a theatrical production. You work on developing the show, pour time and energy and passion into creating this show. And then you put it on a stage, in front of an audience. That’s the point of doing all of the work, the purpose of the passion and the pain: to share that with an audience, to get a group of people who are invested and who want to hear what this playwright (and the actors who are delivering their words!).
Getting the audience’s reaction, the audience’s energy, is a part of the process. And it’s a crucial one. As an actor, I’ve fed off the energy of the audience. It makes the work better. The audience’s engagement lets the actors be more engaged. It lets them know that what they’re doing matters.
There’s a reason that the silver-haired Sunday matinees are usually the hardest for actors (at least at the school/community level. I’m not going to speak for Broadway). There’s a smaller audience — or, occasionally, no audience — and the audience tends to be older and less engaged.
(Also, a Sunday matinee is the only time I’ve ever been interrupted during a show. Halfway during Act III of You Can’t Take It With You a woman answered her phone and had a loud conversation. She wasn’t engaged; she didn’t care.)
Just as I act for an audience, I write for an audience.
This becomes difficult when talking about “paying our dues”. About the idea that a writer needs to write 4, 5, 20 novels before they’re good enough to have people read their work. To have their work celebrated and put out and shared by others.
It’s a hard thing to wrap my mind around, a bit of a catch-22: on one hand, I understand the purpose of gatekeeping, of only publishing and celebrating the best books, of finding real talent and skill and putting it out there.
But, on the other hand, I can’t imagine pouring myself into so many different stories, all of my vitality and energy and screaming, all of my hope and my energy and my love, saying this thing that I think needs to be said, just to have nothing come of it. To just shelve the book. To get no reads on the article.
It feels like a waste of time. It feels like a waste of energy.
I love writing, I really do. But I love the whole process of writing, of sharing the work, of being read. I want my work to be good enough out the gate that it’s worth being read. And, after fourteen years of unread poetry and lackadaisical essays and blog posts, I should be good enough.
My first novel should have been good enough. And it wasn’t.
And now I’m sitting down and trying to write again. I really tried. But the thought of putting myself through all of that again, the six years of blood, sweat, hope, expectation, and grief that I put into writing, just to have the book go nowhere — it feels naive. It feels wasteful. It feels like writing the second book is just a setup for more disappointment.
So maybe it’s just a question of which grief is worse: the grief of the untold story that ferments in your head, or in your heart; or the grief of the dead story that’s written, loved, and fought through, only to be discarded.