No Small Measure

Every man has his own courage, and is betrayed because he seeks in himself the courage of other persons.  ~Ralph Waldo Emerson

Whoever told you that courage wasn’t necessary to write was either lying, or…well—no, they were simply lying. In an author’s life, just as in the life of any sentient being, he will come against a multitude of personal demons, none of which are merciful and all of which try his soul just as much as anything tangible would, provided he is any artist at all.

Every word we write, every world we craft, every essay we conjure the courage to post, everything that we allow to cross over from that tenuous, indescribable place and into the real world, leaves us vulnerable. It’s no secret that many authors have struggled against anxiety, depression, a plethora of unmentionables, and at times even madness itself. But why?

Because we see what others don’t. I’ve often read where one agent or another mentions in a flippant manner that authors shouldn’t take things quite so personally, and it makes me pause and wonder what exactly it is they think we do, when we come up with some of the things that make them sit back in wordless wonder? It isn’t personal in the same way that a teenage girl takes offense to not being able to sit at the popular table at lunch, or being picked last for dodge ball or glossed over for a promotion.

It’s personal in that we’re letting loose a little bit of our madness.

Anne Sexton, Edgar Allan Poe, Hemingway, Tolstoy, Vonnegut, Sylvia Plath, Virginia Woolf…need I go on?

But writers today aren’t as gifted as those individuals, someone out there is thinking. I suppose you believe that all artists are fully appreciated in their lifetime then? Or are you assuming that only those listed were blessed enough for such rich recognition? No, in every generation, we’re told with equal fervor that we will never compare to the former. I suspect this has something to do with why writers, should they be any good, are such a brave and boistruous lot. We have to look inside of ourselves every time we begin a piece and ask of our  soul, what are you willing to give up for this? Before the first sentence is even formed in our heads, we’ve entered into an unspoken agreement with the fibers of our being that we won’t let this one be the one that tears us apart. I’ll only share a faint glimpse of it, we promise.

We struggle, not against the common woes of what the world has labeled ‘writers’ block’ or fear of rejection, but with the perpetual attachment these creations by necessity, fight us to maintain. We are still connected, long after the ink has dried.  It takes courage because we aren’t merely setting something free, we’re sending pieces of our very selves into the ether with no assurance that what becomes of them, won’t demand of us more than we’ve been willing to give. Those fragile threads, those ephemeral, maddening veins carry a writer’s blood and cannot be, by the writer—by us, seen as anything less than vital to our survival. So the simple phrase, don’t take it personally, isn’t just wrong—it’s said by someone who couldn’t conceive of such bonds. But, judging by their professional closeness to this art, we know that they want to more than they will ever admit.

It takes no small measure of courage to do what we must do, because inside somewhere, down below all the fears and misgivings, we know how the world will respond. We know there will be bad reviews, poor sales, sparsely populated signings, dry spells and rejections. We know, but there is life before our eyes that we cannot bear to keep from those who would call us mad. It is a driving passion to show you the unfathomable. After all, if you don’t like our story, perhaps it wasn’t meant for you. It was meant for someone, or if we’re very lucky a number of someones, who we may never know, who may find our work hidden, dusty and aged, among gadgets and things our minds can barely imagine now, but will seem commonplace to our reader—however distantly in the future they exist.

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6 responses

  1. I don’t normally do this, but I had a facebook reader who posted a very kind response to this link. We’ll call him EL. Here’s what he had to say:

    This last article truly touched me. I have written 18 novels in my lifetime (and have plans to continue many more). The book I’m working to publish now is the first I’ve ever tried to publish, but one of the very last I wrote…for the exact reason you gave in this last blog post. It takes a great amount of courage to put our novels out there because they are VERY personal for us.

    This book I’m publishing now is my Isaac. It is a novel that I wrote then distanced myself from as much as possible to get a professional perspective on publishing a book. I am willing to sacrifice this book on the altar of public and professional criticism to become a better writer, the writer I want to be. In fact, I have taken the knife to it many, many, many times. (Refering to your editing thread just below, it DOES make my eyes cross! *lol*)

    Am I afraid I’ll never get picked up? Of course. Am I afraid that ever friend or family member who has ever read portions of my work have only told me I’m really good because they are my friends or family members? A little. But courage, as they say, is not being fearless but facing the fear head on.

    So once more, thank you for your insights. I love reading your blog. It really does help.

  2. “The artist, like the God of the creation, remains within or behind or beyond or above his handiwork, invisible, refined out of existence, indifferent, paring his fingernails.”
    ~James Joyce

  3. You said it perfectly – one of the best articles on the subject I have ever read. And yes, the whole “don’t take it personally” part of the publishing business and of our culture in general bothers me quite a bit too. At some point one has to consciously decide to take things personally (at risk of being humiliated or devastated), because it’s the price you pay for feeling and experiencing life as an artist. It’s one thing to struggle with madness for feeling too much, but it’s infinitely worse to go mad from suppressing what you feel. As artists, we must be constantly dancing on the tightrope of sanity that most people merely inch along unwittingly – what’s more, we even manage to thrive on it. Thank you for posting this.

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