Back to the Books
Bad news with a side of existential reflection. If you need me, I'll be crying in my office.
I got some bad news yesterday. The publisher I contracted with for my first novel has abruptly (to me, at least) closed its doors. My manuscript is now back in limbo, an orphan without a publishing house.
I had some intense feelings about this last evening — profound disappointment, anger, depression. I will soldier on and get back to submitting soon. I can move forward knowing that if one acquisitions editor liked it enough to accept it, someone else will too. The laws of randomness dictate it, according to The Drunkard’s Walk. (I’m as shocked as you are I’m reading a book about math.)
First, though, I will cry in my beer for a bit. Gotta feel the feels before I can get on with it.
Here’s something I wrote several months ago, which seems appropriate, given the circumstances. It’ll be more coherent than what I could’ve written today, which would surely be rife with self-pity and expletives:
I’ve been reading The Dawn of Everything and Bird By Bird side-by-side.
I didn’t do it on purpose. I started reading Bird By Bird — writing and life advice from Anne Lamott — and then got all excited about The Dawn of Everything by David Graeber and David Wengrow and couldn’t wait to start it. I mean, the subtitle is A New History of Humanity. How can something that screams that it reimagines what people are sit on my coffee table and wait?
At first, they were each a relief from the other.
Anne’s words roll through my brain like familiar waves, teaching and reminding at the same time. She grounds me in myself, in the now, reminding me why I write — that it’s because I have to, because it’s the way I think, because I am driven to connect with the world in this manner. And while she tries to put me off of making too much out of the possibility of publication — telling me that if I am not enough for myself before publication, I won’t be enough after — she also admits that…
“The fact of publication is the acknowledgment from the community that you did your writing right.”
Anne makes me laugh with her spiritual irreverence. She prompts me to nod in appreciative agreement. Her chapters are a calm sea with a gentle current, nudging me to swim in the direction she knows I want to go.
The Davids make my brain hurt.
While Anne zooms into my inner psyche, David Graeber and David Wengrow pull way back. They allow me to take in all of the history of humanity or as much as can be known about it. They ask me to consider early Minoan society, oddly mathematically circular city remains in Ukraine from thousands of years ago and the wide variety of political structures inhabiting the Americas before European colonization. They push me to consider how, based on all that variety, we could be different, maybe better, here and now. I have to read one section of a chapter at a time and then stop and think for a couple of days before proceeding.
These things have very little to do with my little self — as a writer or as anything else.
Oddly, considering these grand trends the Davids present with a deliciously dry, British wit, I am soothed. Not only am I insignificant. Not only does it not matter all that much what I decide to do with my tiny life, but we all, globally, are only a blip. We are one version of society in the long history of humanity, which will likely continue for thousands more years.
Feeling like nothing I do matters can turn me to nihilism.
On a bad day, it can make me bitter, irritable and prone to self-destructive behavior. (If nothing matters, why NOT drink two bottles of wine on a Tuesday night?) If we are only a blip, if nothing we do has any grand impact on the universe, what is our purpose? Or to quote my oldest when he was five:
“If everything is just gonna burn up when the sun explodes, what’s the point of ever doing anything?” (Existential angst runs in the family.)
But on most days, not mattering is a satisfying answer to, “Why are we here?”
The answer: Because we are.
The only thing that does matter is what we do here and now in this life and how we feel about it. And two bottles of wine only sounds good to my lizard brain which has zero introspectiveness.
Bird by Bird is a pep talk for writers; The Dawn of Everything prompts the reader to question their idea of what human societies are capable of. But they’ve done the same thing for me from different ends: Reminded me to let go of what I “should” do. They encourage me to trust my intuition and remind me I am not the only one irritated by this idea we have to “make a living” in such a proscribed capitalist way. They tell me we writers are in this together, that we people of the Earth, are in this together.
My one responsibility in the time I have is to seek truth, to live it and to share it.
“Risk being unliked. Tell the truth as you understand it. If you’re a writer, you have a moral obligation to do this. And it is a revolutionary act — truth is always subversive.”
The Davids acknowledge freedom of choice but only within the parameters of our life circumstances with a Karl Marx quote:
“We make our own history, but not under conditions of our own choosing.”
The Davids investigate controversial truths in their over 500-page analysis. They discuss matriarchal societies that anthropologists like to ignore for not fitting in with the patriarchal story. They point to a lot of things we pretend to know about earlier human society and simply say, “We can’t really know what these people were like.”
Anne would dig the subversive truth in the Davids’ writing. The Davids, who took on this ambitious, expansive project not for profit but because they got so excited talking to each other about it, embody her assertion that ultimately, we write not for publication but for the joy of exploration and communication.
Of course, Anne also says writers are actually angry people. This is why they write. So…