Thursday, January 28, 2010

"There is a marvelous peace in not publishing." --J.D. Salinger

I'm posting this here, even though it feels a little like cheating, because I'm tired and I have a cold, but I wanted to say something here about the passing of J.D. Salinger, and I remembered this piece I wrote a couple of years ago:

“Here is the Writer’s Almanac for Tuesday, January first, 2008,” Garrison Keillor says, and he goes on to tell me that it was on this day in 1892 that the Ellis Island Immigrant Station officially opened, and a 15-year-old Irish girl named Annie Moore became the first of more than twelve million immigrants to pass through it. He reminds me that on this day in 1953, country music legend Hank Williams, Sr. died in the backseat of his baby-blue Cadillac, on his way to a concert in Canton, Ohio. And today is the anniversary of the Emancipation Proclamation, in which, in 1863, President Abraham Lincoln declared freedom for all slaves in the southern states.

“It’s the birthday of writer E.M. Forster, born in London, 1879,” Garrison says, and I remember that I mean to read A Passage to India sometime soon. It is also the birthday of J.D. Salinger, born in New York City in 1919. Novelist J.D. Salinger, Garrison calls him, although The Catcher in the Rye is the only novel Salinger has ever published. His three other published books are collections of short stories or novellas, and he has published nothing at all for more than forty years, although, as Garrison says, “his friends and neighbors claim that he still continues to write.”

In fact, Salinger is probably famous as much for his reclusive lifestyle as for his published works. He last granted an interview nearly thirty years ago, and is said to rarely leave his New Hampshire home. But The Catcher in the Rye, more than half a century after its publication, continues to sell a quarter of a million copies a year. “There is a marvelous peace in not publishing,” he told The New York Times in 1974. “I write just for myself and my own pleasure.”

Here is how I imagine my life as a writer: On weekdays, Tony will leave the house for work by 8:00 a.m. and the house will be mine. I will look around at my empty house and throw my arms in the air and say, “Whoo-hoo!” because I am a writer, and I know that my muse, and nobody else, is here waiting for me. I will feed the cats. I will finish reading the paper at the kitchen table, and then I will go into my writing room and tune the radio to NPR. I will half-listen to the news while checking my email, dashing off a quick reply to my brother’s short message, but saving my best friend’s longer one to savor later, during a break. I will read my favorite on-line advice column, look up the author of the book I’m reading and scan his bio (he wasn’t published until he was well into his fifties, which I find encouraging), then check out a couple of possible markets for the magazine articles and essays I’ve been working on.

Garrison Keillor will come on the radio for the “The Writer’s Almanac,” and I will know it’s 9:00, almost time to get down to business. He’ll run through some highlights of the day in history, briefly profile a writer or two, or some other famous or not-so-famous personage who was born on this day, read a poem, and conclude with his signature, “Be well, do good work, and keep in touch.”

In my imagined life, my parallel universe, I will close my eyes as Garrison begins to read the poem—one that I probably wouldn’t even enjoy if I read it myself, but that, in his wheezy, Midwestern accented, everyman’s voice, is transformed into something poignant and unique and, somehow, beautiful beyond its ordinary words. I concentrate on the words, the images the poem calls forth, and allow myself to slip into my writer’s skin.

“The Writer’s Almanac” will be followed by three hours of classical music, the perfect, unobtrusive background for a morning of productive writing. And I will write! My fingers will fly over the keyboard; words will pour forth—good words, magical words. I will finish an essay, revise an article, begin a poem. I may work on my novel. By noon I will already have done a good day’s work, but I’ll be caught up in the writing, unwilling to leave it for long. So I’ll take a break, go for a walk, fix some lunch—but none of this will break my stride. In early afternoon I’ll be right back at it, the magic unbroken. The mail will bring a check from a major magazine, an acceptance from another, and, perhaps, a rejection or two, but nothing very unexpected, nothing paralyzing, nothing heartbreaking.

That is how I imagine my life.

This is something more like reality:

If it’s a day when I don’t have to go to work, I see the whole long day stretching ahead of me, and I think I’ve got plenty of time to do just a few things before I sit down to write. When I finally get to my computer, the classical music has already started and I haven’t even checked my email. I think maybe I won’t check it just yet, that I’ll resist the urge to go on line at all, that I’ll just open a blank document in Microsoft Word and start to write. I’ve only lost a few minutes of time so far; there’s still plenty of time to get that idea pinned down.

An hour later, I’m still staring at a blank screen. I’ve typed a sentence or two, revised it, deleted it, rewritten it, deleted it again. I know I should stop worrying about that first sentence, that requisite “attention-grabbing lead,” and just start writing. By the time I fall into the flow of the piece, that perfect first sentence will write itself, and I’ll go back and replace those uninspiring opening lines.

But that idea that seemed to hover at the edge of my peripheral vision all night apparently flew off with my dreams in the hard-edged morning light. I get up from the computer to stretch and remember the laundry in the washer, so I make the trek to the basement, put it in the dryer, start another load. I get a glass of water and sit back down. I’m hungry and realize that I forgot to eat breakfast, so even though it’s getting close to lunchtime, I go back out to the kitchen and make some toast. A light snow has started falling, and back in my writing room I think about coffee and wish I were a coffee-drinker. I think it would feel cozy to sit at the computer while snow falls outside my window, cradling my favorite mug in both hands and thinking about what to write. I picture a gray-haired children’s author with her “World’s Best Grandma” mug, or a haggard poet, bent over his keyboard, eyes ringed with dark smudges, hands shaking from the caffeine surging through his veins. I wonder if I can really be a writer if I don’t even drink coffee.

If, as Salinger says, “there is a marvelous peace in not publishing,” I suppose I should feel very much at peace. So why am I growing more agitated, like the insomniac who lies rigidly on his back, repeating to himself, “I’ve got to get some sleep”? I’d like, at least, an opportunity to know the difference between how it feels to publish and how it feels to not publish. I’d like to be able to make that choice for myself.

But the rest of Salinger’s quote, “I write just for myself and my own pleasure,” makes sense to me. Perhaps I’ve been going about this all wrong, trying to figure out what might sell and then write it, going around in circles, trying to come up with an idea that might capture some editor’s interest.

I return to my blank screen. I set a timer, place my hands lightly on the keyboard, and free-write for five minutes. I pull out a book of writing prompts and open it at random. My instructions are to think about the phrase, “What matters to me today…”—but not to think for too long—and to simply begin writing.

By noon I’m actually writing, and by mid-afternoon, I’ve made some headway on a new essay. It’s not the Great Idea that teased me all night, but it’s a start, a few hundred words that I can point to with some measure of satisfaction. It’s a start. It may turn into something.

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