If you, like so many each year, were diagnosed with early stage cancer you would be forgiven for dwelling in each moment afterwards on how close death is to you and, by extension, your family. Only natural, right? But when the writer Winifred Gallagher stepped out of hospital some years ago after she received her own diagnosis she resolved to not allow the cancer to “monopolise” her attention. Instead she focused on what she called “the skilful management of attention.” Rather than chemotherapy, she focused on her daily walks; rather than thoughts of her funeral, she focused on movies and the occasional 6:30 Martini.
To the best of my memory I’ve resisted positive thinking ever since I first heard about it and my best guess for why that may be is that a good portion of my identity is rooted in so-called “negative” thinking*. Were you to ask me to think positively you’d get a flat “no”, but ask me to manage my attention skilfully and, if we can agree on what “skilfully” means, I’m all ears.
The anthropologist Carlos Castenada once said “The trick [for happiness] is in what one emphasizes. We either make ourselves miserable, or we make ourselves happy. The amount of work is the same.” I think it’s easier for me to think “negatively” because I’m accustomed to that way of thinking but, as Castenada points out, the amount of time I dedicate to making myself miserable (by how I allocate my attention) is the same amount time it would take to make myself “happy” by instead directing my attention, over and over, to those things that comfort and please me, even in the face of devastating circumstances.
*Perhaps the dichotomy of positive and negative is too simplistic of a model to apply to things as complex as thoughts?
See also: I wrote a short essay for StoneWater Zen a few years ago in response to a prompt by David Loy, a Buddhist scholar: When your mind changes, the world changes. And when we respond differently to the world, the world responds differently to us.
Early in his story, some 50 pages into the novel, The Kid, our anti-hero, and the party of U.S Army filibusters he accompanies into Mexico, are attacked by a horde of American Indians and so begins one of the longest sentences in Cormac McCarthy’s Blood Meridian:
A legion of horribles, hundreds in number, half naked or clad in costumes attic or biblical or wardrobed out of a fevered dream with the skins of animals and silk finery and pieces of uniform still tracked with the blood of prior owners, coats of slain dragoons, frogged and braided cavalry jackets, one in a stovepipe hat and one with an umbrella and one in white stockings and a bloodstained wedding veil and some in headgear or cranefeathers or rawhide helmets that bore the horns of bull or buffalo and one in a pigeontailed coat worn backwards and otherwise naked and one in the armor of a Spanish conquistador, the breastplate and pauldrons deeply dented with old blows of mace or sabre done in another country by men whose very bones were dust and many with their braids spliced up with the hair of other beasts until they trailed upon the ground and their horses’ ears and tails worked with bits of brightly colored cloth and one whose horse’s whole head was painted crimson red and all the horsemen’s faces gaudy and grotesque with daubings like a company of mounted clowns, death hilarious, all howling in a barbarous tongue and riding down upon them like a horde from a hell more horrible yet than the brimstone land of Christian reckoning, screeching and yammering and clothed in smoke like those vaporous beings in regions beyond right knowing where the eye wanders and the lip jerks and drools.
Notice how this sentence, 246 words long, functions like a long shot in film, capturing detail upon detail to the point of overwhelming us, as though we were among the filibusters watching in terror as this horde descends upon us. The length matches the action. If Cormac instead paused the attack with one full stop after another we would lose the feeling of impending death he so brilliantly conveys.
Two weeks ago The Booker Prize announced that An Island, the second novel by South African author Karen Jennings, has been longlisted for this year’s prize. If you knew nothing about the history of the book’s publication you might think there’s nothing remarkable at all about Jennings’ nomination. But you’d be wrong.
After Jennings finished the book in 2017 many publishers rejected it for years. According to The Guardian her publisher Holland House struggled to find anyone willing to review or endorse the book and when it was finally published only 500 copies were printed (in part due to the size of the press). “The only real response that I have been able to pin down,” said Jennings on her rejections, “was that it would not make any money.” Sound familiar?
Jennings’ story reminds me of William Goldman’s immortal advice, first conceived within the context of the film industry but always applicable to anyone that risks rejection for opportunity: NOBODY KNOWS ANYTHING. Goldman understood that a rejection, at best, is a guess. A bet if you will. I feel more and more that rejection is a necessary rite of passage for any serious author.
At one time Cormac McCarthy advised scientists at the Sante Fe Institute on ways they could improve their writing. One piece of advice he gave, quoting Rudyard Kipling, was “Trust yourself when all men doubt you, but make allowance for their doubting too.”
Everybody has their own private Mount Everest they were put on this earth to climb. You may never reach the summit; for that you will be forgiven. But if you don’t make at least one serious attempt to get above the snow line, years later you will find yourself lying on your deathbed, and all you will feel is emptiness.
Hugh Macleod, Ignore Everybody: And 39 Other Keys to Creativity
Last year I started writing my first book and stalled a few months in for reasons I’ve since forgot. I always meant to restart my work but hesitated to pull the trigger because at first I felt the time wasn’t right (is it ever?) and then I started to mull over the marketability of the potential book to judge whether or not it was worth finishing. I think in some way I was waiting for permission to write the book.
Suppose I instead wrote a book proposal because I wanted a guarantee from a publisher that they will print the book before I even write it. I could be waiting a long time. Celebrities might get such deals because people know who they are and therefore publishers feel confident someone will buy their books (probably co-written with someone who actually knows how to write). They may tell me my platform is currently inadequate or I’m not yet established in my field (or any field) enough to interest readers and project credibility. The list could go on.
These are all market considerations and someone needs to make them but for now I just need to write and finish a book for me.
To the right of my desk, in the top drawer of a steel white cabinet along with all my other qualifications is my Creative Writing degree from John Moores University. Though I’m proud of the work it represents I never felt I needed a degree or any form of qualification to write. When I doodled and sketched on a whim with pencils and crayons as a kid it never once entered my mind that I needed permission to draw.
In the job market of today’s specialised economy qualifications matter because many jobs require them and anyone who goes through their working life somehow ignoring them risks having little to no market power. It doesn’t have to be the most important thing in your life, but it still matters, if only to make money. That’s the job market but what about the book market?
If you look at the books for sale in your local supermarket you’ll often find they stock cookbooks, weight loss books, celebrity autobiographies or novels on the bestseller list. These books are ‘safe’, i.e. publishers feel confident these books will sell because the authors are well known or the genres are popular, e.g. crime. If you’re unknown and the book you’ve written or propose to write is unlike anything in the current market then publishers will think you’re too risky to publish. But, as history has shown, many people eventually break through the gates. It make take them years or decades but they get through.
I doubt any publisher ever looked at a Creative Writing degree and thought that was enough to publish someone.
Ted Kooser, a Pulitzer Prize winning poet, wrote in The Poetry Home Repair Manual, “One of my first writing places was a cardboard refrigerator box pushed into the corner of the bedroom in a tiny apartment my first wife and I rented while I was in graduate school. I sat in the box to write my poems, and taped the drafts on the cardboard walls.”
A cardboard box isn’t an ideal desk to write on but I think Kooser understood, given the circumstances, that the writing itself was what mattered, not how it looked to others. Of course, if he could afford a desk he would have wrote on a desk.
It’s easy to get hung up on appearances and forget that the substance of a thing isn’t always revealed by its appearance. The beard does not make the philosopher.
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“[…] because there’s far more supply than demand, most of the feedback we receive is rejection. Rejection comes not just from the market, but from self-confident gatekeepers who we perceive as knowing more than we do.”
In my experience the worst thing about a rejection is not that they said no but that they won’t tell me why they said no so, in the absence of an answer, I supply my own answers. Maybe I’m no good? Why else would they say no?
Science tells us that our brains evolved to seek certainty even when the evidence, in a more critical light, is sketchy and unfounded. When confronted with uncertainty, in particular the uncertainty of a rejection without feedback, we scramble for an answer and in our haste we can latch onto beliefs that just aren’t true.
But sometimes there are good reasons for withholding feedback in a rejection. If you’re a magazine editor you can expect abuse if you tell a writer why their work wasn’t accepted because most writers pour themselves heart and soul into their work and any criticism of the work is a criticism of their very being. When a critic gave one of his novels a bad review the writer Richard Ford bought one of her books, blasted it with his shotgun then mailed it to her.
I’m astounded when I read of people being rejected hundreds of times before they finally broke through. For example, the actor Mark Ruffalo was rejected for 600 auditions. Can you fathom the emotional toll of being rejected that many times? We know, in hindsight, that he eventually succeeded but at the time he didn’t know. I applaud anyone who keeps going. Perhaps the only guarantee of success is that we don’t stop.
Og Mandino writes in The Greatest Salesman in the World:
“[…] it is not given to me to know how many steps are necessary in order to reach my goal. Failure I may still encounter at the thousandth step, yet success hides behind the next bend in the road. Never will I know how close it lies unless I turn the corner.”
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“[David] Hockney valued painting because of the medium’s relationship to time. According to him, an image contained the amount of time that went into making it, so that when someone looked at one of his paintings, they began to inhabit the physical, bodily time of its being painted.”
The original Mona Lisa lies in The Louvre behind bulletproof glass. I imagine if I stand before it one day I would feel Leonardo’s presence because his hands touched that very canvas.
Compare that with a copy of the painting we might find on Google Images. For a start, in the digital realm of the internet nothing is physical so we automatically lose the “physical, bodily time” Odell spoke of. Also, in that disembodied realm, we can make infinite amounts of copies, which begs the question: do we, with each successive copy, depreciate the value of the original?
I’m three quarters the way through the first draft of my first book. When the world first went into lockdown last spring I figured it was as good a time as any to start since I was getting paid indefinitely to stay at home, but sometime in the summer I stalled and I haven’t picked the book up since.
When I still had momentum, writing two pages a day on the advice of David McCullough, I remember how receptive I was to anything that might relate to the book as though the days and weeks of consistent work turned me into a charged magnet. Because writing a book takes a long time and demands you venture into the unknown of the next blank page, despite whatever thorough research and outlines you may have, you can’t help but discover things.