It’s never easy.

“Shakespeare in Love” is one of my favorite movies. The screenplay is funny and clever and exciting and moving. The casting was perfect and the acting is grand. The costumes are almost distractingly gorgeous, especially when you watch in high def. Even the music is good.

In my opinion, “Shakespeare in Love” is the only film that portrays a writer’s working life well. It’s especially accurate in showing the mood swings, which range from despair, and being eaten alive by envy of another’s success, to the exhilaration and joy of knowing you just done something wonderful, whether it’s rejecting nine words that are almost right and finally selecting the tenth because it’s perfect; or composing a single sentence that says just what it has to and no more; or finishing something you didn’t quite believe you could do when you started.

I was 41 when I began what became The Sparrow. I was massively trained as a biological anthropologist, but hadn’t taken an English class since the Nixon Administration, and I didn’t feel entitled to write anything except scientific and technical stuff. Worse yet, after twenty years of purposeful professional activity, I had to allow myself to play — to do something just for the sake of doing it. That’s really hard for an adult.

One day it occurred to me that nobody begins by writing their third novel. Nobody starts out knowing they can really write, and that they have something worth writing about, and that they can finish what they’ve started, and that it will be published and noticed, let alone praised.

Everyone begins with doubt. Am I talented? Can I produce something worth reading? Sometimes the answer to those questions is, “No.” Sometimes the answer is, “Hell, no.” But I was, and am, grateful to those who got past their doubts because so many novels have been so important to me, so pleasurable to read, so moving and enlightening.

Okay, I thought, I’ll just consider my little experiment with fiction to be a Thank You note to all the writers who had the guts to try and the drive to finish and sheer bloody-minded persistence required to publish their first novels. I figured that even if I crapped out after 11 pages, I’d become a more appreciative reader because I’d understand just how hard it is to write a novel.

Now I am 61, and I’m starting to understand how hard it is to write a sixth novel. Worse yet, I know that publishing is a crap shoot and every book is another throw of the dice. Even if you’ve already written five novels and even if they’ve been warmly received by the critics, and even if they’ve sold pretty damned well, past performance does not guarantee future results. Even if you’ve written blockbusters about boy wizards, or Scandinavian murder mysteries, or high school vampires, you are not the next big thing. Yes, you have a track record, but nobody reads that stuff any more. People want something fresh and new.

So as I wade into what will probably be 32 more months of doubt and despair alternating with joy and exhilaration, I want to send another Thank You note, this time to all the readers who’ve spent good money on – and precious time with – my imaginary friends; who’ve taken the trouble to write to me; and who’ve encouraged me to throw the dice again, even when I think it might be time to quit while I’m ahead.

You’ll never know how important you are. On a bad day, one nice email can keep me going.

20 thoughts on “It’s never easy.”

  1. And when I’m down, I can turn to any of your books and manuscripts for inspiration and good cheer. Each time I reread them I find something new, and to be your personal friend into the bargain just puts me over the moon!

    Spoil Annie!

  2. And you’ve brought new meaning to the word “play” for me, Bob. I never would have had the nerve to buy a piano without your encouragement and support. Not to mention researching digital pianos for me and recommending the Casio Celviano! And now, I’m going to go practice.

  3. I’m so glad you threw the dice!

    And BTW — nowadays, if the 6th or 7th or any novel doesn’t please some publisher, you can publish anyway, and many, many readers will take a chance on your novel.

  4. I completely second what Bob has said above and I’d like to add: when the doubt and despair get you down – I would read a grocery list if it was written by you, so please just keep writing! And though “past performance does not guarantee future results,” I’ll still put my money on you based on those past performances…

  5. I’m 34. I want to write a book one day too. I get it! FYI, when you finish 6 we will want 7! I cyber stalk you simply in hopes something might rub off on me 🙂 When I write I think, WWMDR do? 🙂 you’re an inspiration to that frumpy little voice that tells me to vacuum instead of write. Thanks for risking it!!!!

  6. A friend is just finishing her second book, a decade or so after her first (which one a slew of prizes here in Oz), and this one started out as something completely different, chucked out, and the themes put into an entirely different story. Having been a close reader, sometimes reading multiple drafts of a chapter with comments back and forth overnight, sadly watched as some of my favorite “scenes” and world-building sections were cut for size (although this made room for a very good essay at the back), as characters were merged, seen the “continuity” hassles as bits were re-ordered, I can understand a little bit of the anguish.

    As my favorite “cut” is actually the much longer version that was sent to the agent (the main saving grace of the final cut being the acknowledgements page), there has been a little discussion of whether alternate versions, “extended editions” if you will, might become available or popular with the rise of e-Readers like Kindle. Any thoughts on whether authors in general, and you in particular, would like such an option, despite the hassles of proofing more than one edition?

  7. Hi, I’ve read all your books, and I think you are a fantastic storyteller. I was blown away by the Sparrow books. I couldn’t believe how engaged I stayed in the story through both books. (I’m not even that much of a sci-fi fan at this point.) I love the way you always have such a humanistic perspective. I’m looking forward to your next book, whatever it is. Thanks for keeping on, doing the research, telling the stories, being a relentless reviser. I appreciate it, and probably others do, too. You are my hero. Thanks.

  8. Mary, I am still enthralled with “The Sparrow” and “Children of God”. Years ago, I talked my little book club into taking on both books; a genre most of them never ventured into. It was a most lively conversation about both of the books (they all found them fascinating) and they remain my two most favorite written by you. I still wait with bated breath for the movie!! My thanks go to you for a wonderful trip to another civilisation in outer space. You amaze me.

  9. Having provided one of those messages years ago, it was a real pleasure for me to actually receive a response from you and to hear how much it meant. You have been extra-special to me ever since.

  10. Mary, I’m just looking forward to that next book. May the joy of writing it generously outweigh the pain. Shalom, Linda.

  11. Oh, Mary! You can’t quit!! We won’t let you! You are like a drug to me! I eagerly await the next “fix” that I KNOW I am going to get with each book!! When you are having one of those bad days, just let us know. We will send as many emails as we need to to keep you going! You are a treasure and your talent knows no bounds!
    We love you! And we’re glad that you realize that and that it helps!
    Sending love and blessings and encouragement to you,
    Elaine P.

  12. The Dec. 2010 issue of The Sun has a reprint from “Letters To A Young Poet” by Rainer Maria Rilke. He says, “Search for the reason that bids you write; find our whether it is spreading out its roots in the deepest places of your heart; acknowledge to yourself whether you would have to die if it were denied you to write. This above all – ask yourself in the stillest hour of your night: must I write?”
    Your answer is yes, is it not?

  13. Yes.

    There are a lot of things I do when I’m taking a break from writing: practice piano; bake bread; start dinner; work on needlepoint pillows for friends; watch a baseball game. I could garden more and walk the dogs and exercise more consistently. I could find ways to fill my time, but writing is what I must do.

  14. Thank you, Mary. I’ve always loved your books, your writing, your mind, your heart. I concur with everything you said. If you’ve already been the next big thing, you can’t ever be that again. Ha. Did you ever see Elizabeth Gilbert’s TED talk about writing and creativity? It’s pretty spectacular. Check it out here if you’ve got an extra 15 mts:
    Never stop. Keep writing.

  15. OK, here you go… your nice email (somewhat). I’ve read all your books and am looking forward to whatever comes next. As to quitting while you’re ahead, well, it all depends on pride. Do you want to feed it with “I stopped at the top” or do you want to keep working? Seems simple, but I know its not. Anyhoo, I selfishly want MORE. Writing aside, what will you do with your time if you’re not editing and refining your work. I want you “off and running” up the next trail. Good luck.


  16. Mary, I am a huge fan of all of your books, and a huge fan of yourself as well. I love the way you manage to show all points of view without bias, how openhearted and vulnerable you draw your characters. As I’ve told you before, The Sparrow and Children of God are both in my top 10 of All Time Beloved Fiction. Now DOC is in that list as well, and that surprised me, as I didn’t think I’d ever love another of your books the way I did your first two.

    I would imagine writing must be one of the hardest things to do in the world. But as one of your faithful readers, all I can say by way of encouragement is that I have no doubt whatsoever that you will emerge triumphant, exhausted, exhilarated and successful in 32 months or so. You write books for thinkers. I think there are a lot more of them out there than you’d guess 🙂

    All the best, and all the support in the world!

  17. I read a book or two every week of every year. I re-read yours at least twice annually, they’re comfort food (like mac-n-cheese when you’re sick.) You need to keep writing.

  18. I was at a family wedding a couple of weeks ago and the conversation at my table turned to books. As the conversation moved around I was able to tell four Canadian relatives about my favorite author. They had never heard of MDR or her books – and they were very excited when I gave them a short discription of what they were going to discover. If you never write another book you have left an indelible mark on the world. You books will be required reading and considered to be classics a hundred years from now. I have read many books from writers who did their best work and did not know when to stop. Write for yourself – I love your work but I know that it is incredibly difficult and if it ever becomes too much of a burden I would encourage you to follow your heart. Then again, Herman Wouk wrote a wonderful book when he was late into his eighties.

  19. Out for a walk with “Doc” on the mp3 player. Leaving the grounds of the hospital at which I work.

    Wondering what the world might think, and caring little, as I listen to the last chapter with tears flowing down my face.

    Thank you, ma’am.

    Kurt Weber

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