“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.