Don Rogers: Crazy, or what?
On March 26, 1969, a professor named John Kennedy Toole parked his car near Biloxi, Mississippi, and strung garden hose from the exhaust through a window.
He had other issues, but his suicide tied closely to being unable to get his novel published. He was 31.
“Confederacy of Dunces” eventually came out in 1980. It won the Pulitzer in 1981.
Paulo Coelho’s “The Alchemist” was a manuscript laughed out of publishing houses until one finally printed it in 1988. The book flopped, as predicted. Coelho disappeared into the Mojave Desert for 40 days.
Today? We’re talking eight years on The New York Times bestseller list. It’s a historical best seller right up there with Tolkien’s series and Dickens’ “Tale of Two Cities.”
Between Toole quitting life entirely and Coelho finding resolve in biblical seclusion are so many pursuing this dream. A handful win million-dollar advances in their 20s. The vast bulk of us are “aspiring,” let’s say, publication a lovely mirage.
Cervantes wrote “Don Quixote,” the top selling novel of all time, in his 50s. Frank McCourt’s first book, “Angela’s Ashes,” published when he was 66. Laura Ingalls Wilder began writing in retirement, and “Little House on the Prairie” kicked off a whole beloved series when she was 65.
Jane Austen wrote “Sense and Sensibility” at 19, the same age Mary Shelley wrote “Frankenstein.” Alexander Pope had his first poem published at age 12.
Some of the great and the popular found their efforts recognized right away. Others endured rejection after rejection before their breakthroughs, including J.K. Rowling and Stephen King.
Crazy ol’ Robert Pirsig persisted through 121 rejections, a Guinness record, before “Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance” was picked up. Beatrix Potter had to self-publish.
We’ll find no clues in the writing process, either. Night owl Walter Isaacson pumps out fascinating biographies of people like Steve Jobs, Albert Einstein and Benjamin Franklin long after you and I have turned in. Local author Jordan Fisher Smith is up with a pot of coffee and Josh Weil in his special trailer for the job before sunrise.
Nevada County Poet Laureate Molly Fisk writes when she’s moved to write. Maya Angelou declared if she waited for inspiration, why, she’d still be waiting. She sat her butt down, feel like it or not, and got busy.
“Don’t be a writer, be writing.” That’s William Faulkner. I’m with him.
The act itself is what matters. Get caught up in what’s not up to you and you might drive yourself insane. Ego is dangerous, even deadly, for artistic souls.
During the Q&A at a book signing this summer, I asked the author, a professor and monk, what he learned writing about Gary Snyder and the 12th century Zen master Dogen.
He gave a professorly and priestly answer that included rumination about the meditative and even Zen nature of writing.
“So, if I write, then I’m doing Zen?” I joked.
“Depends on how you are writing,” he admonished, unamused.
Well, then. Up before dawn, with my own pot of coffee, maybe. But often I wonder if my muse is sleeping in.
I am Maya, butt in the seat, ready or not. And I am Molly, riding inspiration like a wave whenever, wherever I am to get it down while I can — home, a restaurant, the office, the side of a road, implanting in memory and reciting over and over again as I run a trail.
I have a dozen seedlings going at a time for this weekly column, riffs while the idea is hot, to be finished later if it still resonates and I have a hope of lassoing it into something remotely cogent.
As for my side project, a novel, it won’t let me go. So I’ve given in and force myself up an hour early to peck away.
Do I touch Zen? I think so, sometimes. When I’m no longer in my seat, typing, but hopping from rock to rock in the Sierra, completely focused so I don’t twist an ankle or break a leg, and then here, back at the keyboard, suddenly conscious of typing what I see, hear, smell, feel.
Is that Zen, or should I be there when I’m there and here when I’m here? You know, present.
But here I am, somewhere in between, losing myself in a weird compulsion and at some risk of losing my mind if I can’t share it.
Why couldn’t I have loved cooking instead?
Publisher Don Rogers can be reached at email@example.com or 477-4299.
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“There is a cult of ignorance in this country … nurtured by the false notion that ‘my ignorance is as good as your knowledge.'” — Isaac Asimov, 1980.