Dani Shapiro
March 31, 2010

On the Brass Ring

A number of years ago, there was a small item in the gossip pages about a book contract I had just signed.  It was a sizable contract for two novels, though if you actually consider the number of  years it took me to write both books, the annual income would sound less than extraordinary.  Nonetheless, the day the gossip item ran, I received a call from a novelist friend of mine, herself the author of several published books.

“You just grabbed the brass ring,” she said.

Brass ring?  I knew what she meant–and heard the puzzlement in her voice, the competitive why you and not me edge.  But what struck me at the time, and has struck me many times since, is how wrong she was about that.  There is no brass ring.  The procuring of agents, publishers, book contracts, sales, reviews, grants, awards–all writers can be forgiven for comparing, for believing that such a moment might signify arrival.  Except that there is no such thing as arrival.  You arrive, and discover that the front door has been moved.  You arrive again, and it has been moved again.  You realize, at a certain point, that you’d better damn well enjoy the journey, because there is no destination.

Recently Devotion hit a couple of bestseller lists–one of them, quite high up on the list.  Michael, Jacob and I were in London when this happened.  I awoke, jet-lagged, in a hotel room to the news.  And truthfully?  It was a good day.  One, single, good day.  We went out to dinner that night, and all raised our glasses.

“Mom’s a bestseller!”  Michael said.  And it was true. I was.  And I was happy.  For that one week, that one moment.  I tried to take it in.  I was pleased, and grateful.  But it was no brass ring.  In my writing life, there have been plenty of moments in which something I have hoped for, something I couldn’t even have dared hope for, has happened.  The great review, the bestseller list.  The elation is fleeting.  Like a sugar rush, it is followed by an emptiness, a crash.  We writers are greedy creatures.  We want more, more.  There is no enough.

I was talking about this with Ron Carlson last week, over lunch on the beach in Positano.

“There’s only one brass ring,” Ron said. “It’s being able to go back into the darkness in which we do what we do.”

In other words, it’s the writing.  And anyone who thinks otherwise is in the wrong business, for the wrong reasons.