Waiting Never Works, or Perils of the Book Tour
Even though I don’t believe that anyone up there is micro-managing my life, even though I don’t believe that God finds me parking spaces, I can’t help but believe that waiting for something to happen is the surest way to be sure that it won’t happen. This has proven to be true again and again. The writer’s life is full of waiting. There’s the good kind–the patient, quiet waiting for a character to reveal himself, for the story to unfold. And then there’s the bad kind: waiting for news. Waiting for reviews. Waiting for things to happen.
I remember, last summer, my husband-the-screenwriter was waiting for a phone call from Hollywood. Now, Hollywood has invented new forms of torture–an entire glossary of terms– for the waiting writer. For instance, “the weekend read”. The weekend read does not, in fact, mean that the producer/star/director will actually read said work over the course of the weekend. It simply means that the manuscript or screenplay is on a pile somewhere, perhaps on the floor of an office, with the vague intent on the producer/star/director’s part that, eventually, it will be cracked open. On some weekend. Some day. So my husband (and therefore I) was waiting and waiting for a call from Hollywood. A lot was riding in the balance. Our mortgage, for instance. And do you know when that call came? When he was driving to dinner, along a country road with virtually no cell service, and at the crest of a hill is cell phone rang and it was his agent calling with good news from Hollywood. Was my husband waiting–at that exact moment–for that phone call? Of course not. Maybe he was thinking about dinner. But if he had been concentrating on his cell phone, willing it with all his might to ring–it never would have.
During publication, way too much of the writer (okay, this writer’s) life is taken up with the wasted time of waiting. The internet has not done us any favors in this regard. There’s always Google, and Google News, and Nexis (which my teaching job allows me to access) and a dozen other websites to be browsed when in fact there are better things to do. It would be safe to say that anything would be better. Staring into space would be more productive. Or taking a walk. Or a bath. I remember Grace Paley–who was my writing teacher at Sarah Lawrence–once telling a class that she did her best work in the bathtub. I thought she meant that she got into the hot, steaming water with a note pad. It was many years before I understood: she meant that she took a lot of baths. That ideas come when the mind is relaxed and empty.
Which brings me to the crux of the matter. When a writer is in the midst of publication–when a writer is even lucky enough to be on book tour–the mind is not relaxed and empty. The mind is tortured, waiting. And waiting for what? The reviews come. Some are raves, some are pans. The news dribbles in. That magazine is running the essay you’d hope it would run. That foreign publisher sends a lovely book jacket. The truth is that none of it is enough–and I doubt very much that there could possibly be such a thing as enough. My ex-agent once told me that she had a writer-client who was #3 on the bestseller list and he was concerned about #2 and #1. At the time, I was baffled and thought that writer was a fool. (Well, I still do, a little bit.) But I understand the moral of the story, which is that when you’ve poured everything you have–your life’s blood–into a book, there is no enough. There are only things to be checked off a mental list with relief. And therefore, there is no writing going on. No ruminating, no musing, no peace. I was on the phone with a good friend yesterday, a novelist who just had a book come out last summer and hasn’t started working on a new book yet. “The good news,” she laughed, “is that it will be that much longer before I have to go through publication again.”