My husband twisted up to turn out the light. He pulled the covers around his shoulders, folded the hem of the sheet over the comforter, let his entire body sink back into the too-soft mattress. I thought I heard a sigh. From his lips? From the mattress?
“What’s the use?” I said.
“Hm?” he murmured, flipping his pillow to the cool underside, inching away from me in the direction of his night table.
“There are so many great poets in North Carolina,” I said. This was in the early ’80s. “Why would I even think I could write well enough to get my poems published?”
He kicked one foot out from under the covers, circled it a little. “You’re learning,” he said. “You’ll get there.”
“Yeah, but really, what’s the use?”
I started naming all the North Carolina poets I could think of. All the ones I could never be. “There’s Dannye Romine Powell. And Julie Suk. Susan Ludvigson. Harriet Doar. Fred Chappell. Reynolds Price. Kathryne Stripling Byer. There’s Georgann Eubanks. Ruth Moose. Mary Kratt. Chuck Sullivan. Who’m I kidding?”
I heard a faint snore, then a soft whistle.
“Michael McFee,” I went on. “Barbara Lovell. Alan Shapiro…”
He was sound asleep.
Now, years later, after publishing two books of poetry and two novels, after completing a memoir, I want to begin writing a new book. But I’m stuck again in the what’s-the-use? syndrome. Lord knows, it’s hard to get anything published these days. The industry is totally kerflooey, turned upside down and inside out by the recession and the huge popularity of eBooks. Nobody — editors, agents, authors — knows the way forward. Why should I embark on a project that will take three to five years, possibly longer, when I know good and well my manuscript could end up in my drawer, unpublished? A friend of mine says the word, “frigging,” every other word. I think of her now. What’s the frigging use?
Besides, there are no new stories. Every book I might think to write will be similar to countless others.
And, like that long list of North Carolina poets, there are countless accomplished authors, not just in North Carolina, but throughout the world, most of whom I could never hope to match.
How can I put into words the precise meaning of what I want to say? My sentences and paragraphs will probably be unclear, maybe incoherent. All those false starts and dead ends.
It’s so much trouble to write.
Answer to unanswerable question:
It really doesn’t matter whether the world applauds our efforts. It doesn’t matter if our work is ever accepted. If our closest kin starts our book but never actually finishes it, if we don’t secure representation by an agent, if a publisher doesn’t buy it, if we’re not reviewed, if we are reviewed but the reviewer hates our book, if we give a reading in a bookstore and a woman in the front row falls asleep.
We’re writers. We’re curious. We must probe that curiosity all the way to the bottom of page one. To the bottom of chapter one. To the last word of the last chapter. Revise three, twenty, forty times. Stay mentally engaged. Strive, not for perfection, but for specificity, definition, purity. We need to convince — maybe not readers — ourselves.
We have enough material to keep on forever. We must tell our stories. Even if hardly anyone’s listening.