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Suicide and Reviews: Part II

Posted: 01/31/2014 3:17 pm

So, the page proofs of Rowdy in Paris have come and gone. The novel has been written seven times, edited twice, copyedited once, and, now, proofed, all with the goal of making it sound spontaneously regurgitated. Unless someone hires me to write a screenplay, I'll never read the book again. Today, I can take any given sentence and tell you the eight other ways I wrote it, but the names are already starting to drift away. In a year, readers will know the book much better than I do.

Many writers use the birth metaphor in talking about novels. That's because both take roughly nine months to put out and, once they're on their own, you quickly lose control over them. Both also tend to put your car in the ditch at least once.

The pregnancy comparison works, so far as discomfort and time are concerned, but writing a novel also requires continuous effort for all those months. You have to get pregnant every day. My metaphor runs more along the lines of crawling from the Atlantic Ocean to the Pacific Ocean, picking various denominations of coins out of the dirt every eight inches, using only your tongue, lips, and teeth, while children with sticks beat you about the head, shoulders, and occasionally, genitals.

The crawling coast-to-coast represents the general bull-headedness it takes to keep going. Almost anybody can crawl from one ocean to the other, the question is who would want to. Picking up the small change using tongue, lips, and teeth stands for the sentences. You can't bury your brain and go on. You must maintain the same level of alertness to detail for months or years at a time. If you use the wrong word on page 312, it can screw up a word you used back on page 36. The children beating you with sticks is your outside life, the life that respects that you are a writer but can't stand it when you actually write. Toward the end of any long work the writer has to view any distraction -- disease, death of loved ones, divorce, financial collapse, hurricanes, 9/11 -- as part of a conspiracy to keep you from getting your words down that day. It becomes both weird and clinical, and it is just as horrid if you're writing a bad book as it is if you are writing enduring literature. So, you might as well write something that matters since the process is going to kill you anyway.

Jim Harrison has a list of writers who committed suicide within a month of finishing a novel. Last I heard, he had 35 names. It goes along with the postpartum metaphor, I suppose. You've been holding the universe and your body together by sheer will for so long, that when you allow yourself to let go, you tend to let go of everything at once and the results can be messy.

The closest I've come to After Novel Disaster was to blow a knee the night I finished Sex and Sunsets. Dancing in the Cowboy Bar to a country version of the theme song to The Flintstones TV show. Went down like a sack of cement thrown off the back of a truck. Saw my kneecap on the wrong side of my Levi's and thanked God I'd finished the book before the operation I knew was to come.

Reviews. I'm supposed to write about reviews again. Searching for the perfect segue here, let's talk about the most frequent comment you read on Amazon trash jobs. "[The author] phoned the book in." The charge is that the author put no effort into the book; therefore, it sucks. I've read reviews of many novels from many writers and that's the common indictment that goes with the single star ("I would give less if I could," is the second most common comment.) Often these reviews start out with, "I am [Blah Blah's] biggest fan and I love his or her novels, but . . . " and then they go on to castrate the writer, destroy his wife and children, and burn down his house. Self-evident truth #1: You can't truly hate a person that you didn't love first. Nine out of ten crimes of passion -- both in real life and metaphorically -- are consummated by former or present loved ones.

And humour brings out the nastiest of the vendettas. People just plain hate the writer who tries to be funny and, in the eyes of the reader, isn't. You want a cult following, write humour. You want stalkers, write humour. You want hate mail spray-painted on the side of your house, write humour.

Here is the story that gave me my current attitude toward fame. Back in the 60s and early 70s, Richard Brautigan was the most famous writer of his generation. He was the king. Hell, in Japan he was God. The man was beloved by the multitude.

Richard committed suicide -- which isn't a life lesson in itself. Besides funny novels, he also wrote poetry and an astoundingly high percentage of poets kill themselves. Go through the Norton Anthology of Literature sometime and try to find a poet who didn't take the shortcut to the finish line, so to speak. You choose the career, you live with the risk.

But, now for the life lesson about fame: Richard Brautigan killed himself at home, out in his backyard. Here comes the moral of the story: His body wasn't found for over three months.

Think about it.

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