Friday, May 8, 2015

“Nobody Asked You to Write this Novel.”

I read the above words in the New York Times Book Review today (early email of Sundays edition). Jane Smiley said that her friend taped Nobody asked you to write this novel above her desk. Im sure I have said this or something like it, and while it is no doubt true, it still sounds a bit punitive to me. Would anyone say, "no one needs another painting, or no one needs another symphony or no one needs another beautiful building?" Smiley also said in the same article, "What we do as writers is voluntary, so don't complain." True enough, but it may be easier for her to say it than it is for a writer who does not have her fame, money, literary cred, or status on the bestseller list. She goes on to write that when she saw Balzac's manuscripts for the first time, it was a revelation. She could see how hard he worked, how hard writers must toil to produce superior work. I think Smileys inference is that writing, like growing old, is not for sissies.

I try not to complain too much about writing. Whether my work is good or bad that day, it gives me purpose in, I imagine, the same way faith offers meaning to those who are spiritually inclined. Writing is my practice. It gives me something to do every day that I feel is worthwhile whether or not anyone has asked me to write or not. And no matter what I write, the days I write are better than the ones when I don't.

In my editing business, I am always looking for the buried treasure at the heart of a clients piece. I try to help the author unearth it. I can tell you one thing I never say I never say: quit your bitchin'; no one ever asked you to write a book in the first place.

Perhaps the world does need another book. Maybe it needs your book. Maybe the reason you want to write is because what you have to offer will enrich society the way any piece of art can. Has anyone ever said, "No one needs another work by Mozart. No one needs another work by Rembrandt. No one needs another piece choreographed by Twyla Tharp."

Maybe someone has said, "No one needs another book by Jane Smiley," but I doubt it, even though I was ready to say it after trying to read TEN DAYS IN THE HILLS.

No one asked you to write a novel but why not act as if someone did.   


  1. I agree with your sentiments, Laurie. Seems a bit mean-spirited.

    Perhaps what she was trying to say was that no one asked us to inflict this sometimes horrible pain on ourselves, but ourselves.

    Still the phrasing is tight and the sentiment I get is that she enjoys a splash of cold water on her face before she starts her inward journeys at the desk. Perhaps a little self-flagellance is her eye-opener. Don't know. But I'm happy I'm not her writing partner! Oh well, "To each his own," said the Old Lady as she kissed the cow.

  2. Hey Ken,
    Thanks for commenting. I'm sure Smiley didn't mean to come off as mean-spirited and if she wasn't such a success herself, it might have not sounded that way to me. I actually don't have any problems with the sentiment in general, but we are the ones who choose to write and we are also the ones who can choose how we think about it. Maybe we can choose not to torture ourselves. As I said, torturing myself has never improved my writing one little bit. So who benefits from this torture? I definitely benefit from hard work, but not from psychic pain that comes from self-doubt. Believing that what I'm doing is worth doing is easier than thinking it's not.

  3. Mean-spirited? I've heard this one before in another context. Consider this: My mother to me whenever I had a challenging day with my infant son: "Nobody asked you to have that baby." And the lesson? Every creation has its own intrinsic beauty that no judgment can defile.