‘When people ask whether I’ve read this or that book, I’ve found that a safe answer is, “You know, I don’t read, I write”.’ Umberto Eco
Last week a blogging pal posted a review of my novel, Savior. Of my novels, I think Savior is the least read. I understand why. The subject is depression and the time is the 13th century. Depression as a subject is, uh, depressing and the historical moment is the high middle ages, a time very different from ours — for some people, not all. Human nature doesn’t change much, though. And that is another reason for the book not being high on the list of “books by Martha Kennedy I want to read.”
The review was wonderful because the reader read the book I wrote. For me as a writer that’s a very high honor. She came to it with the background and experience that helped her enter the story. That’s pretty rare. Several people have reviewed the novel, and even the positive reviews often miss the point by a micron or a mile.
I’ve also realized that there are readers and writers. It’s a symbiotic relationship, but they’re not the same people.
I’ve read a LOT in my life. I now seldom read for pleasure because I don’t get much pleasure from it. The longer I’ve been writing seriously, the less likely I’m to be entertained by someone else’ writing. There are some exceptions — Jane Gardam comes to mind right now, but there are others. Few and far between, though. A writer comes to an understanding of him/herself as a stylist and it’s difficult to read without the critical eye. Because I mostly write historical fiction, a lot of my reading is research — reading for answers to questions, basically. Not pleasure.
It’s OK. When you write something and decide to make it public, you have to let go of it. Some of the reviews my novels have gotten have been negative based on personal taste, incomprehension on the part of the reader, lack of background with which to approach the story — a wide variety of things that don’t have anything to do with what I wrote. I don’t believe the subjectivist philosophical line that half of art is in the eye of the beholder. No. A painter paints SOMETHING. A writer writes SOMETHING. But having been educated to analyze literature, I understand the search for the “hidden meaning” or just simply meaning. The only (to me) valid subjective part is the place where something you read has meaning FOR YOU. It’s in that place that the great magic can happen and a reader reads what a writer has written.
As happened to me last week.
In Savior I have written about depression as I experienced it. Simply that. I described my own experiences and “gave” them to the protagonist. What those experiences MEAN in a world is the other question. In the time of my protagonist’s “life” depression indicated demonic possession. In OUR time it means a mood disorder to be treated with a drug. BUT between the two times there is still a parallel. Our world stigmatizes depression and considers those who suffer from it or who have suffered from it as untrustworthy, unstable and a little scary. That’s not so different from the world in which my protagonist lives. It’s human nature, and some of the readers/reviewers of Savior were clearly afraid of the subject.
Though it’s a little odd to quote ones self, here’s what I wrote about my experience with returning to my life after a depressive crisis:
Anyone who’s experienced a mental breakdown learns who their friends are. I had to go to school every day and face people who thought I was insane. My teaching hours had been cut, and it was becoming increasingly difficult to make ends meet. Because I had ”cracked up,” the preceding eleven years and all my accomplishments and contributions didn’t matter.
I read a blog post yesterday in which the writer was unhappy because he’d spent a lot of time on it and few people had commented or read it or liked it. I read it. I pondered the writing, I pondered what I knew the writer’s intention to have been, I thought about whether it succeeded in doing what he said it was supposed to have done. For me, it failed. I would not have known what he was trying to write if he hadn’t told me.
I considered his feelings about the piece — he loved it; he’d put his soul into it; it had given him the ‘writer’s high’. I thought about Rilke writing in Letters to a Young Poet warning him against “loving and writing in heat.” I laughed to myself knowing how many times I’ve been so in LOVE with something I’ve written that I’ve been blind to what it actually DOES. And I thought again about the difference between readers and writers and why a writer writes.
Doubt not, O Poet, but persist! Say, ‘It is in me, and shall out.’ Stand there, baulked and dumb, stuttering and stammering, hissed and hooted, stand and strive, until, at last, rage draw out of thee that dream-power which every night shows thee is thine own. Ralph Waldo Emerson, “The Poet.”
I wanted to say, “Just write the damned thing.”
Maybe I did.