I just read EDITOR OF GENIUS about Maxwell Perkins who took a chance on and edited Tom Wolfe, Fitzgerald, Hemingway and a host of other writers. In this excellent book, one really gets close to these geniuses’ lives and their processes. You see how much failure they had in terms of financial success (Gatsby hardly sold), some of Hemingway’s books did badly (although The Sun Also Rises and A Farewell to Arms did well.) Tom Wolfe sold well but who reads him now, I wonder. The best sellers of that time were written by people whose names I have never heard of and I am a voracious reader.
All the writers are desperate for money, which usually did not come in on time. The writers’ lives were fraught with disappointment except for some high points (when the editor loved their work or the public loved their work) and struggle with their work the rest of the time. All of them did tremendous, I mean tremendous, rewrites.
It is sobering in this time of instantaneous desires to think how long and laboring those writers wrestled with their work and genius. What do we take away from it now?
That to be a writer is difficult. You never know how your work will be received and, even if you are a genius, you still go through as many rejections as everyone else. That the writer always oscillates between feeling tremendously insecure about one’s work and feeling omnipotent while doing it and madly hopeful and excited. That writing is a compulsion, its own reward and hard work. That rewriting is the thing, over and over, and even these geniuses had to go through arduous changes and face that sometimes they were barking up wrong trees. That every writer needs a Max Perkins. In other words, someone who believes in you and sees the good in your work so you keep working, developing and don’t give up. That is invaluable. Sometimes it is a coach or, if you’re lucky an agent. You need someone who has distance on the work and is professional in looking at the work, rather than your best friend or spouse who, most likely, will give you opinions. But real help comes from looking deeply at the story and how it is revealed to the reader. Real help is someone who loves writing as much as you do. Real help is someone involved in the soul of the story.
What we take away from these geniuses’ lives is how much the soul of a story is the soul of a writer and how maybe, difficulty and all, it is a marvelous privilege to dedicate your life to the soul of your stories.