Trillium Book Awards Author Reading 2015

First Books: ‘a spiritual, mental, and physical achievement’

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First Books: ‘a spiritual, mental, and physical achievement’

The short story writer, Andre Dubus, paid homage to the special place that first books hold in the hearts of writers in his memoir, Meditations From a Moveable Chair.

I received the note from my eventual editor inquiring as to whether my novel, The Weight of Stones, was still available for publication on the same day a close family member was undergoing life-saving surgery. It seemed a little cosmic, even to a blunt guy like me. It seems now, in hindsight, a small treasure. As Dubus wrote:

“A first book is a treasure, and all these truths and quasi-truths I have written about publishing are finally ephemeral. An older writer knows what a younger one has not yet learned. What is demanding and fullfulling is writing a single word, trying to wrote le mot juste, as Flaubert said; writing several of them, which become a sentence. When a writer does that, day after day, working alone with little encouragement, often with discouragement flowing in the writer’s own blood, and with an occasional rish of excitement that empties oneself, so that the self is for minutes longer in harmony with eternal astonishments and visions of truth, right there on the page on the desk, and when a writer does this work steadily enough to complete a manuscript long enough to be a book, the treasure is on the desk …”

My treasure seemed a long time in the finding, let me tell you (I was 35 at the time, which seems neither too young nor too old by any writerly standard). I had been writing a novel every two years or so from about the age of 25 (the ages of 14 to 24 having been filled with obligatory copy-cat writing and a thirst for dangerous life experiences that might one day inform a voice of my own, but that’s another blog for a different type of website). These were the usual cliched first novels: the boy-girl story, the angst-ridden-young-man-against-the-world-story, the messed-up-family-story.

Not one to do things the easy way, and a little like Cool Hand Luke in my ability to not take a hint, there was just no other way for me to learn than to sweat through several 80,000-word “practice novels” that would be sent out to publishers everywhere and returned with notes or, worse, no notes. Like Santiago in The Old Man and the Sea, I kept getting nibbles, but the big catch kept slipping away.

After taking a three-year break from writing to ensure continued mental health (which may have been court-mandated, I can’t recall the specifics), I finally came back to the real reason I have always written: I want to tell stories and continually improve at this craft, period. The excellent Canadian poet, Colin Morton, told me over a beer during this angst-filled period: “Maybe having a book published will change your life. And maybe it won’t.” Simple wisdom that stuck with me. Here I had been living since the age of 14 with some fantastical notion that I could live a literary life like F. Scott Fitzgerald or Leonard Cohen if just one ignorant publisher would finally give me a chance and support me with a monthly income on some Greek island.

So it was that I returned to the enterprise with a whole new attitude and work ethic. I would craft the exact story I wanted to tell in the exact words and exact way I wanted to tell it. I would then edit the thing with no deadline in mind. Every word and every phrase would be just the way I wanted them. Written for me, by me, and to me. If it happened to find a home in the world, well, then all the better. What a great time that was.

All of this to say that had the first book come about any other way, sooner or later or under different circumstances, it would not have been nearly as sweet. My first published novel was precisely the novel I should have published first. No amount of pushing or pulling or wishing or fighting would have changed a thing. In writing, as in all of life’s ventures, what will be, will be.

“This is splendid work,” Dubus wrote from the wheelchair to which he was confined the last years of his life, “as worthy and demanding as any, and the will and resilience to do it are good for the writer’s soul. If the work is not published, or is published for little money and less public attention, it remains a spiritual, mental and physical achievement.”

Amen.

cb

The views expressed in the Writer-in-Residence blogs are those held by the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of Open Book: Toronto.

C.B. Forrest

C.B. Forrest is the author of the literary crime novels The Weight of Stones and Slow Recoil.

Go to C.B. Forrest’s Author Page