THE WHOLENESS OF A BROKEN HEART
By Katie Singer
copyright © 2000
After I published my first novel, friends, family, and strangers showered me with congratulations: "Now you'll be rich!" "Now you're a celebrity!" "You deserve it." "Now you can die happy." "Finally," declared on acquaintance who knew I'd worked on my book eight years, "you're a success!"
I haven't felt like one. To say that I've felt lost since my book (The Wholeness of a Broken Heart, 1999) sold to Riverhead Books would be an understatement. At a core level, I lost touch with my creativity, its rhythm. Before my novel sold, I determined the pace of my writing; after the sale, my publisher did. Before publishing, my days were spent primarily in solitude, writing. Now, I had frequent sound-byte-long conversations spiked with words like Spielberg or Publishers Weekly feature, which often left me gasping for perspective. In the face of skyrocketing multimedia possibilities, I struggled to find the truth of my human proportions.
I was paid a generous advance for my novel--enough to get me out of debt and support me for two years, enough to allow me to begin my second book. For me, this is rich--though I still have no washer or dryer, and I still can't afford health insurance.
On tour, I'd speak to an audience of four, sign perhaps two books, then be dropped off at an airport to learn my flight had been canceled. I was confirmed on another plane that would leave in twelve hours. This is not a health hazard, some voice in my head would whisper. This is a privilege. Plus, the delay meant I'd have time to go to the bathroom.
For a first-time novelist, this is celebrity.
Once the tour was over, a friend pointed out the New York Times column "Making Books" by Martin Arnold. "A novelist's career," Arnold wrote, "depends on showing that the first promising book was not a fluke;" the second novel, he wrote, should be more daring than the first.
Reading this, I felt like I'd just given birth to a beautiful child, eight years in the making, only to be told it wouldn't be valid until I produced another one. (Strangers, booksellers, my agent, and others were also asking about my next book.) In fact I had started another novel, but I still didn't know what it was about.
I reminded myself that I was blessed with an editor who helped me make The Wholeness of a Broken Heart the book I wanted it to be, that publishing had opened the way for me to connect with a few writers and booksellers who'd become good friends. Still, for months, I couldn't appreciate these things. My experience could be encapsulated by describing a day I'd spent at a gift-selling holiday bazaar, where I'd been scheduled to sign books. Assigned to share a table with beanie babies, the attention I received, compared to that of the beanie babies, gave me first-hand experience of the true state of publishing, Y2K. My cynicism about the business kept me, I might say, in the winter of my success.
I felt depleted. I felt like a failure.
The Latin root of failure is fallere, which means to deceive. Perhaps failure comes when we don't know our own desires, and lack a personal definition of success. We follow, instead, the culture's expectations.
Culturally speaking, I suppose that publishing a novel qualifies as a success. Still, I can't say that there's logic to my getting published. I know plenty of people who write beautifully and work incredibly hard, and yet they haven't published or been paid for their art. The idea of being connsidered a success because I did work that gave me pleasure seems strange to me. It has nothing to do with creativity. As Lewis Hyde so eloquently states in The Gift: Imagination and the Erotic Life of Property, "the imagination comes to us from beyond our sphere of influence."
Indeed, rather than dwelling on my "achievement," I've been much more fixated on wondering Who am I? What matters?" What was my motivation in publishing? Can I give my writing panoramic attention again?
In my journal, I began a list.
Success is when:
A few months after my tour, on my way to Baylor University for a conference called "Art and Soul," I got stranded in the Dallas airport and landed in a long conversation with another passenger. John Martin is a professor of finance at Baylor; he also writes textbooks for business students and consults with middle-aged businessmen who are looking for meaning in their lives. He appreciates art and literature, but from a distance. I have not aimed to make myself financially successful or productive--not in conventional terms; I've aimed simply to have time to write. And there we were, stuck in an airport sitting next to each other.
"You spend 98 percent of your time thinking about things I avoid," John said matter-of-factly. He wore a tweed suit and snacked on peanut butter crackers from a candy machine. I ate a brown rice dish I'd made at home; I wore a sweatshirt and stretch pants. Matter-of-factly, I admitted that I've avoided thinking about money as much as possible.
Over the next couple of hours, we realized that the core questions we ponder are the same.
John told me about his students, who are eager to build lucrative businesses and who are often blind to the cost and even the source of their ambition. As their professor, he wonders how to help them create balance between financial goals and a satisfying life. "I see them headed down the road of work, work, work," he said. "And I don't know how to show them another pace. I've been accomplishment-oriented in my own life. I've been driven." Only now, in his fifties, has he begun to wonder if he could build things that are useful in the public sphere--and bridge these with "meaningful self-discovery."
That's what I'm wondering.
John spoke of a middle-aged man who recently sold his business for $140 million. After the sale, this man felt lost. He didn't have any work to go to; he didn't know what to do with his day. I'm a success story, this man thought, Why don't I have a clue about what truly matters?
John asked me how I would define financial success.
I said I thought it might be a graceful flow between money's coming in and going out; or trust that one's needs are and will be provided.
"And what's creative success?" he asked.
My creative projects always begin with and return to a time of doing nothing, I explained. I nap a lot. I read, pull weeds from around my herb garden, walk to the grocery store. In creating a story or a novel, I go through many cycles of giving myself permission not to write. After completing a project, I seem to need permission not to write again. In the same way that the moon wanes after it's been full, even becomes completely unseeable--and from this darkness moves toward fullness again--my creative flow succeeds better when I give it time to wane and value the phases where it seems as though I'm not doing anything: when I accept the times I can't locate a spark of passion. I give myself permission not to know what I want to write, and not to write at all. If, then, I am moved to write, the words that come are more likely to be authentic.
After two decades of dedicated writing, I'm familiar and comfortable with my rhythm, including its unpredictability. Writing and publishing, however, are very different ventures. I do not know anything about the pace of publishing--about my rhythm in publishing.
While I wondered how a writer with an erratic pace could survive in the marketplace, John Martin asked, "How do you train people to be creative?"
I suggested people could notice that they already are creative. They're already creating a daily rhythm, making choices about eating and sleeping and talking; responding to what they don't understand and can't control. We simply are creative--artistically and biologically.
As I heard more descriptions of the businesspeople John works with (most of whom steam full-speed ahead toward "success" without rest), I realized that I identify with their ambition--to achieve something, to participate fully in life, to be recognized publicly for their contributions. I've noticed my own insatiability in wanting not just publication but stellar reviews and awards as well. And now that my quiet life has resumed, I feel drawn again to the imaginal worlds of fictional characters.
I would also really like a washer and dryer.
My desire to create another novel got me thinking about the production of artistic and commercial ventures in the context of biological creativity. For years, I've practiced and taught Fertility Awareness, a natural method for birth control, pregnancy achievement, and gauging gynecological health. My ambition to publish reminded me of male fertility rhythm: it never stops. Beginning at puberty, males produce 1,000 sperm per second, 24 hours a day: they are fertile all the time.
The pace of my writing, however, reminded me of female rhythm, which is cyclical: a girl is infertile until puberty, fertile during the childbearing years, and infertile again at menopause. Most animals--like human males--are fertile until they die; human females, however, can live for decades after their biological fertility has ended. During the childbearing years, each menstrual cycle also moves through infertile, fertile, and again infertile phases.
Biologically speaking then, masculine fertility turns on at puberty and doesn't shut off until death; feminine fertility turns on and off in a cyclical fashion. Modern technology allows us to manipulate our biological fertility--i.e., the Pill can essentially shut off a woman's reproductive system; a vasectomy or tubal ligation can prevent sperm or ovum from being available to the reproductive process. These technologies make us available for sex--without the consequences of pregnancy--all the time: they make us sexually available to a masculine rhythm. They likely also diminish awareness of our fertility and that we are, indeed, fertile creatures.
In earlier eras, many cultures were intimately connected to the earth's seasonal cycles, and they acknowledged and celebrated feminine rhythms by observing the Sabbath and allowing land to rest every seven years. They created guidelines based on these rhythms for men and women to relate to each other and for creative and economic benefit.
I wonder how my "success" in getting a book published has affected my beliefs about the cyclical nature of creativity, about my ability to control my productivity, about what constitutes success, about responding to order and unpredictability. I wonder if I could integrate my cyclical writing rhythm and my production-oriented publishing rhythm.
With Fertility Awareness, couples will practice periodic separation from and return to sexual union. If their intent is to avoid pregnancy, couples refrain from relations during the woman's fertile time; if they want to conceive, they refrain from relations every other day while the woman is fertile in order to allow time to replenish the man's sperm count. Periodic separation also works to perpetuate a spirit of courtship. Feminine and masculine rhythms are both honored, simply by awareness of each.
Certainly my days are more pleasurable and satisfying when I focus not on the commercial potential of my projects but on encouraging the fullness of my creative cycles. I may live in a culture wherein the control of food production, indoor climate, aging, and biological fertility are expected, where the words "take control" are probably among the most widely used words in advertising. Honestly though, I can't control my creativity. And honestly, I don't want to. Forcing a book out would dishonor those sources that Lewis Hyde aptly calls "our masters"; it would disavow what he calls "a simple injunction in regard to fertility: Do not exploit the essence."
When I meet with couples who are wanting to conceive a child, I usually ask them, "What are your prayers?" (I define prayer as what we give our attention to.) If they say, "We want a healthy baby within a year," I may invite them to create prayers that would support them regardless the result of their efforts.
As I sense my increasing desire for another book, I offer myself a prayer created by friends whose efforts to conceive a child were initially unsuccessful: Joyful fishing catches more than fish.
When I got home from Texas, I looked up the Latin root of success: ked means "to go, withdraw, yield." Words also rooted in ked include cease, ancestor, concede, decease, proceed, and necessary. This original meaning affirms my understanding of rhythm and flow. I sense invitations to move forward (go, proceed), to pause (withdraw, cease), to reflect (concede, ancestor), even to die (yield, cease, decease).
Does discomfort with being called a success (whether one is a novelist or a businessperson) relate to our sensing, somehow, the lack of root meaning in our current definition of the word? Is our discomfort in focusing on achievement really a lack of focus on a functional rhythm?
Perhaps if we nurture the rhythm of our creativity (including impulses to withdraw periodically), then, perhaps, we might yield to our fertile powers, and know a fuller spectrum of success.
[This essay, "The Chase of Success," was published in the Salt Journal, a magazine covering culture, myth, psychology, and soul, in January, 2001.]