This summer I spent my vacation in Manhattan. Being as obsessive about my writing routine as any of my students, I walked a mile up Broadway every morning to the Columbia library where I spent four hours revising my new novel. It was home ground. I worked at the same table where I'd written my first three novels (all unpublished) back in the Sixties.
Maybe writers are just melancholic by nature, but I noticed on those mile long walks how much the neighborhood had changed. The Upper West Side of Manhattan in the Sixties and Seventies was the center of American literary culture. Now nearly all the bookstores are gone, replaced by phone stores and Starbucks. The Trotskyite bookstore, the New Yorker bookstore, Taylor's, Murder Ink—no more. And of course the typewriter repair store that used to have racks full of literary and political quarterlies has vanished, too.
When you start looking for omens, they pop up everywhere. I passed an old literary critic on one of my treks up Broadway. There was no reason for him to recognize me, but I recognized him. In the Sixties and Seventies, he'd been a formidable figure, a heavy hitter, handsome, a regular reviewer for The New York Times, filled with sharp, perfectly formed opinions, one of those people who seemed to have read everything. He is still handsome, but seemed dazed and was limping, the laces of his hiking boots untied.
If you're a writer looking for reasons to be discouraged, you don't have to look far. Book review pages are disappearing faster than the honeybees. Last week the Times published yet another long feature about how the young are giving up reading for the Internet and blogging. An old editor friend who took us to the beach spent the weekend telling us how hard it’s become to sell fiction. "Publishing is a little like Iraq right now," she said.
But even in Iraq, there are glimmers of hope. When I came back from my weekend at the beach and checked my email, there were three messages from former and present Michener students. One had just received an offer for the 900-page novel he's spent the last five years writing, another sent me a photo of his new book jacket design, a third had just been named a finalist for the Ruth Lilly Prize.
Announcing the apocalypse can all too easily become a pose. Publishing's tough, but it's always been tough. The truth is that the core of my days in New York this summer was those four hours writing on yellow legal pads in the Columbia library. They were essentially the same as the hours I'd spent there forty years before.
I start slowly. Despair rears its ugly head. Have I forgotten how to write a simple sentence? I stare out the window. I wander out to get a drink of water. Eventually I hit on something that is at least workmanlike. An hour later the writing begins to flow. There is an unexpected surge. If I can make this scene work, then maybe I can make this chapter work, and if I can make this chapter work . . . . In my notebook I write in bold letters AFTER FORTY YEARS I'M FINALLY GOING TO WRITE SOMETHING GREAT — HOW GREAT IS THAT?
After the last of these writing sessions, when we were flying back to Austin that night, I stopped off at Absolute Bagels for a late lunch. I'd picked up a copy of The New York Review of Books so I'd have something to read while I ate.
In it, Zadie Smith had a piece on E.M. Forster. She quoted Forster quoting the Bhagavad Gita. I'd never thought that the Bhagavad Gita had a whole lot of advice for writers, but it turned out I was wrong.
"But thou has only the right to work; but none to the fruit thereof; let not then the fruit of thy action be thy motive; nor yet be thou enamoured in inaction."
It seemed like a good quote to ride home on.