I was twenty-two when I received my Master’s degree in creative writing, and I knew I wanted more than anything in the world to be a novelist. Fully aware of just how unlikely and fantastic this ambition was, I decided I would have to be very practical. To research, imagine, and then nurse a successful novel into being, I knew I would have to devote most if not all of my energies to the project. And so it was that, to the consternation of my parents, I embarked upon a life-long pursuit of mindless, low-paying jobs that would keep food in my belly and paper in my printer without taxing my mind to the point I didn’t have anything left over to imagine and create with.
Thirty some-odd years later, I had completed one avant-garde, experimental novel—thankfully unpublished—and one novel I was really quite proud of, The Oblate’s Confession. For two long depressing years, I tried to get The Oblate published … and failed miserably. I received scores of form rejection letters, and the occasional personal note from a publisher who wanted me to know they thought the book excellent, but that it probably wouldn’t be a big money-maker. No one was willing to take it on. Eventually, for my own mental health’s sake as much as anything else, I gave up. I had placed my heart in the scales and the world of commerce had found it wanting. It just hurt too much to go one.
So now what was I to do? At loose ends, and desperate to repay my wife for the ten years she spent supporting me while I wrote The Oblate, I took a job as a part-time shelver at the Talbot County Free Library. And almost immediately, for the first time in my life, discovered myself in a job I actually loved. I began to write about my work at the library, our local paper began to publish what I wrote; I began to work the Circulation Desk, and then the Reference Desk. I was placed in charge of all the library’s publications. For the first time in my life, I had found all the fulfillment and satisfaction I needed not from writing, but from an actual paying job. My parents were happy, my wife was happy, and I was happy. For once I had value. I knew I was doing something important, something that provided a real benefit to my community, something that—like writing—I believed in heart and soul.
Life proceeded along these pleasant lines for several years. Then, one day, I was working at my desk, laying out the next library newsletter or something, when the phone rang. I picked it up and the fellow on the other end of the line said he was from Secant Publishing and that he’d read and liked a poem of mine in The Delmarva Review, and he wondered if I might ever be interested in putting together a full-length book. Needless to say, I immediately told him about The Oblate, and he asked me to send him the manuscript. Within two weeks of that phone call, I’d received a healthy cash advance on my book, and The Oblate’s Confession and I were off and running toward my dream come true: a novel published with my name on it.
It’s been almost two years now since I received that first wonderful phone call from Secant’s Ron Sauder, and I have to tell you it sometimes feels as if I’ve been running ever since. The book has received 4 national awards and is about to receive a 5th (which I can’t tell you about till the organization making the award sends out its official announcement later this month), the initial hardcover edition of 1000 books has almost completely sold out, my publisher brought out the paperback edition in September, and now everyone, including my publisher, is encouraging me to write a second novel. And here’s where we come to the point of tonight’s talk ….
I was asked to speak to you about the preparation and research necessary to write a novel, like The Oblate’s Confession, that’s set in a 7th century Anglo-Saxon monastery. And all that I’ve said so far notwithstanding, I fully intend to do that. I can tell you, it’s a lot of work—the research I mean. I read everything I could get my hands on, all the original source material—Geoffrey of Monmouth, Eddius Stephanus, the Venerable Bede, Cædmon, the Beowulf poet. I travelled to England and met with the top scholar of the period. I read all that he recommended … some of it in Latin. I visited the iron-age reconstruction at Butser Hill, I visited the Weald & Downland Museum, I visited countless archaeological sites. I read books about the plague. I read books about charcoal-makers. I read books about early iron furnaces. I read books about Anglo-Saxon farming practices and burial practices and cooking practices and material culture.
But you know, truth be told, researching the book is the easy part, isn’t it? I mean anyone can do that. The historical information is out there. All you have to do is find it and read it. No, the really hard part, the difference between writing a history and writing an historical novel, is the mysterious process one must undergo to turn history into story, to imagine an entire world into existence, then to write into existence a place and people it with characters who have never existed before and yet, are true to life, believable. That is the hard part. That—the point at which information is transformed into story—that is the point at which writing changes into art. When it goes well, this is the best part of being a writer, when the words flow directly from your mind to the page without interruption or error and you know you’ve hit the ball with the sweet part of the bat … well, that is perfect, that is a kind of love, a kind of ecstasy. But most of the time, of course, it is not like this. Most of the time it is a struggle, a long and often discouraging labor of mind and sinew. Stamina is required, stamina and, perhaps, a touch of madness. Anyway, it takes a long time. To do the sort of writing I’m talking about, to transform true and complicated history into even truer and just as complicated fiction, one must lavish time upon the endeavor, time to daydream, to muse, time to be playful with your thoughts, time to engage in endless what if’s, time to set off down one path, go a considerable distance, realize it is leading you in the wrong direction, and then double back to your starting place and begin all over again. Goethe, when asked how he managed to write such massive tomes, replied, “Never hurry, never rest.” And I concur. Though you know time is limited, your life mortal, you must act as if it weren’t, you must act as if you had all the time in the world. Time is the great resource you must have, the one you cannot bank, the one you must be willing to expend and even squander … if you hope to ever find yourself looking down at the last page of a novel you’ve just written.
Or at least you do if you’re as poor a writer as I am.
Virginia Woolf said a writer needs a room of one’s own to be successful and the freedom to daydream in that room conferred by an annual income of 500 pounds. Woolf’s caught a lot of grief for that prescription, many have called her elitist, but in a very real sense, at least as far as this writer is concerned, I would have to agree with her. I am sure there are writers out there who are possessed of so much genius and energy that they can sit down after a long day at the factory or mill and work late into the night, day after day, and end up writing a beautiful novel. Solzhenitzyn claimed to write twelve hours every day of his long and productive life. Steinbeck supposedly wrote The Grapes of Wrath in six months. Robert Louis Stevenson’s Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde is said to have taken only five feverish days to compose. But I am no Stevenson, no Steinbeck. My approach to writing and, more important, my approach to imagining, is necessarily painstaking, lapidary. I lay pebble upon pebble, pebble upon pebble, until, after countless failures, countless collapses, a wall slowly rises toward the sky. I know of no other way to do it.
Virginia Woolf called the craft of writing, the art of writing, “the highest office of all.” Of the writer himself, she wrote, “His words reach where others fall short. A silly song of Shakespeare’s has done more for the poor and the wicked than all the preachers and philanthropists in the world. No time, no devotion, can be too great, therefore, which makes the vehicle of our message less distorting. We must shape our words till they are the thinnest integument for our thoughts.” I love that last line. And I couldn’t agree with it more. But for me, at least, to achieve so precise and immediate a correspondence between what is thought and what is written, requires a tremendous expenditure of energy and time. I must give it my all.
And now my publisher is after me to write another book. Complete strangers who have read The Oblate are sending me handwritten notes asking that I write another book. My wife wants me to write another book. Perfect, right? Every author’s dream. But remember where I was when my publisher first contacted me? I had become Talbot County’s “library guy.” People call me this when they see me on the street. My wife calls me this. Folks come up to me in the grocery and at the post office and in the gym to ask for book recommendations. Patrons come up to me at the library’s Reference Desk and ask me to help them fill out an online job application, ask me where they can take an English as a Second Language course, ask me how they can learn more about the disease their daughter has …. And I help them. People need me in a real and practical way. I offer them real and practical assistance. I’m “the library guy.” It may not pay well, it may not be glamorous, it’ll never make me famous … but I’m not at all sure it isn’t more important than anything else I’ve ever done … including having written a book. I’ve got to wonder about that. I mean we really do only go around once. We have to make choices as to how we’re going to spend our lives.
So, in answer to the question I was posed for tonight’s talk, in my case at least, the first step I must take in preparing to write a book is to ask myself … should I write a book? Am I willing to devote, to perhaps squander, the time required to flesh out and clothe the sort of full-length narrative that lies at the heart of any good novel? Is such a profligate use of the precious years remaining to me wise … or, compared to the very real and honest help I can offer the people of Talbot County by working at our library … would it be the worst of sort of vanity to chuck it all and wander out into the woods just to dream up another piece of fiction? If I were Virginia Woolf, of course, the answer to this question would be clear. She was a genius, in my opinion quite probably the greatest novelist of all time. But I’m not Virginia Woolf, I’m Bill Peak. You know … “the library guy.”