Why Write Anyway?

John Hale
University of Otago
Department of English

Deep South v.2 n.3 (Spring, 1996)

Copyright (c) 1996 by John Hale, all rights reserved.

Tonight, I found another snail on the toilet curtain. They crawl up the honeysuckle outside, and then -- if the louvre vents are open -- they come inside. Once in, the pattern varies. Some go up the wall, literally, and eat the picture which hangs there. Others go up, up, up to the ceiling, where they stop: they have nowhere else to aspire to, or become discouraged. But tonight's snail had not reached beyond the curtain when I interrupted. I put him, or her, out of the window, in the general direction of the honeysuckle, and into the sweet scented darkness. (Ah, the Keatsian imagery.)

This is all allegory; a symbol of the life of a writer.

The snail is the writer, slowly, so slowly moving towards greater fulfilment; away from the fragrant but inert darkness of sloth, painfully into the dangers of an alien environment, in hopes of new enlightening nourishment. The trails of the snail are literally the slime it exudes to slide along on; but, being the snail's means and signs of motion, the trails become allegorically the writer's words left behind on the paper, as that writer's path through life. A fertile metaphor indeed.

From another standpoint, however, the snail who first told its tribe about the good taste of our Lowry painting on the wall, did them and us a disservice. One can cling too hard to a futile aspiration.

Well, the snails have at least raised the fundamental question, namely, why do anything? This is the thrust of the story I shall now tell, not an allegory but as typical experience.

Twenty-five years ago, the pressure to publish in academic journals was less than nowadays. Even a single published essay sufficed to convince the tenure-granting elders that one had research credibility, and for tenure other factors weighed at least equal. So, I read a lot, filled the huge gaps left by specialist doctoral research, did conference papers, and wrote learned articles when they felt clear and ripe.

I didn't write many, just enough. I certainly didn't turn my thesis into a book; I was sick and stale of it.

One essay I did write, about twenty years ago, was on the ending of Henry James's great novel The Portrait of a Lady. I had just taught this, and had had a new thought about its ending. The ending is enigmatic. Why does the heroine, Isabel Archer, go back to Rome, to her revolting husband Osmond, having probed his evil nature to its depths? The decision seems to flout common sense, or decency, or probability. James, however, says it is a confronting of her destiny. He says she saw 'a terribly straight path'. My idea was that although return was 'terrible' for her, it was the 'straight and narrow' path mentioned in the Sermon on the Mount. 'Straight', not crooked. And 'strait' meaning narrow, not 'broad' like the gospel 'path to destruction'. A poor, tiny insight, this, but mine own.

I wrote it up, typed it up, and mailed it off, to an American journal which published short essays on American literature.

They took a few months, before rejecting my manuscript.

And that was that. I sent it nowhere else, having left James behind in my teaching by then. It lay among my unfinished or unpublished manuscripts, for a dozen or more years.

In 1990, though, I hit it by chance when looking for something else. I forget what, because I sat down to read this instead. And behold! I liked it again. I loved it. It was all fresh and bright and clear to me, full of energy again.

I knew more about journals by this time, and indeed there were a lot more of them by now. In the 1970s, I had typed it up. But now the world had moved on, to word-processors. there was only one thing to do. I did it.

I inputted it, and sent it away -- to a specialist journal, let us call it the Jamesian, edited from the (American) Deep South.

For two years I heard nothing back.

So I wrote enquiring.

Six more months passed, then I got a letter, the the effect that 'the editors do not normally work on the journal during the summer months. Expect a decision, therefore, in the fall'.

Fall, the northern hemisphere autumn, came and went. A year had passed, another year. 1993 now, and I enquired again.

Back came the answer, to the effect this time that 'we are sorry for the slowness of the decision-making process. There have been changes of personnel in this office, in fact both editors and the editorial manager have changed. You will, nevertheless, be informed as soon as a decision is made'.

By this time, I had lost belief again; belief in my puny manuscript, and its value to the universe. Still, I needed publication as much as ever. Times had changed here as well as in the Jamesian powerhouse. I did not let go.

I looked out my folder of letters and the replies to them, to see how I might approach them this time. Respectfully? More in sorrow than in anger? Send the identical letter, to see whether they noticed? Tell a sob story?

On further reflection, I felt stroppy: how many people, just starting out on their careers, and desperately needing publication for jobs or tenure, were being messed around by these editors? But I felt tickled, too, by the absurdity of the correspondence; by its growing size, by the inane academic courtesies of it, by the whole evolving minuet of the airmail letters.

So I wrote as follows:

'Dear Editors:

It is now four years since you received my MS, "Isabel Archer and Her Terribly Straight Path". Have you now (underlined) decided whether to publish it? Or have you lost it? Or are you trying to break a record of some sort?'

I was sarcastic, in fact fearfully witty. I could now see that they had lost the MS, and wouldn't admit this: if they did it, I might sue them. What I should have done, if I really wanted them to publish me, was to send a replacement copy, without any comment.

Why hadn't I thought this through? I was gripped with the thrill of the chase. Could I bring them to say YES after all this time? Could I myself set a record, for the longest period between submission and acceptance, with a fair chance of another record, for time between submission and print?

I had dark thoughts of writing up the the whole business, to send as a horror-story to the influential, and ultra-professional PMLA.

But I let some time lapse first . . .

This very year, I suddenly got an e-mail message; from the same journal, but from a new editor and a new location, Chicago. The editor apologised profusely to me. She was newly appointed, and working through the back files of those industrious lads down south. She had reached my sarcastic letter. She wrote:

'Send it me at once! Send it by e-mail! I will get the decision made.'

I sent it.

I got the answer inside a fortnight.

She had broken all records, but for quickness. She had read the MS. And had declined it.

But I was fired up again, so much so that two things dawned on me.

First was, that since I had never seen a whole copy of this journal, it might come out annually and be half a Newsletter. Why was I barking up this particular tree anyway?

And secondly, why was I approaching a specialised journal, when I knew of good general ones which took short articles like mine.

Try them.

I did.

It's accepted. The process took two months, going out to readers and yet obeying a schedule. It will print next year, this being good to normal speed.

But ah, the lost years! During which the world has been unfairly denied its moment of illumination about Isabel confronting her destiny.

Now then, remembering the snail and me confronting each other in the toilet, I ask, why do we do it? Do we enjoy the process of crawling up the wall, or banging our heads on the ceiling, and waiting there for something to happen? Isn't there anything better to be doing?

No. There aren't many better things to be doing. This is not because life is awful, but because writing -- as distinct from submitting and waiting -- is a marvellous activity, totally satisfying when it is going well.

Being paid for it would be marvellous too.

Those snails know that on the toilet wall is a picture with edible glue.

Write a letter to The Editor.