When Will The Story End?

You wrote down that you were a writer by profession. It sounded to me like the loveliest euphemism I had ever heard.  When was writing ever your profession?  It’s never been anything but your religion.  Never.  Since it is your religion, do you know what you will be asked when you die?  But let me tell you first what you won’t be asked.  You won’t be asked if you were working on a wonderful, moving piece of writing when you died.  You won’t be asked if it was long or short, sad or funny, published or unpublished.  You won’t be asked if you were in good or bad form while you were working on it.  You won’t even be asked if it was the one piece of writing you would have been working on if you had known your time would be up when it was finished.  I’m so sure you’ll get asked only two questions. 

Were most of your stars out?  Were you busy writing your heart out?”

–          J.D. Salinger, from “Seymour: An Introduction” 


Every now and then, I hit a rough stretch, and this is definitely one of them.  It started a couple weeks ago, when at a doctor’s visit, the nurse didn’t ask me for the date of my last period.  Instead, she looked at me and said, “You’re postmenopausal, right?”


This was followed quickly by a flare-up of fibromyalgia.  Everything hurt, everything raged. In particular, my back went into spasms so harsh, they took my breath and my voice away.  Even my collarbone hurt.  I didn’t know collarbones could hurt.

Then in fast succession, I found out the following:

1)      My ex-husband was in the hospital, being treated for gangrene. He is my age.

2)      A good friend’s husband died in his sleep. He was my age.

3)      A good friend from grad school died suddenly.  He was three years younger than I am.

I suddenly felt immersed in my own mortality, surrounded by encroaching old age and illness, and inevitable death. Instead of seeing death as a shadow far away on the horizon, barely visible between mountain peaks, pushed away by a protective ocean, death came to perch on my shoulder, a bizarre combination of Poe’s raven and a shrieking seagull.

The passing of my grad school friend was particularly difficult.  Sam was the first person to talk to me when I set foot on Vermont College’s campus.  He started a year before me.  He asked me my name, and when I told him, he recognized me from reading several of my stories published in literary magazines.  He put a hand on my shoulder and said, “You are going to rock this system.”

The people who rescue you during times of great fear are always held dear.  All I wanted to do that day was get back on a plane and go home.  But Sam’s words kept me there. And I will forever be grateful.  He was right, by the way.  I did rock the system.

This past Monday, the day I found out about his death, I sat down at my desk to start on Draft 5 of my new novel.  But as I stared at my screen, I just kept thinking, What’s the point?  What if I don’t live through the end of this book?  Why put such hard work into something when maybe I should be outside, smelling the roses (which are still nonexistent in a winter-stuck Wisconsin), or maybe I should be talking and laughing with my 13-year old daughter, or visiting my older kids, or playing with my grandchild.

In the end, I took a deep breath and forged ahead.  Draft 5 is underway.

But another thing happened too.  There is an article being passed around the Facebook hive about a woman who published several books of chicklit, then didn’t have her contract renewed.  She decided to go to grad school, earn her MFA, and write “serious fiction.” She graduated and started shopping her serious novel.  No one wanted it.  So then she rewrote it with a chicklit style and she walked away with five different offers from agents. Throughout the article, she maligned the literary genre, saying that to write it, you have to give up any idea of plot, you have to give up your personality, your sentences have to be unadorned and plain, and you can’t be funny. The comments following the article were vitriolic, calling those who write literary fiction snobs and academics that don’t have a clue what readers really want.

I write literary fiction. My books and stories have plot, and plenty of it.  My work has personality, my sentences are lyrical, and sometimes, when it calls for it, I can be really funny.  While I have my degrees, I don’t consider myself an academic.  It’s sort of like being a non-practicing Catholic, except I am a non-practicing academic. I have the background and experience of an academic, but I don’t teach in a university setting. I own my own creative writing studio, AllWriters’ Workplace & Workshop, very deliberately named so that all writers of all genres will feel welcome there.

But when I read that article, all I could think was if this is what people truly believe about literary fiction, is anybody reading it?

That left me staring at the screen for a bit too.  I write to be read.  Am I?

So, a rough stretch.

Throughout the writing life, we all get hit with some pretty hard and negative questions, which can lead to the blank stares:

1)      Writers are rarely able to support themselves with their writing.  So why am I working so hard at this?

2)      This book (story, poem, memoir) might not ever be published. Why am I making this effort?

3)      My book (story, poem, memoir )is published, but is anyone reading it? 

And a new question for me:

4)      Will I be like my friends and just suddenly keel over and be gone, before I have the chance to finish this book? If I die before I finish this book, how much time will I have wasted?  How much time do I have left?

Oh, yeah. Rough week. How much time do I have left?  I’m working on a novel which still needs several more drafts, and I have at least three more novels already in my head, plus another short story collection.  Will I have the time to give birth to them all?

So I tried to answer all of these questions, most of which I already had answers to, but I just needed to be reminded.

1)      Because I love it.

2)      Because I love it.

3)      Yes, people are reading my work.  Think about it.

With question 3, I made myself remember the following:

The 5-star review of “Learning To Tell A (Life)Time” on Goodreads: My wife gave me the book and just said “read it.” I hadn’t heard of the author (though now I’m going to get her other books), but I decided to start it late one night just to see what I thought. I ended up spending the next day (luckily I didn’t have to work) reading. I couldn’t help it.

I remembered presenting my short story collection, “Enlarged Hearts,” at the Wisconsin Book Festival.  Afterwards, I was approached by a woman who hugged me, then burst into tears.  She said her sister committed suicide, and through the story I’d read, she now understood why and she had closure.

I remembered going to visit a book club in Indiana who read “The Home For Wayward Clocks”.  They met in a private room in a restaurant.  When I walked in, they looked up, all twenty-something of them, and then they gave me a standing ovation.  They presented me with a broken clock (just the type that James would have loved) and a bottle of wine.

That brought me to tears all over again. Yes, I am being read.

So I love it, I love it, I have readers.  But now there’s that awful fourth question. I know that I have less time in front of me than I have behind me.  I’m fifty-three years old; chances are good that I won’t live to be 106.  Will my time and energy be wasted if I keep writing this book and before it’s finished, I die?

Is it wasting time if you die doing what you most love?  Fully immersed in the life you chose to lead?

And those questions brought me to my favorite writing quote of all time, which I included at the top of this post.  I asked myself the same questions Seymour Glass asked his brother, Buddy.

“When I die, will all my stars be out?  Will I be writing my heart out?”

Yes.  Because, as I answered questions 1 and 2, I love it.  And it’s not a waste of time to do what you love the most, what makes you feel at peace in this world, what makes you feel like you belong and you are giving back.

My stars will be out.  I have so much more to say.

4 Replies to “When Will The Story End?”

  1. Kathie, we must be on that same downer wavelength. Since I became housebound, I’ve had the same “what’s the use” thoughts. Am I wasting my time? Do people really care about my work? I still have the dream that someday someone will be excited to meet me…

  2. Sweetie, you ARE being read. I used to be an anti-literary snob, and since I read The Home For Wayward Clocks, I’ve been drawn to Joyce Carol Oates and A. Manette Ansay. You are a brilliant writer, and you help countless other people achieve great heights. On Friday night, I heard a brilliant story from another brilliant writer, who was once told to “believe in what he was doing.” (Sorry for the repetitive vocabulary, I just woke up.) Believe in what you’re doing, my dear. You’re not only being read, you’re being adored.

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