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Eliezer Sobel

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Note to Authors: Your Book Won't Change Your Life

Posted: 09/27/11 03:14 PM ET

A Hollywood agent called me about 10 years ago, after reading the first chapter of my novel, Minyan, which had been in the works for 10 years before that. "I LOVED Chapter One!!" she shrieked. This could be VERY BIG. You know I'm someone who works on BIG movie projects out here. I'll call you again when I finish reading it. I'm taking it on my vacation -- I'm so excited!"

She had used the word "big" twice. About a month later I received a small, pathetic white postcard, mailed from Greece but lacking even a pretty photo of Corfu; just my address on one side, and on the other the following note:

"I'm afraid the rest of the book did not do it for me. I cannot work with this material. Since I am currently on holiday overseas, I will discard your manuscript here." I had visions of the pages of my book scattered on the Aegean Sea, my characters drowning, flailing their arms helplessly.

A year or two later, in response to a query, I received a letter from a well-respected literary agent -- my third, counting the Hollywood Homicide woman -- saying he loved my book and "I am certain we will find it a publisher." I found myself whooping and hollering for joy as if it were as good as published. Four or five rejections later, however, his enthusiasm seemed to wane, as did his health; he died.

I decided to go it alone and approach smaller presses without an agent. One of them -- Bill Henderson of Pushcart Press -- called to say he wanted to publish Minyan, but wouldn't get to it for a year. I was thrilled, and happy to wait. A year later, Pushcart was in desperate financial straits, and Bill advised me to begin sending out the manuscript again. I hooked up with yet another agent who began to submit the novel to three publishers at a time, and regularly sent me three rejection letters in one envelope, a new level of efficiency in the realm of spirit-crushing.

On a whim, I entered several competitions described in the back of Poets & Writers magazine, and received word some months later that Minyan had made the semi-finals in one of them. Finally, as I was pushing a cart around Whole Foods one day, deciding between a carb-free energy bar made of whey powder and a spelt croissant, my cell phone rang and I was notified that my first novel had been selected from 400 entries as the winner of the 2003 Peter Taylor Prize for the Novel: one thousand dollars, and publication by the University of Tennessee Press in October 2004.

So after four agents, over 30 rejections, and 20-plus years of writing and revising, one would think I'd have been ecstatic to finally get published, but I found that I was unusually sober, particularly after reading an article directed toward writers that made the following astounding declaration:

"Don't expect your book to change your life."

That hit me hard, and I found myself wandering Barnes & Noble in a daze, realizing that this pinnacle life event could quite easily become a non-event, an infinitesimal droplet in a vast ocean of books, and that my prize-winning work could easily wind up in that scary $3.98 aisle in no time, right next to Bathroom Wallpaper Design in the Deep South.

Then it occurred to me that beyond the world of literature, in the greater scheme of things, the release of Minyan would be even less significant, possibly one of the least important things that would ever happen in the entire history of the world. The fact that it seemed to be one of the most important events in my world, I surmised, was simply a testament to the power of self-delusion and human folly.

I also observed a peculiar psychological mechanism kick into gear upon reaching this long-awaited milestone: instead of finally feeling acknowledged as a writer and propelled forward on a literary path, I felt more like George Plimpton playing quarterback in the NFL for a day, as if I had now officially had the experience of "being a novelist" and could move on, thinking, "I did that, so now what?"

I promptly ordered half a dozen used books online, all with titles like Careers for the Creative & Semifunctional, No Clue What To Do, and so on. I also perused the Outward Bound website, and briefly considered a career leading Alaskan Sea Kayaking adventure tours, although I'm not crazy about physical exertion, being outdoors, or navigating large bodies of ice-cold water. Then, after sitting in University Auto Repair for six hours only to be told that they couldn't find the keys to my car, and being charged $847 to fix various things I hadn't come in for, I wondered how much training I would need to open my own auto shop, despite my understanding of all things mechanical, which basically comes down to something I was oncw taught by my Uncle Bernie: "Give it a zetz." (Yiddish, meaning, in this context, to bang on the thing, whatever it is.)

But it wasn't until I downloaded the application for a long-distance "Qabbalah and Your Sinuses Home Course" that it slowly began to dawn on me that "being a writer" was actually a legitimate possibility, a valid life choice that was at last open to me. I had spent so many years wanting to be a writer while doing other things that it was difficult for me to make that leap. In addition, I had always maintained the vaguely Zen notion that I was only a writer when writing. When asked the dreaded question at social gatherings, "What do you do?" I would always immediately begin dripping with sweat and mask my anxiety by saying whatever the most recent thing I had actually done: "I took a shower today; I'm a showerer, I guess."

During all those years of rejections and near-misses, I eventually went on writing strike: I already had at least four unpublished manuscripts sitting in a box, and I didn't want to add to the pile until and unless I received some confirmation from the publishing world to keep at it. Twenty years is a long time to wait for external permission to consider myself a writer. And it felt too late. I had to cultivate another identity, independent of my success or failure as a writer. The best I came up with, though, was "person." A person who does lots of things. And sometimes writes. I printed business cards that listed my job title as "Human Being" and handed it to someone at a party, adding, "That's what I do." He replied, "Yes, but are you any good at what you do?" My wife chimed in that I only work at it part-time.

Regardless, to actually live the life of the writer requires writing -- the actual thing itself, the literal activity of putting words together on a page. I always wanted to skip the middleman. So I found it extremely intimidating that the publication of my first novel, like a first wife, implied a second. Particularly since all the writing books advise one to "write about what you know," and I had already done that. I didn't know anything else. My next book, by default, will be about all the things I don't know. Here is an excerpt:

Those big cement dividers on the highway? Where do they get those? Are there men somewhere who devote their working lives to pouring concrete into some giant highway-divider mold? Can a civilian buy one of those if he wanted one? Who would I even call to inquire about it? Can someone help me out here? Anyone? How would I make a paper clip if I wanted to? Who figured that out? Are there paper clip factories? What are they made of? Is that aluminum? Metal? What is metal? Where does it come from? The earth? Where? Someone show me metal in the earth.

Watch for the release of my second novel, which should be out in early October, 2024. When that one comes out, I'm expecting big, big things.