Starting with my post a few days ago entitled Consider Yourself Kicked, I’ve been focusing on the idea that it can take a lot of time and effort – yes, often painful effort – to see a thing like the launching of one’s career accomplished.
The nice thing is that there’s an inherent motivational enjoyment in the creative drive, and not simply for those of us who are in the artistic camp. Daniel H. Pink, in his book Drive, writes, “For artists, scientists, inventors, schoolchildren, and the rest of us, intrinsic motivation – the drive to do something because it is interesting, challenging, and absorbing – is essential for high levels of creativity.”
That’s what I’ve found, anyway. Certainly in the art arena there’s also a motivation whenever a bill arrives in the mailbox, and I’ve got to be honest here – it’s top of mind because I mentioned it to a Colorado College alum who called me yesterday – I simply don’t have the same level of intrinsic motivation that I hear about over and over again by other artists. You know, the commonly heard statement that if one couldn’t create art they’d simply die – that it’s a need up there on the order of breathing or sleeping or what not?
I don’t mean to disparage that sort of thing. And truly, there have been extended periods of time when I have been creating things with no guarantee that they would ever see the light of day. I recall when I was working on my first substantial piece of art in 2012, in my two-car garage-cum-studio – and let me tell you, it took up a decent amount of the space not already chock full of woodworking machines, the workbench, and the like. Over and over when someone came by and saw the outsized piece in progress, one of the first things they would ask was where it was intended to go. Surely, they all seemed to think, I must already have some venue lined up for the work – no one would be working on something like that without an end in mind.
Tongue in cheek, I’d reply, “The Met. If they don’t want it, then MoMA. If MoMA doesn’t want it, then the Guggenheim. If the Guggenheim doesn’t want it…” and I’d end my reply with “…the landfill”, where the reclaimed wood I was using had been headed before I scooped it up anyway.
But, and again, this comes more as a sheepish admission I shouldn’t be broadcasting than anything: if my artwork didn’t eventually produce an income, more than likely I’d be doing something else – I wouldn’t be a visual artist. Now, it would be along the same lines, for sure. I may not be creating sculptures of hands, but I’d be working with my hands in some related capacity.
Because it’s as if there’s a little pilot light within me that, like a water heater or a furnace that’s turned on in anticipation of meeting a need for hot water or heat in the not-too-distant future, typically only turns on when my inherent enjoyment of creating combines with a worthwhile project, which itself typically involves either the promise or the guarantee of income generation.
And I wonder, if I had absolutely no need of an income, if I’d have the same level of intrinsic motivation that so many others in my vocation seem to have. I really do.
(I can hear some of you out there saying, “What the? He gets up at 2:30 am and takes pains to transcribe a YouTube video of James Herriot talking about the long, hard slog it took to get his work published, for a blog that has a diminutive readership and isn’t generating a bit of income, and wonders about intrinsic motivation??”)
Fair enough. I’ll admit, and my wife will second it, that, as Winston Churchill wrote about Russia in a BBC radio broadcast in 1939, I too can be a riddle, wrapped in a mystery, inside an enigma.
Speaking about the BBC, let me at last get back to the conclusion of our regularly scheduled interview of the late, bestselling author James Herriot, whose real name was James Alfred Wight. In the last episode, he talks about the long, purgatorial period of time when he received one rejection after another from the BBC and, he claims, every other publisher in Britain. None gave him even the slightest encouragement to keep going or that the work had any promise.
Like a prize fighter who had given it his all for fifteen rounds and was on the ropes, absolutely bested by an indefatigable opponent, he at last concluded, “I can’t write.” And he shoved his manuscript in a drawer, where it would have surely remained unless his wife hadn’t encouraged him to take it out yet again and send it off to another publisher. That’s where we rejoin the story.
W: …and she kept at me and she kept at me, because you see, years before, I’d thought I would send [the book] to [the publishing house] Michael Joseph, you see, but I didn’t. I thought Michael Joseph because they published Richard Gordon’s books, Doctor in the House, which I greatly enjoyed and they were anyway analogous to mine – these were humorous stories of medical life.
So anyway, she said, “Why don’t you send it off to Michael Joseph?” I said, “No, I won’t. I’ll send it to a book agent. So I sent it off to a book agent, and within a week, I had a very nice letter from this chap saying, “Oh, I like this book enormously and will have no trouble at all getting it published.” He said, “We don’t say that to very many authors.” So this was the same book, you see, that had been cast out by the others.
Anyway, he said, “Will you come and see me?” So, needless to say, I jumped on the first train to London, and he said, “We’ve sent it off to a publisher whom I feel quite sure will accept it.” And I said, “Who is that?” And he said, “Michael Joseph,” you see.
So, I’d wasted a couple years of my life in a way, my literary life, and within a, about I think a fortnight, Anthea Joseph, who’s the vice chairman of the company, wrote to me – she is my editor of my books there – and she asked me out to London, and gave me a very nice lunch, and that was me launched. That was the book If Only They Could Talk. And it’s exactly word for word that the other two companies had and perused and didn’t want.
I: Were you exhausted by this, having taken so long – well, clearly you were inspired to get to writing another…
W: Oh no, I wasn’t exhausted, I was more stimulated by that than I had been by anything else. The most wonderful things have happened to me. I’ve been so terribly lucky. I’ve had, really, too much, you know. More than I deserve, I think, in the literary world, but nothing will ever equal the thrill I had of getting Anthea Joseph’s first letter saying, “I’ve accepted your book. I enclose a check for 200 pounds,” which was the advance on the book, and I wish I’d have framed that check yet I – that was my biggest thrill. None of the other things have ever quite equaled that.
(Ed. note: buried in my recent post Smooth Sailing is a similar recollection from my own career)
I: And were the books immensely successful right from the beginning?
W: If Only They Could Talk limped along… let’s see, it was published in the spring. By Christmas it sold about two and a half thousand copies. Well I mean that’s not setting the heather on fire. In fact, there was a meeting as to whether I should get a reprint or not and they decided I would get a reprint. But my biggest break, I think, was that an American came along – Tom McCormack of St. Martin’s Press, who’s the president of a publishing company over there, and he picked up this book If Only They Could Talk and said he liked it, but it was a bit too short for the American market, he said. Well, my agent, I have an agent, who said, “Well, he’s writing another one.” So he waited for that, only, put the two together and he printed these two together you see, and he called it All Creatures Great and Small. This is my daughter’s title, actually, she thought that one out, and it was the most fantastic, immediate, runaway bestseller in America. Why, I’ll never know, but it was.”
Anyone who has read James Herriot’s books knows why – as I stated at the outset of this series, to my taste, no one’s better. And yet they needed a number of midwives along the way – midwives and gatekeepers – without whom the idea of being a writer would have died on the vine at one stage of the painful process or another. Chiefly, it needed his wife’s encouragement and Herriot’s willingness to listen to her.
As I could have the previous few posts, and should for, well, just about everything in my life, I might have titled this one Just Listen To Your Wife.
Oh, for me, there are so many lessons wrapped up in the interview, and I feel I’m not finished with it yet. Along with a few similar stories I’ve come across, it’s been such an encouragement to me, especially coming as it is from an unassuming country vet who wasn’t out to sell any books on how to become successful. Not that there isn’t a place for that genre.
But it’s 4:39 am and time to wrap things up for now. Perhaps get a bit of shut eye like the rest of the household is, including my faithful early morning writing (and running) companion, Ruby, lying at the dining room floor at my feet.