November 8, 2010
Two years ago, my husband and I and two friends were staying at a converted castle in Tuscany. This was a very rustic place with few creature comforts – no heat, no air conditioning, uneven ancient floors, generations of spiders, sagging furniture. But it was in a splendid isolated situation, some ten miles down a clay track. It was not a place for the faint-hearted so we were, for most of our stay, the only people there. The castle had a gate and a dry moat and battlements and overlooked a river, meadows, woods, an olive grove, and the owners’ vineyards. It was precisely where I wanted to be to let go the disappointment of the publication of a difficult book that I’d had a hard time getting right. I’d written it while my publisher plunged into disarray – I had five editors in succession, one who so butchered my work that I’d contemplated withdrawing the book. But I persisted and edited the book myself with my husband’s considerable help – he’s as good as the best editors I’d had. I was still hurting from this book, still disappointed about how my hard work had gotten lost in the shuffle of this publishing nightmare. I’d carried on about the unfairness of it all even as I tried to put it in perspective. My husband and I both needed this time away. We’d been living with this book for too long.
The family who owned and ran the place were hardworking. There was this enormous place to keep up. The mother and one brother cooked for guests. The other brother took orders and served. The father fixed things, and there were a lot of things that needed fixing. All worked the vineyard, made the wine, and gathered olives with helpers from nearby.
One evening as we were getting ready to order our supper — there was local pork and we couldn’t wait — there was a terrible rainstorm, which soon turned into thunderous hail. When the storm was over, there were two inches of hail on the ground. There was a poetic grandeur and a beauty in this storm, I thought, as I sat watching out the dining room window. We were in a stout castle. We were safe and warm. We knew we would be soon fed. Our rooms were a few safe paces away. For a few moments, I didn’t realize what this hail would do to the vineyard. And then I did.
It was nearly summer and we had seen the tiny grapes growing on the vines and knew that in autumn, they would be harvested to make the year’s vintage. The evening before, we’d drunk this rustic red wine that paired so well with the simple, soulful food the family served. But this year, there would be no wine. A hailstorm. A fifteen-minute hailstorm. The year’s harvest ruined. There would be no income from this year’s vintage for this family. There would be no vintage this year.
Yet even as the hail fell, the brother took our supper order, and his mother and brother cooked in the kitchen. They glanced out the window, yes. But there was no indication on their faces that their grapes were being destroyed.
After our supper, I got a chance to talk to the man who brought us our dinner. I’d admired the dignified way he continued to do what he had to do at the moment while the hail pelted his vineyard just beyond the window of the dining room. I did not want to intrude on what I assumed to be his great sorrow at the destruction of the grapes. But I wanted to offer my sympathy. I knew I couldn’t possibly understand what the event meant to him, to the family. But I believed it would be wrong not to acknowledge what had transpired.
“I’m sorry about the hail,” was all I could manage.
“It happens,” he said.
“What will you do?” As soon as I asked this question, I knew it was wrong, knew it was intrusive. But he wasn’t offended.
“We’ll get back to work and fix what was damaged. This is our life’s work. Next year there will be another harvest. The vines will survive.”
In a writer’s life, there are many hailstorms. I’ve lived through my share. All writers have.
A book is finished. Its editor leaves. He’s all apologies. But away he goes. The woman who takes his place can’t understand why he bought this book. It’s too much like one she’s edited. So she ignores it. The publicist ignores it. This book represents years of this writer’s life.
A book is published. It’s controversial, the writer knows. It’s a biography, and the nephew of the subject reviews the book and trashes it in a major periodical. The subject’s family puts pressure on newspapers to not publish extracts of the book, or to give it short shrift.
A writer switches genres. Tries a novel. It’s almost taken many times. Once, an editor asks for revisions, which the writer makes, and then the editor passes. Five years pass. It’s time to realize this book won’t find a publisher.
A writer wins a major award. He shows up for a reading. There are no books there. He learns that the press has shredded all the copies of his book by accident.
I’ve known writers (I’ve been one of them) who’ve reacted to a single rejection as if it were a hailstorm that wiped out their life’s work. I’ve known writers who’ve reacted worse to the temporary setbacks that beset any writer’s life with less dignity and grace than that family whose year’s livelihood was wiped out. I’ve known would-be writers who stopped writing because their work was rejected several times.
But that family shows us how to react to the “hailstorms” of a writing life.
Go back to work. Fix what you can. There will be another book. The writer will survive. A writing life can go on despite the hailstorms that beset it. A life’s work is just that: a life of work.