Benjamin Cheever   The Writing Life  
photo of Benjamin Cheever

  Iy name is Ben, and I wrote a book.

I don't think I know you, and certainly I don't know your name. Not even your first name. I've gotten old enough so that I run names together. I also run people together, if they have the same name. For instance, I know a lot of people name Peter, and they're quite different than one another, but when I reach for the name Peter, I'm never sure if he plays golf, or has an Airedale, or lives in Westport, Massachusetts. This is nothing to be proud of; It is also not that uncommon. People call me John Cheever, or even Susan Cheever.

I also run words together, and I confuse similar activities. Sometimes, in a hurry, I'll type 'right' when I mean 'write.' Sometimes I'll say 'write,' when I mean 'read.' For instance I'll say 'Somerset Maughm's The Moon And Sixpence is the greatest single piece of inspirational prose I've ever written.' Whereas of course Maughm wrote The Moon And Sixpence. Not me. And I'm nothing like W Somerset Maughm. Although I have read that book over and over. Reading and writing are similar exercises. They both require time, they both require silence. And here's the tricky part: They both require a surrender of self.

Plus a book needs a reader and writer both. I like the sound of one hand clapping. I like better the sound of two hands clapping, which has the distinct advantage of being a sound. Which means, I suppose, that I need you, Peter. That is your name, isn't it? And how's the terrier?

So what about this book? What about Famous After Death? It has a story. It's the sort of story I wish had happened to somebody else. Maybe somebody named Peter. I like a bad story, but I like a bad story best when it happens to somebody else.

My favorite bad stories are the ones that happen to writers. I collect these. I know, for instance, that Emily Dickinson's couldn't get arrested. There she was pining for readers, and they turned out to be in the next century. Starting out, working in the Reading Room at the British Museum, the great William Butler Yeats used to ink the holes in his socks so that people wouldn't know how poor he was. Plus, he never got the girl. Defoe died a bankrupt, Virginia Woolf filled her pockets with stones and walked into the river.

Religious writers had it tough as well. Even when they weren't saints. Thomas Cranmer wrote The Book of Common Prayer, a work so holy that it is rarely used in church anymore. For this, they burned him at the stake.

Nobody burned me at the stake for this book, but I certainly ate my share of crow.

I'd published two novels, and in January of 1995, I thought I was done with this one. My break-out book, that's what I thought it was. And I'd made a date to address the Scarsdale Woman's Club that coming fall. The title of the speech was going to be 'Why I gave up a perfectly decent job to write.'

'Those of you who are lawyers, or married to lawyers,'I told the Woman's Club, 'know that the best question to ask is one to which you already have the answer. And that was the sort of question posed by the title of my speech. It seemed clear why I'd given up a perfectly good job. I'd given up the job, because I knew that I was going to be this hot, young novelist. But still, for purposes of the speech, I was prepared to report that sometimes I wished I hadn't left my post at The Reader's Digest. That way you could all say, 'Oh no, you can't mean that,' And I could say, 'Oh, but I do mean it,' and you could all say again, 'Oh no, you can't possibly mean it.' And when I was done up here, you'd go away with the impression that I was very gifted and still a genuine person, the salt of the earth.

'Trouble is that since I agreed to make this speech, I've fallen on hard times. This last novel I wrote, my third, the publishers aren't interested in it. And as I say that, I can feel my heart fall. And I can practically feel all your hearts falling as well,' I told them.

My audience was entirely sympathetic, and I felt better, afterwards, but also nothing changed. We kept sending the book out, and every time, we sent it out, I'd rewrite it. I love to rewrite. Why do I love to rewrite? Well writing's my job. That's up to me. Will anyone read a book? I don't know. Will it even get published? I don't know that either. How well it's written, that's up to me.

When a book's out, then I rewrite like a fury, on account of if it gets turned down I can tell myself that the book they turned down is no longer important to me. Now I love the new, improved version. I must have rewritten the novel 15 times and gotten as many rejections. There was a pattern, too, in the rejections. The trouble with this book, they felt, was that it wasn't cheerful enough, not as naive as had been the other two. The third book was not as open and loving, not as eager to please. 'You were so nice,' they said and rejected me.

So I started a fourth book. This one would be cheerful. Even if it killed me. No, it didn't kill me. But neither was the fourth book a cheerful one. Not cheerful at all. So gloomy it made even me depressed, and I gave up on it.

Write what you feel, isn't that the first rule? So what was I going to do then, write a novel about a man who had had his novel turned down? Now there's a page-turner for you. Finally, I gave up, and started to work on a proposal for a nonfiction book. About what? About failure, of course. But that's a different story.

Then about a year later, in bitter e-mail correspondence with a writer named Ed Renehan I mentioned my unpublishable novel. He wrote back to say he had a friend, an editor at Crown named Peter Ginna, who might want my book. I should send it to him.

And I was going to. But then I looked at it. I thought it needed to be rewritten. Whether a book is turned down or not, that's beyond my control. How well it's written, that's up to me. By now I had a contract for a work of nonfiction. Was I going to fulfill that contract, or else spend the rest of my life rewriting Famous After Death. You know me Al.

I said I'd rewrite the first 50 pages. If he liked them, then I'd rewrite the rest. He liked them. I rewrote the rest.

So here it is. A book I thought I'd finished in 1995. Now it's 1999. The novel used to be about 350 pages long. Now it's less than 250 pages long. I worked for four years and lost 100 pages. Now there's a funny story. I would have liked it better, if it had happened to somebody else, somebody named Peter.

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Copyright © 1999 Benjamin Cheever.

Photo credit © Susan Farley