I’ve read a great many postings here and elsewhere in the blogosphere lately offering guidance and inspiration on overcoming the inevitable setbacks, disappointments, frustrations and rejections inherent to the writing life.
You want inspiration? Strap yourself in. I doubt you’ve heard a story like this one.
Back in April, 2012, I received a request from Tom Jenks, editor extraordinaire and co-founder with his wife, novelist Carol Edgarian, of NARRATIVE, an online magazine devoted to publishing fine writing, with a special devotion to emerging writers.
Tom asked if I’d consider offering a cover quote for a novel titled Offerings by first-time novelist Richard Smolev. In his note, Tom mentioned that the novel was “based in the world of finance and law, with an element of art theft involved,” adding: “Richard has a background in major bankruptcy law, and there’s an authenticity in his writing about the world of business and personal ambitions.” He noted that Scott Turow and Min Jin Lee were already onboard, then added the clincher:
Richard was not long ago diagnosed with ALS, and it is a great thing that his novel is going to come out this fall. We’d all like to see it have a good run.
ALS: Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis. Most of us know it as Lou Gehrig’s Disease: rapidly progressive, insidiously debilitating, invariably fatal.
Neurological in nature, the disease creates muscle weakness and atrophy until its victims lose first the use of their limbs, then their ability to speak or even swallow. They often become confined to a portable ventilator as eventually the diaphragm and other muscles necessary for breathing atrophy as well, creating a sensation like drowning, until the sufferer becomes an imprisoned consciousness in the withering thing his body has become.
It turns out Richard had been an extremely successful attorney before being diagnosed, and now that his disease prevented him from practicing law he turned to his long-eclipsed ambition to write—before he lost the ability forever.
I of course agree to read the book, fully aware I couldn’t praise it out of pity, no matter how tempted I might be. Luckily, that wasn’t necessary. Here’s what I wrote:
In Offerings, Richard Smolev uses his insider knowledge to put a human face on the recent financial collapse, revealing the players not as bloodless sharks or greedy carnival barkers but all-too-fallible men and women with much to lose—their homes, their dreams, their families, each other. The pages turn gracefully, hauntingly as the characters draw you in, forcing you to pay close attention as, bit by inexorable bit, things fall apart. But there’s steel in his heroine’s spine as well as heat in her veins. Kate Brewster knows the cost of ruin and isn’t yet ready to pay. A deft first novel from an author who’s been there and taken close note of the causalties.
I meant every word, and I was proud to give the book whatever help I could. Not long after I sent the quote along I received a heartfelt note from Richard, and an invitation to chat on the phone.
What resulted is a friendship unlike any other I’ve known in my life. And believe me, in weighing who’s getting the better end of the bargain, I assure you I’m making out in spades.
I don’t know how I’d respond in Richard’s shoes. I try to imagine the helplessness, the anger, the frustration, the dread of being buried alive in my own body. But I’ve never heard any of this from Richard. On the contrary. If he was any more chipper I’d want to hit him with a shovel.
Despite his ordeal he’s one of the funniest, smartest, kindest men I’ve ever known, and his emails and especially his phone calls, despite their brevity and the hoarseness of his voice, invariably buoy my spirits. But it’s in his absolute refusal to devolve into self-pity, his lust for the opportunity to put words on the page, his gratitude for being able to reach out to his readership that humbles me.
I envy and admire the love of writing and the joy he takes in the craft of it. His ability to type is restricted to two fingers. He tires easily. But he possesses a vigilant spirit and an indomitable will. More to the point, he’s brilliantly, boyishly happy at the chance to write.
Whenever I feel at risk of being swallowed up by my own dark moods—my seemingly bottomless capacity for self-doubt, my tendency to self-flagellate with criticism, my trance-like attention to the carping voice of self-contempt echoing in my skull—I turn to my file of emails from Richard, and remind myself how lucky I am, remind myself that writing is an act of love and freedom, remind myself to treat my readers as companions, not critics.
Incidentally, Richard is no one-hit wonder. I just received a copy of his second book, In Praise of Angels, a historical novel set in the tumultuous era of Reconstruction. He trains his eye on the wholesale corruption that surrounded the building of the transcontinental railroad, and plumbs the conscience of his reporter hero as he realizes the two great institutions he once admired, the government and the press, are rotten to their core, riven with petty hatreds, gluttonous for power, drunk on money.
I wasn’t sure what to expect, knowing how debilitated Richard was during the completion of the book. I feared that this effort wouldn’t be equal to his first, for reasons entirely beyond his control.
I was spectacularly wrong. God, what a fun book it is, so earthy, so passionate, so rich with evocative detail. Better yet, the voice is pitch-perfect — no mean trick for a historical novel.
Once again, Richard’s reached out and in his inimitable way slapped me upside the head, kicked my creative butt and made me realize I am part of a noble, marvelous lark. If I can’t take joy in the doing of it, if despite the inevitable darkness that all creativity entails I can’t eventually see the gift in my hands for what it is, I’ve lost my way.