Watching The Great American Read on PBS, and seeing so many of my favorite books profiled, I am reminded why I love to read, and why I love to write.
I have cerebral palsy. And I am legally blind. Fun times! Truly, I choose to see these traits as two factors that add to my life, and not two obstacles that detract from it. You may choose to agree with me… or not. I don’t care. It’s my life, and I’ve learned over many years that, as the great Ricky Nelson once crooned, “You can’t please everyone, so you got to please yourself.”
At a young age, this is the mentality I took into writing. I had two people to please: My elementary school teacher, whoever it happened to be that year, and my Papa Dick. (The identity of the latter never changed.) Beyond that, as long as I was happy with it, any story I wrote was good and useful to teach me more about the mechanics and the craft of writing.
Years passed apace. Much quicker than they appeared to go by as they were unfolding. Those years that seemed to go by me as might a lumbering truck on a logging road–I look back on them now and see race cars in the rear-view. Through these years, I began to write seriously, and with the hope–the faraway wish–that other people might read my words.
I never thought I’d finish a novel. Short stories were easy. You conceived the piece, wrote it, and it was there for you to gaze upon and marvel at within a few days or weeks.
Novels, on the other hand, were an undertaking. What did I have to say that merited such room, such expansion of word counts, such varied language as must be used in a novel to avoid too much repetition? A lack of variety?
I always enjoyed novels. But I could never escape into them as so many of my peers claimed to be able to do. There was something in my head that told me: As much as you want to be a baseball player, you can’t be. You’re Derek. Your legs and your eyes don’t work. Sorry. No fun in the athletic realm for you.
As much as you want to be a super hero, you can barely walk. And you’re reading a book where people fly? Sorry, kid. Not happening.
Mysteries are fun to read, sure. But do you really think you could write one? Mysteries require clues and red herrings and compelling evidence and twists thought up well before they find the page. Your eyes will barely let you watch television. And you would presume to be able to write a mystery on par with the greats? With Doyle and Christie? Not gonna happen.
There was one subject I was steeped in and had researched my whole life. Being a guy with palsy and bad eyes, and wondering why. What if I could write a story about that? Then I could turn my deficits, the things society sees as lacking in me, and make them character traits as opposed to character flaws.
But would anyone care to read such a book?
“You can’t please everyone, so you got to please yourself.”
I’m just gonna write the thing, and we’ll see what happens, I told myself.
Ten years later, my manuscript was ready. I was ready. Time to find an agent who’ll love my book the way I love it; completely and without reservation.
Every writer knows rejection. They know it hurts and it sometimes scars, but it is also an important part of the business of books. When any writer is first writing, as a kid, what matters is the story. Make the story good. By the time they’re an adult writing books for public consumption, what matters is, Will the thing sell?
I remain haunted, after many years, by one particular rejection note concerning my book, What Death Taught Terrence. It is the book I was always meant to write. The main character has palsy and bad eyes, as do I, and he wonders after the purpose of his life. He wonders why.
Rather than a generic form rejection, the kind all writers are used to (“We regret to inform you that we will not be looking to represent your novel. Our opinion is, of course, subjective. Keep searching to find your book’s perfect home. Good luck to you!”) what I got in this particular rejection note was an agent (or an agent’s assistant) who actually sat down and wrote to me, “Clearly, you’ve written this book for people with cerebral palsy.”
You will never find a surer way to offend this disabled man. I don’t remember the name of the person who wrote that note, but I definitely remember the sentiment it carried.
Would anyone ever say to Lee Child, for example, “Jack Reacher is white. Clearly you’ve written this book for white people”? Would they say to the great Mr. King, “You’ve written Misery to scare writers exclusively”? No. But somehow it’s okay to marginalize a book written by a disabled man simply because the person marginalizing it failed to understand it? That’s how I took that particular incident, anyway.
I would hope our world is better than that.
The world in which I wish to be a published author whose words affect the people who read them–that world is better. And, if it isn’t yet, it will be.
I don’t want to please everyone with my words. But, while pleasing myself with them, Dear Reader, I sincerely hope they will get to you one day and make you question the world we inhabit. And maybe, just maybe, they will make you feel a little bit better and make this life a little bit easier to live.