Emily Brontë – Wuthering Heights; Anna Sewell – Black Beauty; Margaret Mitchell – Gone with the Wind; Boris Pasternak – Doctor Zhivago; JD Salinger – The Catcher in the Rye; Ralph Ellison – Invisible Man; Sylvia Plath – The Bell Jar…
What do these authors have in common? They published only one novel. One book whose style and substance has resonated for readers ever since.
Was one book enough for these authors? In some cases, it seems that is the case – to write only one novel was a choice. In other cases, it may be that life intervened; might Margaret Mitchell have published a second novel, after the Pulitzer success of Gone with the Wind, had she not been hit by a car and killed? If we can take anything from the publication of Go Set a Watchman by Harper Lee it is that authors can surprise you with a new work, and it is never too late to publish again.
Of course, plenty of authors write more than a single book (some, indeed, become known for being prolific). They write for either or both of the following reasons:
1) A desire to be read (the more books you write, the more you are read)
2) A need to write
The first reason may ebb and flow through a writer’s lifetime, or indeed dissipate entirely if the experience of publishing novels does not marry with expectations. But the latter reason is something entirely different …
It was an article about the author AS Byatt, entitled ‘I Have Not Yet Written Enough’, that made me ponder the question of when enough is enough. The interview asks:
‘Do you feel you’ve written enough?’
To which Byatt, who has been suffering ill health, replies: ‘No… I’ve got this great big book… I shall go on writing it as though I shall live long enough to write it well enough for me to finish it. And if I don’t, I won’t know. There is that.’
She talks also about times in her life when she did not write – for several years after losing her son, for example. But her answer to ‘Have you written enough?’ is a resounding ‘No’.
My feeling is that once you have opened the door to writing, to publishing novels, then that is not a door that is easily closed again. For periods of time, when life intervenes or you need time to reflect and rest and read, the door is ajar. But for most authors, closing the door entirely, and then locking it and throwing away the key – that is like sucking all the oxygen from the room and expecting still to breathe.
I am reminded here of Anaïs Nin’s words: ‘If you do not breathe through writing, if you do not cry out in writing, or sing in writing, then don’t write, because our culture has no use for it.’ We writers do breathe out in writing. When writing is part of who you are, there is no ‘enough’, there is only the desire to keep breathing, keep writing.
Isaac Asimov was one of the most world’s most prolific writers; he wrote or edited more than 500 books. When asked in an interview, ‘What would you do if the doctor gave you only six months to live?’ he replied, ‘Type faster.’
My own answer to that question would be different, I know – time with family matters more to me than words. But still, I would try to finish my work in progress, to infuse it with the very last of my mortal spirit so that it stands, along with my other books, as a legacy to my family.
As AS Byatt puts it so beautifully in her novel Possession:
‘I am a creature of my pen. My pen is the best of me.’