In his essay, Solotaroff encouraged young writers to work on their craft for many years and think about publication—and possible glory—later. Write “in the cold” now, and you will eventually get your day in the sun. Some writers, undoubtedly, go from obscurity to fame, and they manage to maintain a relatively successful writing career the rest of their lives. For years they walked, head down, into the wind, and then they turned a corner and stepped into sun. But for most of us, writing success is more intermittent. One of my friends had some early high-profile journal publications, got the attention of a New York agent, and has been working on her novel for over a decade. Another was notified several times that her short story collection was a contest finalist; only recently did it finally win. My novel was pulled out of the St. Martin’s slush pile by an assistant editor, but it was fifteen years before another editor felt as enthusiastic about my work again.
Brautigan’s success, too, was uneven. In one sense, he did astoundingly well, publishing ten novels, ten volumes of poetry, and numerous stories. For many baby boomers, his work was a touchstone; during my book tour, Brautigan fans have told me about their own pilgrimages to Eugene and San Francisco. But the critics could be critical. Near the end of his life, Brautigan complained to his agent that he was being systematically ignored by the literary establishment. At a party, he pretended to aim a gun at his critics and shoot them. In those moments, it didn’t matter that he was, by most people’s standards, walking in the sun; he felt shadowed.
Solotaroff wrote that “durability” is key to a successful career as a writer: “For the gifted writer, durability seems directly connected to how one deals with uncertainty, rejection, and disappointment.” He thought this was true especially in the early years of a career. But it’s true throughout careers, especially for those of us whose names will never be widely known. And the key to durability, at least my durability, is community. My community of writers here in Seattle is what warms me. We attend each other’s readings and book launch parties, take each other’s workshops at Richard Hugo House, and cheer each other on Facebook. Groups of writers create their own residencies, renting hotel rooms together for long weekends. However cold my writing career may feel at times, I know that someone in this community will, when I most need it, hold open a door and beckon me to the fire.
Brautigan came into a stormy world in 1935 and left his stormy life in 1984. His self-destruction was, perhaps, related to his standing as a writer, although it seems mostly the result of his extreme abuse of alcohol. He had his writing—stories, poems, novels, and lists in pocket notebooks. He had a beautiful sunny day in Bolinas, California, on September 14, 1984. But it wasn’t enough. Still, he predicted that one day his work would be rediscovered, and it has been.