Recently I’ve been asking a literary version of the perennial question about a tree falling in the woods with no one around to hear: If a creative work is complete but unread, does it wield any influence in the world?
I’m curious because writers spend a lot of angst and energy wondering whether their writing has value. I feel confident saying that the writing process is valuable; if engaged with an open heart, writing transforms the writer. And we all know that stories with the capacity to move readers are valuable. If a single reader feels less lonely, learns something new, walks around in another’s shoes, or in any way is broadened, the story has done good work. So there’s experiential value for the writer and there’s measurable value in the work’s impact on a reader.
But does the work itself, complete but unread, have value?
Maybe it’s a silly question. It’s just that in my daily work with new writers, I often see beautiful, meaningful projects reach completion but then not get published. Annie Dillard once said that an unpublished, unread manuscript gathering dust under an attic bed still exerts its influence on the world. Is this true? Can we pin our faith and our work’s worth on this hidden, immeasurable impact?
The essayist Laura Kelly Fanucci recently shared this story with me:
I wrote an essay years ago on depression during pregnancy that was accepted by a literary journal which folded before it was published. So the piece was fully edited and ready to go but never saw the light of day. I thought about submitting it elsewhere, but ironically life intervened in the childbearing department with suffering much greater than depression (infant loss). So later I decided to just let that piece be. It continues to bear fruit in my life by keeping me compassionate toward issues of mental health and motherhood (and pulls me back to a time beyond this more recent and intense suffering). It was also a good learning experience of being edited as a newer writer, the humility of letting go of your darlings, working with good editors to bring more from a piece than you as the author can envision, etc.
I like how Laura describes the unpublished essay’s energy—it “pulls” her, as though it has a gravitational force; it “bears fruit” by being a touchstone for compassion. Mary Rockcastle, a novelist and mentor of mine, once told me she had to write an unpublishable book before she could write a publishable one. The rejected manuscript gathering dust under her bed provided the experiential foundation for work that then made it into the hands of readers. Stephen King said of one project he resurrected after thirty years, “It was like my mind was working on it underneath.” I suspect that the project had been working on him as well.
What if creative endeavors have a life force and a timing all their own, which we can barely imagine? It’s an unanswerable question, but I’m curious to hear your thoughts and stories in response. Sometimes the unanswerable questions are the best. –Elizabeth Jarrett Andrew
At long last, Living Revision is out in all places and formats. You can order it at your local independent book store or anywhere online. It’s also available for the Kindle.
I’m excited to once again offer a retreat based on Living Revision at the Madeline Island School of the Arts, September 24-28. Hope you can join me!
Spiritual Memoir drop-in sessions continue at Wisdom Ways!
4/13: Characters: Real People in Two Dimensions (This session is facilitated by Carolyn Holbrook)
6/8: Adding by Subtraction