I’ve fallen into a black hole not once, but many times. Those who care for me are happy I always return. I emerge dazed and transformed, my whole self exploded and reconstructed and somehow shifted. I like to think I return indefinably better.
It happened again the other day. I was playing library roulette — arguably the best game ever. There are two ways to play: the original, comfortably wandering through the library shelves peering at spines in a completely unplanned and random way. If you play, make sure to look low at the bottom shelves and scurry up the ladders to the top when no one is looking until some odd and wonderful and unexpected little book almost literally jumps out at you. Or there’s the more modern version: finding a hint in something you’re reading and tracking it down via cyberspace. If you’ve played, and I’m betting almost all of you have, you know that both versions can swirl you instantly into the most delicious black hole. This time I was playing the cyber version of the game. My reward was a tiny, and virtually forgotten little volume called The Spring of Joy by an author I’d never heard of named Mary Webb.
The book has been out of print for a long time. But The Spring of Joy, all hundred odd pages of it, was a cherished bestseller in its day, and upon her death in 1927 Mary Webb was lauded by no less than the Prime Minister of Britain as a “neglected genius“. An exquisitely evocative meditation on the beauty and rhythms of nature and the healing powers of observation, The Spring of Joy is truly one of the loveliest books I’ve ever read.
But wait. A book such as this out of print? A once lionized author marginalized and virtually forgotten? Both facts should be deeply sobering, terribly sad. Except that I think that’s not quite so. Nor is it the whole story.
There are as many reasons for creating art as there are artists: A deep-seated need for observation and expression. A hope to touch other lives. Self-validation by way of fame. A quest for immortality. A wish to become rich (this is not to be sneered at. Writers do need to eat). Sometimes a mix of all of these things and more. The most public forms of expression are done for the most personal of reasons.
But while writers can control what they write, the cannot, no matter how hard they try, control the response to their work. Anything can happen. Anything usually does.
*You might be the most widely read, most celebrated author of your time—then forgotten, even vilified, thereafter.
*You might labor in near total obscurity in your lifetime and be posthumously crowned as the “voice of a generation” sometime in the future.
*You might be discovered, quite unexpectedly, on a library shelf or in a wildly spiraling Internet search.
*You might labor for decades to reach a tiny but dedicated readership.
*You might have no readers at all, save for yourself.
It doesn’t matter.
Writing, and the thought and feeling that motivate writing, are always worthwhile. You might reach millions or you might change the world for a single person, even if that person is you.
Whatever it is, write. Be brave. Be honest. Be true to yourself. And always play library roulette. I guarantee you will uncover shining jewels and buried treasures. Mary Webb’s The Spring of Joy such a book for me. You knew that. If you’re quite lucky, the treasure someone will uncover someday will be one of your own creations. You might change the world or the world for just one person. Keep going. You’ll make a difference for sure.
PS, if you’re interested in reading The Spring of Joy it’s available on line as many out-of-print titles are via the Digital Library at The University of Pennsylvania. Click below or simply Google it. http://digital.library.upenn.edu/women/webb/spring/spring.html