The Sound of One Hand Clapping

I am not a Buddhist (although I have researched Buddhism in the service of one of my novels), but I’ve spent time pondering in relation to my writing a variant of the famous Buddhist kōan*: You can hear the sound of two hands when they clap together. What is the sound of one hand? My version is: You can hear the sound of writing that has been published. What is the sound of writing in the drawer?

Like many of my writing colleagues, I have a written a plethora of short stories, essays, and poems, some that don’t quite work and others that I like, as well as an unfinished novel that was the beginning of my adult fiction writing efforts. All have served to improve my craft. But I have also completed two very different novels that feel ready for prime time after extensive critique from others and countless revisions. And although I am hard on myself and have the usual bouts of doubt, I have reason to believe I have some talent. Moreover, I generally aim to complete what I start. Those who know me well would consider me a “plugger.” So, with that well-stocked literary file cabinet, I have to ask myself not only what is holding me back, but how much does getting published matter to me?

At one time, I had dreams of being a best-selling author, and I even passed that dream onto my protagonists in one of my novels. (Catharsis perhaps?) But getting published, much less receiving any kind of fame and fortune, proved to be more difficult, in part because, I confess, I just didn’t try very hard, at least not according to the experts. Sure, I sent out short stories here and there (mostly because I understood that it was important for the aspiring novelist to have a publishing record). I had one success, but my heart wasn’t in it. How many people even read those literary magazines, I wondered? And the short form isn’t my first love.

I put more effort into getting my first completed novel out there. I wrote and rewrote my query letter, researched appropriate agents, sought out comp titles, took workshops and attended panels on publishing, and schmoozed with agents and editors at conferences as well as any introvert can schmooze. I sent out a couple of dozen submissions and received the usual “not right for our list” form rejections, the non-responses, and the occasional request for pages followed by more rejections and the deafening sound of silence.

Two dozen is nothing, the experts cry! You shouldn’t give up before 100, 200 rejections! (And then they name some well-known author whose persistence finally paid off.) I wasn’t doing it right. I felt bad, but after the residue of guilt and resulting paralysis wore off, I dusted myself off and delved back into the heart and soul of it all, the writing, and completed more revisions of my second novel. I’ve never found writing to be particularly painful, as some do, though I’ve hit my share of roadblocks. I like it when the book feels done, too, and I can start something new.

But is the writing enough? Is an unpublished novel essentially an unfinished project? Do I owe it to myself and my writing community, who gave me support and feedback along the way, the reward of seeing my work in print and sharing in that success?

I worry that my lackluster pursuit of the holy grail of getting published is a result of personal flaws, such as an oversize fear of rejection. (See my Dead Darlings post from July 22, 2014, “The Cure for Failure Deprivation Syndrome.”) What if I sent out 100 or even 200 query letters without getting representation? What a colossal time suck, especially as I find it hard to concentrate on writing when in query mode, not to mention the emotional toil of so many brush-offs. It doesn’t mean anything in the rapidly changing publishing industry, I hear a small voice say. Don’t take it personally!

Alternatively, what if I secretly harbor a fear of success? What if I get published, and it’s a Peggy Lee, “Is That All There Is?” moment? Will I be any happier than I am now, even as I might feel more validated as a writer? Is that validation and the momentary high after the book launch worth all the anguish, the additional years focused on the same damn project? If I were younger, the answer to that question might be different. Twenty-five years ago I toiled through a doctorate, and it was worth every minute in terms of its contribution to my career path and the options it gave me. Now, I don’t want another career, but I do continue to need the life affirming joy of creating. And, yes, I know there are alternatives to the traditional publishing route, and I am exploring those.

But my kōan still haunts me. Here are some of my additional ruminations on the matter.

  • Once words are on the paper (or digitally recorded), is the work published because it is potentially readable?
  • If we agree that we can never attain perfection as writers, doesn’t any writing we do matter?
  • If publishing is the end goal of writing, doesn’t it make a difference who the judges are? What if an infinite set of judges saw the writing in the drawer? Would that make a difference?
  • What if a book is published, and no one reads it? Does it still make a sound?

I can see I am a long way from enlightenment, but the journey intrigues me, even without an identified end destination. Thanks for listening to the sounds of my writing, and a two-hand clap to Dead Darlings for giving me a vehicle to speak.

*In Buddhism, a kōan, according to Wikipedia, is “a story, dialogue, question, or statement that is used in Zen practice to provoke the ‘great doubt’ and test a student’s progress” towards enlightenment. There is no one right answer or solution.





  1. Fran Smith

    Thank you. I enjoyed this. One of the big questions in art – and in life in general, I guess – is how much worth an intention or a half-made thing, or something completed, but kept private, has. What we value is often the interaction of an artwork with other people. Their response is our reward. But I, and lots of writers and artists I know, would make our art even if nobody could ever read (or hear or see) it. We are making it because it gives us pleasure, even if the pleasure is complicated and is often that of overcoming many different obstacles. I know an anthropologist who studies prehistoric handprints on cave walls. It turns out they were quite hard work to make, requiring certain materials to be found and prepared and quite a lot of care in the way the pigments were blown in fine droplets through some sort of straw around the lifted hand. It’s one hand painting instead of one hand clapping, but it’s pure art – hidden, unpaid, often unnoticed for millions of years, but none the less beautiful for that.

  2. I like to think of getting my novel out there in a slightly different way – I feel a responsibility to give the interesting, flawed, vulnerable characters I created, who by this time seem as real to me as my best friends, a chance to get out in the world and meet other people (readers) who might benefit from knowing them, either because they’ll get a laugh, a sense of hope, or a surge of energy. So Belle, keep submitting so that I and other readers can discover the creations you made. You owe it to us and your characters to bring us together.

  3. Rob Wilstein

    Thanks Belle, for expressing what I often think about as well. Can’t help but think that when the right piece and the right time come together we will all be published. Keep at it.

  4. Hi Belle–thank you for such heartfelt sharing of what so many of us think about. I think there are answers to the questions you raise, but they’re individual and personal rather than general. They have to do with why we write, and what responses we need from others to make it meaningful. At the moment, I’m working on a probably-too-ambitious nonfiction project. It has been very helpful to spin off what I’m developing into teaching gigs, smaller pieces for publication, and blog posts. They have provided me with enough sense of contact with real and potential audiences to keep me going. Of course, that’s a lot harder to do with fiction writing.

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