Of Making Many Books, There is No End — or Reward?

“Of making many books there is no end, and much study is a weariness of the flesh.”

Ecclesiastes 12

From the Beginning

It was that way right from the beginning, I’m sure. Carvers in stone, makers of runes,  scribes in papyrus and parchment, right up to workaday paper — Hebrew, Greek, Latin, English — Making books is weary WORK, not glamour. Don’t take my word for it; here is Gabriel Garcia Marquezauthor of, among many other long works, One Hundred Years of Solitude and Love in the Time of Cholera:

 “Ultimately literature is nothing but carpentry. Both are very hard work. Writing something is almost as hard as making a table. With both you are working with reality, a material just as hard as wood. Both are full of tricks and techniques. Basically very little magic and a lot of hard work involved.”

Carpentry! But people persist in regarding writing books as a high road to fame and fortune. Hah!  The Biblical quote called it more accurately: there is no end to the making of, not only fiction, but books about (as here, the beginning of my shelves on music and cooking) everything under the sun. There are books by unknown people — that’s most of them. But some of these are books by friends (on the lower left). On the right, some of the favorites that make every cut, however we try and clear out our stock. We cannot bear not to keep these few.

One Corner of a Bookshelf

(A Side Note: Why so many books on booklovers’ shelves?  I have a theory. I am convinced that, in the middle of the night, books hop down off their shelves and mate, which is why people always find their shelves overflowing all the while swearing, truly, I did NOT buy all of these! )

I am also convinced that everyone is convinced that they “have a book in them.” If not several books — Writing does seem beguilingly easy, doesn’t it? Just put one word after another. We’ve all been doing that since infancy! There is a catch though, which occurs very soon after sitting down at a desk. Here is Stephen Leacock, the Canadian humorist, in this case, the Canadian truth-teller:

“Writing is no trouble, you just jot down ideas as they occur to you. The jotting is simplicity enough – it is the occurring which is difficult.”

The lure probably begins with its simplicity. No special equipment required. A pencil or a pen and a blank piece of paper. Which, maddeningly, remains blank. Or is rapidly scribbled over with words that, read the next morning, are at best nothing much, at worst, drivel. Because what no one considers in this alluring prospect is the rewriting. But it’s the essence of writing: rewriting. Ernest Hemingway, who never wasted words, said it best:

“The first draft of anything is always shit.”

Not that I expect anything I’m writing here to innoculate anyone against the writing bug. If you like hitting your head against a stone wall, if you like to dream The Impossible Dream, you’ll go to it anyway. I did. And what’s more, I’ve been published. By big name hard copy publishers. Fame? Have you ever heard of my books? Fortune? The 1% never included me in it!

My Own Books

My two books are on these particular shelves, Going to Jerusalem (in a luxurious leather binding that was a gift from publisher Simon & Schuster, although I’ll bet they don’t do that these austere days) and Convergence (Doubleday). There’s a book about Brother Roger of Taizé, which I translated from the French, and copies of a “little” magazine, The Berkshire Review, which published some of my stories. My friend Madeleine L’Engle, whose Penguins & Golden Calves is only one among her countless works of science fiction and memoir, is here to remind me of scale. Natalie Goldberg and Brenda Ueland wrote two of the best, and my favorite, books on writing. The other books hanging out on the same shelf deal with creativity of various kinds, and with motivation and balance and psychology, and are by authors as distinguished as Rollo May and Viktor Frankl. At the right of the photo, somehow fittingly, is If You Meet the Buddha on the Road, Kill Him, by Sheldon Kopp.

And was it, in the end, worth all the time (years, sometimes) and trouble? Hard to say. Simply put, it’s what I did, and do. Words are my instruments, my playthings, the iridescent shimmering bubbles that I blow. And I’m stuck with that! There really is a reward, though, even if the fame and fortune and glowing critical reviews never materialize. It’s an unexpected reward, stated clearly by the poet C. Day Lewis:

We do not write in order to be understood; we write in order to understand.  

So there you are —

Do you want to understand better? Yourself? Others? The world? Life? Truth? Write as long and hard and truthfully as you can, and that’s what you can look forward to. Believe me when I say I only set out this morning to write a funny little post about there maybe being too many books in the world. I didn’t expect to discover anything, but I was ambushed and surprised. And that, my friends, is a reward of writing.

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123 Responses to Of Making Many Books, There is No End — or Reward?

  1. If you gain understanding through writing, you’ve got yourself one priceless reward. As a reader I feel I get a valuable gift each time I read one of your pieces.

    Like

  2. What a post. I am going to reread in the morning when not so tired. Madeleine L’ Engle, wow you have wisked me back to my childhood.

    Like

  3. Stephanie says:

    If you have time for a little distraction, I nominated you for a Sweet Blogger Award: http://stephaniemartinglennon.com/2013/05/17/supremely-sweet/

    Like

    • Touch2Touch says:

      I certainly appreciate the sweet thought, Stephanie, as sweet as the photos on your delicious blog!
      I find, though, it works better for me to simply say a heartfelt thank you for the thought, and quote the badge on my blog: Award Free Blog, but I LOVE your comments.
      And so I do — it’s the comments that make blogging fulfilling for me, so thanks very much for yours.

      Like

  4. Pauline says:

    “We write in order to understand.” Yup, and to remember, and to embellish, and, as you say, to have fun. My bookshelves overfloweth – a wonderful thing indeed. And thoughts never stop forming themselves into essays (which sometimes get written down). My columnist days may be over but the training to notice and to depict runs deep.

    This is one of my favorite places to read. I remember that it was words that introduced us!

    Like

  5. Writing. There is so much written about it – how to, where to, why one does. But I don’t know if anything can ever truly explain that burst of inspiration, that magic that happens when we finally know what goes on the blank piece of paper and then fill dozens of them! When I write, I feel most comfortable in my own skin, most connected to the Universe…and most insane…at the same time. THAT’S the reward – well, that, and seeing your work IN print…IN a book…ON a shelf…

    Like

  6. mybrightlife says:

    Another inspiring piece of writing and thought provoking quotes. Thank you Judith. – On the subject of books, I am taken with reading on my tablet and excited by the prospect of loosing the many dusty shelves of books that clutter our home – having said that I had Oom Jupie (our village carpenter) here friday to measure up a new bookshelf!

    Like

    • Touch2Touch says:

      What a great comment! Shows off “book lovers’ schizophrenia” 😉
      Yes, you love reading on your tablet and the simplicity and the uncluttering — which lasts until you can get to a bookstore or library and clutter again!
      (That’s how it works around here anyway, the Hub loves his Kindle, but that doesn’t stop the mating and multiplication of the books.)

      Like

  7. There’s a magic to the weight of words, and anyone who can create books to my mind is a magician. I have two friends who write, produce books, it’s a slog all right! Only knowing you as the Tzarina, i’m off to check Amazon for the author ….

    Like

  8. kelseycapoferri says:

    Reblogged this on kelseycapoferri and commented:
    FACT.

    Like

  9. kelseycapoferri says:

    I know exactly how this is… because I’m in the middle of editing my book right now. The writing part is easy, the editing and refining part is the worst.

    Like

    • Touch2Touch says:

      In a way, Kelsey, in a way.
      But it does give you a real shot at refining, rephrasing, refurbishing —
      And even deleting. One of the funniest — and most valuable — things anyone ever said to me was this advice:
      When you’re editing and have gotten rid of everything that’s extraneous or doesn’t work, you’ll come across some gems that ABSOLUTELY are perfect and must be kept. Get rid of all of them.
      😉

      Like

      • kelseycapoferri says:

        Yeah, good point. I definitely believe it’s for the better… a friend once likened it to be willing to taking an axe and just plowing through it. Weird metaphor, but it’s true. You have to be just as unbiased about your own piece as fellow students in writing workshops, I’d say =D

        Like

  10. frizztext says:

    we both like to read books – and bloggers too: for example Patti Kuche or cocomino 🙂

    Like

  11. There’s nothing easy in painting either. I read your post and could substitute painting for writing in much of it. Maybe, most creative endeavors could be substituted. I’m not a writer… you probably can tell. Enjoyed your post, though.

    Like

    • Touch2Touch says:

      You could definitely switch back and forth. Creativity is creativity.
      (But I found painting when I tried it — oh, the lovely colors, the immediacy, the tangibility — very appealing. It’s just that I wasn’t very good at it, words being my medium, willy-nilly.)

      Like

      • Like anything else, painting is work. You weren’t good at it… believe me, I wasn’t either when I first started 30 years ago. But, I believe that the substance of paint is my “words”. I forgot to say one other thing… painting is difficult because, unlike writing where you can go back to previous drafts, going back to a previous layer in a painting is next to impossible and the sad thing is that it may be better than the final outcome.

        Like

        • Touch2Touch says:

          The substance of the paint = the words: I think so too.
          I wasn’t actually too bad, my real problem was that I was only imitative. I didn’t have my own vision. I gave it several years, but realized I wouldn’t ever have the kind of physical and inner vision an artist has, that my talent was with the words in my inner ear.
          It’s all interesting, isn’t it?

          Like

  12. itsthelitchick says:

    Very true, one of my teachers said to me, “writing is a mode of discovery” and I cannot tell you how many times I use that phrase. It is what keeps you on your toes.

    Like

  13. jennteee says:

    Reblogged this on See Jenn Live and commented:
    Writing is work and not for the faint of heart. There will be great effort for little reward, yet so many of us choose to do it.

    Like

  14. piecubed says:

    Writing has taught me to accept myself and my limits.
    “The first draft is shit” and so is the second, so is the third, etc. I don’t think anyone can ever be satisfied of their own writing. If you’re satisfied, you probably don’t have high enough standards. But you have to let go at some point, nothing will ever be perfect. And it’s ok to not be perfect.

    Like

  15. 1WriteWay says:

    Yes, the real reward in writing seems to be the greater understanding of human nature I feel I’ve gained, especially when I’m having to write from the point of view of someone who may not be a very nice person. I think the analogy of writing as carpentry is spot-on. It would definitely explained the blisters on my fingers 😉

    Like

  16. maechlingsl says:

    Glad to know I’m not alone in the I-have-a-book-inside-me feeling coupled with the staring-at-a-blank-screen-for-hours-and-hoping-inspiration-strikes reality!

    Like

  17. franhunne4u says:

    Was searching for this Hemingway quote so long! Thank you!
    Came across a hint to it by “Bird by bird” but never find it in there when I look …

    It’s my opinion, that rewriting makes the difference between an amateur and a real writer.

    Amateurish as I am, I stuff cardboard boxes with my “turds” of stories – never truly attempt a second version. And not, because I would think they are high quality and can stay this way!! They are barely readable – not even by myself … Why I write them nevertheless?

    Thinking up the first version is fun – it’s “seeing the movie on my inside silver screen” , new and fascinating. (Sorry, have to leave the “shit”-image here – you would not want that kind of head cinema here – oops, too late).
    Taking that first version apart, WORKING on it – no – work is no fun. Or to stay with the shit-image: Using that dung just does not come with the scent of roses.

    That is why I keep dung in my boxes when I should work with it, dig it under and have something useful nourishing from it. That is one point where the amateur me falls short of a real writer. (That – and things like regular writing exercise or knowing my mistakes and how to handle them. Or even knowing more of the theory and not just the basics. Or just a professional attitude.)

    First drafts are shit – but shit is not waste, shit is useful. but you have to overcome your own squeemishness (which I never manage) and dare to use it. That is professional. I am an amateur. I still like Hemingways quote a lot. Even if I look at my boxes know and feel a little – well you know what follows, don’t have to write it, do I?

    Like

    • Touch2Touch says:

      Did you ever try a writers’ workshop? Or a creative writing course?
      They aren’t always the right thing, but they have their uses. Perhaps you need the kind of, let’s see — seriousness, or structure, or feedback, or commitment (and more motivators) that a group or a class would provide.
      OTOH, maybe you’re content as you are! In which case, more power to you.

      Like

      • franhunne4u says:

        Workshops? Check.
        Nice weekends. After that it was back to normal.
        Creative writing course? Check. At the local evening school – not at professional level. My “dung” got better through those. But how to rewrite could not be part of those classes – we had to move on thematically (one lesson dealing with plot, the next with characters, another with dialogue and so on) and other participants wanted some feedback, too. The teacher tried hard to integrat even second versions, but with about 10 participants that was next to impossible.
        And I have not only ONE book on creative writing. Even read the one or the other *cough* I think you could call me too lazy or not committed enough.

        Or too afraid to take the next step! Or even too vain, considering that good advice of the “really good parts” to be found in the first version – which are to be deleted. I do not think I am too dumb (ok, I am too vain to admit that).

        Am I content? I like my family and friends to read my texts (not the right audience if I am looking for die hard critic) and they are german, which makes them tell me, when they see a flaw with my motives, my characters, my logic.
        Do I rewrite then? No.
        Why not? In these days they would name it ADS – most of the times I got new ideas to write something completely different. A “new movie” on my silver screen! Instead of doing one right (commitment) I start another in the same bad way. Am I content? Would I say all this if I were?
        A group might help. Have to wait till summer ends, though, as my job is changing then, but I really HAVE to do something about it. Knowing I produce shit is not helping my commitment.

        Like

        • Touch2Touch says:

          Well, producing movies on our own silver screen is not bad. So there’s that.
          You might make your next step to write a piece, stick it in a drawer for a week, then pull it out and look at it. Maybe it’s okay as is, maybe it could use a rewrite, and (pledge to yourself) give it a whirl.
          It’s a next good step, maybe. But I have faith in you, Fran. If you want to do it enough, you’ll figure it out. And if not, just let it go, and be on your way rejoicing!

          Like

          • franhunne4u says:

            Thank your for your warm encouragement. I do not think I will ever give up writing entirely. I just wonder if I will ever treat writing more seriously.

            Like

  18. segmation says:

    One can never have too many books! Especially ones written on Torah!

    Like

  19. The Rider says:

    Excellent post! I read a lot, just never dared to write, other than my blog…

    Like

    • Touch2Touch says:

      You managed to say a lot with photos and graphics adding to your text on that blog! I thought your post about the current direction of your life was really cleverly done, and very expressive.

      Like

  20. It’s a pleasure to read your post. You write as if you’re looking down from a mountaintop!

    Like

    • Touch2Touch says:

      Hmmm. Not sure how I feel about that. Maybe it’s writing from the vantage point of being 78 years old, though.
      Seventy-eight years constitutes a kind of mountaintop!

      Like

  21. Very nice post – the Hemingway quote really sums it up.

    Like

  22. Angelia Sims says:

    Look at you! Freshly Pressed. Congrats! A great reward indeed and wonderful post. 🙂

    Like

  23. Elisa says:

    Yay! Thank you for my laughing. It is a good thing to shake my head and to feel refreshed. Writing for me IS learning. Learning the subject, and learning Me.

    Like

  24. You’ve summed up a lot of what I have heard my favorite modern authors say about writing. The fact that great work continues to be published, though, shows that the struggle is worth it. Keep it up!
    http://stepstochangetheworld.wordpress.com/

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  25. FINALLY – Freshly Pressed! I’ve been waiting for this! Whooo hoooo! CONGRATS!

    xoxo

    Like

  26. thats so true – writing lets you learn more than anything else. and this is as true as is writing a book, tough. nice post. congrats on being freshly pressed.

    Like

  27. Madhu says:

    Beautifully articulated! That brilliant Lewis quote applies not just to writing but to life itself. Congratulations on being Freshly Pressed. I hope you will continue to make many more books. 🙂

    Like

  28. Patti Kuche says:

    Judith, congratulations on your dedication and discipline in getting your love of words, and what you wanted to write, crafted and so beautifully put together ie between covers! Is writing the process whereby we use words to map where we have been and maybe where we hope to go. There is so much to understand and if writers are dedicated enough to take us by the hands with them, long may bookshelves groan with delight. Apart from your blogging, for which I am more than grateful, I do hope you are still working on a project or two close to your heart.

    Like

    • Touch2Touch says:

      Thanks for the kind words, Patti. I love your phrase, the bookshelves “groan with delight.”
      Both my books are actually composed of short takes — kind of mosaic pieces — that then add up to a whole.
      Blogging for me is a great great joy, since it is, after all, creating mosaic pieces. Many are short and simple, but others are longer and more substantial.
      Right now, this is what’s close to my heart! The most enjoyable writing I’ve ever done.
      (I think that in my case, I write to find out what’s truly in my heart and/or in my mind. You’d think it would be apparent, but not so. Your directional definition is also accurate, where we’ve been and perhaps even where we’re going.)

      Like

  29. 2e0mca says:

    Professional Photographers bemoan the arrival of digital cameras – “Now everyone’s a Photographer”. The reality is that the simplification of the processing end makes it easier for the amateur photographer to produce work to a similar standard as the professional and, if some of the wedding photographs I’ve seen recently are a guide, to a better level! Of course, the very best will go on to make a career of it (should they so wish) but amateurs will now get a look in with some of their images being published and some reward received for their work (I now have a few cheques to my name and a dozen books in my library that contain my photos).

    There is a similar truth in writing – Becoming a successful author is no longer a case of being selected by a publishing house because many people now choose to read what they find on the web rather than buying books at all – of course not all of it is good but, if they’re silly enough to read what I write… The effect is that people finding some success with their blog writings may choose to boldly go. It has effectively opened the doors to anyone who wants to be published to get themselves in print by taking away the fear of making that first step. In many ways that is a good thing – views that might have been suppressed by the publishing houses in the past can now be made available. We have a different choice now to the past. From no chance to – print it yourself via sites like LuLu or – if we’re good enough, through a major publisher. It’s like a return to the days of Caxton. Writers Freedom! 🙂

    Like

  30. What a delightful post! Thanks for your thoughts on some wonderful books and what they do at night while we’re sleeping 🙂

    Like

  31. Love this piece! I’ve often said I’d like to be immortal if only for the chance to read all the books… never thought about how long one should take to construct all of our thoughts in books.

    Like

  32. kashkurtin says:

    Reblogged this on Novice Novelist and commented:
    Beautiful post, every aspiring novelist must read it!

    Like

  33. Reblogged this on Engineer's Outlook and commented:
    It’s good to read this blog making and writing BOOKS is my passion..

    Like

  34. Nice post. And it is absolutely true that we can understand other/ourselves better through writing.

    Like

  35. joseph says:

    I like this one, “The first draft of anything is always shit.” For some reason i feel this whenever i write something. Maybe it’s normal since i am an amateur writer.

    Like

  36. rebekah says:

    Wonderful post … Did you get Freshly Pressed? I haven’t checked them out, but I saw something mentioned here in the comments.

    Yes, don’t we all have a book within us?! I don’t even have the dream of writing one. Starting the blog here, and reading so many others’, has made me realise that I can’t write. I do like Hemingway!

    Like

    • Touch2Touch says:

      Yes, Freshly Pressed. Like popcorn, the “likes” start slowly, then come faster and faster until you can’t keep up, and then they start slowing down until it’s quiet again. But fun while it lasts.

      I think that very often when people say they have a book in them, what they mean is they’d like to tell their story to someone else who would actually do the writing. Because that part is the hard work. 😉
      Better what you do, Rebekah. You share your thoughts and your marvelous photographs and your interest in the world on a blog that’s accessible to everyone. When you think about it, where is that different from a book? (Except that mostly you won’t get your book illustrated becuz it costs too much money.)

      Like

      • rebekah says:

        Congratulations! That’s very nice 🙂

        I agree with what you’re saying, but I meant to write about my life, honestly — I’ve never done that in the blog. Or rather … ‘openly’

        Like

        • Touch2Touch says:

          No law about “full disclosure”!
          I think people have to be really comfortable with the amount of openness they decide on; no “shoulds” about it.
          There are a lot of strange people out there, besides all the strong interesting supportive people. So there’s a place for discretion too.

          And of course — a BIG place for photography, which doesn’t need words! Whatever you do, Rebekah, your loyal fans have got your back!

          Like

  37. norma padro says:

    I like your blog. A lot of people on my reviews claim that they can’t understand what I write. I don’t know how to write so that people like them can understand my writing. I learned that I’m just writing for the joy of it. I also learned that the art of writing will never make sense to many, but to others it will mean the world. I’m glad I came to your blog. 🙂

    Like

  38. angelinahue says:

    Your last statement sums up perfectly all those times when I’d start writing a post with a photo in mind and a short note to accompany it, which eventually becomes a much longer piece with me reading up on things I don’t know or am unsure about, as well as editing almost forgotten photos that I think would match the content. Ambushed and surprised indeed, and quite rewarding!

    Like

  39. wendyvitols says:

    ”Ultimately literature is nothing but carpentry…. ” The quote by Marquez,
    I love it. So true. 🙂

    Like

  40. tinaproberts says:

    AMEN! How many times have I moved all my books, I threw away furniture and even relationships, but not my books. And I so relate to how putting words to “paper” something just flows. That’s when the really good stuff comes out. You forget anyone will even read it. You just pour it out. Thanks so much for your post. Loved it!

    Like

  41. Luke says:

    Well said. Your post reminded me of something Thomas Merton said about “bestsellers.” I believe he referred to what sells most with the general public (and loved by advertisers) are works he described using the Latin word, “simulacrum”–superficial, over-inflated, shimmering, attention-grabbing and…monumentally phony. We see that with a lot of books, music and other bestselling works. Thank you for your perspective, shared wisdom and your commitment to your craft. Best, luke

    Like

    • Touch2Touch says:

      Thanks so much for your comment, Luke. To share the same paragraph with Thomas Merton is an honor indeed!
      The Seven-Storey Mountain was a milestone in my life.

      Like

      • Luke Lively says:

        Mine, too. Merton and Augustine are amazing. I always find something new in re-reads. And, both are the exceptions-to-the-rule for “bestsellers.” Quality and high volumes of readers–a rarity for sure. Both wrote with an intense honesty–two people living on the sharp edge of faith and reason and sharing their pains and joys. Thanks again–I enjoy all of your writing and wishing you all the best, luke

        Like

  42. Great Marquez quote! I’ve always seen writing as a craft to be worked at rather than some kind of instinctive ‘magical’ knowledge – it’s clear to me I’ve become better at it the more I’ve practiced.

    Like

  43. Frank Bruder says:

    I would like to add my congratulations to you for your designation as Freshly Pressed. Freshly Pressed. eh?. I am delighted that you have everything ironed out by now. Sorry. You know, I’m confident, that I am possessed of an irresistible urge to invoke the lowest form of humor whenever the opportunity presents itself. No matter.
    The highest praise to you and your quite remarkable blog. You must know, I am sure, that I am a charter member of your fan club for just about fifty-four years. A word about your coterie of commentators ‘. In short, they are a wonderful group of observers, writers and teachers from whom I myself have learned a lot. The are spot-on accurate, and gentle all at once and therefore a pleasure to read.
    It has not escaped my notice that one of your photographs does show a small section of books on cookery several titles of a much larger group in fact. So congrats once more, and by the way, Hon, what’s for dinner… The Hub

    Like

  44. I just read another one of Cormac McCarthy’s cryptic writing comments: “I hear people talking about going on a vacation or something and I think, what is that about? I have no desire to go on a trip. My perfect day is sitting in a room with some blank paper. That’s heaven. That’s gold and anything else is just a waste of time.”

    That’s it for me, too. That’s the worthwhile part: the act of writing. Everything else is just aftermath, for better or worse.

    Malcolm

    Like

  45. Lovely and very well put! This poetry actually told stories. Very impressive!

    Like

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