I think of Bill when I hear from struggling young writers, desperate to get it “right” – and to be accepted and published and make a living in a ridiculously difficult field.
By Clea Simon
One of my favorite memories of Bill Corbett, the poet/art critic /editor who died last Friday at the age of 75, didn’t start off that well. Although the details are hazy – this was more than 20 years ago – I think Bill was a little frustrated with me. He was a poet, after all. A lion of the avant garde and a champion of art for art’s sake. I was the fiancée of an old friend and colleague, a fledgling writer upset with the negative feedback I’d gotten from the editor of my first book, a work of commercial nonfiction.
In all fairness, I still believe I had reason to be upset. My editor had bought my book based on a proposal and a magazine story. I’d pulled it out of auction because I thought she understood what I was trying to do, and she had, in fact, told me “just write … and send me your first sixty pages of so. We’ll figure out the structure from there.”
I’d taken her at her word. I’d written about a memory that had stayed with me. That still shook me. As directed, I sent it down to her in time to read before we would meet, to strategize the next steps.
I’m good at following directions. I thought that was what I was supposed to do. It wasn’t until I was in her office that I found out that she hated what I’d sent. Too impressionistic. Too soft. Too … I don’t know, but that opening scene had to go. She was emphatic and I was devastated. I’m still not sure what she wanted – I found out afterward there were other things going on with other authors, of course – but this wasn’t it. I was barely holding back the tears when I got on the bus back to Boston. I was lost.
And so I reached out to several more experienced writer friends. That opening, I said, was gone. So now what should I do with my book? How could I write this so it was what my big-deal NYC editor wanted? So I wouldn’t get torn apart again? What I got back were very different takes – each individual to the person whose advice I had sought, but none of them compatible with each other.
I don’t remember how I ended up also talking to Bill about this. Was this at dinner, in the kitchen of their South End townhouse, Beverly cooking something wonderful? Was it after a reading, maybe a Pressed Wafer event? What I do remember is spilling to Bill, and him shaking that big head of his as I described the different angles everyone was suggesting and my own inability to somehow fuse them all into one coherent approach – the one that would be successful, would be accepted. I do remember him brushing off the idea that there was one correct way of doing things, and pointing out that everyone would write “my” story differently. “You’ve got to write your damned book,” he said.
He was right, of course. And ultimately I did – the opening my editor hated went back in, and 20 years later, I still think it works. At least, it’s right for me,
I’m not a poet. I am a commercial writer, and that has its own rules and rewards. But I think of Bill when I hear from struggling young writers, desperate to get it “right” – and to be accepted and published and make a living in a ridiculously difficult field. And I think of him when I make choices in my own writing today, when I weigh one option over another, especially when I go for what feels right over what I suspect may be more conventional.
Was he a little impatient with my desire for acceptance, for commercial viability, that day? Quite possibly. That said, he was always supportive of me and my work, jovial and kind and happy to celebrate my triumphs, just as he was for my husband Jon, and for the other poets and writers he gathered around him. Some of that was simply his generosity of spirit. Some of it was wisdom.
If you’re a writer, you write. Ultimately, you’ve got to write your own damned book.
Thank you, Bill.
A former journalist, Clea Simon is the author of three nonfiction books and 25 mysteries. A contributor to such publications as the Boston Globe, New York Times, and San Francisco Chronicle, she lives in Somerville with her husband, Jon Garelick. She can be reached here and on @Clea_Simon.