Your Life's Work

It took Karl Marlantes over thirty years to see his debut novel Matterhorn published. The publishing world is filled with awards, but a new one should be christened to commemorate this triumph of patience and determination. Of course, Marlantes would be the first to admit he wasn’t always patient. In fact, he very much wanted to publish Matterhorn in 1977, the first time he “finished” the novel. In those days, it was 1,600 pages long, as opposed to the slim 600-page volume he eventually did publish. He also wanted it published in the 80’s, when publishers said no one wanted to read about Viet Nam, and he wanted it published in the 90’s and early 00’s, when publishers wanted to move the story to Iraq or Afghanistan.

But he published Matterhorn in 2010, nearly 40 years after he began writing it. A lot of writers will probably think, “Hey, isn’t it that great? Now please, God, never let that happen to me.” Not to worry, it probably won’t. The moral of Marlantes’s story is not that you must be willing to wait thirty years to publish a novel. But Marlantes made the point in our interview that had the book been published in 1977 it probably would have come and gone very quickly and been forgotten.

Matterhorn represents a kind of literary life’s work for Karl Marlantes, and so is definitely a special case. But in another way, his story is everyone’s story. Had he not believed in the value of the story he wanted to tell, he certainly would have given up long ago—most likely in 1977. That his story remained the same story is what makes Matterhorn unique. For most of us, that which we wish to share with the world will be spread out over many stories, but the challenge remains the same.

The only thing that will sustain you through the dry years, if indeed you encounter any, is a fundamental belief in what you have to share—not your talent, not your desire for approval and money. It doesn’t matter whether what you want to share are stories of young women falling in love or a First Lieutenant’s struggle to find courage in the jungles of Viet Nam, the current of interest that drew you to your stories must remain unassailable. Patience will bring the story to its desired form and audience, whether in three months or thirty years.

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