I think there’s some mystique about writing in the general public, like authors have golden keys to secret cabins in the woods where they can brew hot tea at ten in the morning if they darn well feel like it. Being an author is carefree. It means independence and wild frizzy hair, where writer’s block lasts minutes, not hours, and words flow like warm maple syrup over porous paper pancakes, soaking in sentences with gratitude. It’s a free life, not being chained to corporate America and doing your own thing. Ah, to be a writer. I have a book idea in my head, people say. I’ve started a few pages. How hard can it be?
I’d guess running a marathon backward is hard. Or cooking a soufflé on a yacht with a hand beater. Getting the president on the phone is probably a challenge. Scaling a mountain. Singing an aria. Living with your mother-in-law. All tough, I imagine. But writing a book – a really good one at least – is much harder than these things. There is a reason people give up too easy. It’s easy to give up.
In my mind, no one chooses to be a writer. No one longs to work a day job and cook supper and put two exhausted kids to bed, only to trudge upstairs and write. At least not me. I’d rather be watching television or eating ice cream. Going for a walk or laughing with my husband. Anything but writing. Or worse, editing words that you’ve seen so many times before. Cutting out hundreds of pages. Re-writing entire chapters. Reworking and rethinking and getting no feedback but your own self-doubt. You’ll never make it. You’re a failure.
But there’s a voice, way back in my head in some dusty place, that won’t shut up until my fingers start clicking on the keyboard. Only then, when I’m unleashing the characters from their prison, does it cease screaming at me. Finally, at 2 am when tears are pouring down my cheeks – big fat ones that come from grinding out my heart on paper -do I feel somewhat normal. When I’m finished, exhausted and dehydrated, I can finally rest in peace. The voice is stilled.
Being a writer is not something I necessarily wanted to do. I think it chose me, like love or static cling. Stories nag at me until I listen. Sometimes characters appear in dreams or situations pop out their ugly faces at me in the shower. Often, plot ideas dangle in my view of traffic like little spiders as I’m driving to work. I hate spiders.
I occasionally hang out with other writers so I don’t feel so crazy. Even though deep down, I know I am. I was talking to a writer friend the other day about how stupid we are for going down this road of writing and editing and rejections. She got a rejection letter at 6:00 am on a holiday. I mean really. Can’t agents at least wait until we drink our morning coffee?
And yet despite it all, I go back. My secret love. Sometimes I lie and tell my husband I’m just checking my email when I’m really going upstairs to work on a paragraph. A sentence here, a chapter there. After all, it doesn’t edit itself.
I went to a writer’s conference a few weeks ago, which did nothing but fill me with dread and fear. Agents get so many manuscripts – hundreds a week – that they are forced to be competitive. “Start off your book with fireworks,” one agent said, “because if the writing doesn’t capture us in the first few pages, it’s going to be rejected. “ I went to Barnes & Noble after work the following week and leafed through the first two pages of every women’s fiction piece I laid my eyes on. I was a crazy woman, opening and reading the first two pages and then throwing one down and picking up another.
“Can I help you find something?” a saleslady asked. She looked at me like I was off my medication.
“No,” I said. “Just looking.” I tried to giggle but it just came out like a squeaky crazy-person grunt. I forced myself to set the books down more gently. I told myself not to sigh and mutter things like “damn you Brunonia Barry!” and “well sure, start off with a cigarette burn why don’t you, Kristin freaking Hannah.” My hair was wild and tangled, my hands shaking from the large amount of ingested caffeine. An empty Starbucks cup was balanced precariously in my purse and I noticed later I had a pair of reading glasses perched on my head as well as balanced on my nose. I think I took my shoes off at the end of the NYT Bestseller rack and hadn’t noticed that I was barefoot. Whoops.
I got up the next day and furiously re-wrote the first two pages of my book six times. “How about this version?” I asked one friend. “What about that?” I screamed at another. I was like a gopher, popping up out of holes with a new novel version every time. Finally, when I was reduced to a ball of tears, feeling like I wasted three years of my life that could never be regained, I went home early from work. I was so focused that I didn’t even turn on the air conditioning, and in an eighty-degree house, I marched upstairs with a firm resolve.
I can’t live like this, I thought to myself. I barely had the patience to wait until my computer booted up before firing my book off to ten more agents, sweating and cursing. Screw the consequences. So the intro doesn’t have firecrackers or start off with a death or the baking of a lemon pie. I’ll just get rejected anyway. Why does it matter so much?
It’s not always romantic, this writing thing. I just have to keep listening to the voice, the one who tells me to keep on writing. To keep remembering the stories, and the dreams, and the visions. I have to tell myself that there’s a reason this chose me. That God put this burden on my heart. Someday, an agent will say yes. Hell yes! Absolutely yes!
Then, and only then, I’ll fall down in tears of joy and realize the voice is not a crazy hallucination, but a blessing. Until then, bear with me. I’m the one in the corner typing. Without shoes. With two pairs of glasses and shaking, medication-seeking hands.