Monday, January 13, 2014

So, you’ve written a book…

What does it mean to have written a book?

That’s the question I’m asking myself now, a week after finishing the first draft manuscript of my first novel.  I’m wondering what is it that I’ve done.

I’m supposed to feel really good, and I did, for nearly the entire day.

But that euphoria didn’t last, and coming down was like a caffeine crash.  It was, in fact, a caffeine crash, because immediately after finishing the book I swore off coffee and the like, at least for a month.  By the next day I was in a completely explicable funk, tired and cranky.  I was mentally exhausted, having written the last six chapters in the last two weeks of the year.  Around, under, over and through the holidays.  When I complained of this to Elizabeth, she told me I was just tired and needed to rest. 

But I knew there was more to it than that.  I had a new question to answer, and no suspects.

What does it mean to have written a book?

For the next week, I did no writing at all, and stayed away from the computer as much as possible.  I felt lost.  Withdrawal symptoms.  Following Stephen King’s advice, I decided to put aside the manuscript for a month, use the time to gain some distance and some clarity.  I started thinking about the next book, and also about the future role and function of thunderstrokes.  But the question loomed over me the entire time, still hangs over me, and so now I’m trying to sort it out, the only way I seem to be able to sort things out anymore, in writing. 

What does it mean to have written a book?

Where do you even start to answer that question?  Elizabeth tells me it’s a great accomplishment.  But in my mind, the answer comes back quick:  it’s only a first draft of a manuscript.  One massive revision is needed just to make coherent and readable enough to critique, and then at least another to make it publishable.  And that’s only if I perform magnificently.  From where I stand, it doesn’t feel like a book yet.

The sober, rational side of me looks at how I’ve spent my time and wonders what the hell I was ever thinking.  Two-and-a-half years spent finding my voice, finding a way forward, and then dreaming up this crazy story about a kid who has to go to a strange land and accomplish the Twelve Labors of Hercules, and then turning that dream into a rickety reality, held together, it mostly seems, with equal parts duct tape and pixie dust. Two-and-a-half years of lost income and retirement savings, of trying to dress up a dream in work-clothes, of feeling like a bystander while Elizabeth bears the entire financial load for our family, of struggling with fears and doubts and uncertainties about myself as a writer in an endless procession of constantly changing mutations, each one as ferocious and as deadly as any monster Hercules ever faced, or will. 

I know that sounds dramatic, but I believe it.  The harshest battles most of us will ever face is with ourselves.  Our inner monsters cannot be seen, and for that we should be grateful.  I sincerely believe that if they were given a tangible form, they would fill us with such terror and paralyzing fear it would put Hollywood’s horror-meisters and their paltry creations to shame.

So that, at least, is something. I have learned that I can live with the doubts and uncertainties, and find my way through.

What does it mean to have written a book?

I have told a story.  I took a character, sent him away to a place rife with dangers seen and unseen, and returned him safely home again.  That’s something. 

The book needs a lot of work, a lot of everything: adding, trimming, reworking, condensing, simplifying, smoothing, tightening, loosening, adding support, removing unnecessary support.  I used to think writing a book was like a sculptor creating a statue: the sculptor starts with a block of marble, then roughs out the form, then makes pass after pass, chipping and cutting and chiseling until the form is set, and lastly, adds the final touches while polishing the whole thing to a high gloss.  Now I think that writers are more like builders, and that stories are a certain variety of machine, much like a Rube Goldberg invention, designed to accomplish something very simple through an insanely complicated, obtuse and perfectly ridiculous (at least as viewed from the inside) delivery system.  And what is that hideous amount of effort for?  All those thousands of hours spent planning and crafting and tinkering and fixing?  All the immense wear and tear?  All the blood, sweat, and tears?  All for something as ephemeral as a story.   

Don’t get me wrong.  A great story can make a permanent mark; it can change how we think and what we feel.  It can be one of life’s great joys.  It can be a refuge for us in dark or dreary times, and can help us feel less alone when we feel forsaken by our friends.  An oasis in a wasteland, a warm fire on a cold night.  A great story can teach us what is good and true about ourselves and about our world, and that makes a great story a thing of beauty which is more real than reality.  A great story can be so beautiful that it is worth dying for. 

But so few stories are great.

Most of them, in fact, miss their mark, due to some fatal flaw of their own or of their storyteller.  Many hit the wrong target, some intentionally.  Most of the stories we have heard or read or seen provide at most a fleeting form of entertainment or escape, far from fulfilling, failing to leave a lasting impression. 

Who am I?  Why would I willingly waste so much of my time, energy, and creativity just to become another dusty piece of clutter on a shelf?

Part of me says the answer to that question is simple:  I do it because I have to do it.  I’ve spent thirty-plus years afflicted to my very soul, and now I have learned the truth of what I have long known:  I have to write in order to feel like I am doing something more than skating over the hard crust of life.  I have to write to feel like I’m doing something more than slowly dying.  That, I suppose, should be enough. 

But it isn’t.  And why must I insist on forcing my way onto other people’s shelves, dusty or not?

Even as I ask, I know the answer to that.  I have to tell stories because it’s my way of reaching out to others.  I want people to feel certain things that I feel, and to see things that I see.  Ever since I walked out of the theater after seeing Star Wars for the first time in 1977, I knew that I was meant to be a storyteller.  I wanted to someday bring the same pure kind of joy to people that I felt that day, and the only way I could think of to do that was to tell them a story that would stir their passions, fill their minds with questions and possibilities, and touch their hearts.  As silly as it sounds, over all these years, my motivation has never wavered:  I just wanted to share the gift I found with others.

But a sparkling motivation doesn’t ensure success any more than good intentions are guaranteed to deliver good results.  Many writers, I’m willing to bet, have set out with similarly undiluted (or is that undeluded?) and lofty goals, and have failed miserably.

I don’t want to be a miserable failure, but if I must be, I’m willing to endure that too.

The irony for someone as self-contained as I am is that I want people to love the book I’ve written.  I want it to mean something to them.  If they read my book and love it, then I will feel I have been successful in some way in passing along the joy I have felt from experiencing a great story. 

But I am not so foolish as to think that lies within my control.  I can’t control how anyone reacts to what I write, and I can’t force anyone to enjoy the story I’ve chosen to tell.  If the reader thinks I write garbage, then for that reader I write garbage.  The reader doesn’t care about the crazy hours I’ve spent caring about the characters, or trying to decipher what happens to each of them in the course of the story.  Nor should they.  The story stands or falls on its own, and there is no other way it can be.

It just so happens that it puts the writer in an awkward spot.  Only readers can tell the writer if they’ve hit The Mark or not.  The writer can feel like he or she has achieved all that he hoped to and more with a story, but if the reader does not respond, what exactly has been accomplished?  

Writing is a connective act. 

What does it mean to have written a book?

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