silkworms and diarrhea

November 24th, 2009

I think every author gets one free pass in life. One time when he or she writes a novel and it all comes out like silk comes out of a worm (then again, I’ve never actually asked a silkworm how it feels to spin silk; maybe it’s like the last hour of labor without drugs, on a continual cycle—what do I know with my cheap metaphors?) But the point is, if the adage holds true that everyone has one book in them then maybe it makes sense that everyone has one book that flies out like diarrhea (that’s a metaphor I can at least speak personally of).

The thing is, my last book was that book. The personal one. The Miracle one that shall never be repeated both in intensity, ease, and (and here’s the deep down fear) success.

So, naturally, the follow-up would be hard.

It’s hard.

I think my agent and editor knew it would be hard. They urged me to turn my next book in before my last book came out. I did. I wrote it. I revised it. I decided I didn’t like it. I trashed it.

Now I’m in the midst of revisions of the next book I wrote, the one that had better be my next book or I’m kind of screwed. And it’s hard.  Hard in the same old way and hard in new ways. And hard in the gratifying but exhausting way that revisions can be hard. You have a breakthrough and figure out what the story needs and make a tweak, but then the tweak has a domino effect so those five new pages of writing that you’ve added that you really, really like and that really work? Well, they’re great. Except they now require you to rewrite the 200 other pages of your draft.

I keep thinking of Libba Bray’s hilarious blog post Writing a Novel: A Love Story, which I recently discovered via Elizabeth Scott’s blog. It perfectly compares the process of writing and revising and publishing a novel to falling in love, getting sick of your love and breaking up. I’m always in love when I write. But maybe because I’m a Gemini Jew  masochist who loves to process, I get off on the pain of revisions, too, even as they’re killing me and eating up all the oxygen in my brain and keeping me up all night long. But these latest revisions, they’re scaring me. Because even as I’m digging in deep and reworking and reworking, I’m worrying. Does it suck? Does all this necessary work mean the project’s unworthy and I should just throw it all away again?

I just went to Libba’s blog to find the link to her older post and found a post on her love of Junot Diaz, which I share. I think he might just be my favorite author. He’s only written one short-story collection (Drown) and one novel (The Brief and Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao), and oh what books they are. He also writes funny, honest essays and Libba links to an essay of  his in The Oprah Magazine on how hard it is to be a writer, and she quotes this small section:

Because, in truth, I didn’t become a writer the first time I put pen to paper or when I finished my first book (easy) or second one (hard). [Yay, his second book was hard!] You see, in my view a writer is a writer not because she writes well and easily, because she has amazing talent, because everything she does is golden. In my view a writer is a writer because even when there is no hope, even when nothing you do shows any sign of promise, you keep writing anyway.

I’m now going to have to go read that entire essay, or do it after the kids go to bed because it being the Oprah magazine, the last bastion of long-form writing in a women’s magazine (except maybe Self), it will take a while. But already I feel a little better (Thank you Libba and Robin Wasserman, from whom Libba caught the link and of course, thanks Junot). Because there’s a part of me that’s thinking that if it’s not coming out like silk (or diarrhea) that there must be something wrong with it. So I need reminding of that other old adage from one of my very quotable journalism teachers: “Hard writing makes easy reading.”

And another quote that I’ll invent right here myself. That most of the time when the writing flows like diarrhea, it’s probably because it is, in fact, shit.

  1. Sweetness, utter sweetness! Which might sound odd considering the use of diarrhea but hell, it fits my moment, which was a moment that was made sweet by your post!

    Keep writing. You’re a writer or you wouldn’t have posted about writing the way a writer posts things. I’m loving the hard second book. For me, the first four were hard (and at this point commercially worthless beyond the growth they provided my writing skills) and this last was ‘easy’ or should I say, easier. I’m sure if this one is published the next one will loom like the Empire State building. But for right now the hard part is that an agent is looking at it. A small part of me is like ‘AN AGENT IS LOOKING AT ME!’ but another part of me is like ‘just like he looks at hundreds of other writers’. I’m sticking with the first one though because you know what? It feels GOOD.

    You know what else feels good? Messages. Scotch. Best friends. And writing. Even if it isn’t writing that’s going to make me famous or even get published. So keep writing girl. You’re going to make it. And it will be fabulous. And it will be yours, tears, joy, scars and all! :)

  2. Lovely, lovely thoughts. And encouraging to hear from you in particular. What I thought was a silkworm has turned into a bit of a mess… but we all trudge through the crap sometimes, right?

  3. You inspire me to be the best I can be! You are a fantastic writer, a lover of the process. Do not be so hard on yourself. We all know what you can do, and will continue to do. Keep writing, keep loving. I love you.

  4. So I just read the Junot Diaz essay. I always wondered what the deal was with the lag between books and now I know. And now you know what it takes for one man to write a masterpiece. Because Oscar Wao, it just crackles.

  5. hard writing makes easy reading…i like that! and i like if i stay and i like you, gayle!

  6. For what it’s worth, here’s the scoop on silk and the silkworm:

    The silkworm sacrifices its life in the silk-making process. The silk comes from the cocoon, which is thrown into boiling water so it will unravel into a long strong strand. The silk is pulled from the pot while the dead worm sinks to the bottom.

    Still not a bad writing analogy, eh? The beauty and strength out of pain and death.

    Read “If I Stay” a few months ago. Loved it.

  7. Good god, that was a very wrongheaded analogy! And poor silkworms. I’m surprised Peta allows silk. Or maybe they don’t. I’ll die for my kids but not for my fiction. So maybe a correction. Every writer gets one free pass in which the book flows of her like…rayon from the cellulose of wood pulp. Hmm, somehow that’s not quite as writerly.

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