Silkworms and Diarrhea
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.
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.