August 6, 2010
I recently heard from a writer friend, with a first book finished, who was (is) facing a challenge.
She has been working on a novel for years. She’s recently finished a rewrite, a revision, another revision. She got in touch with a former writing teacher who’d asked to see the work when it was finished. This was years ago. The writer is famous. He said to send on the work. She did. He read it; he told her, in so many words, that he couldn’t put it down. He gave her the name of an agent (I can’t recall if it was his agent), and told her to send it along, giving his name.
Now the name of this particular writer would open any door, even the door to the White House. And so the agent was eager to get the work. At this point, my writer friend got in touch with me. She said that she was very anxious, that she didn’t want to screw up her one chance, and that she wanted to take the time to revise the work again. What if she sent it on, and they didn’t take it?
Mistake, I said. The famous writer said it was ready. Not sending it now would be an insult to him. And that would be that with him. Why would he help in the future if she didn’t trust his judgment? I told her that this was a no brainer; that she had to send on the work, she had no choice. She’d sent it to him, so she must have thought it was ready – this is not the kind of writer you send a draft to. He said it was ready. Then she had second thoughts.
So what’s this all about? Fear of failure? Failure of nerves? I don’t think it’s either, and I think it’s easy for people who haven’t faced a situation like this to pathologize something that’s simply a normal part of the process.
Maybe this agency won’t take this work. That’s possible. That’s life. That doesn’t mean that the work isn’t ready; it means that that agency didn’t take the work. To rewrite at this stage would mean that this writer is using rewriting to deal with her anxiety. What needs to happen here is that this writer has to deal with her anxiety, and not use her work to deal with her anxiety. Many of us do that: judge a work is ready, then retreat, then rewrite. All to deal with the anxiety of letting it go, passing it on to judgment.
In this publishing climate, it might be a long and bumpy ride before this particular work finds a publisher. That this writer recommends it might not assure that this agent will take it on, that a press will take it on. Still, that doesn’t mean that the answer is to hold it close, rewrite it, hoping that the next rewrite will be the one about which you won’t have anxiety.
Fact of life. No matter how great a work is, if it’s finished and we send it on, we’ll have a huge amount of anxiety. Even William Faulkner did. After he completed one of his works (I forget which, now, and I’m not near my library as I write this), he was so anxious about it that he drank himself into a near-coma and was rescued by friends. After Virginia Woolf completed a draft of Between the Acts, her last novel, she became so anxious that, some say, it contributed to her suicide. (I don’t buy that – it was World War II, the Germans had been doing bombing runs up the valley where she lived, bombs had destroyed two of her London homes, there was talk of an invasion, Woolf suspected she was on a list of people to be put into concentration camps by Hitler – turns out she was right, according to research by Alex Zwerdling.)
Lots of times when we finish a work, we get anxious. We might feel as if we’re mourning. We might feel like we’re going crazy.
There’s no doubt that for many of us, writing structures our world, and when we’re holding a huge revision in our heads, it pushes out the hard stuff, the stuff that causes anxiety, the stuff that we write to exorcise. I’m one of those writers. Writing structures my world, and I’m not ashamed to say so. Writing also structures the life of John Banville (check out his book, The Sea, one of the greatest contemporary novels, to my mind). In an interview I heard with him on NPR, about his recent novel, The Infinities, he proclaimed, on national radio, that he always has to be writing, that he can’t stop. He put it far more elegantly than me, because his language is a revelation – you’ll encounter delicious new words in his books that will prove to you how immense and vast a resource the English language is for us.
So, what to do?
We send on our books. If we’re like Banville – we’ve started something else before we send on any particular book so that we always have a book to occupy us under our pen. Or we start another book and let the emotional challenges that writing has helped us deal with well up and work with them with professional help. We acknowledge that the end of the process of writing any book might plunge us into a state of mourning and might reawaken the mourning we’ve experienced in our lives and we get the help we need. (Mourning is always deeply felt by writers.) We distract ourselves by taking up an immensely complicated sweater to knit – what I do at the end of a book. We treat ourselves to a terrific day out and repay ourselves for work well done. We write out our fears and our anxieties into our journals.
Sending a book to an agent is kind of like sending a kid off to college. It’s not easy; it’s hard. But it’s supposed to be hard. Without experiencing this kind of hard, enduring it, learning to live through it, we can’t have long and distinguished careers. It might help or it might not help to hear it, but it’s this kind of hard for every writer. We just want it to be John Banville hard (turn to that other book, keep on writing), not William Faulkner hard (drink yourself almost to death). How to be Banville, not Faulkner? Each of us has to figure that out for ourselves.
And we decide, first if it’s going to be Banville hard or Faulkner hard for us. And if we think it might be Faulkner hard, we get all the help we need during this transitional time, and we work through what that time feels like, moment by moment, with someone who can help us through it so we can use this time in our writing life to teach us what this time in a writer’s life is like.
But, ultimately, we’ll have to send the book out. Because if we don’t, we’ll have a whole other set of challenges to deal with. And they’re no more fun to deal with than what we feel when we send the book out.