How Long Does It Take
April 25, 2011
I recently spoke at a college about my work, and, after the event, a student asked me how long it took me to write a book. She’s an aspiring writer, and like many other aspiring writers, she wanted to hear about my process so that she could think about her own.
But I had no answer for her. I told her I wished I knew how long it took me to write a book, but that I really couldn’t say. I couldn’t say because there are all those hours that don’t look like work – walking down a street, washing dishes, taking a shower – when a writer thinks about a sentence, a scene, a setting. Is that work? It doesn’t feel like work, but I guess it is. And, according to many writers about creativity, those moments when we’re relaxed and doing something else are the very moments when we get insights into our work that don’t seem to come when we’re sitting before the computer.
I could have told her that it’s taken me two years, so far, to write the book I’m working on now (and I’m not finished yet and can’t say how much longer it will take). But that wouldn’t have been true because the book I’m writing now was entangled with another book I wrote and I started that other book seven years ago. So in one sense, I started this book seven years ago. But in another sense, I started it, really started it, two years ago. And all I could tell her is that I think it takes me about three years to write a book. Usually. Except for a short book that I wrote in about six weeks time.
I told her all this. But she wanted to know more. She asked me whether I knew, when I started a book, how long it would take me to finish. I told her that if I had a contact for writing a book, I had a general idea of how long it would take. But that sometimes I’d needed an extension of the deadline when a book took me longer to write than I thought.
She asked me whether I planned how long it would take me to write a book. And I told her, that, yes, every time I started a book I made a firm plan about how long it would take for me to finish it. I’d write a kind of proposal for myself, similar to the proposal you’d write for a publisher – a statement of purpose, chapter outlines, and so on. And then I’d make a detailed chart about how long I’d devote to each chapter, like Eviatar Zeruvabel suggests in The Clockwork Muse. But then, as I worked, I’d encounter unexpected challenges, like I did in the book I’m writing now, when I realized the time frame of my narrative would be from 1935 to post World War II rather than just wartime. That realization added months of research to my work-in-progress. At first, I was annoyed, anxious, angry that I was deviating from my plan. But then I realized that, as with all my books, it’s these very deviations that give my work the substance I want. And so although I thought I knew how long this book would take, I really didn’t know.
For me, that’s part of the challenge of being a writer, not knowing how long a book will take, and becoming comfortable with not knoing. I know, for example, that I can put a pretty good meal on the table in an hour. I know, too, that it takes me a half hour to walk up to the supermarket in my town and back. I know that it takes me about forty minutes to drive to work unless it’s a bad traffic day and then it can take me two hours. But I don’t know and I can’t say how long it will take me to finish a book.
So much about writing is uncertain. How long it will take to write a chapter. How long it will take to write a book. How long it will take to revise a book. How long it will take to sell a book. Whether our writing on any given day will sing or plod along. Whether we’ll find the organizational scheme for our books early in the process or late. Whether this chapter or chunk should come first or should be tucked into the middle of another chapter. Whether we’ll be able to sell a book. Whether a book will be well-received or attacked.
How long a book will take to write is just another of the many uncertainties a writer faces. And learning to live with uncertainty is, or can be, part of the growth process a writer experiences in writing a book.
So much of life today occurs so quickly. We write an email and get a reply almost immediately if the person is online – no more waiting two weeks for a letter to get to a correspondent and for that person to reply. We learn about what happens in foreign lands as it’s happening – no more waiting for a reporter in a distant place to call in a report, for the report to appear in a newspaper the next day or the day after. Some of us use a microwave to zap food someone else has prepared for us – no more standing at the stove stirring a risotto, say, for eighteen minutes or more. We turn on the TV to look at election results, and the election is called before the last person in the country has voted – no more waiting for people to tally votes by hand and call them in to headquarters, no more waiting up all night long to get the final tally as in years gone by. We take a photograph and we can see the results instantly – no more bringing film to the store and waiting for prints, no more chemicals and darkrooms to develop prints.
And what does all this instant this and instant that mean for us as writers?
I think it makes it harder for us to understand that it will take us a long time to write our book. It makes it harder for us to understand that we might now know how long it will take. It makes us expect that we should be writing our books more quickly than our books can be written. It makes the people in our lives – our families, our partners, our editors, even perhaps our teachers – expect that we should be finished with our work sooner than it’s possible for us to be finished with them.
And does it matter whether a book takes six weeks, a year, four years or five? Does it matter at all, if being in the middle of the process is the best part about being a writer? I believe that completions are good, yes. But I believe, too, that it’s good to let a book take as long as it takes. This doesn’t mean that we hang onto our books forever. But it does mean that we think about trying to not rush our work.
Writing a book is not like popping corn in a microwave. It’s not like texting. It’s not a process we can rush. Though because we live in an “instant” world, we might prod ourselves to go faster than we should.
So what I had to tell that student who asked me how long a book takes was this: A book takes as long as it takes. I knew that this wasn’t a satisfactory answer, and I apologized for having nothing smarter than this to say. But she was relieved, she told me, that I didn’t know and couldn’t say.
Writing, is, after all, a life’s work. A book, any one book, is just one piece of a life’s work. Virginia Woolf once said that she saw her life’s writing as a long piece of sausage. And that each of the books she wrote was like one link of that long piece of sausage. I rather like that image, and not just because it’s a humble food image. I like it because it reminds me that one book or many, our life’s work is writing, and how quickly or slowly we go about making each link really doesn’t matter. It doesn’t matter at all.