Write It Down
July 16, 2016
Cleaning out old files, I come across a folder named “Book Ideas” that I’d forgotten about. Reading the pages inside, I learned that I’d been keeping a record of all the books I wanted to write starting in 1980. There were scores of them. A book on Virginia Woolf and Sylvia Plath (Woolf’s influence on Plath). One on the late works of famous writers and painters (Rembrandt, Lawrence). A book about writers writing about summertime. One on writers’ ideas of Italy. A daybook for writers. One about asthmatic writers enlarging my work in Breathless. A novel about a researcher unlocking a secret about her subject no one’s ever known. A book about how to succeed in college. One about Charles Darwin.
And on and on the list goes, some sixty or so ideas. All these books, as yet unwritten, in all likelihood never to be written.
But on the list, too, were books I have written, and what I learned is that I thought about writing these books far, far earlier than I got around to actually writing them.
In 1980, I thought about writing a book about writing as a way of healing. I published that book in 1999, nineteen years after I first thought about writing it! And when I began, I’d forgotten I’d penned that note all those years before and only came upon it today.
In 1980, also, I wrote that I wanted to write a memoir. That became Vertigo, published in 1996, and all my subsequent memoirs, the last of which is Chasing Ghosts, recently published.
In 1980, also, I wrote that I wanted to work on a book about creativity. I finally got around to that in The Art of Slow Writing, published in 2014.
In 1989, I listed six books I wanted to write, among them a book on literature as revenge, which I did write and publish; another about Vita Sackville-West and Virginia Woolf which became the edition of Sackville-West’s letters to Woolf, and a book about D. H. Lawrence that I’ve researched but haven’t yet written or might never write.
Oh, and there is the Hart Crane biography I did some research for but never wrote. The Leonard Woolf biography a publisher was interested in that I researched but couldn’t see myself writing. The book about Darwin I got a contract for and researched but then another project captured my fancy and I didn’t write that one either.
I was amazed I’d completed so many books I’d imagined writing so many years after I first started thinking about them. I learned, too, that that I had many good ideas for books that never materialized for one reason or another.
I’d always told my students that it’s important to write down all the ideas we get about writing so that we can free ourselves to conceive of even more ideas. I’m glad I didn’t just think about the ideas for these books but wrote them down. Writing down the idea for a book, I learned, is the first step to completing it.