Sometimes I forget that I wrote and published a book, which is both a real truth about my life and also something I never imagined saying or thinking.
When I used to imagine what Life As A Writer would be like, I thought a lot about how writing would Change Me. I invested a laughable amount of time picturing how I would dress as a writer (casual but kind of wispy and with lots of floaty scarves), what my desk would look like (slightly messy but in a deeply creative way), and what my writing process would be like (sitting at my desk writing long-hand in a leather-bound journal while the early morning sun slanted in through the window). I also had some ideas about what it would be like to finally publish a book that were not very firmly rooted in reality – glowing reviews in big publications, an award or five, and maybe even a movie deal.
Of course, my actual writing process involves weeping frantically over a half-finished first draft an hour before my deadline, my “desk” is whatever surface has enough clear space for my laptop, and while typing this up I’m dressed in a soup-stained black tank top and a pair of pyjama shorts printed with tiny horses. And my book? The one that I thought was going to be made into a raw, heartfelt Sundance-screened film starring Ellen Page? It just sort of happened, and then it was over. It felt like such a non-event that when I put together a new writing bio last year I didn’t think to include it.
I guess I never really thought of it as a book-book – it was only ever available in a digital format, which is cool and all but also not very different from the time I got my roommate to record me singing a Tori Amos cover which I then proceeded to refer to as my “single.” It was real, but it didn’t feel real – I don’t even think most of my family knew that it had happened. I mostly didn’t feel like a person who ever wrote a book, which I’d thought was a feeling I’d know and recognize immediately. Instead, I felt like a person who had spent several months pouring her feelings into the black hole of a Word document and then walked away.
Anyway. I frankly thought the rest of the world had forgotten about my book even harder than I had, and then out of the blue a new dude working for my publisher emailed last summer and told me that he’d been revisiting some of their old publications and thought mine was pretty great (!!!!!). He said he thought it deserved another push wanted to do a re-launch of my book. He also said that they had an actual budget for cover art now, and they wanted to publish it not just as an e-book but also as a paperback.
All of this is to say that just over a month ago I got to hold my actual book in my hands for the first time and it was really fucking beautiful. I mean, the book was beautiful, and the moment was beautiful, and I couldn’t really breathe or see straight for a while.
I wrote a book and then I held it in my hands and holy shit sometimes really great things do happen.
I don’t know if I feel like a person who’s written a book yet, but I’m going to go out on a limb and guess that’s maybe not a thing that just happens to you. There are some pretty clear dividing lines, of course – one day you’ve never published a book, and then the next day you have. But feelings are full of grey areas and what-ifs and yes-buts, which means that you can be staring at your own book on a screen and still talk yourself out of believing that you’re finally, truly a real writer. Impostor syndrome is a hell of a drug.
I often think about an essay that Betty Smith, the author of A Tree Grows in Brooklyn, wrote while she was attending college classes at the University of Michigan. It’s called “I Want to Write!” and sadly I can’t find it anywhere online, so I can’t link you to the full text. To give you an idea of what her situation was like, I should mention that she wasn’t actually enrolled at the university, but rather was auditing classes while her husband was a student in another department. In spite of the fact that Smith hadn’t finished high school and had two small children, she managed to convince several of the professors to let her sit in on their creative writing classes.
But as much as Betty Smith wanted to write, she struggled with it in a way that is probably deeply recognizable to anyone else who writes:
“[…] I have my doubtful periods. I am ashamed of the things that I have written in the past. I am ashamed of the things I wrote last month. But when I wrote them, I thought that I was inspired. The hardest thing to bear is the sneaking knowledge that in a year or two from now, I shall be heartily ashamed of the things I am writing now. Still —?
The cruelest thing about this desire to write, is the hopeless hope that it engenders. Deep down in my heart, I know that I shall never get anywhere in this writing business. But who can tell? Sometime, tomorrow even, someone may find something marvellous in the things that I write.
Some years ago, I decided to be sensible and to put all this writing foolishness aside. Other events crowded close; anther life opened for me. I married, had two babies, other interest, other ties. I wrote nothing for eight years.
Eight years? But I am lying. I have forgotten my friend. As a relaxation from the cares of the children and the house, I formed the habit of writing to a mythical friend. I wrote about everything, and wrote and wrote and wrote! Then I mailed the letters in the waste basket.
Now I have come back to my first love. I frankly admit that I am writing again. I hate it and I love it. It is labour. It is travail. But it is the most fascinating thing in the world.”
When I think of Betty Smith, I think of a writer who was gifted beyond anything I could ever imagine. I mean, A Tree Grows in Brooklyn – have you ever read that shit? It is one of the most fucking heartbreaking and true books I’ve ever read.
And yet while she was writing it, Smith never felt like a writer. She felt like someone who was waisting her time; someone whose first drafts stunk; someone whose time would have been better employed playing with her children or cleaning her house. But, bull-headed marvel that she was, she ploughed through it hoping that someday she would write something that she could be proud of. And in the end she didn’t just write a book – she wrote the kind of book you sleep with under your pillow because you want it to be the last thing you read when you fall asleep and the first thing you read when you wake up.
So, in the fine tradition of Betty Smith and her fictional doppelgänger Francie Nolan, I will doggedly push through all these insubstantial feelings until I come out the other side feeling like a a real writing writer who writes. And then I’ll know that I’ve always been this thing, like how on some level a sculpture already exists somehow inside the solid block of granite.
Writing is just work. Talent is great, but painful truth is that talent can only get you so far. The rest is work – and usually not even particularly interesting work. Mostly it’s the kind of work where you’re stuck dragging a fine-toothed comb over and over through the same sentence, trying to unsnarl those harebrained nouns and verbs and adjectives into something that makes some kind of sense.
And I did that work. And I wrote a book. And it’s very real and you should buy it if you want to and tell your friends if you think they might like it and leave a review on Amazon or Goodreads if you’re so inclined.
I wrote a book.