What the Finished Book Hides: How to Keep Going
October 10, 2018
by Kisha Lewellyn Schlegel
My first book just came out!
What a simple thing to say. I have a book! But like most exclamations, these are smuggling a secret. They hide the hard work it took to write a book. The luck and time. The endurance.
I started this book before my son was born; he’ll be eight years old when it comes out. During those years, the writing was a source of gratitude. I felt myself doing exactly what I wanted to do. And yet, there was so much fatigue and rejection. I almost gave up.
How did I keep going?
“Alas, there are no recipes!” Ursula K. Le Guin reminds me. “We have no Julia Child. Successful professional writers are not withholding mysterious secrets from eager beginners.” She’s right, of course. And yet, if, as James Baldwin said, endurance is more important than talent, how can we keep going?
Reflecting on his interviews with other writers in the series By Heart, Joe Fassler notes “recounting challenges that are specific to an individual, even to a particular work,” can help us address our own struggles. Stories of endurance are stories after all—they help us feel less alone. They help us go on.
So, what follows is not a manual. It’s a story. A companion. A hope that something I’ve learned might help you endure.
At the end of graduate school, I had a finished thesis that was only the beginning of the book I wanted to write. Some of the essays would have to go. Others would find new forms. I expanded on an erasure of Genesis but tossed an essay on Georgia O’Keefe (even though I still love that one). I wrote new essays. I dug deeper into drafts. I did that for a long time. For years. It was hard.
For a while, I thought that I just needed to figure out what sustains me during difficulty. What keeps me creatively engaged? Reading a poem? Taking walks? Forcing myself to do yoga? Being completely alone as if I’ve escaped through a wormhole? YES. But. What I also needed was a way to address the fears of productivity (demanding: When will you finish?) in order to get back to the fears of creativity (asking: What can I make?).
In those early days, I tried to find some control over the writing process by making appointments with myself for writing. I blocked out time on the calendar and nothing was allowed to interrupt it.
This didn’t actually work. I had a newborn who became a toddler. Then I had another baby. Along with the toddler.
So I tried incentives. I could buy an Americano if I got through an essay draft by a self-imposed deadline. I could buy a new pair of boots if I got through a draft of the whole manuscript. I’ve heard of other writers holding each other accountable; if they don’t meet deadlines they have to make a very large (say $100) donation to an organization they hate (they chose the NRA).
This worked! Most of the time.
But what I needed was more time. I have an amazing partner who supported me and watched the kids and yet we both worked. We needed help. So I searched the web for “Washington state artist grants” and applied for one that could cover additional childcare costs. I wrote formulaically about how much childcare I had, how much more I needed, and how much it would cost. I was very clear: the grant would supplement my own investment, allowing me to finish a draft of the book. I got the grant. And every time I used that money, I was reminded that someone else was paying for my writing time. I wasn’t about to waste it. I didn’t procrastinate. I wrote.
Once I had solid drafts, I emailed them to people I trusted. They didn’t have to read them. Just sending them out let me see the work in a new way.
I also gave up. I broke up with the manuscript twice. Each time, I registered how it felt to abandon this book, to walk away from it and say: I’m done with you! And each time, I discovered that I missed it—a lot. I mourned it. I felt like I was missing my arm. Or my kid. Registering this feeling allowed me to return to the manuscript, renewed and full of conviction that I was writing what I needed to be writing.
At the core though, what really kept me going was that I couldn’t let go of the work. My questions about the essays continued to interest me. Why did I feel so afraid when I heard Dick Cheney’s voice? What happened to me that time I swam with sharks? Why did Liberace’s bedazzled clothes make him the target of so much male disdain? I had come to a point where I understood so much about the essays—their form and narrative stance, their approach and descriptions. And yet I still understood so little. I was drawn back into the work by what I didn’t yet understand.
Now, looking back, there’s something I didn’t do that I should have absolutely done: given myself a break. Life happens and it did often for me in the years it took to write the book. I had two kids. Started a full time job. Moved across the country. Bought a house. All exciting things! But they often meant I couldn’t keep working at a full tilt on the essays. I like to think I’m learning to embrace this flux, not to find “balance,” which I don’t think exists, but to relax into the pace of the work—to trust myself and believe that I am doing all that I can.
I had put so much pressure on the writing. When I didn’t finish a draft or I couldn’t seem to get an idea onto the page in the way I wanted, I felt awful. I was really hard on myself. Why can’t I do this? I thought. Other writers I graduated with are already onto their second book! This internalized competition prompted me to work harder, but it didn’t always make the writing better. It made me want to finish. Not write. Comparisons are odious. They obscure a very basic fact: Someone else’s book is not a book I could have written. Someone else’s progress and accolades aren’t mine. I can only be the writer I am. Or as the writer Inara Verzemnieks says, “I’m a writer of one.”
I do what I can do. And others? Through their success, I found the ultimate form of sustenance: to celebrate that success—the award they get, the essay they publish, the coverage in the freakin’ New Yorker, because BOOKS! Don’t we love them? Isn’t that why we’re here?
When I thought the manuscript was done, I started to query agents and independent publishers.
Actually, that’s a lie. I started to query them long before the manuscript was actually done. I thought it was done enough to query agents. Was this a mistake? Maybe. I spent a lot of time researching and sending out to agents who ended up being interested and then not. And yet, sending out too soon had another consequence that might not have been that bad—it let me see the book as publishers and agents might. This helped me refine the book, but I wouldn’t recommend it. As I began to submit the book, it took on the glow of a product. I had to package it through a query letter and descriptive materials shaped by the language of marketing.
When I started submitting to agents I also had to find new ways to keep going because, well: rejection. As Tony Tulathimutte writes, “It’s called ‘Submission’ for a reason.” I got through by researching agents and making a single rule.
I researched agents by reading the acknowledgements pages of my favorite recently published books. I read interviews with agents and editors and followed their comments on social media. After learning about each one, I wrote personalized emails, noting how their represented books aligned with mine and specifying why I was interested in their representation.
Meanwhile, I geeked out and managed a colorful spreadsheet. When I sent out a query, I tracked the date. If the agent didn’t respond in 3.5 weeks, I emailed them again to check in. This was a random amount of time that kept me on a schedule. I also emailed if something happened with the manuscript, like one of the essays was published or I spoke with an editor who was interested in reading the whole book.
When I got a rejection, I followed a single rule: I tracked it on my spreadsheet and immediately queried the next two agents on my list. This kept me moving forward. It let me use rejection to do something productive and proactive, quietly affirming my belief in the work.
I did find a wonderful agent named Julie Stevenson. (Julie Stevenson!) I celebrated! (Also important for sustaining momentum!)
As we submitted the book, the rejection was tougher. But I had Julie beside me. And my husband. And my friends. Again and again, they reminded me that my worth as a person is not defined by a book. No one’s is.
At last. The book was chosen by Mad Creek Books for the inaugural Gournay Prize. Immediately, and once again, I found my relationship with the book changed. I became a reader of the book. And I had to keep writing as that reader. I could see all of these new gaps and bruises in the text. While I didn’t want it to be stale and perfect, I saw a whole new world of work to be done.
So what could I do? Go away from my family for a month and revise?
It just so happened that I learned the book would become a book the week before leaving for a writing residency at The Bloedel Reserve. During that residency, I shocked myself by not revising the book, even though I now had a deadline for doing just that. I did whatever the hell I wanted. The only rule was I had to love the act of writing. Otherwise, I had to go on walks. Eat. And watch movies.
When I finished the residency, blissed out, I had fifty pages of weird new stuff. And I had a desire to return to the book. I was ready to revise. I had entered a moment like Jenny Zhang describes—her favorite moment when writing a story: “…it comes just after I feel like I can’t finish a story. The moment when I’m not sure if I wrote a story that I want to see through to the end, or if it’s worth it, or if my idea was juvenile or not advanced or not worth continuing. And then: that feeling when suddenly I know exactly what’s supposed to happen next, the moment when I know I can get to the finish line, I can run a little more, yes, I know where I’m going. I love that energy because it comes out of feeling pretty dejected, pretty low about myself as a writer.”
Even without a writing residency I could have taken this step—and I can’t recommend it enough—to get away from the book until its absence settles into your bones like a lost love and your longing for it sends you running back to the words you’ve written in all their glittering possibility.
Whenever this feeling faded, and it did, I reminded myself: I have a real deadline and real people relying on me to meet it. I stayed focused by remembering them and by using a brightly color-coded system for revision: red sticky note meant develop further; light blue: refine this sentence; orange: confusing; and bright Kyoto green—the most important of all—marked the moments I loved, the ones that left me wondering who wrote that?
As I worked through the color-coded copy. I simultaneously felt good about my progress and miserable about not doing more. Every minute away from the manuscript felt like a moment in which it was dying. This was fear (of not finishing or maybe of finishing and still never doing what I set out to do) reaching through the life of the book and into my actual life.
In that life, I was also struggling to justify the time I needed to finish the book. Not just because I’m a parent-partner-teacher-person but because I lived in America in 2017 when the world was exposing its long harbored horrors. The fears I’d been writing about were suddenly all too real. The nagging, personal question: Is this writing any good turned into a crises of belief: What good can writing do?
I had to let that one hover like a drone so I could stay focused. At this point, I kept going by force. I willed it. It sucked.
During the difficult final weeks of revising the book, I feared the way fatigue was bleaching out the writing, making it hard to see what I was doing and what still might need to be done. So I made one new and final rule: I had to hold the book one last time, the way I might hold a beloved or any wailing baby. This was my last chance to wipe the spit off its face, but more than that, it was the last time it would just be the two of us. Soon, the book would leave my hands completely to be held by others. Without me. This was the last time we’d be together without the responsive noise of the world.
The certainty of our separation made me want to be alone with the book again in order to listen to it, to really hold each word in my mind and do my best to make sure the essays were saying what they intended.
I walked the manuscript into an empty room and held it in my lap. I read every word out loud. I listened for clunky sentences and errant commas, but, mostly, I listened to what I had made. The words, as familiar as my children, were speaking on their own. They belonged to themselves and were no longer mine. Without the clatter of expectation, it was just me and the writing, the two of us on a rainy Sunday a lot like the first Sunday when I wrote the first word—whatever that was—and after that, wrote one word at a time to reach this moment, when I turned the final page over and was faced again with a blank page. Another beginning. Invisible to the world of no, I say yes to language and its difficulties. To keep going. Because, books!
Let us write the books we love.