There are some friends I avoid when I’m trying to write a book. Unaccustomed to being around writers or academics, these friends don’t seem to get how the whole messy process of producing something of publishable quality works. They are wonderful, well-meaning people, but they say things that drive me nuts.
In an ideal world, whenever I was invited to give a talk or a lecture, it would go something like this:
I would spend a few weeks thinking about what I wanted to say. After a sufficient percolation period, I would sit at my computer and sweat out a complete draft.
Then I would spend months revising it, shoring up the structure, getting rid of ideas that didn’t fit, and dumping whatever seemed extraneous. I would add anecdotes, vivid images, and sparkling, funny phrases. I would hunt down -ly adverbs that seemed weak or lazy, and go on a search-and-destroy mission for needless this, that’s, and there’s. Finally, having driven myself crazy with perfectionist anxiety, I would tell myself I was ready.
Asked if he thought he had evolved as a writer, Patrick Modiano, the most recent Nobel laureate in literature said, “No, not really. The feeling of dissatisfaction with every book remains just as alive. I had a longtime recurring dream: I dreamt that I had nothing left to write, that I was liberated. I am not, alas. I am still trying to clear the same terrain, with the feeling that I’ll never get done.”
I’m at the kind of cocktail party where no one looks at you when they’re talking. Even your friends cast a restless gaze over your shoulder, trying to see who else is there, figuring out if a pass to get another glass of wine will position them in the path of someone else, someone better, to talk to.
Many writers I know love Joyce Carol Oates—some even refer to her as JCO, as if she were a brand as recognizable as CBS or BMW. But just as often, the mention of her name is met by groans and complaints about how much she’s written. Her productivity seems like an affront.
When someone’s doing a lot more than you, you notice it. It brings out your petty jealousy. And if you’re like me (occasionally petty and jealous), it might make you feel crappy about yourself. Which is, let’s face it, ridiculous. No one else’s achievements take anything away from yours, or mine. The fact that another writer is working hard and well should be nothing more than inspiration, or at least a gentle prod.
I recently had a chance to catch up with Niko Pfund, president of Oxford University Press. In another life, 25 years ago, I was a young editor at the press and Pfund was an editorial assistant. Besides reminiscing about those days, I was interested to know what one of the oldest and most prestigious university presses was up to in terms of marketing.
A few years ago I was desperately seeking a book contract. Things weren’t going well on the project I’d spent years working on, and I wanted a quick fix. In a frenzy I put together a crappy proposal for an advice book for graduate students and professors on writing and publishing and sent it to an editor I didn’t know at Harvard University Press.
When people ask me what running and writing have in common, I tend to look at the ground and say it might have something to do with discipline: You do both of those things when you don’t feel like it, and make them part of your regular routine. You know some days will be harder than others, and on some you won’t hit your mark and will want to quit. But you don’t. You force yourself into a practice, the practice becomes habit and then simply part of your identity. A surprising amount of success, as Woody Allen once said, comes from just showing up.
From Inside Higher Ed:
Who can blame Dorothy when she whispers into the Scarecrow’s ear, “I think I’ll miss you most of all.” Of the three losers she collects en route to the Emerald City, he’s the least annoying. You want to punch the Tin Man, that funnel-headed sap, right in the kisser. The Cowardly Lion is a big old pussy.