I have just finished writing a book that tells the story of the evolution of creative nonfiction, as I saw it and lived it. And now, as I write this in late July, a couple of weeks after sending the manuscript off to my publisher, I am beginning to feel like myself again. I mean, I am ready to reenter the world—as a person, as Lee Gutkind, a guy who lives in the Shadyside section of Pittsburgh and has a family (small), friends (a few), and interests aside from writing (the Steelers, golf, hanging out at bars)—all gradually left behind as I was writing this book. There’s an isolation, what becomes an obsessed single-mindedness, that comes with committing to a book project. The book takes over your life.
This doesn’t happen right away. It is not as if you are suddenly, overwhelmingly carried away into a writing trance the day you write your first words. It happens gradually. Your life goes on normally (if we can say that a writer’s life is ever quite normal), and as you slide deeper into the book, researching and writing every day, you might not realize that you are slowly disengaging, becoming more inward and remote. For a while, you continue to show up at your favorite happy hour hangout on Fridays, meeting folks you have known for many years, for a couple of hours of conversation and wine or martinis—or both—but then you begin to skip a Friday here and there, until you are skipping them all, and not even feeling bad about it because you’ve got this book you are writing, and very little else matters.
Of course, you continue to do the things you must do; you don’t allow yourself to be irresponsible or forget all the stuff that is important to you. In my particular case, I’ve got a magazine to edit and a foundation to lead, to which I have dedicated nearly thirty years of my life. Walking away from obligations like these, even for a book, is hardly an option. And we all have families and partners, and many of us have students to mentor. Sometimes it feels like walking a tightrope, attempting to balance creative energies and personal responsibilities.
Meanwhile, as you write, the book will often not cooperate. As you research, remember, interview, and write, your story and your ideas about the story change—repeatedly. And the more the story changes, the harder and longer you work to keep up, and the more difficult it becomes to keep it all together so that the story flows and guides and compels the reader. You curse and struggle with that elusive, annoying narrative arc that simply won’t fall in line. You lose count of how many times you cut and paste and write new transitions, or discover or remember new bits of information that you feel that you must somehow squeeze in. The whole process begins to seem never-ending, maybe even impossible. The book is no longer a piece of writing; it’s more like a puzzle.
There are times you say to yourself that you don’t want to do this anymore. You get up every morning and pound away on the keyboard, glaring at your display as it glares back at you. Even when you pull yourself away, take a walk to get some fresh air and clear your head, ride a bike, or plop down on your sofa to catch up on Ozark, the book stalks you; it is always on your mind. You stop what you are doing to scribble notes—or rush back to your keyboard.
When you begin writing a book, you must accept the fact that you are in for the long haul, and that there’s really nothing you can do except persist and continue to go at it every single day. To believe in yourself. To remember that the book is your idea, the manifestation of your special vision. You own it. The book doesn’t own you (even if it feels like it does, sometimes).
If you have a contract for your book, as I did, there’s an additional pressure, which is that you have a deadline. In the beginning, the deadline seems too far away to think about, but inevitably, months and years fly by and it begins to creep up and worry you.
For me, this was especially stressful because I had already negotiated two contract extensions with my publisher. This due date was also my “drop dead” date. Another extension would not be possible. And I didn’t even want another extension. At the point of finishing, I felt as if I had nothing more to give to this book. I was wrung dry.
I know that many of you have heard this story before—or lived it. Not such a surprise to a working writer. But it is also the most challenging and exciting part of a writer’s life, and maybe the primary reason we continue to plunge ourselves into the writing roller coaster—to push through the low parts, no matter how long it takes, and rejoice when we arrive back at the station, windblown and breathless but exhilarated and relieved.
Because thankfully, eventually—though sometimes much later than you feel you can bear—you gain the edge and gradually begin to control the book and take command. It all comes together; maybe not in the way you first envisioned it, but in a way that will in the end please and satisfy and excite you. Sooner or later, you will format it properly in a Word doc, run it through the spellchecker for the last time, and send it off to your agent or editor or publisher. Admittedly, you don’t quite know what is going to happen next, but for a while the pressure is off, the obsession is lifted, and you can ease back into what used to be your normal life and relax. At least until you hear from your editor—or until you start your next book. That’s the ongoing, always frustrating cycle of a working writer’s life.