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So You Want to Write a Book?
Here are all the reasons you shouldn't and only one you should
One of the hardest parts of writing a book (for me) is resisting the urge to give all the good stuff away now. From proposal to publication is usually around a two year time length, which means that if one (I) gets hyper-fixated on the subject about which they’re writing, it's difficult to hold back all the glorious information and wonder they’re beholding. (It also means that the chance their hyper-fixation will have shifted by publication point is…um…high.)
I have so many stories I want to tell you about lichen and logs and labyrinths, grief and gorse and wild geese, human decomposition and humus and eating humble pie. I want to talk about the forest floor and suffering and death and stardust and clay. I want to give everything away right now because the fixation I need to write a book is slowly slipping away and moving toward another wild thing that I can’t get enough of right now.
Sometimes people ask writers, “How do I know if I’m ready to write a book?” And I suppose my answer might have changed over the years but I think my answer right now is this:
If you can’t quit or quiet the idea. If the idea and all its tentacles are threading through every bit of your life and mind and imagination. If you can’t stop jotting down bits and bobs and fragments on pieces of notepaper and then subsequently losing them everywhere because you haven’t gotten serious enough about the idea that you’ve designated a place for all of it. If you find yourself wanting to interject random facts about [Fill in the Blank] into every conversation. If you wonder why you can’t find a book with all these crazy and intricate and beautiful and sometimes awful thoughts all together.
If all that is true and you’ve got the chops to put it together into something strangers who owe you absolutely nothing might want to read, then maybe you’re ready to write a book. But if none of it is true and you just have a vague idea that a book lies within you or you dream of seeing your name on a cover, I cannot stress more how much you should not write a book.
I think there are some writers who glory in the finished project, who get a thrill of glee every time they see someone reading their book or telling someone else about it. I think there are some writers who can’t get enough of seeing their book in the world and feel 150% confident talking to everyone about it. But I think for most of us for whom wordsmithery is our vocation, the amount of terror we feel just one thin layer beneath the self-marketing we have to do is astronomical.
Every single time a new writer tells me, “I’m afraid…” or “My situation feels so unique…” or “I guess I didn’t think it would be like…” I want to take their faces in my hands and say, “You are not alone. Most people don’t spend two years of their lives on a project and then dump the whole thing into the watching world and wait for their reviews to roll in. My husband, who does Very Important Work for Dallas-Fort-Worth Airport, work that requires him to work his fingers to the bone and engage with a team of experts daily, produces work that makes the airport run smoothly, efficiently, and with diversity, and not a single person passing through the gates at the airport knows his name or what he does or how what he does affects their trip, and not a single one of them will leave a review in public attacking his work or his name or his faith. I think most vocations are similar. Even teachers or pastors whose work is front facing and under scrutiny weekly or daily, aren’t required to drum up reviews and responses—with no way of knowing how the dice will land on them. Writing a book, making a movie, creating art, and then releasing it into the world for the world to do its worst and best and every iteration in between is absolutely terrifying. But you are not alone.”
This is why I think it’s absolutely, unequivocally (enough to make me use two adverbs in a row!) important that you write the book that you cannot quit until you do. Readers can tell when you’re just bullet-pointing your way through a manuscript or writing a book because of your success in another area of strength. Sometimes those books are good and maybe they’re even helpful to some. But right now the world is, unfortunately, glutted with them.
If you want to write for the rest of your life, you will need a kind of hyper-focus on the subject that not only gets you through writing the manuscript but carries you through to the publication process and all its ups and downs, and then the bad reviews, the mediocre responses, the theo-bros and their snobbish misogyny, the cliques of women who seem to gush about everyone’s book but yours.1 You will need a passion that buoys you beyond what you think you have within you right now. It might be one of the hardest things you’ve ever done and writing the book itself was only a quarter of it.
Anyway. I would like to be telling you about “shoes and ships and sealing wax, of cabbages and kings, and why the sea is boiling hot and whether pigs have wings,”2 but really about white pine trees and mycelia and nurse logs and a walk in the forest. So instead I wrote this.
Do you feel like you have a book inside you somewhere but you don’t know where? Or is there one inside you that’s bursting to come out? Let’s talk about in the comments. I might seem very brutish around publishing and disappointed in a lot of the work that’s out there (including my own!), but there’s not much that gives me more joy than talking with writers about writing.
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Don’t worry, I’m aware that to someone else, I’m a part of that snobbish clique. But darnit if I’m not doing everything within my power to Opt Out.