So it’s December 20th as I write this. One day until the shortest day of the year, five until Christmas. It’s my kid’s last day of school for two weeks and I can hear her happy voice rising up to my office windows from where she’s playing outside with her sitter. Normally, right now, I’d be busy trying to get in one last day of writing before the holiday made working on my novel in progress difficult, if not impossible. But I’m not, because two weeks ago, after strugging with it basically since I’d started way back in January, I put my book aside. Quit it, broke up with it, gave up on it. Lots of ways of saying one thing that, as an author of eleven published novels and about as many unpublished, is still really, really hard to face. I failed. It didn’t work. Back to the drawing board.
This has happened to me before. It’s just been awhile. The last time was WAAAAAY back in 2000 or so, when I’d finished the book I wrote after DREAMLAND. It was about a girl, her best friend and quirky college student she meets in her dad’s apartment complex, among other things. My agent read it and liked it. My editor agreed and made an offer. Everything was in place, and then my editor called me to have an initial editorial conversation so I’d know her thoughts for the editing process. Totally normal stuff. She started by saying she loved the book, but there were things that needed fixing, and then she began listing said things, and I pulled out a blank yellow legal pad and started taking notes. And notes. And more notes. And by the third filled page, I just had this epiphany: I didn’t want to fix this book. Like, at all. It hit me like a weight, that certain. It had never happened to me before. Normally, I LIKE revising: it’s when you take your big crazy draft and narrow it down to a good story. It’s fun. But the prospect of doing it to this one felt, well, awful.
You know when people say, “Listen to your gut!” and you think, “But how will I KNOW it’s my gut, and not, say, my crazy neurotic brain?” Believe me when I say this: if it is your gut, there is no question. For me, it was not “Give up on this book, you know, if you want.” It’s like Darth Vader voice: “PUT IT ASIDE. NOW! NOW!!!!” So I shut my legal pad and stopped taking notes. A week later, I told my publisher I was taking the book back, which seemed CRAZY to me because only a couple of years earlier I’d been desperate to be published. What was I DOING? I was listening to my gut.
I was also listening to my friend and mentor Lee Smith, who had helped me get my first book published and is basically one of the reasons I am a writer. After taking the book back, I was terrified, and I told Lee so when I bumped into her at a local bookstore. What was I going to do now? How would I ever be sure I could even WRITE another book after that one crashed and burned? Lee is genteel and Southern but also tough as nails, a combination that is actually quite common around these parts. She sat me down and looked at me. “Sarah,” she said, in her sweet drawl, “don’t f**k up here.” I just looked at her. I wasn’t sure I’d even heard her curse before. “Do you know when you love an author and their books, and read all of them, and then there’s one that just is SO not like the others? Not as good, doesn’t have heart, just does not FIT, and it’s so disappointing to you as a reader?” I nodded. She said, “That’s because they got scared. Or wrote for money, or under pressure. Don’t do that. Trust yourself. Borrow money from your parents if you have to. Don’t publish a book that’s not up to your standards. Just don’t.”
So, I didn’t. I set that book aside and stopped writing. I wasn’t sure if I ever would again. I was teaching at UNC at the time and I just focused on my classes, my students, and everything else in my life. I sat on the Carolina quad and read. I went to movies. I fell off my publisher’s radar, telling them I’d be back…someday. And then slowly, when I least expected it, another story began to bubble up in my mind. It started with a girl named Remy in a car dealership, and a boy who plopped down next to her. His name was Dexter.
I started THIS LULLABY in late December. I finished it in March. It was one of the best writing experiences I have ever had, the kind I can only WISH will happen again. The words just came, for the most part. It was like going to a party every day. Like that exhausted, wilted writer part of my brain, so depleted by the book I’d set aside, got a million hours of sleep and came back finally raring and ready to go. THIS LULLABY remains one of my very favorite of my books, mainly BECAUSE of this experience. It taught me to have faith: in my writing, and myself. That things work out, somehow. “How will they?” they say in Shakespeare in Love, one of my favorite movies. “I don’t know. It’s a mystery.” Indeed. But thank god for it.
Which brings me back to 2013. It’s six books after THIS LULLABY, some of which were excruciating to write (JUST LISTEN) and some less so (ALONG FOR THE RIDE). Back in late 2012, I finished much of my editing on THE MOON AND MORE, and it was about that time when I start the next book. I had an idea, a narrator’s name, my basics, so I sat down on January first (what you do on that day, you do all year, so I always make a point to write) and wrote the first scene. It didn’t quite click, but I figured I was just a bit rusty. I pressed on. That’s the thing about writing: it’s never perfect and rarely easy. I’m used to it being hard. But something about this one felt off, right from the start. It’s so hard to explain. It just wasn’t clicking at ALL. The more it resisted, the more I pushed. I cut the first scene. Put it back. Cut it again. I looped back to the beginning, weaving through new threads that I was sure would fix everything. (Note: this is not how I normally write. I write one day, then start the next editing what I did the day before, then press forward, all the way to the end. It was, to say the least, a Bad Sign, the first of many.) I told myself I just needed a break, so I took one when I went on paperback tour. Came back rested and ready….and when I started again, felt that same, weird heaviness, that THIS IS NOT WORKING OH MY GOD panic. Still, I kept pushing. I went on tour for THE MOON AND MORE, scribbling notes to myself about how to fix the book in airports and on hotel stationery. Then I came back and tried to do that, hitting the same problems. I put the first scene back. Cut it again. Cut another big scene. Went all the way back to the start, wove another thread. I outlined. (I DO NOT OUTLINE.) I talked about it to people. (I NEVER TALK ABOUT MY WRITING TO PEOPLE.) I cried. (I DON’T CRY OVER MY WRITING.) I woke up in the middle of the night, unable to sleep I was so worried. (WRITING DOESN’T CAUSE ME INSOMNIA.) By now, it was fall and the days were getting shorter. My tour stuff was wrapping up: soon I’d have only this book on my plate. I cut another big chunk, added in another thread. Did my last work event, came home, threw myself back into it. And then, two weeks ago today, I decided I needed to re-write an entire subplot and that would fix everything. (I DON’T REWRITE ENTIRE SUBPLOTS MID DRAFT.) I scrolled back to the start, looked at the cursor, and then, finally, my gut finally made itself heard. It used Lee’s words, but it was that Darth Vader voice from 2000. “Sarah: don’t f**k this up.” Okay, then.
I sat back from the keyboard. Looked at my big, festering mess of a draft, with a separate document of scenes/paragraphs I’d cut that was actually longer than the book itself. (MY CUT FILES ARE NOT LONGER THAN THE BOOKS THEY WERE DELETED FROM.) I thought, “I can’t do this anymore. It’s over.” It was a terrifying thought. So much work—almost a year!—so much angst and worry, and tears and lost sleep. I failed, I thought. I gave it everything I had, and it wasn’t enough. I saved all my files, backed them up. Then I turned off the computer, went over to the house, and told my husband, “I think I just gave up on my novel.” He looked at me. “Good,” he said. “You’ve been miserable.” That’s when I started crying.
So that was two weeks ago. Did it feel like a huge weight had been lifted, once I did this? Well, no. It felt sad. I felt bad for my narrator, whose story would now never be told. I was anxious about my career, as to stick to my “schedule” I’m due to hand in a draft in the spring. But when it all gets too scary, I remind myself of that book before THIS LULLABY. I have been here before. Yes, it’s been awhile, and some of the scenery is different. But I found my way out once. Hopefully I can do it again. For now, though, I’m just reading and organizing my office and making paper dolls and baking cookies. I’m sitting in the pickup line at my kids’ school, reading other people’s well written books and feeling about as un-writerish I have in ages. Because with me, in my mind, I’m only as good as the writing I did that day. Not the last book, or all my previous ones. It’s what I just did, and what I just did didn’t work. But rather than forging onward out of panic and fear, throwing more ideas at this giant, gaping maw of mess, I’ve just….stopped. It feels weird and makes me very anxious. But I have to have faith that it will get me where I need to be, wherever that is.
My husband is big into cycling, and we watch the Tour de France each summer. When someone drops out of the race, they don’t call it quitting. They say the cyclist “abandoned” the Tour, and I’ve always liked that. Partly because it sounds so dramatic, like something you’d declare. “I ABANDON!” But also because I bet, after all that training and work and endurance and pain and suffering, that it’s more than just quitting. It MUST feel like leaving a part of yourself on that mountain, even as you’re walking down it. I abandoned my book. I’m not a writer right now. But I am a mom and a wife and a daughter and hopefully a decent person. I am walking down my own mountain as the race, such as it is, continues on above me with great riders in the lead. I’ll get back to it someday. But for now, I’m following my own path. One step at a time.
So there may not be a book from me right on schedule in summer of 2015. And now you know why. I’m not sure if it’s the best idea to share all this on the internet, basically rolling over and showing my soft, tender underside to anyone who peeks in. Admitting your failures is no picnic. But this space, this blog, has always been a safe one for me, and I wanted you, my friends and readers, to know why I might not tweet or blog as much for awhile. I need to rest. I think my book was trying to tell me that: it just took me a long time to listen. I’m listening now.
I wish you all the best of holidays, health and good cheer, and most of all, peace. Here’s to 2014.
lots of love,