What It's Like, Starting a Second Book
"You okay?" my partner asked.
"Small cramp," I groaned.
I'd been stressed out. My semester at GW ended with Sweeps Week-style glittery special moments--I had a nice big reading in GW's Continental Ballroom, a class visit from one of my favorite writers, one of my fiction classes came over to my place for a wine-soaked dinner party.
But then it all ended. I was majorly burnt out from teaching and promoting the book at the same time, and for a variety of reasons unrelated to life in the classroom--which for me has been a bottomless source of existential meaning (more on that some other time)--I decided not to return to GW in the fall.
So scratch that away: I'm not a teacher anymore. In the Land of Believers is out there, mostly wheeling around on its own velocity. I pulled back from True/Slant on the eve of its sale to Forbes. I decided to move to California.
I was feeling pretty scarily detached, in all senses but one: my second book.
For the last year and a half I've been working on a book proposal and sample chapter based on letters my grandfather wrote to my grandmother during World War II. I've tried to talk about it just like that, in the blandest, most distant way, remembering how a mentor of mine once responded to my fears about burning out all my interesting ItLoB ideas in conversation: "Maybe you should just stop talking about it."
I hear that, I do, but I've been thinking a lot about what it feels like to be at the beginning of a project, so I'm going to talk about it a teeny bit now.
I'd been researching and writing a proposal--for those outside the book world, it's essentially a business plan for a book--for about a year. Now, before I went to shop the book (I was calling it The Idealists), it was time to write a sample chapter.
My sample chapter was supposed to be a fictionalized reconstruction of a moment in my grandmother's story, one that I'd partner in conversation with one of my grandfather's letters. I was excited about it! I'd effectively summarized a whole novel's worth of content for my grandmother in the proposal, so I had lots to work with.
But when I sat down to write my sample chapter, I had the darnedest time finding the voice. If you've read me you may know I write basically how I speak--I make up verbs and say "like" a lot. And now I was trying to pull off the free indirect, close third person narrative style that would twin with my grandmother's 1940s perspective. What I was doing felt musty and floral and humorless. Also, it was kind of twisted trying to inhabit my grandmother's deep, physical yearning for my grandfather. You know? I had to summon up his face and try to imagine wanting to kiss it. Was that...healthy?
Not to mention, the chapter was in this weird zone between fact and invention. How much stuff could I make up? I invented this other character for my grandmother to interact with, a woman named Aletta who lived upstairs from her in a boarding house. Aletta cried herself to sleep at night, made war cakes, was sanctimonious about public expression of morale. I spent about three weeks getting very interested in pumping Aletta full of blood and history. Until one day, I read over my chapter and got chopped down by this scary, grim realization: Aletta was the black mold that had spread over the whole chapter. There was hardly any of my grandmother there. I'd strayed very far off course.
Worse: the voice was phony as hell. I realized this tearing through Junot Diaz's Brief and Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao. (Sidenote, I'm of two minds about whether it helps to read capital-G Great books at the start of a project. In some sense, they feed your work, punch out new tributaries of thought. But in another, the zygote you start with is so vulnerable and unimpressive it's very easy to get tossed into despair comparing your work to something seriously good.)
But so Diaz's narrator in that book talks in this vernacular that's sort of genius-from-the block, funny and casually wise, and reading him I felt the freezer burned quality of the voice I was using. I got hung up on one phrase I'd written: "...as if she hadn't any provisions of her own." Whose fucking voice was that?
One day I marched myself down to the coffee shop to get serious. Finish it! Just finish the stupid thing and see what happens, I was in the habit of saying to myself. I booted up, settled down, dribbled a little bit of coffee on my computer, and the screen went black.
And the weird thing? I felt relieved. Even when the dubious "geniuses" at the Apple Store told me my hard drive couldn't be recovered--I felt a little relieved.
I thought, Maybe this is a sign that I need to start over. And then, because I don't believe in signs, I realized that the mere act of looking for a sign was a pretty rock solid indication I needed to change it up.
So even when I did recover my hard drive--by miracle and hefty bill--I decided to start over.
At the Natural History Museum, casting around new brain channels, I looked at this great exhibit on bones. Marveled at this little guy for a while:
...and in a sequence of thoughts based on this skeleton that may not make sense to anyone else, I had an idea about how to fix the project. I was going to add a third narrative thread: my own.
So I rewrote the sample chapter. It was very confessional. I had stuff in there about a destructive affair I'd gotten myself into concurrent to my initial research for the proposal. I hoped that the pathetic picture of that romance--about hearing violins swell when he bumped past me on the way to the ice machine at the restaurant we both worked at--would contrast well with the portrait of my grandparents' Great Love.
I emailed it to my mother and my sister. On the day I had that cramp at boxing, I'd received an email from my sister that she'd read the chapter.
All the while I was receiving a stream of emails from Christians telling me I've been on their daily prayer sheets. Are they praying for life to get so heinous I'll long for Jesus to swoop in and fix my book? I wondered.
Here's the thing I eventually realized: it just sucks being at the beginning of a project. Lots of things you spend time developing don't end up making the cut. It's an embarrassing mess. You're a well-oiled factory of bad ideas and overwrought sentences. Sometimes your internet addiction flares up and you don't even get that far. And none of it is something you can legitimately complain about, because it's all self-inflicted and small potatoes, in the scheme of world suffering.
Later in the process, when the sloppy document starts to take on the respectable posture of a manuscript, book people get invested in it and it's easier to keep working on it without it vanishing in your grabbing hands. But at the beginning, it's this tenuous thing that lives or dies because of you. You're the beating heart. No one can fix it or finish it for you, and it mostly seems doomed. You don't get days off from worrying about it, and it demands so much that you start to feel very miserly with your energy. Blogging seems Sisyphean. Oral hygiene--who needs it! When a former student emailed to ask for my help on her law school personal statement, I felt pinched and annoyed. But I met with her and was reminded of how important it is to do shit like that, especially in this stage--to get outside of yourself.
But okay guys: I finished another set of drafts, and I'm in an optimistic frame of mind about the future of the project. Hope this means I'll get back to blogging, because I miss it!
Here are a couple of things that came up in the interim since I last blogged.
And an interview with Bethanne Patrick on The Book Studio:
This Sunday I'll be on the radio on NPR's Interfaith Voices. You can check to see when it'll be broadcast in your area here, or if you want to just listen to it now you can do that here. The show taped the same day I'd spilled coffee on my computer, so see if you can hear that trembling relief in my voice.